Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973
Auden, an Anglo-American poet, essayist, dramatist, editor, and critic, was considered "the greatest living poet" after Eliot. "At any one time," said Howard Moss, "there must be five or six supremely intelligent people on the earth. Auden was one of them." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
Books about Auden all tend to be fairly good, just as books about, say Wallace Stevens, tend to be quite bad. This is probably not because admirers of Stevens love him less well than the lovers of Auden, but because more genuinely difficult poets do not reduce to structures of ideas and images so readily as Auden does.
Auden's poetry now maintains a general esteem among academic critics. If one's judgment of Auden's poetry is more eccentric, one needs to take up the sad burden of literary dissent. Auden has been accepted as not only a great poet but also a Christian humanist sage not because of any conspiracy among moralizing neo-Christian academicians, but because the age requires such a figure. Eliot is gone, and Auden now occupies his place, though with a difference. The difference is refreshing; Auden is wittier, gentler, much less dogmatic, and does not feel compelled to demonstrate the authenticity of his Christian humanism by a judicious anti-Semitism. He has more wisdom and more humor than Eliot, and his talent is nowhere near so sparse, as the enormous range of his lyrics shows. I think it unfortunate that he should find himself in apostolic succession to Eliot, but Secondary Worlds seems to indicate that the succession is not unwelcome to him.
Much of The Dyer's Hand, despite its generosity as criticism, is darkened by Auden's obsessive doubts about the value of art in the context of Christianity. Similar doubts have maimed many writers, Tolstoi and Hopkins in particular. Insofar as Auden's uneasiness has prevented him from devotional poetry, he has gained by it, but unfortunately the effect upon him has been larger, and has resulted in a trivialization of his art. As a songwriter he remains supreme, being certainly the best in English in the century, but as a reflective poet he suffers from the continual evanescence of his subject matter. As a satirist, he may have been aided, yet the staple of his poetry is neither song nor satire but rumination on the good life, and his notion of the relation between Christianity and art has troubled that rumination. Auden is one of the massive modern sufferers from the malady of Poetic Influence, a variety of melancholy or anxiety-principle [that] has little to do with the transmission of ideas and images from an earlier poet to a later one. Rather, it concerns the poet's sense of his precursors, and of his own achievement in relation to theirs. Have they left him room enough, or has their priority cost him his art? More crucially, where did they go wrong, so as to make it possible for him to go right? In this revisionary sense, in which the poet creates his own precursors by necessarily misinterpreting them, Poetic Influence forms and malforms new poets, and aids their art at the cost of increasing, finally, their already acute sense of isolation. Auden, like Byron, gives the continual impression of personal sincerity in his poetry, but again like Byron this sincerity is the consequence of a revisionary swerve away from the sincerity of the precursor. (pp. 208-09)
Auden's most characteristic poetry is closest to Hardy's, not merely in its beginnings, and like Hardy Auden remains most convincing as a ruminator upon...
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human incongruities, upon everything valuable that somehow will not fit together. Auden's best poems, such as the justly esteemedIn Praise of Limestone, brood upon incongruities, swerving from Hardy's kind of poem into a more double-natured sense of ruinous circumstance and thwarted love, yet retaining their family resemblance to Hardy. But where Hardy's strenuous unbelief led him to no worse redundancies than an occasional sharp striving after too palpable an irony, Auden's self-conscious belief and attendant doubt of poetry mar even In Praise of Limestone with the redundancy of uneasy and misplaced wit…. (p. 210)
Harold Bloom, "Auden: Christianity and Art" (originally published in The New Republic, 1969) in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (© 1971 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 207-11.
[Auden is] no longer Auden the grey but Auden the white, who has forgotten much that he thought he knew, and learned much again that he had forgotten; who can see many things far off, but who cannot see many things that are close at hand. Now, having passed through fire and deep water, the saurian, astringently benevolent sage will … leave … a little of his wisdom before setting off for the Grey Havens. Already the parting from us … is hinted at [in Epistle to a Godson & Other Poems]:
though I've reached the years when discretion calls for a yearly medical check-up. (p. 35)
[If] Auden now seems the … philosophical Orpheus who will charm the listening brutes into his magic circle, older than the rocks on which he sits, an Edwardian whose Eden ended when he was seven years old, his lyre is somewhat tetchily strung:
Why strip naked and bellow words of four letters in public? Poor young things, can it be none of you have any friends?
Nevertheless, in the more considered and sustained pieces, the sufficiency and dazzle of the style bears out his own comment from 'The Dyer's Hand'. 'A mannered style, like that of Gongora or Henry James, for example, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception who can.' We are enchanted. Enchantment, though, is of many kinds, and as Auden has told us in 'A Certain World', 'A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.' What is the relationship between 'enchantment' and that 'sacred awe' which is celebrated in 'Making, Knowing and Judging'? If 'The impulse to create a work of art is felt, when in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings and events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage', how much of the present volume is 'rooted in imaginative awe'?
Well, recently Auden has celebrated his sacred encounters by bringing from his cellar … the driest of dry sherries, and though he has not celebrated more than one sacred encounter with himself, an 'I', a Persona, dominates these poems: the persona of an acerbic, didactic, conservative philosopher-king. Over and over, the quirks of memory are juxtaposed against present discontents…. And what a memory! Auden even remembers when
… the poor were what they were used to being,
which takes him back past Jarrow, the Chartists, the Luddites, the Peasants' Revolt … back, back, out of history into myth. There, in some Golden Age, where the gas is whispering on the landing, the bathrooms take up lots of space (for those who have bathrooms) and grace is said before meals, he and Empson, that 'dear fellow mandarin' can call across to each other from their long-lost 'open-hearthed, nannied, un T.V.'d world.'
How delightful; how dangerous. My childhood too, twenty-five years later than Auden's, included the gas-lit house, the living-in maid, the absence of T.V., but such affections will not work on the emotions merely by being recalled and set in rows to form a canon by which the inadequacies of present society are to be measured. Auden recalls the furniture of his Eden, but does not recreate it by breathing life into its imagery. Despite the wit, I am reminded of C. S. Lewis telling us as undergraduates that he was a survivor, a Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Antique World, a polymath whose like we would not see again.
