W. H. Auden

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Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

An Anglo-American poet, essayist, playwright, critic, editor, librettist, scriptwriter, and translator, Auden exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century. His poetry centers around moral issues and evidences Auden's strong political, social, and psychological orientations. The teachings of Marx and Freud weigh heavily in his earlier work, but later give way to religious and spiritual influences. Auden was an antiromantic, a poet of analytical clarity. He sought order, and for universal patterns of human existence. For this reason, some of his work has been criticized as overly detached and facile. Auden's poetry is versatile and inventive, ranging from the tersely epigrammatic to book-length verse, and incorporating his vast scientific knowledge. He collaborated with Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice, and has joined with Chester Kallman to create libretti for works by Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky, and Mozart. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1948, and the National Book Award in 1956. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

Dr. Narsingh Srivastava

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Symbolisation of landscape is one of the major structural patterns in the poetry of W. H. Auden. Aware as he has ever been of the inadequacy of the direct statement for the purposes of poetic art, he has been in search of poetic devices that can fittingly incarnate the ideas about the major situations of the day as well as the universal truths of human psyche and life. Symbolisation of landscape is a method of turning the abstraction into a concrete form and thereby making them take on a new identity. The visual becomes conceptual in the sense that it involves thinking in physical terms of things that are psychic or spiritual…. In [Auden's] poetry, city, like island, mountain, valley, frontier and garden, is an important geographical image which he uses as embodiment of psychic and spiritual states.

Auden uses the city image both in terms of the actual and as symbol of some social, moral or spiritual state…. We notice in his early poetry that the city image is related, on the one hand, to Auden's symbol of the hero—both false and true—who assumes the role of a prospective saviour of the city, and, on the other, to the image of the island which is embodiment of selfish isolation and escape. Thus, this spatial image signifies the normal social and moral life of a community which, by exercise of human will, may either attain its ideal form—the just city, the good place or the city of God—or may degrade into a ruinous order of a moral and spiritual decadence. (p. 86)

[Auden's] view of the significance of the city symbol is much broader and more concrete than any vague and abstract utopian scheme. The significance of this symbol lies in Auden's emphasis on the relation of the individual to society as well as to his own self; and thus this image like many others that we come across in Auden's poetry, enables him to organise his moral and spiritual experience in a concrete pattern. Except in a few poems of places written on particular cities where focus of emphasis is thrown on the place rather than on its emblematic significance, the city image is used in a symbolic frame of reference. (p. 87)

In Auden's early poetry, the city is generally the actual city which is devoid of the values of the ideal and that is why it is disordered, dirty and immoral. In poem XXII of Poems , the images of smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, locked and deserted power stations picture the industrial ruin, and form a...

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sinister landscape suggestive of moral decadence of the upper classes…. [In] Poem XXXI ofLook, Stranger!, 'As We Like It' …, Auden has painted the actual city of our times which is built by the 'conscience-stricken, the weapon-making' and where the 'Wild rumours woo and terrify the crowd'. The poem is highly effective in its description of a world menaced by hatred and fear. It is obvious that a synthesis of Freud and Marx forms Auden's attitude with which he denounces the forces of prejudice, fear and malice. The poem ends on a threatening note of despair which bears echoes of T. S. Eliot's similar depictions of the modern civilization in The Waste Land and 'The Hollow Men'…. (pp. 87-8)

Thus, Auden's humanistic zeal finds expression through the implicit interaction of the actual and the ideal city. In 'Macao' (Journey to a War) Auden paints an ironically realistic picture of the true condition of the immoral city—the city of indulgence. In 'Oxford' (Another Time, Part V), we notice that besides the lively picture of the city and its suburb drawn in a reminiscent manner, the emphasis is on the degenerated condition of man; and Oxford as a modern city embodies our civilization of the present age…. (p. 88)

It is in 'Paysage Moralise' (Look, Stranger!, VII) that the city image is clearly used as a symbol. City is described as an antithesis to islands; and as islands symbolise our isolating and evasive dreams, city is evidently the embodiment of our real life in a society…. Auden mentions the ideal of building the 'just city' … in his most inspiring poem 'Spain 1937'…. What is significant is the fact that the abstraction associated with the image of the city makes it a purely conceptual image, symbolising the unattained form of an ideal existence. It is obvious that the city is either the goal of a man's quest or the symbol of a social ideal which later on changes into the religious ideal of the City of God. (p. 89)

The development of the city of man through several stages as opposed to the City of God which is attainable by no other effort than our full acceptance of faith, is the central theme of 'In Memorial of a City'. Until the City of God is incarnated within the city of man, life goes on without meaning and purpose…. Auden contrasts the condition of the Earthly City belonging to the secular and naturalistic world of the Greeks with the Christian world. The war-torn landscape, which is objectively perceived by the eyes of the crow and the eyes of the camera, and which bears sufficient relevance to the post-war life of our own age, has an implicit double focus; one revealing the misery of the world in time and the other suggesting the 'space where time has no place'. In the naturalistic order of the Greeks, 'gods behave, men die,/Both feel in their own small way'. As opposed to this, the Christian world always adds an eternal significance to the temporal events, and thus composes 'A meaningless moment into an eternal fact'. (pp. 90-1)

Auden saves his description from abstraction [in this poem] by employing mythological and historical figures and literary characters, which, by forces of implicit associations, bring into sharp relief the various forms of weaknesses that brought about their doom. Auden seems to suggest that religious acceptance of our weaknesses, which teaches us humility, can save us from despair; it enables us to wait hopefully for the heavenly city of faith which may redeem the earthly city.

