W.H. Auden: Living in Time and Place

W.H. Auden’s Poems Volume I , 1927-1939 and Volume II, 1940-1973
reviewed by David Cooke

auden x2


W.H. Auden:  Poems, Volume I, 1927-1939. ISBN: ‎ 978-0691219295.  Volume 2, 1940-1973. ISBN: ‎ 978-0691219301.  Edited by Edward Mendelson. £48 each.
Princeton University Press.

This two-volume set of W. H. Auden’s Poems, Volume 1, 1927-1939 and Volume II, 1940-1973 follows on from eight previous editions of the poet’s prose and dramatic writings. Edited by Edward Mendelson, this monumental collected edition is the fruit of a lifetime’s scholarship. Appointed by the poet to be his literary executor while he was still alive and active, Mendelson is now the foremost authority on his work. The two volumes under review contain all the poet’s published, unpublished and abandoned poems, in so far as the editor has been able to track them down, alongside a representative sample of his juvenilia, which gives a fascinating insight into how precocious Auden was and how rapidly he was to develop into the most influential poet of his generation. In addition to this, each volume also contains an exhaustive set of textual notes on the composition and publication of every poem, including variants, which is invaluable for a poet like Auden who constantly and, sometimes controversially, corrected, redrafted and deleted poems long after their initial publication. There is, however, no attempt at interpretation. For that, one must consult Mendelson’s two earlier volumes: Early Auden, (1981) and Later Auden (1999). Here, it is worth mentioning also John Fuller’s W.H. Auden: A Commentary, (1998), which is the other indispensable guide to Auden’s frequently challenging oeuvre.

Given the substantial nature of these two volumes, they are hardly going to be the best introduction for new readers and, even for those who already know and love Auden’s work, these two doorstoppers, weighing in at just shy of 2000 pages between them, are not the most convenient volumes for browsing. However, for scholars and serious students, they will be an invaluable work of reference. For my part, in the course of this essay, I will adopt an unashamedly personal and non-academic approach and will simply take the opportunity, on the appearance of these two landmark volumes, to explore what Auden’s poems have meant to me. He was, in fact, the first modern poet I ever read and the first whose work obsessed me. Beyond Masefield, Belloc and Chesterton, I can’t actually remember reading any twentieth century poet in my 1960s grammar school, but when I was fifteen I made a new friend who leant me his copy of the Penguin Poets edition of Auden’s selected poems. Before too long, I was making my own first attempts at writing poetry.

How fascinating, then, to read in Mendelson’s introduction that Auden himself discovered his poetic vocation at the age of fifteen when his friend, Robert Medley, let slip that he had been writing poetry and wondered if Auden had as well. He hadn’t, but soon began to under the influence of Wordsworth, Hardy and Edward Thomas. His progress was rapid and poems such as ‘The Mill (Hempstead) and ‘Lead’s the Best’ exhibit a degree of competence and fluency that is remarkable for someone so young. Moreover, quite a few of the poems assigned to the ‘Juvenilia’ section of Volume I foreshadow the more mature work that was yet to come.  Here, for example, are the opening lines of ‘The Letter’, written in 1926, when the poet was nineteen:

He reads and finds the meaning plain;
It leaves no problem for the mind,
Though love he is surprised to find
So economically slain;

What is interesting here is not so much that it is a capably written piece by someone still in his teens, but that it can be detected as an echo in the more febrile atmosphere of ‘From the very first coming down’, written a year later in 1927 and included in Auden’s Poems (1930).

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBut now
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Prior to his encounter with Medley, Auden had been interested in mechanics and had even thought of becoming a mining engineer. Similarly, I spent most of my childhood being obsessed by natural history until I, also, was turned on to poetry by a friend and wasted no time in getting my own copy of what, for me, is a foundational text. Thinking back, there were certainly poems that I didn’t really make much sense of, but it was impossible to resist the enigmatic music of lines such as these:

This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early;
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.

