Books: Farewelling Auden: (i) On <i>Epistle to a Godson</i> |
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Farewelling Auden: (i) On Epistle to a Godson

‘You don’t need to tell me what’s going on:’ writes W. H. Auden in his latest book’s first piece, ‘the ochlocratic media, joint with under-the-dryer gossip, process and vent without intermission all to-day’s ugly secrets. Imageable no longer, a featureless anonymous threat from behind, to-morrow has us gallowed shitless: if what is to happen occurs according to what Thucydides defined as “human”, we’ve had it, are in for a disaster that no four-letter words will tardy.’

This passage is highly interesting prose, detectable only in its lexical intensity as the work of a poet: Hazlitt, right on this point as on so many others, long ago laid down the word about that give-away proneness to local effect. An ochlocracy is mob rule; the O.E.D. last noticed ‘joint’ being used that way in 1727; to gallow is an obsolete form of to galley, which is itself a way of saying to frighten that hasn’t been heard for a long time anywhere except in a whaling station; ‘tardy’ as a verb staggered on a few years past its moment of glory in A Winter’s Tale only to disappear in 1623. But let’s start again.

In the title poem of Epistle to a Godson, W. H. Auden writes:

                        ...You don’t need me to tell you what’s
             going on: the ochlocratic media,
                        joint with under the dryer gossip,
                        process and vent without intermission
             all to-day’s ugly secrets. Imageable
             no longer, a featureless anonymous
                        threat from behind, to-morrow has us
                        gallowed shitless: if what is to happen
             occurs according to what Thucydides
             defined as ‘human’, we’ve had it, are in for
                        a disaster that no four-letter
                        words will tardy.

This passage is highly interesting poetry, but only within the confines of Auden’s strictly prosaic later manner. Paying lip service to some dimly apprehensible classical metre, sentences wriggle intricately and at length down the syllabic grid.

Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,
force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.

The greatest modern verse technician, Auden long ago ran out of metrical rules needing more than a moment’s effort to conform to. Technically, his latest manner — which involves setting up a felt rhythmic progress inside an arbitrary syllabic convention — is really a way of restoring to the medium some of the resistance his virtuosity earlier wiped out. This technical mortification is closely allied with the ethical stand forbidding any irrationalities, all happy accidents. No automatic responses, no first thoughts. Helping to explain the omission of certain poems from his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Auden wrote in 1966: 

A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained. For example, I once expressed a desire for ‘New styles of architecture’; but I have never liked modern architecture. I prefer old styles, and one must be honest even about one’s prejudices. Again, and much more shamefully, I once wrote:

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

To say this is to equate goodness with success. 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.

Glumly reconciling themselves to the loss of September, 1939, in its entirety and favourite fragments from other poems engraved in the consciousness of a generation, critics respectfully conceded Auden’s right to take back what he had so freely given. It was interesting, though, that no strong movement arose to challenge Auden’s assumption that these youthful poetic crimes were committed by the same self being dishonest, rather than a different self being honest. Auden was denying the pluralism of his own personality. It was his privilege to do so if he wanted to, but it was remarkable how tamely this crankily simplistic reinterpretation of his own creative selfhood was accepted.

More remarkable still, however, was the virtual silence which greeted the spectacle of a great modern talent disallowing the automatic response, proclaiming the virtues of knowing exactly what you mean against the vices of letting the poem find out what it wants to mean. Auden had apparently worked his way through to the last sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann’, Wittgenstein had written ‘darüber muss man schweigen.’ What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. It was piquant to find the poet who above all others seemed to command the secret of modern magic occupying this position so very long after the philosopher who thought of it had moved out. Here was a man attacking the validity of his own serendipity, discrediting his own trick of setting up a bewitching resonance. Long before, combining with Louis MacNeice in preparing that seductive lash-up of a book Letters from Iceland, Auden had written:

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; And the poets have names for the sea;

But on the way to press this was accidentally transformed into

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; And the ports have names for the sea;

Noting straight away that ‘ports’ suggested more than ‘poets’, Auden let the slip stand. The names that ports have for the sea are likely to be functional as well as mythical, mistrustful as well as admiring, many-rooted rather than casually appropriate — in a word, serious. Or so we guess. Or so the unexpected ring of the word, its unpredictability in that context, leads us to conjecture — gives us room to conjecture. And this thinking-space, the parkland of imagination that existed in Auden’s earlier manner, was what marked it out — and what he annihilated in forming his later manner. There have been artists who possessed some of Auden’s magic and who went on to lose it, but it is hard to think of anyone who deliberately suppressed it. All conscious artists feel the urge to refine what is unique in their work, but few interpret this call to refine as a command to eliminate. Unless we are dealing with a self-destructive enthusiast — and Auden on the face of it can scarcely be categorized as one of those — then we are up against that most disciplined of all artistic adventurers, the man who gets sick of his own winning streak.

Pick up a Photostat of the 1928 Poems and read it through (it takes about twenty minutes): was there ever a more capacious young talent? It goes beyond precocity.

We saw in Spring
The frozen buzzard
Flipped down the weir and carried out to sea.
Before the trees threw shadows down in challenge
To snoring midges.
Before the autumn came
To focus stars more sharply in the sky
In Spring we saw
The bulb pillow
Raising the skull,
Thrusting a crocus through clenched teeth.

Hindsight lends us prescience, but it is permissible to claim that merely on the basis of this passage’s first three lines we would have pronounced the writer capable of virtually anything. The way the turn from the second line into the third kinetically matches the whole stated action is perfect and obviously instinctive — what other men occasionally achieve was all there as a gift.