Alas for the wry lyricism, the doomed landscapes of 'Songs and Other Musical Pieces'. Their dying falls have crystallised; the airs blow from the glaciers now. And how should the language of the tribe be purified by taking a candle to the chinks and crannies of the big O.E.D. and Wright's Dialect Dictionary?
And yet there are marvellously enjoyable things [in Epistle to a Godson]. The Auden who in his anthologies has homed consistently on the minor, the accomplished, the witty, is strongly in evidence. (pp. 36-7)
Peter Scupham, "God's Mother and the God-Damned Sweetheart," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Winter, 1972, pp. 35-9.
In the normal way of things a reviewer with no pressing deadline could spend a score of widely scattered hours reading Forewords and Afterwords, stimulated always by the vast expanse of what he doesn't know that Auden does. The range of interest, and none of it mechanical! All of it professional in the best sense, amateur in the best sense, free of bluff, full of life. As it turns out, though, this book becomes the last one to have been published in the poet's lifetime….
[As] a volume conveying Auden's European magnitude as an artist, this collection of his ancillary prose could scarcely be bettered. In its casual way (casual in the happenstance of its occasions and compilation: there is, of course, nothing casual whatever about its thought and craft) it is a testament not just to Auden's culture but to culture—the European artistic civilization which, we can now see, Auden was as effective as Eliot in comprehending and maintaining. And he was more at ease in it than Eliot. In every sense he was at home….
Auden does not feel compelled to reinforce his sense of value by pretending that everything worth knowing about the heritage of every tongue finds its confluence in him. Not out of humility, just out of practical necessity, he admits ignorance and follows where it leads….
[In] Auden's prose all the artists of the past are alive and talking among themselves in a humane (mostly) and engagingly human (always) unanimity of interest—an interest which Auden ensures, by assuming so, that you share. On top of these things there is the insistence that the facts of art are concrete and practical, and that educating yourself in them is a matter of finding out about them, and that years might go by before the truth reveals itself. By returning to this point over and over—by always insisting that of finding things out there is no end—Auden creates, unbeatably, the feeling that education is lifelong, addictive, playful. In him there is no element of the self-immolating drudge. He would never have been capable of Eliot's sermon on the necessity for the student to embrace boredom.
For Auden mortification has to do with the disciplines of poetic technique: the acquisition of culture is as natural as breathing, and within the limitations of your propensities you do it to relax. Look at the galleries of knowledge, the number of literatures, the languages penetrated to the rhythm of their roots, that are all present and vividly functioning in Auden's prose. And yet it is only on second thought that the whole thing impresses us, just as we have to live on into adulthood before we realize—if we ever do—that the fairgrounds of childhood are the evolution of the centuries, the designs of studious men. The paintwork, the music and the coloured lights were all thought out, and are more than just a game.
"To Know and Know Not," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973, p. 1212.
Auden made no secret of his mistrust of romanticism, rhetoric, and all the habits of thought or expression we have invented to flatter and deceive ourselves. Throughout his later work he laboured at a wholesale scaling-down of human self-importance, enjoining himself to 'hymn the small but journal wonders/of Nature and of households' without putting on airs. And so we find him in his latest … volume [Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems] 'suspicious of all passion/including passionate love', disclaiming the random incitement of 'nocturnal manias' to poetry, and reminding us all at a time of inflationary Blakeian tendencies that 'The Road of Excess/leads, more often than not, to/The Slough of Despond'. Indeed, one is left to feel at times that Auden would willingly have sacrificed the Proverbs of Hell and all the allied impertinences of poetic vision for the perfunctory wisdom and anecdote of after-dinner conversation….
One of the best poems in Auden's last collection City Without Walls was 'Forty Years On', in which Autolycus outfaces a dream of his own death, refusing to take even this event au grand serieux. And to the end Auden's response to the fact of approaching death was a refusal to 'solemn himself'—or anyone else—on such a frail pretext. (One short poem defines death, anyway, as 'A Life/disintegrating into/smaller simpler ones': which is presumably the scientist's 'Death thou shalt die', the twentieth-century 'rocks and stones and trees'). The concluding poem 'Talking to Myself' takes the form of an address to his body, 'strange rustic object', 'My mortal manor, the carnal territory/allotted to my manage', which ends:
Remember: when Le bon Dieu says to You Leave him! please, please, for His sake and mine, pay no attention to my piteous Dont's, but bugger off quickly.
There could hardly be a more abrupt contrast between this studied irreverence, this bravado, and the more traditional response to the fact of 'sad mortality' in poetry; as exhibited, for example, in the death-mesmerized late work of John Berryman, in the poems by Peter Porter … or in the sinister suggestion of Philip Larkin's poem 'The Old Fools.'
On the same plateau (one must say, rather than peak) are 'The Ballad of Barnaby', the delightful story of a reformed Autolycus type who earns his salvation by turning somersaults in honour of the Virgin Mary; 'Circe', a sober chastizement of the reduction and simplification of all experience to sexuality by 'sessile fatalists' languishing in a modern Bower of Bliss; 'An Encounter', a dramatic account of the meeting between Attila the Hun and Pope Leo; and another of Auden's recurrent subjects, 'Loneliness', treated as always with a rigorous avoidance of self-pity. But from here the collection descends to confessed doggerel, self-indulgent opinionating, often in (Daily) telegraphese; and other disjecta verba that Auden had no need or excuse to publish. 'Gossip-Columnists I can forgive' he informs us, 'for they make no pretences,/not Biographers who claim it's for Scholarship's sake'; nor poets, we are tempted to rejoin, who fill out books with it. In the end one has to admit that this is an interesting rather than an exciting collection: which is perhaps what Auden latterly considered the appropriate reaction to a mere book of poems. One might be forgiven the suggestion that the lessons of his later work will not have been accepted until we accept the adjective Audenary to describe it. (pp. 81-3)
Damian Grant, in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1974.
Quite apart from the great sorrow one feels when confronted with the last works of this poet, there comes too a sense of regret. One feels uneasy when Auden is writing in his thanksgiving mood. It looks like a posture. It rings untrue. But why? Is it that the notion of a mind at rest, or a conscience in equilibrium, is inherently obnoxious to our idea of art? Auden considered this [the poetry collected in Thank You, Fog] his Horatian phase. If so, it represents a feeble conception of Horace. Auden spent too long signing off, telling us that that was that, he was going and he was glad to go. One wanted to stay his hand, to shout 'Come off it' in his ear, but he wouldn't have listened. His last poem reads:
He still loves life But O O O O how he wishes The good Lord would take him.