It is worth noting that Auden brings out the significance of the various stages of human civilization by adding precise and appropriate epithets to the central symbol of the city. One can easily discover that what was once an embodiment of a social ideal became very soon a symbol of a juster life and ultimately changed into the city of God…. [The] varying use of this symbol points to different stages of transition that occurred in the course of Auden's career…. (pp. 91-2)

Auden's symbolic image of a city without walls, which he uses as the title of his last volume of poems, embodies the alienated, disintegrated urban society of today. The urban society, according to Auden, is, 'like the desert, a place without limits' (The Enchafèd Flood …); and the walls of the city are 'the walls of tradition, mythos and cultures', which 'have crumbled' … in modern times, making modern man's life directionless and meaningless…. In such a world in which 'the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs' (See The Dyer's Hand …), irony proves to be the best method for depicting the prodigies of such a culture. Auden effectively employs this mode of poetic expression in a number of poems of this volume such as 'Prologue at Sixty', and 'Profile'.

The title poem of City without Walls (1969) …, relying on the balanced structure of five-line stanzas, depicts the modern urban and highly technological world of 'real structures of steel and glass' … in which people have turned compulsorily into hermits…. Besides the revealing catalogue of powerful images from the world of today presented in the poem, it is the use of fine irony which characterized the style of the poem, and supports and enlivens its ideational structure. It is largely through the employment of subtle and effective irony that Auden succeeds in exposing the incongruities of the modern world…. The pang of cancer [for example] is ironically described as the modern substitute of Crucifixion, and the implied contrast between a purely physical ailment born of some psychic malady and the selfless spiritual sacrifice heightens the effect of the intended irony. (pp. 92-3)

Thus, Auden's use of the city emblem reveals his consistent reliance on the imagistic structure of poetry, instead of the purely sequential one. Although there has been only a partial replacement of the logic of syntax by the logic of metaphor, the use of this image in the fifties and afterwards exhibits an obvious advancement over that of the poems of the thirties. In the later poetry we find a fusion of the reflective and the imagistic styles in place of a style born of the fusion of the discursive and the imagistic which is characteristic of the thirties. Secondly, in poems such as 'In Memorial of a City' and 'City Without Walls', the city image becomes the central symbol in a poem of elaborate meditation on human life. Lastly, Auden's varying use of the city image also reveals his intellectual development from a secular humanist to a religious believer, as [well as] the ideational nature of his poetry. (p. 94)

Dr. Narsingh Srivastava, "The Symbolic Image of the 'City' in Auden's Poetry," in Literary Criterion, Vol. X, No. 3, Winter, 1974, pp. 86-94.

Timothy Green

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In an essay-review of Loren Eiseley's The Unexpected Universe in 1970, W. H. Auden identifies genuine laughter with the "spirit of Carnival" and insists that "when we truly laugh, we laugh simultaneously with and at" [Auden's emphasis]. That is, genuine laughter and the Carnival spirit are both a protest against and an acceptance of human mortality and the contradictions inherent in the human condition. Auden further contends that we feel ambivalent about our mortal limitations and "oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be problematic to ourselves." During Carnival, the traditional holidays of license and festivity preceding Lent, laughter resolves this ambivalence, according to Auden, by assuming the dual attitudes of acceptance and protest. The protest element in the traditional Carnival emerges as profanity, mock-aggression, and the inversion of social rank, all of which serve as a cathartic release of repressed discontent…. [Yet] the feasting, the revelry, and the general exhibition of human earthiness during Carnival disclose man's comic acceptance of himself as an earthbound creature. (p. 372)

[The] comic temperament of Auden's later poetry [from the 1940s to 1973] shows definite signs of being a thoroughgoing assimilation of the Carnival climate. In fact, while enumerating the poet's responsibilities to mankind in "Epistle to a Godson," Auden avers that poetry's "… dominant/mood should be that of a Carnival." Hence, Auden's later poetry essays to be a cogent, verbal embodiment of the spirit of Carnival, a spirit which, at its best, is an anamnesis of man as Homo Ludens and an intimation of man as holy fool. Auden's conception of poetry as a game coincides with his notion of the spirit of Carnival; for Auden's later poetry fashions a world of play in which comic frivolity, however irreverent it may seem, is a parabolic indication of the participant's spiritual well-being and a direct affirmation of the goodness of the phenomenal word.

In addition, Auden's appropriation of the Carnival spirit is an acknowledgment of man's status as a fool in the world. This recognition is the equivalent of humility—a good-humored acceptance of the follies and shortcomings of oneself and others. For Auden, worldly imperfection and human suffering do not predicate the inherent depravity of man and the world. On the contrary, Auden's spirit of Carnival is aware of a recourse to a higher realm of consciousness (i.e., faith) from which it is seen that "suffering is an inescapable element in life … to be accepted, not as just in itself, as a penalty proportionate to the particular sins of the sufferer, but as an occasion for grace or as a process of purgation." Thus, the Carnival spirit can celebrate man as fool because human imperfection is not an occasion for despair but for grace.

Auden's spirit of Carnival, then, arises from an inner reservoir of faith that intuits the pain of human contradictions as both transient and promissory. When introduced into poetry, the Carnival spirit is normally manifested in the personages of beggars, cripples, peasants, servants, or other humble men whose worldly poverty or debility is belied by their joviality, their lack of shame, their comic resilience in spite of apparent misfortune. This "wise fool" is, in fact, the comic hero of literature who glories in what appear to be defeats or defects; for to him they are neither, but rather proofs of his rightness or blessedness.