The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool vertigo, and stumps are drawn;...

Elated by the effortless lyricism of a coup like this, we need to remember not just Auden’s age, but the time. Yeats had not yet finished forming the compact musicality of his last phase, and the authoritative clarities of the first of Eliot’s Quartets were still years away. Auden got this sonic drive absolutely from out of the blue. The plainest statement he could make seemed to come out as poetry:

Nor was that final, for about that time
Gannets blown over northward, going home...

It was a Shakespearian gift, not just in magnitude but in its unsettling — and unsettling especially to its possessor — characteristic of making anything said sound truer than true. In all of English poetry it is difficult to think of any other poet who turned out permanent work so early — and whose work seemed so tense with the obligation to be permanent. In his distinguished essay on Auden, John Bayley penetratingly pointed out that it was not in Auden’s creative stance ever to admit to being young. What has not yet sufficiently been noticed is that it was not in the nature of Auden’s talent to win sympathy by fumbling towards an effect — to claim the privileges of the not yet weathered, or traffic in the pathos of an art in search of its object. Instant accomplishment denied him a creative adolescence.

As always in Auden, ethics and techniques were bound up together. Barely out of his teens, he was already trying to discipline, rather than exploit, the artistic equivalent of a Midas touch. It is for this reason that the Scrutiny group’s later limiting judgments and dismissals of Auden were wrong-headed as well as insensitive: they were branding as permanently undergraduate the one major modern gift which had never been content with its own cleverness for a moment. They missed the drama of Auden’s career in the 1930s and 1940s, never realizing that the early obscurity and the later bookishness were both ways of distancing, rather than striving after, effect. The moral struggle in Auden was fought out between what was possible to his gift and what he thought allowable to it: the moralists, looking for struggles of a different kind, saw in his work nothing but its declarative self-assurance. The more he worked for ironic poise, the more they detected incorrigible playfulness. Subsequent critical systems, had they been applied, would not have fared much better. Suppose, for example, that our standards of the desirable in poetry are based on the accurate registration of worldly things. We would think, in that case, that a man who had come from the frozen buzzards of 1928 to the etymological fossicking of 1972 had moved from the apex of an art to the base. But suppose the ability to send frozen birds flipping over the mind’s weir came too easily to be gone on with? What then?

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.

Quoted from the first public edition of Poems, this stanza was the kind of thing which made Auden the hero of the young intelligentsia. Noteworthy, though, is the way in which the enchanting declarative evocation discussed above is painstakingly avoided. The stanza’s rhythmic progress is as dazzlingly erratic as a skyrocket toppled from its bottle. The switchback syntax, the Hardyesque hyphenated compounds — they pack things tight, and the reader is never once allowed to draw an inattentive breath. One of the many triumphs of Auden’s first public volume was that this difficult verse came to be regarded as equally characteristic with the simpler felicities that were everywhere apparent.

Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall.
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being spring; ...

Merely to mention the headlight beams crossing the wall was enough to create them for the reader’s dazzled eye. But Auden’s maturity had already arrived: he was well aware that such moments were not to be thought of as the high points of poetry — rather as the rest points. Take, for example, these lines from ‘Prologue’, the opening poem of his 1936 collection Look, Stranger!

And make us as Newton was, who in his garden watching
The apple falling towards England, became aware
Between himself and her of an eternal tie.

The apple falling towards England is superb, but poetry which had such effects as raison d’être would be a menace. This very instance has in fact come under critical attack — an accusation of decadence has been levelled. But it should be obvious that Auden had no intention of allowing such facility to become fatal. Set against it were the inhibitors; syntactical, grammatical, lexical. And with them they brought ambiguity, resonance, areas of doubt and discovery — all the things his later poetry was to lose. The suggestiveness of Auden’s poetry lay in the tension between his primal lyricism and the means employed to discipline it. The suggestiveness couldn’t survive if either term went missing. And eventually it was the lyricism that went.

Looking through the individual collections of Auden’s poems, each in succession strikes us as transitional. On each occasion there seems to be a further move towards paraphrasable clarity. Even at the height of his bookish phase (in, say, New Year Letter) Auden is still being more narrowly clear than he was before. Gradually, as we read on to the end, we see what kind of progress this has been. It has been a movement away from excitement and towards satisfaction.

Epistle to a Godson is like About the House and City Without Walls in being utterly without the excitement we recognize as Audenesque. And yet it, like them, gives a peculiar satisfaction: the patriarch grunts, having seen much and come a long way. The book is flat champagne, but it’s still champagne. Part of Auden’s genius was to know the necessity of chastening his talent, ensuring that his poetry would be something more enduring than mere magic. The resource and energy he devoted to containing and condensing his natural lyricism provide one of the great dramas in modern literary history. Pick up Look, Stranger! or Another Time — they read like thrillers. Every poem instantly establishes its formal separateness from all the others. Through Auden’s work we trace not just themes but different ways of getting something unforgettably said: the poem’s workings are in the forefront of attention. Finally the contrast between the early and the late manners is itself part of the drama. To understand Auden fully, we need to understand how a man with the capacity to say anything should want to escape from the oppression of meaning too much. Late Auden is the completion of a technical evolution in which technique has always been thought of as an instrument of self-denial. What Auden means by the fetters of Self is the tyranny of an ungoverned talent, and his late poetry is a completed testament to the self-control which he saw the necessity for from the very start — the most commendable precocity of all.

(T.L.S., 12 January 1973)