It makes one angry that he should be so bent on dying.
Then too there is a feature of Auden's last poetry which one does one's best to ignore, without success. That is its occasional, wilful silliness. There was a purpose in this. It was part of his way of saying, as he did throughout the latter part of his life, noli me tangere. He did it in interviews, of which he must have suffered hundreds, simply by repeating a series of stock stories. After a while, you could have written out his answers in advance for him, and this was not because his mind was ossified, but because he hated people probing. By pretending to be gaga he escaped their clutches. The silly passages in the poems were a deliberate way of avoiding living up to other people's conception of a great poet. Clearly this was a necessary ploy for Auden, but it laid him open to the charge of mean-mindedness.
For instance, Auden never until the end of his life wrote public poetry on the subject of homosexuality. Quite right. If he didn't want to, he shouldn't do so. What privately circulated poems I have seen fall into different categories—the witty and camp, the touching and personal, the pornographic. All in their different ways very good. Yet here, in this collection which he was preparing at the time of his death last year, there is a poem called 'Economics', which goes like this:
In the Hungry Thirties boys used to sell their bodies for a square meal. In the Affluent Sixties they still did: to meet Hire-Purchase Payments.
Well—so what? I do not know what the point of this irritating little poem is supposed to be, but it reeks of moral superiority of a kind to which, I should have thought, the author was not entitled.
The third annoying feature of Auden's last poems is technical. For years—for over forty years—the technical experimentation started by Auden enlarged and enriched the scope of English verse. He rediscovered and invented more than any other modern poet—certainly more than Eliot. In manipulating the language he considered himself, quite properly, a master. And yet there grew up as well a number of mannerisms, such as the use of nouns as verbs, or the employment of embarrassingly outdated slang, or the ransacking of the OED, which became in the end a hindrance to his work. This is another symptom of Auden's uneasiness with himself, and it is a pity, too, because when he is writing in forms which do not permit such tricks (for instance in the two lyrics to Don Quixote printed here) he shows that there is no question of his having somehow lost his gift. Rather, he seems to have deliberately set it aside. (pp. 430-31)
James Fenton, "Auden's Last Bow," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 27, 1974, pp. 430-31.
[Although the final poem in Auden's Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems,] "Talking to Myself," like a good many of his other more or less recent poems, is written in the first person, it is anything but a confession or an exercise in selfindulgence…. To the contrary, it continues the exploration of the human condition—and the struggle to "show an affirming flame" in a world in which "public faces in private places" have become the rule rather than the exception—begun more than forty years ago in Poems. (p. 406)
Characteristically, Auden handles "Talking to Myself" as an "occasion," with the knowingness, familiarity and eccentric detachment one expects of him, focussing on the lights and shadows, the confusion of public and private knowledge, that identify this time…. The elaborating artifice accommodates the trivial and what Auden has called the "frivolous" with a minimum of the more fashionable sort of "exaggerated gesture and fuss"; and in willingly sacrificing certain "poetic pleasures and excitements," moves toward a style "which shall combine the drab, sober truthfulness of prose with a poetic uniqueness of expression so that, if a reader should try to translate a passage into French, say, or Italian or German, he will find that this cannot be done without loss of rhythmical values and precise shades of meaning." His linguistic bias puts him on the side of Frost, as he has admitted, and also in favor of "an uninflected language rich in monosyllables, … peculiar words with no equivalents in other tongues, and [a] deliberate avoidance of that kind of imagery which has no basis in verbal experience and can therefore be translated without loss." (pp. 406-07)
One can always argue the case against [his] use of obsolete words or slang in principle; but to do so is to ignore the occasion, the use to which it can be justifiably put. In sacrificing one kind of "exaggerated gesture and fuss" [in "Moon Landing"] ("A giant step for all mankind") for a cooler appraisal in a wider context, Auden celebrates the moon landing in another and more appropriate way. "A grand gesture," he says; but the last stanza implies that man still has to learn what for Auden is the most important skill: how to make life "a blessing."
That implication informs Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems from beginning to end. As always, the occasions for giving it voice turn out to be surprisingly varied…. [One should mention] his continuing mastery of the parable and a superb sense that "without some undertone of the comic/genuine serious verse cannot be written to-day."
Obviously, no one else could have written these poems—a fact that by itself may mean little, although in relation to the vast amount of anonymous versifying devoted to the belief that poetry is simply whatever one makes ("Somebody shouted, I read: We are ALL of us marvelously gifted!") without reference to anything but itself or the vibrations it evokes in the non-rational part of one's being, it may mean a good deal. The world of ideas and the world of things are not mutually exclusive; and discourse is not inimical to poetry. Far from having become less substantial as his work has grown increasingly discursive, Auden has demonstrated an astonishing capacity to write of real subjects in a world outside himself. If this makes him an impure poet, "to stink of Poetry/is unbecoming"; if he is sometimes dull, "never/to be dull shows a lack of taste." (pp. 408-10)
How strongly the currents of [his] poetry run against the tide of fashion hardly needs pointing out. But it is worth saying that our poetry would be the thinner and narrower without it. Without intending to be "great" or, at times, even "serious," and remarkably free from "literary class-consciousness," the poems of Epistle to a Godson are almost invariably interesting. (p. 410)
S. F. Morse, "Auden," in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Fall, 1974, pp. 406-10.
I acknowledge that tears come into [my eyes] whenever I read W. H. Auden's 'Since' from City Without Walls.
but round your image there is no fog, and the Earth can still astonish.
Lifelong admirer of Auden as I have been, I find nothing in the earlier work that has the same effect, except some of the lines which he himself later expunged on the grounds that they were either sentimental or ill-mannered. I have heard many critics praise the later work of Auden, sometimes extravagantly and sometimes defensively, but I have never known anyone say that he thought it was actually better than the earlier work, and, indeed, this would be a difficult claim to sustain. But I think it is more moving.
