Books: Farewelling Auden: (iii) On his Death |
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Farewelling Auden: (iii) On his Death

For a long time before his death, the fact that a homosexual was the greatest living English poet had the status of an open secret: anybody with better than a passing knowledge of W. H. Auden’s writing must have been in on it, and in his later essays (one thinks particularly of the essays on Housman and Ackerley) he was teetering on the verge of declaring himself outright. During E. M. Forster’s last decades the intelligentsia was similarly privy to covert information. At Forster’s death, however, the obituaries — many of them written by old acquaintances — didn’t hesitate to let the cat spring from the bag and dash about among a wider public. It isn’t recorded that anybody died of shock at this revelation. One would have thought that a precedent for plain dealing had at long last been set. With Auden’s demise, though, there has been a retreat into coy mummery — perhaps to protect his dedicatees still living, but more probably because no respectable literatus wants the responsibility of firing the gun that will set the young scholars off on their plodding race to re-explicate what any sensitive reader has long since seen to be one of the more substantial poetic achievements of the modern age. Poor scorned clericals, they will find that their new key turns with bewitching ease, but that it might as well be turning in a lake as in a lock. Auden is a long way beyond being a crackable case.

Nevertheless, the truth helps. It was an often-stated belief in Auden’s later essays that knowledge of an artist’s personal life was of small relevance in understanding his work. Insatiably and illuminatingly inquisitive, Auden transgressed his own rule on every possible occasion. The principle was the right one, but had been incorrectly stated. He was saying that to know the truth will still leave you facing a mystery. What he should have said was that to know the truth will leave you with a better chance of facing the right mystery. And it quickly becomes evident, I think, that to accept the truth about Auden’s sexual nature does nothing to diminish his poetry — quite the opposite. Acceptance leads in the very short run to the realization that the apparent abstractness of Auden’s expressed sensuality is really a lyricism of unique resonance, and in the long run to the conviction that Auden’s artistic career, taken as a whole, is a triumph of the moral self living out its ideal progress as a work of art.

Auden’s first poems instantly revealed an unrivalled gift for luminous statement. Simply by naming names he could bring anything to life:

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood
An industry already comatose...

After the withering of 30s illusions it became fashionable to laugh at ‘Pylon’ poetry, but even though intentions do not make deeds there was always something honourable in the intention of domesticating a technological imagery, and anyway Auden himself had only to intend and the deed was done. So formidable a capacity to elevate facts from the prosaic to the poetic had been seen rarely in centuries, and such fluent gestures in doing it had almost never been seen. Auden’s poetry possessed the quality which Pasternak so admired in Pushkin — it was full of things. And yet in an epoch when homosexuality was still a crime, this talent was the very one which could not be used unguarded to speak of love.

For that, he was forced from the concrete to the abstract, and so moved from the easy (for him) to the difficult. As Gianfranco Contini definitively said when talking of Dante’s dedication to the rhyme, the departure point for inspiration is the obstacle. The need to find an acceptable expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facililty. A born master of directness was obliged to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life — a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.

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.

In this first stanza of Poem II in Poems (it was entitled ‘The Wanderer’ only later, in Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944) the idea of the homosexual’s enforced exile is strongly present, although never explicit: the theme lies hidden and the imagery is explicit instead, thereby reversing the priorities of the traditional lyric, and bodying forth an elliptical suggestiveness which rapidly established itself as the new lyricism of an era. But already we are given a foretaste of the voyage that came to an end in Oxford forty years later — a wanderer’s return to the Oxford of Another Time, the centre of anger which is the only place that is out of danger. Auden never looked for cloistered safety until very late on the last day. The danger and fatigue of his journey were too much of an inspiration.

There head falls forward, fatigued at evening
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Birds-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.

Only tiredness could make the doomed traveller dream the banalities of hearth and wife: awake, he is once again involved with real love. And real love is a new love, with all political overtones fully intended. Auden’s racialism, such as it was, was at one with his sexuality, with the subsequent result that he spent the 30s experiencing Communism as sensual and sex as political.


As Brecht found his politicized lyricism in sophistication (In der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim), Auden found his in innocence: masturbation in the dormitory, languishing looks between prefects and blond new boys, intimate teas and impassioned lolling on grassy hillsides. The armies and the political parties of the 30s were the thrillingly robust continuation of school rugger and cricket teams, being likewise composed of stubborn athletes and prize competitors. Bands apart, they were all-male and Hellenic — and the neo-Hellenism of the 30s was all Teutonic. Auden’s political and intellectual spectrum in the 30s is mainly German, and it’s harder than the gullible might think to pick his emotional allegiance between the two sets of muscle-packed shorts, Communist or Nazi. Intellectually, of course, he didn’t fool with fascism for a moment; but to his sexual proclivities the blond Northern hero made an appeal which only a poetic embodiment could resolve — it took pearl to silence the irritation set up by those vicious specks of grit.