Auden's poem "The Duet" is significant for its lucid characterization of the comic hero and his Carnival spirit. In "The Duet" Auden contrasts the sorrows of a rich lady in a large estate house to the "happy passion" of a one-legged, one-eyed beggar in the wilds of nature. Whereas the "huge sad lady" bemoans her disappointments in love, the beggar turns his barrel organ in the winter woods and cries "Nonsense to her large repining."… The contrast between the lady in "her warm house" and the beggar in the winter wilderness highlights the beggar's Carnival spirit, his ability to resolve his apparent suffering by means of comic celebration…. [The] lady despairs in the midst of affluence, and the beggar rejoices in the midst of apparent poverty. The lack of shame, the glorying in apparent misfortune, the praising of the natural world—all signal Auden's characteristic manner of evoking the spirit of Carnival. The beggar testifies to Auden's belief in a religious form of the comic in which one may laugh at his own suffering when he sees this suffering as a sign of his being in truth or as an "occasion for grace." The beggar, then, may be viewed parabolically as a "holy fool" whose celebration in spite of suffering is a comic symbol of faith.

Whereas the Carnival spirit's intimation of sanctity is indirect and parabolic, its celebration of the incidental, the natural, and the right to play is emphatically direct. Furthermore, as Auden notes in "Moon Landing," celebration and delight are serious duties of the poet, especially in a world of impersonal technology, unscrupulous commerce, and subtle regimentation…. To Auden, therefore, art should … [impart] to man's temporal condition a note of merriment that will liberate him from cybernetic bondage. And this constitutes one aspect of the protest element of Carnival laughter which must thrive, Auden believes, in order to affirm the freedom of individuals and thwart the dehumanizing forces of progress.

The Spirit of Carnival is the salient expression of Auden's belief that frivolity, celebration, and playfulness are as necessary to man's well being as work or worship…. Not only is the spirit of Carnival an important reminder that man is Homo Ludens; it is also important for the comic hope that it intimates and for the indispensable capacity to persevere amid absurdities and hazards that it symbolizes. (pp. 372-74)

One of Auden's most exuberant encomiums on the Carnival spirit is "Under Which Lyre." The poem elucidates the "dialectical strife" between two modes of life: the pragmatic way, represented by solemn Apollo, and the festive way, represented by playful Hermes. The followers of Hermes are cheerful rogues, the followers of Apollo austere laborers…. Auden places his affections under the lyre of Hermes, the god of cunning….

Under the lyre of Apollo, on the other hand, Auden places the rulers of the world, government officials, businessmen, and all who may be generally termed "the management." (p. 375)

The way of Hermes is the way of laughter and the spirit of Carnival. Though delighting in the mischievous, it has the positive function of subverting solemn worldliness and impersonal materialism…. As a major part of the spirit of Carnival, Hermetic clownage acts as a gadfly to all those complacencies and inflexibilities of mind which would threaten man's right to and need for frivolity.

Despite its protestations against glumness and dull sobriety, Auden's Carnival spirit regards the world with "adoration in the eye."… That is to say, the spirit of Carnival is manifested outwardly as "banter and bawdry" …, but within it repose veneration and charity. The adoring gleam in the eye of the Carnival reveller betokens the secret of genuine laughter—that it is both laughter at and laughter with, protest but also acceptance. Auden is aware that when the adoration lapses, contempt can intercede to make "The fun turn ugly,/The jokes hurt."… But when purged of the demons of spite and stupidity, the Carnival spirit enables the comic man to outwit "hell/With human obviousness."… (pp. 375-76)

Another facet of Auden's Carnival spirit is its celebration of the human body, one notable example being "Precious Five," an ode on the five senses. Maintaining the imperative mood throughout, "Precious Five" is an address of the mind to its somewhat capricious body…. After the poet surveys the individual responsibilities of each sense organ, his salient command to the "precious five" is to "Be happy."… The poet concludes that it is easy to discover reasons "To face the sky and roar/In anger and despair" but that the "singular command" of the heavens is to "Bless what there is for being" … [Auden's emphasis]—an imperative that is beyond the powers of reason to understand…. Auden, accordingly, praises all aspects of the physical world not only because the universe is good but also because he must.

Accepting the tenet, then, that man must "Bless what there is for being," Auden subjects the human body to praise and comic exposure (for even if the world is good, it is not beyond laughter). Praise and exposure are, respectively, the laughter with and the laughter at of the the Carnival spirit. (pp. 376-77)

Though it is ever a source of anxiety and embarrassment, the body, Auden asserts, must be accepted with good humor. For some it may verge on sacrilege to mention the bowel movements of a Prophet, but Auden risks such impropriety [in "The Geography of the House"] in order to demonstrate that we must laugh at and with our body and its impromptus, not escape into abstract speculation…. (p. 377)

Auden's sport with man's biological limitations heralds the unaggressive, celebrative laughter of the Carnival spirit. Without diminishing either the absurdities of existence or the frailties of the body, Carnival laughter signals a healthy acceptance of these contingencies and weaknesses…. If laughter is a small consolation in the face of the suffering that men are heir to, laughter affords at least a temporary resolution of the pain. True laughter, however, does not actually displace pain or become unconscious of pain; it accepts the fact of pain and transmutes the experience of it into an occasion for sanctity. Suffering must not lead to despair, as Auden notes in "Memorial for the City":

      … as we bury our dead     We know without knowing there is a reason for what we bear,     That our hurt is not a desertion, that we are to pity     Neither ourselves nor our city:     Whoever the searchlights catch, whatever the loudspeakers blare,     We are not to despair….

Since man must not despair, the spirit of Carnival is a moral obligation, not merely a fortuitous option. Hence, the human body, that limiting fence of skin within which men struggle for love and meaning, is not to be denied but affirmed in good humor lest men succumb to Manichaeism or some other notion that identifies evil with the natural world.