Thank You, Fog, a group of poems which Auden had collected and entitled before his death in 1973, is a fine and touching book, and very much of a piece with his three preceding volumes: About the House (1966), City Without Walls (1969) and Epistle to a Godson (1972). There are differences, of course. As a collection it is slighter, for a sadly obvious reason, though the make-weight impression, given here by the addition of such pieces as 'The Entertainment of the Senses', an antimasque which he wrote with Chester Kallman, is not entirely new. Many of the idiosyncrasies of the three books just mentioned have been toned down in this one. There are, for example, fewer words that one has to look up in the dictionary or, worse, that one cannot find in the dictionary. Certainly, 'thestered' and 'beeking' defeated me, but 'jargling' (birds do it) I took to be onomatopoeic. There is nothing comparable with 'A Bad Night: a Lexical Exercise' in Epistle to a Godson, a piece of pastiche which recalled nobody so much as Georgette Heyer, in full Regency fig, making a character declare that, say, he would be bum-squabbled before he sherried off to play nipshot with a pack of ninnyhammers. There is less, too, of the resolute, swashbuckling use of slang, which was often outdated and which often, given the sentiments being expressed, sounded as odd as High Mass in the vernacular: in this collection, 'non-U' and 'with-it' are really the only examples. There are relatively few distortions of grammar and syntax, such as 'dwellings vacancied long ago'.
Auden's technique in Thank You, Fog is as brilliant as ever and needs no definition. One of its most interesting features is the continuation or development of a form he was using as early as in About the House and which he perfected in City Without Walls: the short, spare, epigrammatic verse based on the Japanese senryu…. Though each verse is self-sufficient, it is, of course, the cumulative effect that is important.
The themes of Thank You, Fog are characteristic of Auden's last decade. Every poet, he frequently pointed out, has to respect the distinction between 'no longer' and 'not yet', when deciding what kind of poem to write, and for him the 'no longer' sign was never put up in front of one of the most fruitful subjects of his later career: the theme of the title poem, which celebrates the pleasures of friendship, domesticity and social harmony, a small world bounded in this case by the days of Christmas and protectively lapped in pure white, country fog, 'a shapeless silence' in which
vaguely visible, tree-tops rustle not but stay there.
It is, incidentally, the poem of a Northerner—'Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno', indeed—who can find peace and deep feeling in a scene of cold darkness, the sort of day on which Yeats died, in fact. The image of the absent loved one in 'Since' would have been menaced by fog, but in this poem the affectionate group are all safely inside the fog together, and the miseries that exist outside, though they are not cynically ignored—indeed, they are specifically mentioned—are not, at the moment, relevant. If Auden began his career as a political poet, which is highly debatable, he did not end as one. This is a mellow, beautiful poem, a mature evocation of very young feelings….
Auden died at the height of his powers. This is an expert book, and an enjoyable one, in spite of the sadness that must be felt by all lovers of his work, who had hoped for a much longer 'Not yet'.
Patricia Beer, "Northerner's Conclusion," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Patricia Beer), October 3, 1974, p. 449.
The best thing about these last poems of Auden's [Thank You, Fog] is that he seems to have enjoyed writing them. After a lifetime of giving us marvelous poetry, he apparently reached an accommodation with his place in the world…. These are mostly not very good poems, tending toward talkiness, full of wise sayings and little preachments…. The tone is generally arch, helped by a liberal dose of esoteric vocabulary …; bring your dictionary. But of course, this being Auden, there is still much to enjoy in wisdom and wit…. (p. 26)
Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 4 & 11, 1975.
Writers, being human, are not in a position to choose their monuments. This one ["Thank You, Fog"] is more Audenesque than Auden, hardly fitting as the final words, the summing up of a man who set his mark on an age. As he developed into a superb writer, he became something more: an intellectual and moral touchstone for three generations of Englishmen and Americans. None of the obvious sources, as a leftist of the thirties, as a High Church Anglican of the sixties—or even the work itself—quite account for it. History and genius worked in magical combination! Auden was in Spain in 1937, in China in 1938, in Germany in 1945. He was, after Pound and Eliot, the only international poet of the English language. (One can write poetry and be an international figure without being an international poet.)
Auden's poetry was a conductor of history—"conductor" in its electrical, its travel-guide and perhaps even its musical sense. He was our supreme journalist of the imagination, not only the recorder and the interpreter of the event but the conscience that gave it perspective…. Auden himself had harsh words to say about poems like "Spain" and "September 1, 1939." The role of the automatic moralizer, the too easy invoker of love was one he came, naturally, to distrust. And because so many poems sprang from the immediate occasion he may have lost something in depth to what he gained in range. Though I don't think anyone doubts Auden composed masterpieces, it is not so easy to say, as it is in Eliot's or Stevens's case, exactly what—which—they are. First, the number of poems is astounding; they form a kind of cumulative masterpiece. And then, for poets of my generation, those born in the twenties, Auden was so formative, so influential that the early poems seem more like natural objects or remembered childhood landscapes than like works of art. Is "Look, stranger, on this island now" a masterpiece? Is "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea dingle"? I cannot imagine the history of poetry without them. To mention "In Praise of Limestone" or "The Sea and the Mirror" is only to begin the list….
After Marx proved to be an untrustworthy guide, was it Freud or Kierkegaard who dominated his thinking? Different as his positions might be at various times, part of the Auden magic was the ability to synthesize practically everything; in the long run none of his views seemed inconsistent. They had a unifying theme: Behind the theoretical facades, he waged a long battle against hokum….
At any one time, there must be five or six supremely intelligent people on the earth. Auden was one of them. How lucid the introduction to "The Greek Reader" remains. How marvelously original the introduction to "The Oxford Book of Light Verse." How extraordinary his comments on romantic poetry in "The Enchafed Flood"! Almost everything he touched—with the exception of his own light verse, and that includes the two lyrics from "The Man of La Mancha" unfortunately resurrected for this volume—was of an excellence few writers ever come close to attaining….
The important thing is that he restored to poetry what it had for a long time lacked, a relevant human voice…. [He was] the only important poet writing in English to fall in love with the north and the German rather than the Mediterranean and the French—not the Provencal troubadors of Pound but the Icelandic sagas—not the sensuous or the visionary but the rational and the divine, and particularly that version of it struggling with either the animal or the absurd, a line one can trace through Freud, Lewis Carroll and the mystics that interested Auden: Simone Weil and Dag Hammarskjöld.
