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The Poet's Prose
Auden at midcentury.
Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 30, 2009

Poets have rarely found their calling lucrative. The occasional fortunate one finds a patron to keep him—yes, "him": almost no female poets have found patrons—in wine and cigarettes, and some, from Sidney to Byron to James Merrill, have benefitted from the inheritance of title or cash. (Merrill's father co-founded Merrill Lynch.) But the great majority have had to seek profitable work. Matthew Arnold was an inspector of schools, Wallace Stevens an insurance executive, William Carlos Williams a physician. Robert Graves used to say that his novels—I, Claudius and so on—were dogs he raised and sold in order to buy food for his beloved cat, Poetry. And of course American society today has achieved a universal solution to the problem of keeping our poets fed, housed, and insured: creative writing programs.

For much of his adult life, W. H. Auden struggled with this problem. Through the 1930s he worked mostly as a schoolmaster in various English public schools, so when he came to America in 1939 (to stay, as it turned out), one of his major concerns was to find a job. Aside from a brief teaching stint at the University of Michigan, soon after his arrival, and a longer period (1942-44) at Swarthmore College, that work turned out to be writing for periodicals: The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Commonweal, The New Republic, The Saturday Review, Harper's, even—this shows how truly omnipresent the man was—Mademoiselle. Writing in 1955 from the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, Auden would say that "the winter months"—which he spent in New York—"are those in which I earn enough dollars to allow me to live here in the summer and devote myself to the unprofitable occupation of writing poetry."

But those multitudinous essays and reviews served another and perhaps more noble purpose. Auden had decided to stay in America largely because the country offered him a respite and refuge from his own English reputation: as the Thirties had worn on, Auden had become increasingly uncomfortable with his role as "voice of a generation," and had come to see that those who most admired him had the strongest and most fixed ideas of what he should write. Living in America offered him the opportunity to take some deep breaths and reassess his own intellectual and poetic equipment: he read astonishingly widely, and his writing for periodicals gave him the opportunity to marshal his thoughts and place his reading within a framework of his own needs and interests.

Out of this re-imagining of himself came Auden's embrace, sometime in 1940, of the Christian faith in which he had been raised. But if his spiritual awakening was in some sense a result of his reading and thinking, it also prompted a great deal of further reading and thinking, as he tried to reconcile what he knew of Christianity with what he knew of the modern world. That task would occupy much of his prose in the decade following his arrival in America. One could say that in that decade Auden built for himself a vast and rambling, but architecturally coherent, intellectual house. And for the rest of his life he would inhabit that house. Its making is admirably chronicled in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose: Volume II: 1939-1948, which appeared in 2002, as edited by the literary executor of Auden's estate, Edward Mendelson—who also happens to be Auden's best critic. And now Mendelson has given us the next volume in the series, which covers Auden's essays, reviews, and miscellaneous writings from 1949 to 1955. Astonishingly, this is a significantly larger volume than the previous one—779 pages to 556—even though it covers less time; and it contains many of Auden's most ambitious and significant critical writings. If the previous volume chronicled the construction of Auden's intellectual domicile, this one contains, scattered throughout its pages, not only pretty thorough renovation of the building but also a major treatise on architecture.

There are of course dozens of appreciations of individual books and authors here too, including ongoing assessments of Freud—who had long been a figure of totemic significance for Auden—and a glowing review for The New York Times Book Review of a curious book called The Fellowship of the Ring. (Auden would later review The Return of the King for the same periodical and with equal enthusiasm. He was the first figure of unquestionable cultural authority to celebrate Tolkien, whose lectures on Anglo-Saxon Auden had attended as an Oxford undergraduate, an experience that had a lasting and powerful effect on his own poetry. Tolkien was very grateful for Auden's interventions on his behalf.) But these appreciations are not at the heart of the book. What we find within these pages is the fullest picture available of how the mature Auden came to understand his role as a poet—and especially a poet who was also a Christian.

Editorial introductions to volumes like this one are rarely the source of much instruction, and almost never do they bring delight, but Mendelson's introductions to each of the five installments so far of Auden's Complete Works have been unfailingly elegant and magisterial. The current one sets the scene by noting that the volume begins with Auden's first book of literary criticism, The Enchaféd Flood, which marked the culmination of Auden's work in the previous decade and brought that project to a kind of conclusion. If one figure can be seen as presiding over that period in Auden's life, it is certainly Kierkegaard—whose American reputation Auden did a great deal to promote—but at the end of The Enchaféd Flood Auden utters a kind of valediction to the Kierkegaardian world: the individual mind, bedeviled by anxiety, working out its salvation in fear, trembling, and terrifying isolation. That world was, in many respects, Auden's own in his first American years, as he sought to remake himself with few sympathetic friends to share the journey. But now (writing in 1949) he sees himself and his society as entering a new era.