Another posture of Auden's Carnival spirit that challenges all doctrines proposing the inherent depravity of the phenomenal world is its attitude towards the forms of the natural world. In landscapes and other geographical features of the planet, Auden discerns analogies to the inner world of the individual, analogies which are at once sacred and comical and which affirm the essential goodness of both man and nature. As early as 1941 in "New Year Letter" Auden proposed limestone landscapes as symbols of man, but in "In Praise of Limestone" Auden embroiders and expands the original conception into a more poignant, persuasive image. Monroe K. Spears [in The Poetry of W. H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island] suggests that limestone symbolizes "the weakness and individuality of common human nature."… In the guise of a monologue spoken to a friend or lover, "In Praise of Limestone" delineates the comic condition of man, focusing on the paradox that man's strength and hope arise from his weakness, his mortal limitations…. The speaker concludes his conversation by observing that all he knows is that men must rejoice with suffering and weakness, that spiritual harmony is attained only by glorying in imperfection…. "In Praise of Limestone" is an intimate, meditative recommendation of the spirit of Carnival, not a direct embodiment of it. Yet, the poem clearly implies, when we do not care what angle we are regarded from, we allow that we are comical creatures and, rather than despairing of that fact, glory in it, having nothing to hide.

Auden's pastoral sequence entitled "Bucolics" also reveals the presence of the spirit of Carnival's discernment of analogies between the human spirit and natural forms. In this, "Bucolics" is similar to many of Auden's later poems which mingle the humorous and the serious. Each of the seven poems of "Bucolics" develops an analogy between natural phenomena and the human realm of values and character…. The relationship between playfulness and "holy places" in "Streams" reveals the essence of Auden's notion of the Carnival spirit—namely, that reverent frivolity is man's most appropriate response to the world. (pp. 377-80)

[Only] with Auden's shift to a Christian perspective about 1940 did a comic temperament become, for him, a morally and theologically sanctioned perspective. "Letter to Lord Byron" and "New Year Letter," which were written in the midst of Auden's spiritual transition, both demonstrate and advocate the comic as a mode of vision. In "New Year Letter," for example, Auden asks that men "keep in order … a reverent frivolity." Almost thirty years later Auden describes reverent frivolity as the spirit of Carnival, and in the intervening years his poetry strove to embody this spirit of true laughter. Auden's reaffirmation of Christianity in the late 1930s and early 1940s, after a lapse since his childhood, was apparently made with the conviction that faith must not become cranky, too cerebral, or too solemn…. [Even] in such explicitly religious poems as "Horae Canonicae," Auden's emphasis is on the ironic-comic duty of man to celebrate the secular world. For the later Auden, the spirit of Carnival is a necessary concomitant of religious faith. If the spirit of Carnival tends toward an earthiness and festivity not normally associated with faith, it does so only to show that religious faith is not the esoteric and staid affair that many have presumed.

When the spirit of Carnival is convincingly embodied in Auden's poetry, it is a revelation of that moment when humor and the sublime merge. Hence Auden's later poetry claims that whenever men are willing to forgo their dignity in order to participate as biological organisms in the rhythms of the physical world, they resolve with Carnival laughter the ambivalence they ordinarily feel towards the human condition and transcend their imperfections by joyfully celebrating them. If the Carnival itself is no longer officially sanctioned in most places, this does not mean that Carnival is the less needed by modern man. On the contrary, it can provide, as Auden demonstrates, a crucial service for the psyche and the spirit even though the modern vestiges of the traditional Carnival are forced to retreat to less public displays and are suggestive, to many, of a pagan orgy. For Auden, the Carnival is a celebration of our common humanity (i.e., our shared biological limitations) and of our global home; and the spirit of this Carnival is expressed as sanctified laughter. (pp. 380-81)

Timothy Green, "The Spirit of Carnival in Auden's Later Poetry," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1977 by Auburn University), Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 372-82.

Edward Callan

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The first of Auden's longer works, Paid on Both Sides: A Charade,… is ostensibly an episode in a continuing feud between two families who live some fifteen miles apart in the Lead Dales of the English north country…. (p. 287)

Auden seems to have intended the charade as a vehicle for an ambitious allegory on the life and death instincts—a modern Morality of Eros and Thanatos—that could take its place beside Eliot's The Waste Land…. Paid on Both Sides is a variation on the Orpheus myth that Auden was to employ again with Marxist overtones in his next dramatic work, The Dance of Death (1933)…. (p. 288)

Although it is Freud who supplies the underlying theme of Eros and Thanatos as instinctive energies of the libido, much of the substance of Paid on Both Sides is derived from C. G. Jung's Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912), a work now best known in English by the title of the revised edition, Symbols of Transformation…. The Both Sides in the title of Auden's charade has reference therefore to Jung's notion of the dual nature, or "ambitendencies," of the libido whereby it energizes not only man's instinctive urges but his creative consciousness also. Jung pointed to archetypal expressions of these ambitendencies in myths of the Hero and of the Primordial Mother. He saw quest Hero myths, particularly those associating the Hero with the Sun, as expressions of man's drive toward consciousness; and recalling Faust's journey to the realm of The Mothers he noted that "the Kingdom of the Mothers is the kingdom of (unconscious) phantasy."… Auden embodies these notions and other aspects of the Oedipal theme in Paid on Both Sides which, like every "country house charade," has its riddle to be solved. For example, the charade is fairly closely equivalent, in dramatic terms, to Jung's interpretation of the Sphinx as a double being corresponding to "the mother-imago," and representing a force that could not be disposed of by solving a childish riddle…. Jung's archetypal Mother, a double being both loving and terrible, who in endowing her children with life also gives death as its end, is a significant figure in a number of Auden's works including the best of the plays with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6…. (pp. 289-90)

The map that George and John Nower pour over [in the Charade] is the map of an area Auden chose to mythologize as his symbolic landscape, not only in Paid on Both Sides but throughout much of his work. "I could draw its map by heart," he says in "Amor Loci," a poem written forty years after Paid on Both Sides….