It is also a line one can trace through Auden, for intelligence, no matter how high, is not the hallmark of the poet. The true sounds one hears in Auden's best poems derive from the disappointments of the animal and the landscape of his youth. In what may be the most haunting love poem of this century, the loved one's head is merely human, the narrator's arm, enclosing him, is faithless, and "Time and fevers burn away/Individual beauty from/Thoughtful children, and the grave/Proves the child ephemeral …".
Auden brought a new language into poetry, his own. He was in love with words, all kinds of words and what he did with language and grammar is too complex and original to be dealt with in a review. It was part of his originality to revivify the adjective, that most maligned part of English speech, by projecting psychological states into what had been merely colorful or evocative: "Underneath the abject willow," "Fish in the unruffled lakes," or from poems in "Thank You, Fog," "the modest conduct of fogs," or "the vagrant moods of the weather." Sometimes a verb would convey this human characteristic—"May with its light behaving," "Time crumbs all ramparts"—an example, too, of Auden's mating of the imperial and the cosy—sometimes an adverb was refreshed by its context—"The entirely beautiful."
This conspicuous but singular personification animated a world of private myth and public statement. The primitive fairy story and folk tale that forms a background for the early poems gave way to the social postures of the thirties, and they, in turn, to orthodoxy. First the hobgoblin and the troll, then exhortation and moral pleading, and finally the worldly saint and the City of God. But just as Auden's Marxism was never thoroughgoing but more a stimulating antidote to bourgeois passivity, so his Protestantism seems less religious piety than a return to a formal tradition. As Auden came to distrust the Big, the social and the evolutionary narrowed down to the domestic. Who could be a spokesman for a world no longer capable of being understood, and no longer even desirable except in its immediate surround: the habitat, the old friend, the familiar? …
But strangely, as the world Auden dealt with became more specific, his language became more abstract. The great effectiveness of the early poems comes from many sources, but one of them was the poet's ability to take a familiar noun and qualify it with a reference from an unfamiliar world; the language of one kind of discourse modifies another. Who, before Auden, had ever heard of "uncritical islands," "florid music," "aloof peaks," "whorled, unsubtle ears," or "baroque frontiers"? The early poems—the world of the great evolutionary-revolutionary Uncle, the oppositions of We and They—have an immediacy of diction, a musical attraction, or an absolute originality of phrasing the later poems lack. Distrusting the too-ready attitudinizing of the thirties poems, Auden turned against even the poems that had preceded them, where the musical genius of the language is most apparent. And perhaps as he began seriously to write libretti, he decided to leave the composing to others. Whatever the case, he devised a new prosey kind of meditative poem—as if musical effects, in language at least, were simply another form of lying—sometimes extraordinary in the freshness of its thought, or the quirkiness of its wording, sometimes dull because the language has lost its vividness as well as its relation to song. (pp. 1, 10, 12)
Howard Moss, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.
[There] was a reserve in [Auden] that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden's case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like "Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm." This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe's poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin's works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable. The moment poems of this kind are wrenched from their original abode, they disappear in a cloud of banality…. The very untranslatability of one of Auden's poems is what, many years ago, convinced me of his greatness…. (p. 39)
Stephen Spender, the friend who knew him so well, has stressed that "throughout the whole development of [Auden's] poetry … his theme had been love" [see CLC-3] (had it not occurred to Auden to change Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" by defining man as the "bubble-brained creature" that said "I'm loved therefore I am"?), and at the end of the address that Spender gave in memory of his late friend at the Cathedral in Oxford he told of asking Auden about a reading he had given in America: "His face lit up with a smile that altered its lines, and he said: 'They loved me!'" They did not admire him, they loved him: here, I think, lies the key both to his extraordinary unhappiness and to the extraordinary greatness—intensity—of his poetry. Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews, Not to be born is the best for man; The second-best is a formal order, The dance's pattern; dance while you can.
So he wrote in "Death's Echo," in "Collected Shorter Poems." When I knew him, he would not have mentioned the best any longer, so firmly had he opted for the second-best, the "formal order," and the result was what Chester Kallman has so aptly named "the most dishevelled child of all disciplinarians." I think it was this tristesse and its "dance while you can" that made Auden feel so much attracted to and almost at home in the famous Berlin of the twenties, where carpe diem was practiced constantly in many variations. He once mentioned as a "disease" his early "addiction to German usages," but much more prominent than these, and less easy to get rid of, was the obvious influence of Bertolt Brecht, with whom I think he had more in common than he was ever ready to admit … Brecht's influence can easily be traced in Auden's ballads—for instance, in the late, marvellous "Ballad of Barnaby," the tale of the tumbler who, having grown old and pious, "honoured the Mother-of-God" by tumbling for her; or in the early "little story/About Miss Edith Gee;/She lived in Clevedon Terrace/At Number 83." What made this influence possible was that they both belonged to the post-First World War generation, with its curious mixture of despair and joie de vivre, its contempt for conventional codes of behavior, and its penchant for "playing it cool," which expressed itself in England, I suspect, in the wearing of the mask of the snob, while it expressed itself in Germany in a widespread pretense of wickedness, somewhat in the vein of Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera."…
In the case of Auden, as in the case of Brecht, inverted hypocrisy served to hide an irresistible inclination toward being good and doing good—something that both were ashamed to admit, let alone proclaim. This seems plausible for Auden, because he finally became a Christian, but it may be a shock at first to hear it about Brecht. Yet a close reading of his poems and plays seems to me almost to prove it…. (p. 40)
What drove these profoundly apolitical poets into the chaotic political scene of our century was Robespierre's "zèle compatissant," the powerful urge toward "les malheureux," as distinguished from any need for action toward public happiness, or any desire to change the world….
I don't know whether Stephen Spender is right in asserting that "prayer corresponded to his deepest need"—I suspect that his deepest need was simply to write verses—but I am reasonably sure that his sanity, the great good sense that illuminated all his prose writings (his essays and book reviews), was due in no small measure to the protective shield of orthodoxy. Its time-honored coherent meaningfulness that could be neither proved nor disproved by reason provided him, as it had provided Chesterton, with an intellectually satisfying and emotionally rather comfortable refuge against the onslaught of what he called "rubbish"; that is, the countless follies of the age.