Save him from hostile capture
From sudden tiger’s leap at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.

Towards the glamour of the opposing teams — the chaps — Auden’s feelings were ambiguous. So were his feelings towards his own homosexuality. Like many homosexuals he seems to have experienced homosexual congress as the only clean kind, and thus had no reason to hesitate in identifying homosexuality with a new political order. Nevertheless guilt remained. In the 30s it was a cultural residue (later on, when Auden returned to Christianity, it became a religious precept), but was no less powerful for that. Just as, in another poem, the ‘ruined boys’ have been damaged by something more physical than the inculcation of upper-class values which Left readers delightedly assumed, so in this last stanza of ‘The Wanderer’ the spreading ruin is something closer to home than the collapse of Europe. There was fear in Auden’s pride about his condition. Fear of the police and fear that the much-trumpeted corruption might be a fact. He thought that heterosexual people could enjoy security but that only homosexuals could enjoy danger; that the intensity of the homosexual’s beleaguered experience was the harbinger of a new unity; but that, nevertheless, the homosexual was unlucky. In the last line of this most beautiful of young poems, he doesn’t really expect luck to be granted or his kind of day to dawn. It’s yet another mark of Auden’s superiority that whereas his contemporaries could be didactic about what they had merely thought or read, Auden could be tentative about what he felt in his bones. (It was marvellous, and continues to be marvellous, that the Scrutiny critics never detected in Auden his unwearying preoccupation with the morality of his art, nor realized that a talent of such magnitude — the magnitude of genius — matures in a way that criticism can hope to understand but not prescribe.)

It will be useful, when the time comes, to hear a homosexual critic’s conjectures about the precise nature of Auden’s sexual tastes. It seems to me, who am no expert, that Auden’s analysis of Housman’s guilt feelings (he said Housman was so convinced a Hellenist that he felt ashamed of being passive rather than active) was an indirect admission that Auden was passive himself. Even in the earliest poems he seems not to be taking the lead. All too often he is the forsasken one, the one who loves too much and is always asking his beloved to share an impossibly elevated conception of their union.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death,
Death of the old gang...

But as Auden half-guessed that it might turn out, the old gang wouldn’t go away: oppression would always be a reality and homosexual lovers would continue to live in fear and fragments. Out of this insecurity as a soldier in a lost army, it seems to me, emerged Auden’s unsettling obsession with the leader principle — a version of führerprinzip which was in fact no more Hitlerite than Stalinist, but was simply Auden’s dream of a puissant redeemer.

Absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer
From the sea, the truly strong man.

The Truly Strong Man, the Airman, the Tall Unwounded Leader/Of Doomed Companions — he occurs and recurs throughout Auden’s younger work, forever changing form but always retaining the magic power to convert fear into peace. A tall white god landing from an open boat, a laconic war-bitten captain, the Truly Strong Man is a passive homosexual’s dream of equitable domination. He is the authentic figure of good in early Auden just as his half-brother, the Dictator, is the authentic figure of evil, the man swifter than Syrian horses who can throw the bully of Corinth and is seeking brilliant Athens and us.

In the Strong Man’s embrace Auden achieves release from terror and a respite from his own admitted ugliness — his post-coital death at the hands of his Hellenic aggressor would appear to have a close visual affinity with the Dying Warrior.

Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain
Relax in your darling’s arms like a stone.

In this Owenesque half-rhymed couplet the schoolboy vocabulary of mutual masturbation snuggles up with dainty boldness to the image of the narrator coiled in the tall leader’s massive embrace. We could be excused for assuming that Auden spent half of his most productive decade fainting dead away: he returns to the image of orgasm over and over, as the lolling bridegroom droops like a dying flower or lapses into a classic fatigue.


Auden’s butch hero flying fast aeroplanes or roping his weaker companions up F6 bears an ineluctable resemblance to the Aryan demi-god breaking records in his BF 109 or pounding skyward at 45 degrees into the white hell of Pitz Palu. As with heterosexuals, so with homosexuals, sexual fantasizing is the mind’s dreariest function. The scholars, when they finally do get started on this tack, would do well to refrain from waxing ecstatic when nosing truffles of ambiguity. Auden started supplying a sardonic critique of his physical ideal almost from the moment of its creation. All generalized desire leads to banality. Auden staved off bathos by transcendence on the one hand and by foolery on the other. It needs always to be understood that the British schoolboys of his generation saw too much homosexuality ever to think of its mere mechanism as a mystery. Auden planted an abundance of gags for the lads.