The landscape's strata and vegetation symbolize both the unconscious and nourishing aspects of the mother; the barns and made objects symbolize the consciousness of her son whose inescapable mother-complex is described in the "Prologue" to The Orators…. (p. 291)

The moors between Hexham and Brough that are a "symbol for us all" bear traces of continuous human occupation and conscious activity almost since the glaciers retreated…. But it is not only the stages of man's historical journey that the moors bring to mind. The strata beneath them bear evidence of the stages of his evolutionary heritage, and, behind that again, of geological time stretching back through the earliest epochs…. And since lead occurs in the interstices between the most ancient rock strata, lead-mining symbolizes, for Auden, man's interest in his own psychic depths. (p. 292)

The geography of the Lead Dales does not exhaust the allegorical matter in Paid on Both Sides. It gives us the symbolism of the place, but not of time. The action is set at approximately Christmas time, for there is talk of Christmas toys and gifts as well as of the killings in old winters that link it allegorically with winter solstice rituals and vegetation myths. (p. 294)

For the mummers' episodes Auden ransacked Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance and Frazer's The Golden Bough rather more indiscriminately than Eliot did for The Waste Land; for where Eliot simmered and salted to taste, Auden serves up raw lumps. Both Frazer and Weston identify a variety of folk customs as survivals of the ritual of the killing and reviving of the vegetation spirit. They find, for example, that mummers' plays reenact a ritual in which a representative of the Tree Spirit is subjected to a mock trial before being killed by an Accuser and subsequently restored by a Doctor. The stock characters are therefore the Accused, the Accuser, a Judge, and Doctor—parts taken in Paid on Both Sides by The Spy, John Nower, Father Christmas, and the Doctor. This cast duplicates fairly closely those recorded by Weston for a mummers' play at Newbold…. Miss Weston may have also provided a rationale for the elements from Greek tragedy—the Chorus and the pervasive memory of Oedipus Rex—that permeate the Charade; for she cites F. E. Cornford on the origins of Attic Comedy in fertility rituals: "They were at first serious, and even awful, figures in the Religious Mystery, the God who every year is born, and dies, and rises again; his Mother and his Bride; the Antagonist who kills him; the Medicine Man who restores him to life." (p. 296)

[In the Charade's trial scene] three manifestations of the unconscious came forward to speak in turn: Bo, Po, and the Man-Woman. The latter represents a primitive life stage before the distinction of sex and therefore speaks from the remote archetypal depths of the unconscious; but Bo and Po are closer to the surface, perhaps in the repressed personal unconscious. (p. 297)

The first of the unconscious manifestations, Bo, is a spokesman for orientation towards the upper world. His cryptic imagery of migrations, mountains, rebirth, and northern ridges resembles that of extroverted seekers in Auden's other poems of the period…. In particular his paradoxical phrase:

             By loss of memory we are reborn              For memory is death,

makes a strong case against the withdrawn or inverted libido which, according to Jung, substitutes "the world of memories" for the upper world. Bo's concluding lines hint at a Quixotic, tomb-conscious quest on northern ridges.

Po, on the other hand, echoes Sancho Panza and seems to favour turning "back to estates/Explored as a child." Po is also womb-conscious, attracted to the regressive road where sorrow sits…. Bo and Po are followed by the Man-Woman, who brings associations of war, for this hermaphrodite "appears as a prisoner of war behind barbed wire in the snow" and speaks in verse with slant-rhymes reminiscent of Wilfred Owen's poetry of World War I. This androgynous figure symbolically represents life below consciousness, or at a very early stage of evolution…. Jung points to the hermaphrodite as an archetypal figure in dreams, who, like the Atman of the Upanishads, is a "primordial universal being, a concept which in psychological terms coincides with that of the libido."

The Man-Woman as a prisoner of war in winter is an aspect of the libido in need of liberation from regressive forces represented by John Nower's death-wish…. The essence of what the Man-Woman says in the trial scene is summed up in Jung's statement: "Whoever introverts the libido—that is to say, whoever takes it away from a real object without putting in its place a real compensation—is overtaken by the inevitable results of introversion." Auden's imagery is eloquent on this point. (pp. 297-98)

[T. S. Eliot] welcomed Paid on Both Sides: "This fellow is about the best poet I have discovered in several years"; but except for Auden's close friend Louis MacNeice who contrasted it, to its favor, with Eliot's The Waste Land, few others greeted its first appearance with enthusiasm. "It can be very profitably contrasted with The Waste Land," said MacNeice; "It is tragic where The Waste Land is defeatist, and realist where The Waste Land is literary. The Waste Land cancels out and ends in Nirvana; the Charade … leaves you with reality as agon."… MacNeice, while not quite just to Eliot, may be right about the more positive effect of the charade, for it attempts to explore the unconscious springs of behavior more deeply than Eliot's poetry does, and its acceptance of the double significance of the archetypal loving and terrible Mother is a "yea saying" to the whole of life. But it would take a great deal of generosity to call Paid on Both Sides successful…. Auden fared much better with the dramatization of Jung's interpretation of the myth of the hero battling the dragon … in The Ascent of F6 where Ransom, on reaching the summit where he dies, encounters his mother as a mysterious veiled "Figure" accompanied by his brother, James, in the form of The Dragon. But this work came six years later.