Rereading Auden's poems in chronological order and remembering him in the last years of his life, when misery and unhappiness had grown more and more unbearable without, however, in the least touching either the divine gift or the blessed facility of the talent, I have become surer than ever that he was "hurt into poetry" even more than Yeats ("Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry"), and that, despite his susceptibility to compassion, public political circumstances were not necessary to hurt him into poetry. What made him a poet was his extraordinary facility with and love for words, but what made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the "curse" of vulnerability to "human unsuccess" on all levels of human existence—vulnerability to the crookedness of the desires, to the infidelities of the heart, to the injustices of the world…. (p. 45)
[The] triumph of the private person was that the voice of the great poet never silenced the small but penetrating voice of sheer sound common sense whose loss has so often been the price paid for divine gifts. Auden never permitted himself to lose his mind—that is, to lose the "distress" in the "rapture" that rose out of it….
It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. (p. 46)
Hannah Arendt, "Remembering Wystan H. Auden Who Died in the Night of the Twenty-Eighth of September 1973" (© 1975 by Hannah Arendt; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanich, Inc.), in The New Yorker, January 20, 1975, pp. 39-46.
Auden's death in 1973 evoked some backward glances at his early career but no fresh appraisals. He has been described for many years now as the leader of a group of poets who dominated English poetry in the 1930s, who were socially and politically conscious in a Left-wing way, were influenced by Marx and Freud, and who wrote about public themes: abandoned pits and factories; pylons and locomotives; unemployment at home and the rise of fascism in Europe; the Spanish Civil War. If the account has been added to, it has usually been in the direction of biography, drawing on the descriptions of Auden as a dominating young poet at Oxford provided in the autobiographies of Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis. The emphasis has, in short, been thematic and generalised, or biographical and historical. Not much has been said about the fact that Auden's influence was as much stylistic as thematic. Auden's legacy from the 'thirties was not only his own dazzling and mannered poetry, but an instantly recognisable idiom, the "Audenesque", which began with a few imitators early in the decade but within ten years was common throughout the English-speaking world….
Not everything in Auden's own poetry was "Audenesque." From the beginning he had been a protean master of forms with not one style but many…. Indeed, it is only in his second collection, Look, Stranger! (1935), that one sees the full emergence of the Audenesque, by which I mean that particular manner of Auden's that became a collective idiom. Cecil Day Lewis was Auden's first unabashed disciple and imitator…. Under Auden's dominance Day Lewis's verse changed rapidly from a neo-Georgian to an Audenesque manner…. By contrast, Stephen Spender, also much influenced by Auden at Oxford, possessed a tougher and more individual poetic personality; Auden's influence was more thoroughly absorbed and was more apparent in themes and choice of subject than in verbal mannerism, although an occasional line like "Northwards the sea exerts his huge mandate" from "The Port" in Spender's Poems (1933), is a pure example of the Audenesque. (p. 65)
In general the characteristics of the Audenesque in syntax and diction seem to me to be …: copious use of the definite article; unusual adjectives and adjectival phrases, and surprising similes, which have a reductive or trivialising effect; and personified abstractions. These features are functions of Auden's imaginative universe, which regarded reality as actually or potentially known and intelligible, without mysteries or uncertainty. Experience could be reduced to classifiable elements, as a necessary preliminary to diagnosis and prescription. It is in terms of this predisposition that Auden's early allegiance to Marxism and psychoanalysis can best be understood; both were attractive as techniques of explanation. Unifying all stylistic elements, and much less easily imitated, was Auden's characteristic tone, of calm certainty and total self-confidence. The opening of "Let History Be My Judge" is representative:
We made all possible preparations,Drew up a list of firms,Constantly revised our calculationsAnd allotted the farms….
Lists and catalogues were a noticeable feature of Auden's world of intelligible extension, and so were maps and landscapes, not just as content but as structural elements….
I would argue that Auden's best early poetry, where his feelings were most deeply engaged, has a geographical or topographical structure…. In Look, Stranger!, which I take to be Auden's finest collection, there are several brilliant poems which combine a sweeping topographical vision and calm, assured movement. In some the vision is conceptual and map-like, in others it embodies Auden's devotion to certain English landscapes, usually of the Midlands and North, but also the Isle of Wight, a favoured resort of Auden [and] Isherwood…. To my mind the most beautiful of all these revelations of the deep structure of Auden's imaginative world is the opening chorus of the verse play he wrote with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935). All the qualities are here; the sense of a wide geographical context, narrowing down to a particular place; the listing of names as in a gazeteer; and the relaxed yet strong and flowing movement of the verse. (p. 70)
The central paradox about the Audenesque is that though by the end of the 'thirties it was disseminated throughout the English-speaking world, and can be called a collective style, its origins lay in one man's very personal, even idiosyncratic vision of reality…. The Audenesque would not be recognised as a collective style by Lucien Goldmann and his followers, since they understand such a style in neo-Hegelian terms as an impersonal manifestation of History, or, more precisely, as the articulation of the "world vision" of a dominant or emergent social class. Yet I do not think one can properly account for the Audenesque as a literary and cultural phenomenon by remaining within the traditional empirical categories of English literary history and saying that, not for the first time, a fashionable poet was widely imitated for a few years. I believe that, handled with care, the idea of "the spirit of the age", or more modestly, the "style of a period", does make sense and can help our understanding. My contention about Auden was that if he was widely and rapidly imitated, at least in his most evidently imitable stylistic and structural devices, it was because there was a general readiness to look at the world in Auden's categories. At a time of world economic depression there was something reassuring in Auden's calm demonstration, mediated as much by style as by content, that reality was intelligible, and could be studied like a map or a catalogue, or seen in temporal terms as an inexorable historical process. Hence the instant appeal of the classificatory vision, the reliance on definite articles and precise if unexpected adjectives, that placed and limited their subjects. (p. 71)
The most famous poem to emerge from the Spanish Civil War, and one which seems to me the climax of the Audenesque was Auden's own "Spain." … "Spain" is an immensely interesting poem, where Auden tries to meet a new and urgent situation with a method that was better suited to the calm analysis and diagnosis of historical and social disorder than to facing so immediate a challenge. It has given rise to arguments about the nature of political poetry, and about such particular contentious points as the phrase, later amended, "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder." But in the end the interest seems to me more historical than literary, despite C. K. Stead's careful advocacy of the poem's merits [developed in "Auden's 'Spain'," London Magazine, March, 1968]. For all its local brilliance "Spain" looks strained and unconvincing and, perhaps, unconvinced; I find it a lesser achievement than many of the poems that Auden wrote earlier in the decade. Most significantly, "Spain" shows signs of self-imitation, of Auden becoming self-conscious in his employment of the Audenesque, possibly by feedback from his imitators.