This new era is fundamentally social and communal: the anxious individual must now enter into fellowship with others, and must be willing to submit to public order and public truth: "the necessity of dogma is once more recognised," Auden wrote, "not as the contradiction of reason and feeling but as their ground and foundation." That self-contained, self-accountable figure of Romantic and modernist myth, the "fabulous voyager" (to borrow a phrase from Joyce) whose bold independence was seen as the sole source of great human achievement, must now give way: in our suddenly post-Kierkegaardian age "the heroic image is not the nomad wanderer through the desert or over the ocean, but the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city."

Auden had been thinking seriously about the relationship between art and community since the beginning of his career, and had come up with a kind of position paper in 1940 in his remarkable long poem "New Year Letter," but this was on the cusp of his conversion, and at the outset of what would prove to be a catastrophic world war. His vision of community at that time was small, local, nearly private. But throughout the rest of that decade, he devoted a great deal of mental energy to contemplating the possibilities of a more public order after Christendom, whose destruction he believed to be complete. One of the most important books for Auden in those years was Charles Norris Cochrane's great Christianity and Classical Culture, which describes the founding of the Constantinian project, and it is helpful to imagine Auden, with Cochrane's work echoing in his mind, traveling to a devastated Germany in 1945 to interview German civilians for the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey. "The ruined walls of the city" indeed.

Auden was decades ahead of most other Christian intellectuals in his thinking about community, about Christendom, about the complexities of citizenship and public life for Christians in a post-Constantinian world; and few of those who have caught up with his interests have been able to match the nuances of his thought. As Mendelson shows us, in the period represented by this volume of prose, Auden came to believe that these difficult issues can only be seriously approached after one has made an elementary but vital distinction between nature and history. The uniqueness of human beings, in the created order, is that we live simultaneously in nature (the realm of involuntary and repetitive acts) and history (the realm in which we make choices, and experience and reflect upon the consequences of those choices). Other living things—plants and other animals—live in nature only; angels, perhaps, only in history. To have this double inheritance is our challenge, our pain, but also our glory. Thus, in one of his finest poems of the 1950s, Auden writes, "Woken at sun-up to hear / A cock pronouncing himself himself / Though all his sons had been castrated and eaten, / I was glad I could be unhappy"—because to be unhappy is to experience the dignity of history, the gift of understanding that what I feel is at least in part the result of acts (mine and those of other human beings) that were chosen, not mandated by instinct or tossed into the world by accident, what Thomas Hardy called "crass Casualty."

Auden always argued that few could match Kierkegaard's acuity of insight into the historical (choice-driven) aspect of human experience. But he came to believe that for Kierkegaard—and many who succeeded him, "bowled over" by his brilliance as Auden had been—our life in nature is at best an embarrassment. (With perhaps pardonable exaggeration, Auden remarked of Kierkegaard that one "could read through the whole of his voluminous works without discovering that human beings are not ghosts but have bodies of flesh and blood.") And for Auden this deficiency is properly described as theological: Kierkegaard, and other Christian thinkers who share his disregard for embodied human nature, neglect clear and vital Christian teaching about God's redeeming love for this physical world, this whole Creation.

Much later in his life, Auden would borrow a musical metaphor from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and say that Kierkegaard was a "monodist, who can hear with particular acuteness one theme in the New Testament—in his case, the theme of suffering and self-sacrifice—but is deaf to its rich polyphony." And for the Auden who emerges in the pages of this volume, the unique power of Christian doctrine is its polyphonic character, its capacity to address every dimension of our being, to give a comprehensive account of how history and nature relate, and—decisively in Christ's incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—how they may be reconciled. In a 1955 essay about his conversion—the only straightforward one he ever wrote—he put the main point in this way:

As a spirit, a conscious person endowed with free will, every man has, though faith and grace, a unique "existential" relation to God, and few since St. Augustine have described this relation more profoundly than Kierkegaard. But every man has a second relation to God which is neither unique nor existential: as a creature composed of matter, as a biological organism, every man, in common with everything else in the universe, is related by necessity to the God who created that universe and saw that it was good, for the laws of nature to which, whether he likes it or not, he must conform are of divine origin.
And it is with this body, with faith or without it, that all good works are done

As Mendelson points out in Later Auden (1999), the best book anyone has yet written about the poet, it was in 1948 that Auden "began to write poems about the inarticulate human body"—the part of us that does not and cannot talk, or think, or have faith in God, but which Christ died to redeem, along with the rest of creation which, as St. Paul says, groans in anticipation of its deliverance. Cardinal Newman distinguished between "notional" and "real" assent, and while Auden gave notional assent to the physical Resurrection of Jesus, and to the credal claim that "we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," he always struggled to make that assent real. But he understood these affirmations to be absolutely central to orthodox Christianity and necessary to a true embrace of the goodness of Creation.