Auden had, in the meantime, tenuously linked the fate of the archetypal Sun-hero to the death of a class in The Dance of Death, in 1933; and it seems likely that his attempts to fit the mythological matter to the more public medium of the stage enabled him to free himself in some degree from introverted concern with private jokes and allusions puzzling to all outside an intimate circle of friends such as Layard and Isherwood. It was for this reason that he partly disowned The Orators—"a fair notion fatally injured." But he continued to give prominence to Paid on Both Sides, and rightly so; for, whatever its defects, grappling with its riddle offers access to the intellectual motherlode—the Jungian themes that enriched a succession of his more mature works including The Ascent of F6 and The Age of Anxiety.

Auden's dramatization of Jung's notions, so clear in Paid on Both Sides, suggests a need for some reassessment of the common assumption among critics that Auden, at the outset, was primarily indebted to Freud. The theory embodied in the charade—the notion of a divided libido energizing both conscious creativity and natural instincts that, in Jung's view, finds archetypal expression in the myths of the questing hero and the loving and terrible mothers—was the fundamental cause of the parting of the ways between Freud and Jung. Auden did not reject Freud. His several essays on Freud's works and his formal elegy "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" are a measure of his admiration and regard. But he found Freud's views on art and artistic creativity less convincing than Jung's accounts of the emergence of creature consciousness—the truly human quality—from the primal core of the libido. (pp. 300-01)

Edward Callan, "W. H. Auden's First Dramatization of Jung: The Charade of the Loving and Terrible Mothers," in Comparative Drama (© copyright 1978, by the Editors of Comparative Drama), Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 287-302.

Peter Porter

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[We should not be tempted] either to believe Auden's own analysis of his creative character, or to divide his output too firmly into the "English" Auden and the "International" one. Of course, his departure for good from England early in 1939 is a very real watershed, but the nature of the change it brought about in Auden's poetry defies simplistic description. I am inclined to follow Edward Lucie-Smith's view, that what Auden learned from America was not how to work but how to be a professional. The 400-odd pages of The English Auden are a rich enough testament to his ability to get down to hard work while he lived in these islands…. Just as stuffed with aphorisms, brilliant paradoxes and sheer good sense as the later pieces in The Dyer's Hand or Forewords and Afterwords, [the prose articles and criticism included in this book] are none the less poorly organised, randomly assembled and sorely in need of an editorial pencil. The American Auden was sheerly professional in all his reviews and essays: the English Auden was still the notebook-keeper and amateur healer, tossing off brilliant aperçus for readers of The Daily Herald on "How to Be Masters of the Machine" or assembling a do-it-yourself-kit for understanding "Psychology and Art Today." (p. 64)

[Included in The English Auden is] an unpublished and unfinished work entitled The Prolific and the Devourer which is touching in its rawness. Here are the main ideas which dominated Auden's life right up to his death, but there seems to be no control of their presentation. Had he been able to work them into a properly planned book, the world might well have lost much of the mature poetry he wrote thereafter. These fragments remain like thematic sketches in a composer's notebook: we see the dominating shapes of his imagination, but as yet there is no proper indication of how richly he is going to expand them and counterpoint them in his work. At first sight, these perceptions seem confined to political issues, but the working-out of their consequences can be found in For the Time Being, The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety and well into the poems of the Fifties and Sixties. Auden always saw politics as an expression of the health of the imagination, and there is a sense in which the later Horatian poetry is quite as politically directed (or as unpolitical if you want to put it that way) as the work of the Thirties…. It makes general sense to state that Auden not only wrote well and ill at all stages of his career, but that his abiding interests and characteristics did not change very much over forty years' devotion to poetry. He is an artist who resists the famous three periods of production: his work is like a well-cut gem, it reveals different facets of itself at certain times. It does not get more mature or develop particularly, except in the one sense of literary professionalism. After settling in America, Auden's concern for the technical finish of his poems became more fastidious. (pp. 64-5)

But The English Auden leaves the strong impression that this growth of professionalism was not all gain. Mixed up with the rough and ready finish of much of his poetry of the Thirties, there is also a marvellous authority and originality which the later poetry does not possess…. Poems 1930 must be one of the most unexpected books ever to have made its author's reputation. Where, except perhaps in Laura Riding's verbal defoliation and Wilfred Owen's pararhymes, are there any precedents for the first poems of this twenty-three-year-old genius? The material of the poems is not without ancestry—chiefly the sagas, the public school fantasies of himself, Isherwood and friends, and the gnomic marginalia of Blake—but the tone is completely new. And like Byron's tone, which enabled him to wake one morning and find himself famous, Auden's won instant recognition. It is only when we scrutinise these early poems closely that we perceive how far they depart from the canons of poetical propriety which the later Auden set up for himself. For a start, they are sui generis, and not fashioned by imitation of some admired model…. There are shadows of past structures in them …, but they come very close to being unclassifiable formally—uncomfortably so, for the taste of the mature Auden, perhaps, though he always remained fond of the bulk of them and included them, under however many changes of title, in his various collections from the Forties onwards. (p. 65)

After 1930, rhymes, metrical devices, stanza structures, in fact all the traditional armoury of poetry, are applied in full knowledge of their effectiveness and the formal demands they make upon the poet's skill and imagination. But the early poetry is different. It is packed with close rhymes, pararhymes, and cadences out of the nursery, but these are held dissolved in verse of a sleepwalking authority. This is just the way an oracle would speak, we think, as we read such poems as "From the very first coming down", "Taller today", "Love by ambition", "Watch any day his nonchalant pauses", "Will you turn a deaf ear", and "Consider this and in our time." Those first readers in the Thirties who thought they were hearkening to the voice of a new leader, and who interpreted Auden's poems as messages from the battlefront, soon identified with Communism, were not wrong in their impulses, though wholly mistaken in their interpretations. As Edward Mendelson [editor of The English Auden] points out, the early poems speak of defeat, of separation, of stories which are not simply incomplete but of which there were probably never any definitive versions. We may wonder how anybody could take Poems 1930 or even The Orators as a call to the collective life…. But Auden himself must have been persuaded to think that his talent was amenable to the cause of Communism: for all his brilliance of mind, he was not gifted with total self-knowledge.