Certainly "Spain" gave a powerful boost to the development of the Audenesque in the late 'thirties, particularly in the portentous references to History. Auden himself continued to write in the familiar idiom but, as some of the poems in Another Time indicate, in an increasingly insensitive manner. After his removal to America he adopted other voices and styles, with the protean ease that had always been characteristic of him. But it was not yet the end of the Audenesque chapter in English poetry. (pp. 72-3)
After the outbreak of the Second World War and Auden's departure from England the Audenesque seemed to have lost its raison d'être. This, indeed, is the conventional assumption of literary history, where the "social realist" poetry of the 'thirties disappears and is replaced overnight by the "neo-romanticism" of the 'forties. If one looks at the poetry actually written during the Second World War the facts appear otherwise, for the Audenesque persisted, and servicemen or civilians found it an acceptable manner for the poetic registration of wartime experience. The implications of the style were, however, significantly altered. The use of definite articles and adjectives, instead of projecting a conceptual map of the known and knowable, indicated a nightmare landscape, or a concrete and detailed but alien and threatening environment. Again, references to History were as frequent as ever, but that entity was no longer seen as a god-like force, inexorably directing the course of human development; it seemed, now, the very embodiment of the irrational and the destructive [two of the examples Bergonzi cites are Ruthven Todd's "In Edinburgh 1940" and Roy Fuller's "Epitaph on a Bombing Victim"]. (p. 73)
One significant aspect of the triumph of the Audenesque in the late 'thirties is now apparent. It was the last time that any British poet was to have such a global influence on poetry in English. Thereafter the course of British and American poetry diverged sharply, so that now, as is often remarked, there are two quite separate poetic traditions with nothing in common. In a more theoretical way, a study of the Audenesque may contribute something to current discussions of the sociology of literature. It suggests that whereas the study of stylistic change in isolation from larger social and cultural factors is likely to be arid and unilluminating, simplistic attempts to relate literature and society are equally unhelpful. English critics and literary historians readily assume that a style spreads simply because an influential writer has imitators, whereas current Continental theorists are inclined to regard style as an impersonal emanation of a "world vision" or the spirit of the age. In my reading, both factors are necessary; Auden, as a very individual genius, devised, without intending to, a code in which other, less talented poets could express their fears and anxieties and hopes through a period of sustained historical crisis. If their messages are often remarkably similar, that is partly, no doubt, because of the conditioning nature of the code, and partly because of the collective nature of their preoccupations. (p. 75)
Bernard Bergonzi, "Auden & the Audenesque," in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975, pp. 65-75.
The Auden whose genius stretched over forty-odd years of dazzling illumination and memorable speech isn't destroyed by one bad book.
But [Thank You, Fog] is a bad book, and it's a pity that the poems from it will presumably conclude the massive Collected Poems which Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson, is now editing….
What is hardest to take is the slack cosiness, sometimes signalled by all those supercilious capital letters (Common Sense, Myths of Being, Personal Pronouns, Old Ones, Hungry Thirties, Ideal Friend, Dangerous Quest, My Personal City, You, Her, We, etc.), sometimes archly colloquial (freaked out of, that's a stumper, a real shame, such fun)…. Thank You, Fog is a sad end to a splendid career. Indeed, to pretend otherwise is an insult to a great poet. (pp. 75-6)
Anthony Thwaite, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975.
Auden liked to quote Paul Valéry to the effect that poems are never completed, only abandoned. Some of these [in Thank You, Fog] have been abandoned too soon. Even so, the old master has his moments of magic, turning his nouns into verbs and moving more often than not in a seven-syllable line that sounds like simple conversation but conceals much art. (p. 67)
Auden assimilated Marx and Freud, yet eventually became the kind of archpoetic witness to a disarming, irony-proof piety that a secular age requires. The fact that a cursory reader may feel he has been here before is not a problem. It is the whole point. Before abandoning his verses to history, Auden liked to be sure that, whatever their message, each one sounded as if it could only have been written by W. H. Auden. Everything in Thank You, Fog qualifies. As with saved letters from lost sons or fathers, so with the last words of this dead poet. They stir the heart not because of what they say but because they sound like the man himself. (pp. 67-8)
Timothy Foote, "Terminal Echoes," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 3, 1975, pp. 66-8.
Auden never had much confidence in the substantiality of himself or anyone else. This was apparent even in those early poems when he was at least inclined to take himself seriously. The curse of the Romantics, the requirement that men in general and poets in particular should acquire an identity, redoubled by the twentieth-century insistence that bona fide identities could only be acquired through crisis, was all but fatal to Auden. Dryden and Byron, whose talents Auden's most nearly resemble, escaped the problem because satire was a socially assured form, but in the early twentieth century new kinds of self-elected experts on society, notably the psychologist and sociologist, had begun to usurp the poet's function of providing a critique of society. The demand for a personal identity and the real threat to his social role became the subject of Auden's poems. But, then, if you don't really believe in your subject it's easy to write prolifically but hard to write well. Auden is half aware that neither his feelings nor his ideas can hold their ground. (p. 378)
Auden's would-be hatred and fear are only malice and uneasiness. He longs in vain to feel really scared or really aggressive. He knows he can be safely vicious to these stereotypes but he is aware of the unreality of his anger. His approbation is as uncertain as his condemnation. Is it weak to be strong or strong to be weak? Hence his ambivalence towards his representative identity-seekers, wanderers, questers, etc…. The necessity to feel danger, to experience choice, is a substitute for emotion. Poems 1928 register a weary or hectic self-defeat.