Out of the reeds like a fowl jumped the undressed
And Stephen signalled from the sand dunes like a wooden

Those were the days. Penned during his early time as a schoolmaster, frolicsome lovesick odes to the rugger team are similarly self-aware. Their presence in Poems edifyingly reminds us that Auden’s exaltation of the third sex (soon to have its internationalism recognized by being sneeringly branded ‘the homintern’) as a political paradigm was innocent only politically — sexually it was self-analytical to an extent that made Auden’s achievement of chaste lyricism a double triumph.

In Look, Stranger!, the wonder book of Auden’s poetry, the lyricism was carried to its height. On the one hand, there was the perfection of his abstract sweetness — dolcezza so neutralized that it could be sung as plighting music for lovers everywhere.

Moreover, eyes in which I learn
That I am glad to look, return
    My glance every day;
And when the birth and rising sun
Waken me, I still speak with one
    Who has not gone away.

On the other hand, there was a deepening admission of vulnerability, of a fateful strangeness which no amount of bravado could usher into its inheritance.

Whispering neighbours, left and right,
Pluck us from the real delight;
And the active hands must freeze
Lonely on the separate knees.

All lust, Auden now complains, is at once informed on and suppressed: the new political forces will offer outlaws no place. Throughout Look, Stranger! The heterosexuals are characteristically pictured as the tireless sentries guarding those lonely roads on which lovers walk to make a tryst, unpitying soldiers

Whose sleepless presences endear
Our peace to us with a perpetual threat.

It’s the threat which makes the homosexual’s peace more poignant than the heterosexual’s freedom, as Auden had already stated in Poems, XXVI:

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour,
      loved or endured.

In Look, Stranger!, with the 30s barely half over and the big battles yet to be fought, Auden already knew that for him and his kind the new age, if it ever came, would not come easily. Love would go on being a thing of glances meeting in crowded pubs, risky whispers in lavatories, one night stands in cheap rooms, partings on railway stations, persecution and exile. Rhetorically he still proclaims his confidence; realistically he hints at a maturing doubt; poetically he creates from this dialectic some of the great love poetry of the century. To Poem IX in Look, Stranger! (called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944) only Lorca’s Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias is even an approximate rival. For his compactness, for his mastery of lyricism as a driving force rather than a decoration, for his unstrained majesty of movement, Auden in this phase of his writing is without an equal. The poetry happens like an event in nature, beautiful because it can’t help it.

Your would-be lover who has never come
In the great bed at midnight to your arms....

Imperfect, ruggedly rounded out, and in places appearing almost uncorrected, the poem creates its effects with a monstrously skilled carelessness that is in every sense superb, as if the mere details had been left to a team of assistants and the haughty master’s attention reserved for passages like

Such dreams are amorous, they are indeed:
But no one but myself is loved in these,
And time flies on above the dreamer’s head
Flies on, flies on, and with your beauty flies.

How can we tell the intoxicator from the intoxicated? Lines like these are the loose scrawl of genius in its cups, the helpless, incandescent finale of Auden’s meteorite making contact with the atmosphere of realism. Gorgeous fires of defeat.

But Auden’s prescient withdrawal into lonliness was pained as well as plangent, as we see in the hard-edged bitterness of Look, Stranger!, XXVIII:

Dear, though the night is gone
The dream still haunts today
That brought us to a room,
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus

In this enormous room crowded with beds, Auden’s lover turns towards someone else. The clarity of the setting belongs less to Lorca’s branch of surrealism than to something colder and more northern. The presiding spirits at Lorca’s lament are those of Buñuel and Dali. With Auden, it’s Magritte.


Poem XXX in Look, Stranger! starts with the famous line ‘August for the people and their favourite islands’ and is dedicated to Christopher Isherwood. In Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 it is called ‘Birthday Poem,’ and in Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 it does not appear at all — one of that volume’s several shattering omissions. The line about the spy’s career gains luminosity once we have accustomed ourselves to the close identification in Auden’s mind of homosexuality with clandestine activity and all its apparatus of codes and invisible inks. There are lines between the lines of Auden’s younger poems which will come to life in the mild heat of knowledge. Beginning far back in the schoolboy mythology of Mortmere, such symbolic cloak-and-dagger men as the Adversary and the Watcher in Spanish defeat all scholarly attempts to place them as political exemplars, but are easily apprehended as madly camp star turns at a drag ball. They are there to brighten the lives of secret men. As Auden wrote years later in ‘The Fall of Rome,’ all the literati keep an imaginary friend. Auden’s artistic indulgence in the 30s vocabulary of espionage — a vocabulary which was a matter of life and death to those from whom he borrowed it — seemed then, and can still seem now, trivial beyond forgiveness. It’s worth remembering, though, that Auden was in a war too, and needed to hide himself just as deep. And his war had been going on since time out of mind.