His was a most unusual case—a very young poet whose first work was recognised by his contemporaries as new and authoritative. Combined with his didactic bent, this discovery of his authority pushed him towards an explicitness which was sometimes at variance with his talent during the Thirties. After 1930, it seems to me, Auden's work is a sort of development section reworking themes to which the first book of poems gave the exposition. Ideas out of the hauntingly complete early poetry are now subjected to overt elaboration. Except for his remarkable lyrics and songs, many of which were gathered into Look, Stranger!, the rest of the Thirties poetry is not as fine as his first published work. Only after he went to America and realigned himself with Christianity did he experience another surge of power of the kind with which he began….

[The] revolutionary art seemingly promised by his earliest work was something he was either unaware of or something he had no intention of providing. The anti-modernist counter-reformation which he led in later years is prefigured as early as The Orators. And if in the Thirties he was content to take up forms and influences with an almost games-playing enthusiasm, he quickly turned himself into a virtuoso, whose maturity was accelerated by the more professional air of the United States…. The United States is, of course, the home of the academic avant-garde but Auden did not interest himself in this. It was American professionalism which concerned him, and he was more likely to discern it on Broadway than on Black Mountain.

It is hard to read The English Auden without wondering equally at the memorable language and the wilful extravagance. The two occur together most frequently in The Orators and The Dog Beneath the Skin…. These live side by side with details of the fifth column of wireless-controlled crows and card packs, and the stink bombs and sanitary-paper sabotage forecast in Journal of an Airman. But the extravagance has a point, the amateur versifying has a no-holds-barred exuberance which Auden risked less and less as he got older…. (p. 66)

But having praised the exuberance, I can't say I am surprised that Auden quickly outgrew and came to regret the crudity of many of the ideas in the poems of his time of poetical loosening-up…. Auden's personality being so strongly didactic, his creative gift had to stand in for the Old Adam in him. He was drawn to the wilder shores of the healers (Homer Lane, Lawrence and "loony Layard"), but also to Freudian orthodoxy and to his mother's Anglicanism. Without the urge to portray the sickness of our species in poetry as exuberant and memorable as anything he wrote in praise of health, he would have been an insufferable prig as an artist. (p. 67)

Not the least of the attractions of The English Auden is its reminder that this knowing artist once exhibited character faults like ours, and didn't merely anatomise them. He had not yet put his guard right up. Poems 1930 is all Old Adam—a wonderful assortment of warnings and battle scenes, not just from ruined industrial landscapes and the haunted pastures of old feuds, but as much concerned with the High Streets and mass culture of an England bleeding to death in the Depression. The one really severe loss suffered by Auden in America was his sense of place. He recaptured it in a touristy sort of way in his poems about the Mezzogiorno and lower Austria, but the real (as distinct from the mythic) America seems never to have entered his imagination at all forcefully. Not even New York is fleshed out in his later poetry. From New Year Letter onwards, the landscape of his poems comes from books, and emblematic ones at that. And when he does record more concretely, the scene is usually England again…. [He] sets these islands before us like a map. It is much more than a geographical poetry; the vision is of the field of folk itself…. "Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own" begins one of the poems in Auden's first book. So much of what Auden saw at that time is undated and disturbingly true today. In America Auden moved on to other concerns, but the country he left behind remains very much as he diagnosed it.

The English Auden should enable all those commentators who have been saying for years that he left his gift behind him when he went to America to check on their memories of his work in the Thirties. (pp. 67-8)

It is interesting to note Auden's habit of dropping set-pieces into his plays as with the "Epithalamium" and "The Witnesses"; he had not yet begun to dismember his longer works to provide individual poems for later books—that was to come with his various versions of Collected Poems. Therefore, starting with Paid on Both Sides, the book is a steady progression forward out of the Twenties up to Auden's departure for the States in January 1939. (p. 68)

There are dozens of masterpieces in [The English Auden], some of them the most familiar and loved poems of our century. Has there been a writer of lyrics in English since Rochester who was Auden's equal? That claim can be substantiated on his first decade's production alone—the greater part of it present in this cornucopia of a book. (p. 70)

Peter Porter, "Auden's Cornucopia: The 1930s Texts," in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. L, No. 2, February, 1978, pp. 64-70.