Confusion sometimes thickens into incomprehensibility: a number of poems in this booklet are lifted direct from Paid on Both Sides without explanation of provenance or context and it is frequently difficult to see what or whom Auden is getting at. Any psychological ill cum saga story cum social conflict provides the cryptology necessary for a poem. Auden is not sure which side he is on but feels it is important to be on some side.
The feelings Auden feels should be important to him, feelings about social and emotional commitment are not very real to him. He is a poet of limitations not of importances. The limitations which suit him best are limits of time and space. Having to locate incidents or feelings, usually in relation to a landscape, directs his attention away from himself and allows his feelings to be stabilized. The landscape or locality can convince him, secure his attention. Yet landscape in itself does not guarantee a good poem from Auden. 'In Praise of Limestone' published in 1948 is unsatisfactory. The visual image finds its mental image too easily. The poem is fertile in ideas but all familiar. The landscapes provide a fund of illustrations of different types of character. But each amusingly animated type is a cartoon figure, its outline popularised, even vulgarised. (pp. 378-80)
It is better for Auden when the external world offers some resistance to him, cannot be so comfortably moulded to his needs or ideas. This is the value of landscape in the two best poems in the 1928 collection, Poem VI ('The Watershed' in Collected Poems) and Poem XI ('Letter' in Collected Poems). Landscape here is subject not merely topic…. Auden's best work was done early, and these two poems remind us of this. (pp. 380, 382)
Moira Megaw, "Auden's First Poems," in Essays in Criticism, July, 1975, pp. 378-82.
I have found nothing in Thank You, Fog to revive my earlier enthusiasm [for Auden's poems; Bateson's high regard for his criticism, however, is unwavering]. It is 'Parnassian', in the sense in which Hopkins used the term of Tennyson's Enoch Arden. I cannot find a line in it that I expect to remember with any such increasing intensity of admiration that I have for one line from the Epilogue to The Orators:
That gap is the grave where the tall return.
In a way Auden has been my generation's Lost Leader more disturbingly even than Eliot. But at least the pretentious obscurity of the long New York poems slipped away in the last three or four collections. As a literary historian, as I confess myself to be, the poem that interested me most in this thin final volume is the autobiographical 'A Thanksgiving'. Here Auden's successive models or mentors are listed in the chronological order of their impact upon his verse. (pp. 387-88)
Auden died on 29 September 1973 ([according to Edward] Mendelson; 28 September according to Who's Who). He had been born on 21 February 1907 and was therefore sixty-six when he died. But he had perhaps aged prematurely. What I miss in all his later poems is the 'profound inner disturbance; a turbid pressure of emotions from below' that Leavis acutely recognized in the early work (Scrutiny, June 1934, p. 78). Still the technical wizardry, the range of tone and diction, and above all the poetic manipulation of abstract thought—a theme which would demand a greater philosophical expertise than I can command—were retained to the end. (pp. 389-90)
F. W. Bateson, "Auden's Last Poems," in Essays in Criticism, July, 1975, pp. 383-90.
Stephen Spender … spoke recently to the effect that Auden at the end of his life was not a powerful influence on the young, that a man of 21 would not sit down and plan to write poems in the style of Auden.
Sitting and planning notwithstanding, Auden has in fact exerted a significant influence upon both Dylans, and the impact of his exemplary stanzas in universal translation is yet to be estimated. I've known Latin nostrils to which certain subtle grandeurs of Audenoid inflection were far more immediately registered than might have been the case with an English or American palate jaded by the base mechanics of secular bread-winning. And one wonders how the erstwhile Audun comes across in Iceland—perhaps Auden's true apostles and only critics await translation, or maturity. (p. 309)
It seems that somewhere along the way Auden, like Eliot, changed thematic (ethical) polarities, while continuing a line of structural (aesthetic) priority, which caused the poems, like the proverbial cracked Japanese Teacup (with its lane to the land of the dead), to develop a glacial cleavage between matter and manner. (pp. 309-10)
In much of his later poetry Auden in the persona of the spirit repeatedly upbraids the flesh, that over-familiar/dense companion which bound him from Ariel's smoother song—and so the later work became an ex-cathedra monologue of soul at self, while the latter man became the vector of these antagonisms.
His spontaneity of expression was further subjected to a Cartesian partition of life into autonomous spheres of work, prayer and carnival—each presumably perfected by separate rules, and consummated via non-valent rituals….
Auden's technical view of poetry, his isolation and incorporation of its elements into vessels whose design bordered on the exponential, tended to diminish the rub of the elemental inconsistencies of his subject matter (Western Civilization), and to delegate his implication in its dichotomy to vague, benevolent processes of artistic or erotic absolution.
The ethical entropy of this basically mechanical gestalt-operation produced in his being a sort of discorporate angst, which demanded corporeal solutions—for Auden made no bones about flesh and surrender when somehow he let his Last Poems slip through an ode to anaesthetic complacency (better to have made a final appearance in Variorum—or in drag), a subliminal advocacy of Circe and Soma….
[One] must resist, in the case of these Last Poems, the temptation to get too judgmental or specific about what manner of spiritual matter is here evinced in what we must hope has been offered as some sort of musical joke.
I would have thought the unintentional comedy of the title, Thank You, Fog—with its unfortunate connotation of a Prisoner's Chorus in Dachau, and its equally regrettable susceptibility to low permutation (one Catholic newspaper, permuting high, actually reviewed it as Thank You, God)—might have convinced Auden's sacristan to burn these slim leavings instead of anything he might have said in his letters, which, however whatever, could never conspire to plagiarize his laurels as do these lame last words, this crown of conceit which so disfigures the portent of Augustus.
As one who knew him well enough, and whether or not it might have pleased him, I must say that there is not enough poetry, not enough Caesar in this salad to justify the expenditure of dollars or drachmas—unless you be among those Audenoids who must have the complete set.
If have it you must, then have it you shall, but remember: he shan't be able to sign it. Also be advised that these are Last Poems like certain gas stations are Last Chance gas stations: as Spender recently announced, only half of Auden's work has been published. (p. 310)
Michael Newman, "Age Before Beauty," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), August 1, 1975, pp. 309-11.