It is interesting and also slightly comical to see how relentlessly Auden inserts these distinctions into his essays and reviews. His ingenuity in this enterprise is truly remarkable. But this is simply an indication of how vital he thought the distinctions are, and how disastrous the "existentialist" neglect of nature and the human body. Auden was a natural and irrepressible pedagogue, and while he had given up teaching in schools, periodical writing provided ever-new outlets for that side of his character. An introduction to a collection of George MacDonald's writings allows him to develop a theory of Dream Literature; a review of a Dostoevsky travel journal (commissioned and then left unpublished by The New Yorker, probably because they thought it was too cranky) turns into a lecture on the virtues of the bourgeoisie too often scorned by intellectuals. Writing on Isaiah Berlin's famous division of intellectuals into hedgehogs and foxes, Auden insists, borrowing from Lewis Carroll, that they can also be divided into Alices and Mabels. And I was surprised to see how many of the pieces collected here feature Auden explaining Americans to the British or the British to Americans, tasks he always pursued with great energy and sublime confidence.

It was during the years represented in this collection that Auden began to think about putting together a major critical statement, something like his own version of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. It was not Auden's way to put this in the form of a treatise or consecutive argument, but rather as a collection of pensées, meditations, reflections. Most of what ultimately went into that book, which Auden would title The Dyer's Hand, may be found in one form or another in this new volume. Some of his major lectures—those on Shakespeare that he gave at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan in 1946, those he gave a decade later when he was named Professor of Poetry at his alma mater Oxford—made their way into the book revised but recognizable. But many of the parts of The Dyer's Hand are compiled from bits and pieces of the writings collected here: the Alice/Mabel dichotomy is neatly extracted from the discussion and repurposed, along with dozens of self-contained chunks from other essays. Many of these deal in one way or another with the relationship between Christianity and art, which, Auden told Stephen Spender, "is what the whole book is really about, the theme which dictated my selection of pieces and their order." And it's interesting, in light of this half-hidden purpose, to reflect on how much of the book takes the form of notes and aphorisms. It had been Pascal's plan to form his pensées into a book with a single strong line of argument, though he did not live to do so; Auden by contrast seems to have waived, or repudiated, such an ambition, contenting himself with more scattered provocations.

This decision was in part a bow to his own temperament and natural inclination, but also in part an awareness that the pace at which he had been working for the previous fifteen years—along with his rather heavy drinking and his pursuit of "the chemical life," the use of amphetamines to get him working in the morning and barbiturates to get him to sleep at night—was wearing him out. This volume concludes with the year 1955, during which Auden turned forty-eight, but he was already beginning to talk of himself as an old man. Three years later he would buy a house, a cottage in an Austrian village near Vienna, and sometimes he would walk into his garden in the morning and weep with gratitude to have a place of his own. Between his arrival in Austria in 1958 and 1964 he would write a lovely sequence of poems about his house, "Thanksgiving for a Habitat," would put together The Dyer's Hand, and would (along with Chester Kallmann) produce the astonishing and, alas, utterly unknown libretto for Hans Werner Henze's opera The Bassarids; but he wrote nothing major after that. It's fair to say that by his early fifties Auden had effectively completed his life's work. The cottage in Kirchstetten had become something like a place of retirement—like the Sabine farm of the great Roman poet Horace, whose disciple Auden considered himself to be.

This third volume of Auden's prose, then, shows us the poet, the thinker, at the very height of his powers—a height he would not occupy much longer. The six years of miscellaneous writings collected here reveal a mind of prodigious range, curiosity, and synthesizing power; the reader can turn to almost any page at random and discover delights. But we must also remember that he wrote most of these pieces because he had to, and that during this same six-year period he also produced his greatest poetic achievement, and in my judgment the greatest poetic achievement of the twentieth century: his Good Friday sequence, the Horae Canonicae. There you will find many of the ideas I have been describing expressed concisely, beautifully, memorably; and there you will find much more. Read these essays; but then read the poems they fed and of which they are, for all their brilliance, a pale shadow.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans). He's at work on a book about trees.