Frank Kermode

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Auden came close to a point where he no longer understood his own poetry…. [Something] happened that made him close his mind, not to the earliest poetry so much as to that of the middle 'thirties. The Collected Poems … omits much and alters a good deal of what is retained. This supplementary volume [The English Auden], however, contains all the poetry of the specified period, the text being "in the form it reached at the end of 1939."… (p. 609)

[The English Auden], though it in no way matches the idea people of my age must have as to how an Auden collection should look, is nothing like as hideous as Collected Poems, which seems to have been designed as part of a plot to stop people reading Auden. I myself am not quite old enough to have been part of the original audience of Poems, but I read Look, Stranger! soon after it appeared (and, having heard the word from Cambridge that it demonstrated the collapse of Auden's talent, rushed off to get the early book, wondering what marvels it contained). And it really is a great pleasure to see the poetry of this period decently available once more, unexpurgated, uncorrected, unamended in accordance with a later creed of taste, morals, politics, and religion. (p. 610)

[In the Foreword to the 1966 Collected Poems, Auden] describes three categories of poems he is sorry to have written: the dishonest, the bad-mannered and the boring. He does not give examples of the second or the third category. The dishonest poems are those which express feelings or beliefs the author never truly entertained. Because he really disliked modern architecture, he now rejects "Sir, no man's enemy," which ends with a call for "new styles of architecture." The conclusion of Spain is immoral:

                  History to the defeated          May say alas but cannot help nor pardon.

"It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable."… The most famous rejection—of "We must love one another or die" ("September 1, 1939")—is another wanton failure to read a line in its context. Auden had simply decided not to understand. He denies that his revisions and rejections had an ideological motive; but in the dedication to Collected Poems (1966) in the Foreword to which these painful remarks appear, he says that "a Christian ought to write in prose, For poetry is magic …"

[David] Bromwich justly comments that from the mid-'forties Auden "gave perhaps the most limited description of the aim and use of poetry that has ever come from a major poet; in his ideal world poetry is among the more harmless indoor pastimes." In the Yeats elegy he had written "O all the instruments agree/The day of his death was a dark cold day." This became "What instruments we have agree …" "Granted," says Bromwich, "we do not have all the instruments; to say so is perhaps a stroke for moderation and truth. But the poem has stopped singing." But this is, in its turn, too moderate. The original lines have a measure of affectation common enough in the early Auden; they belong to that part of his voice everybody found it too easy to imitate, and that exclamatory "O," often placed where no such ejaculation seems to be called for, is a sort of egotistical announcement or self-advertisement, so that one sees why the new-model Auden of a few years later would cringe at it. Yet it is related to an authentic aspect of his earlier poetry; he was always estranging the familiar, and it would not be difficult to cite periphrases, quite as strained as this one, which still somehow succeed. If Auden had bothered to understand the lines he might have dropped them altogether; the worst solution was to change them into something merely silly, as if he were saying that because of his new devotion to the truth he must allow for the possibility that other instruments, not consulted, indicated that the day was in fact unusually warm and bright. The lines have stopped singing, but they have also stopped making sense.

There is a genuine and sad perversity in this failure of Auden to understand himself. It is as if he came to find himself boring, or became unable to connect with himself, as in life he grew less and less able to connect with others. All those schemes and formulas he invented to systematize his views on everything from history to ethics—it was a habit early formed, as we see from some of the prose selections in this new book—served to fence him in, to prevent any real conversation with others, or with his former self. His earlier rhetoric failed later ethical tests, and in acquiring a poetic personality that could live with these faintly schoolboyish standards of truth-telling he lost all sense of the valuable strangeness of the personality it supplanted. (pp. 611-12)

It should be said that many of the changes are of a kind that any poet might make, for example the deft, simple improvements in the poem "Legend." But it still seems to me that much of the early work is travestied. Even the titles, when they are ironical or dismissive ("Venus Will Now Say a Few Words"), tend to put the poems down. The very early work suffers least, perhaps because it is usually gnomic and opaque, not speaking aloud what the later, moralizing poet did not want heard. Paid on Both Sides, certainly a work of genius, is spared. The poems which are not are probably lesser works, but they speak out, and in unacceptable tones. Auden's reason for disliking them is hinted at in a casual piece of prose, here reprinted, and dated 1936: "the commonest cause of badness in the arts is being really interested in one subject while pretending to be interested in another. The secret of good art is the same as the secret of a good life: to find out what you are interested in, however strange, or trivial, or ambitious, or shocking, or uplifting, and deal with that, for it is all you can deal with well. 'To each according to his means; from each according to his powers,' in fact." This last quotation would presumably have disappeared had Auden revised the piece for publication later; but one sees what is in process. He decided that some of his poems were only pretending to be interested in what they were saying. And out goes the Prologue to Look, Stranger!, "O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven," with its tremendous concluding thirteen-line sentence and its exalted conceits. This poem has an intellectual and technical range quite different from that of Paid on Both Sides, but the poet had ceased to be interested in that "possible dream, long coiled in the ammonite's slumber," and now supposed that he never really had been. There is something wrong with a set of rules that excludes so fine a poem from the canon; and there is something wrong with an editorial policy that excludes it from the Collected Poems and prints it in a supplementary volume [The English Auden], which, however sumptuous, is still only an appendix.

One is glad to have the specimens of early prose. Like other young reviewers, Auden was educating himself in public, and there are passages here that he would certainly have found blush-making in his later years…. (pp. 612-13)

The best of the prose has to do with psychoanalysis, for the young Auden had thought seriously about it, and what he had to say is still worth reading for its own sake. The excursions on light verse, though repetitive, are also worth attention, for Auden's doctrine of light verse was soon to become his doctrine of poetry in general. And of course he was always remarkably good at it….

[We] old men who still think of the poems of the 'thirties as part of an almost incomparably good time for modern poetry—when you picked up the literary journals and read a late poem of Yeats, or East Coker, or a new Auden—are not going to sit idly by and allow it to be said that he was really in a bad patch of pretending, but eventually got it right; and that people will come to see that he did, abandoning their allegiance to the older texts and the banned poems. At least The English Auden will do nothing to strengthen that kind of propaganda. (p. 614)

Frank Kermode, "Another Auden," in The Yale Review (© 1978 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1978, pp. 609-14.


W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 6)