To use his own phrase, the wicked card was dealt: in the face of totalitarianism, homosexuality was no longer a valid image for collective action. The world was not a school and adolescence was at long last over. Auden’s exile began in earnest. In New Year Letter  we learned that those hunted out of ordinary life are ‘wild quarry,’ but are granted the privilege of themselves becoming hunters — hunters of the past. New Year Letter is one of the synthetic works by which Auden accepted the responsibility of comprehending European culture — an acceptance which was to lead him in the course of time to his position as the most variously erudite poet since Goethe. The Strong Man had faded out and the Dictator was in control, leaving

Culture on all fours to greet
A butch and criminal elite

which is as clear, and personal, an image of violation as you could wish.

The innocence of young love retained its purity through knowledge, of itself and of the multiple past which justified the pluralist political dream — now solely an ideal, and more radiant for that — of the Just City.

White childhood moving like a sigh
Through the green woods unharmed in thy
Sophisticated innocence
To call thy true love to the dance.

In Another Time, his collection of lyrics from that period, Auden ushered in the new decade with a reiteration of his solitude:

Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

The sentries were still walking the ridges. During the long decade of warfare and recovery they gradually and mysteriously grew fewer and less imbued with missionary zeal. In the decade between Another Time and Nones Auden seems to have faced the fact that art, politically speaking, has no future, only a past. Whatever Auden the person was up to, Auden the poet had begun to accept and love the world. He no longer thought of homosexuality as newness — just a permanent apartness. From Nones the diligent stylistic analyst will deduce that the poet’s studies of the Oxford English Dictionary had got as far as the letter C. The lover of his poetry will find that the period of dialectical tension has come to an end. Often taken as a gratuitous glibness, Auden’s later insistence that all his poetry put together had not saved a single Jew was already a plain fact. Poetry, he had said even before the 30s were over, makes nothing happen. In Nones there was sardonic realism about love but any idealism about it had been banished. What idealism there was was all about art, and the eternal order which art formed outside history.

As a mind, Auden curved away from the purely Germanic culture and developed a growing kinship with the all-embracing Latin one, of which he is indeed the true modern representative in English after Eliot. Despite his domicile in Austria and his involvement with German opera, his final affinity seems to have been with the thought of Valéry — whose shelf of N.R.F. paperbacks is the closest contemporary parallel to Auden’s preoccupations with the aphorism and the ideal order of creativity.

In Christianity Auden found forgiveness for sin. But to redeem the luxuriance of his early cleverness he had to work out his own cure, and as with Dante the cure was technical. Holding his art to be a sacrament, Dante acted out his penitence in the form of technical behaviour. For the early sin of rhyming Christ’s name with a dirty word he makes recompense in the Divine Comedy by never rhyming it with anything except itself — the only word to be so treated. The triadic symmetries of the Divine Comedy are a set of disciplines so strict that lyricism has no freedom to indulge itself: when it happens, it happens as a natural consequence of stating the truth. For the educated man, there is a moment of his early acquaintanceship with Dante when he realizes that all he has slowly taught himself to enjoy in poetry is everything that Dante has grown out of. A comparable moment of fear is to be had with Auden, when we understand that his slow change through the 40s entails a renunciation of the art-thrill, and that the Audenesque dazzle is forever gone. For a poet to lose such a talent would have been a misfortune. For a poet to give it up was an act of undisciplined renunciation rarely heard of in English.


A brief recapitulation of Auden’s innovations in technical bravura is worth making at this point. Unlike Brecht, who wrote both Die Moritat von Mackie Messer and Die Seeräuber-Jenny in the year of Auden’s first privately-printed booklet, Auden never met his Kurt Weill. He met Britten, but the results were meagre. It is no denigration of Isherwood to say that if, of his two admired artistic types, Auden had teamed up with the Composer instead of the Novelist, modern English musical history would have been transformed. As it was, Auden’s talent as a lyricist was never developed: the songs for Hedli Anderson had the melody-defeating line-turnovers of ordinary poems, and his activities as a librettist — whether writing originals for Stravinsky or translating The Magic Flute — seem to me frustrating in the recognizable modern English manner. Auden had command of a linear simplicity that would have suited the lyric to perfection. As it was, however, he stuck mainly to poetry: and anyway it’s probable that the pressure of his homosexual indirectness would have distorted his linear simplicity as thoroughly as, and less fruitfully than, it dislocated his pictorial integrity. Alone with pencil and paper, Auden was free to explore his technical resources. They were without limit, Mozartian. Auden mastered all the traditional lyric forms as a matter of course, bringing to some of them — those which had been imported from rhyme-rich languages and for good reasons had never flourished — the only air of consummate ease they would ever possess. At the same time he did a far more thorough job than even vers libre had done of breaking down the last vestiges of the artificial grip the lyric still had on the written poem. He produced apprehensible rhythmic unities which were irregular not only from line to line but within the lines themselves. Finally he penetrated within the word, halting its tendency toward slur and contraction, restoring its articulated rhythmic force. This is the technical secret behind his ability to sustain the trimeter and tetrameter over long distances, driving them forward not along a fixed lattice-work of terminal and internal rhymes but with an incessant modulation across the vowel spectrum and the proliferating concatenated echoes of exploded consonantal groups.

Hazlitt said that Burke’s style was as forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent. Everybody sensitive to poetry, I think, has known the feeling that Auden’s early work, with its unmatched technical brilliance, is an enchanted playground. The clear proof of his moral stature, however, is the way he left the playground behind when all were agreed that he had only to keep on adding to it and immortality would be his.

Auden’s later books are a long — and sometimes long-winded — penitence for the heretical lapse of letting art do his thinking for him. In Homage to Clio, About the House, City Without Walls, and Epistle to a Godson he fulfils his aim of suppressing all automatic responses. A blend of metres and syllabics, his austere forms progressively empty themselves of all mesmeric flair. Auden conquers Selfhood by obliterating talent: what is left is the discipline of mechanical accomplishment, supporting the salt conclusions of a lifetime’s thinking — cured wisdom. At the same time, Auden claimed the right to erase any of his early works he now thought were lies. A generation’s favourites fell before his irascible, Tolstoyan scythe. His friend Louis MacNeice had once written that after a certain time the poet loses the right to get his finished poems back. Auden didn’t agree with MacNeice’s humility, just as he had never agreed with MacNeice’s sense of usefulness: MacNeice had tired himself out serving the B.B.C. instead of the Muse.

It is a common opinion among the English literati that Auden’s later work is a collapse. I am so far from taking this view that I think an appreciation of Auden’s later work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Auden, just as an appreciation of Yeats’s earlier work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Yeats. You must know and admire the austerity which Auden achieved before you can take the full force of his early longing for that austerity — before you can measure the portent of his early brilliance. There is no question that the earlier work is more enjoyable. The question is about whether you think enjoyability was the full extent of his aim. Auden, it seems to me, is a modern artist who has lived out his destiny as a European master to the full, a man in whom all cultural history is present just as the sufferings of all the past were still alive in his lover’s eyes:

A look contains the history of Man,
And fifty francs will earn the stranger right
To warm the heartless city in his arms.

Famed stranger and exalted outcast, Auden served a society larger than the one in which he hid. In his later work we see not so much the ebbing of desire as its transference to the created world, until plains and hills begin explaining the men who live on them. Auden’s unrecriminating generosity toward a world which had served him ill was a moral triumph. Those who try to understand it too quickly ought not to be trusted with grown-up books.


I was born in the month after Auden wrote ‘September 1, 1939’ and saw him only three times. The first time, in Cambridge, about five years ago, he gave a poetry reading in Great St. Mary’s. The second time, on the Cambridge-to-London train a year later, I was edging along to the buffet car when I noticed him sitting in a first-class compartment. When the train pulled in I waited for him at the barrier and babbled some nonsense about being privileged to travel on the same train. He took it as his due and waved one of his enormous hands. The third time was earlier this year, in the Martini Lounge atop New Zealand House in London, where a reception was thrown for all of us who had taken part in the Poetry International Festival. Auden shuffled through in a suit encrusted with the dirt of years — it was a geological deposit, an archaeological pile-up like the seven cities of Troy. I don’t think anybody of my generation knew what to say to him. I know I didn’t. But we knew what to think, and on behalf of my contemporaries I have tried to write some of it down here. I can still remember those unlucky hands; one of them holding a cigarette, the other holding a brimming glass, and both trembling. The mind boggled at some of the things they had been up to. But one of them had refurbished the language. A few months later he was beyond passion, having gone to the reward which Dante says that poets who have done their duty might well enjoy — talking shop as they walk beneath the moon.

(Commentary, October 1973)