There were of course plenty of poems that were more immediately accessible:

‘O where are you going’ said reader to rider.
‘That valley is fatal where furnaces burn.
Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return”

This was hardly a million miles away from ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan, another discovery with whom I had also become obsessed. Having had the good fortune, via that early volume, to absorb the quintessence of Auden’s work, I was thrilled to find a year later, in 1969, that my local library had a copy of his latest collection, City Without Walls, a spanking new volume with no date stamp prior to mine. I was immediately absorbed by its long title poem, but have to confess, thereafter, to a fair degree of disappointment. There were poems dedicated to people I’d never heard of, endless ‘marginalia’, little squibs that didn’t seem to amount to much, and various ‘commissioned’ texts that I didn’t engage with at all. Returning to that volume later in life, I found more to appreciate. There is the strangely memorable ‘Rois Fainéants’, in which Auden illuminates an obscure period of European history, and the bruised resignation of poems like ‘The Horatians’ or ‘Ode to Terminus’. However, these are, to be sure, poems for an older man, which is not to say that the instincts of the young man were unjustified. In this volume and, even more so, in the two that followed it, Epistle to a Godson and Thank you, Fog,  there is a distinct falling-off of quality and, by the time he was writing his two final volumes, he had picked up some very irritating habits. There is too much whimsy, too many silly neologisms and, most annoyingly of all, a marked tendency to mix up parts of speech so that nouns are used as verbs and vice versa.

However, to acknowledge such failings towards the end of an illustrious career is not to diminish in any way the richness and consistency of his work over four decades. Given the range and variety of his output, it may be useful to bear in mind the way that Auden himself categorised his poems when he was putting together his first collected edition:

In the eyes of every author, I fancy, his past work falls into four classes. First, the
pure rubbish which he regrets ever having conceived; second – for him the most painful –
the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much
The Orators seems to me such a case of the fair notion fatally injured); third, the pieces
he had nothing against except their lack of importance; these must inevitably form the
bulk of any collection since, were he to limit it to the fourth class alone, to those poems
for which he is honestly grateful, his volume would be too depressingly slim.

Obviously, a poet’s estimate of his poetry is likely to differ from that of his readers. Two of the poems that Auden rejected unequivocally were amongst those his contemporaries most admired: ‘Spain 1937’ and ‘September 1, 1939’. The torrential rhetoric of ‘Spain, 1937’ evokes the unstoppable rise of civilisation and then looks forward to what the future might hold:

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
xxxxxxxOf the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates…

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
xxxxxxxTo-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle…

Having been carried away perhaps by his poetic afflatus, the problem for Auden was that he had come to a conclusion that he later considered shameful, callous, and had never really believed in:

xxxxxxxHistory to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

In this he was surely right. However, his rejection of ‘September 1, 1939’, which for many readers is still one of his finest poems, seems more contentious:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

His stated reason for rejecting this poem is the following line: ‘We must love one another or die’. This, for Auden, seemed a lie, since we are all going to die whether we love each other or not. That it might, in the context of a poem, have been rhetorically effective was for him no excuse. For me, and I suspect many others, this has never seemed a fatal flaw. However, after various attempts to emend this line and certain other sections of the poem, he decided that it all had to go.

Audens’s second category of ‘the fair notion fatally injured’, seems much less controversial and is inevitably part and parcel of the work of any poet who seeks to challenge himself and open up new terrain. He mentions himself ‘The Orators’, a somewhat tortuous and impenetrable work which I must confess that I have never persevered with. To this, I would add The Age of Anxiety, another book-length poem published in 1947, where his use of Old English alliterative verse is not only monotonous but seems contrived in a long poem exploring life in the modern city.

The distinction between Auden’s third and fourth categories is easily blurred, since each reader will come to their own conclusions about the relative merits of different poems and the variety of genres in which he expressed himself. As we have just seen, he could be his own sternest critic and may have undervalued or taken for granted some of his output. In his earlier work, for which the epithet ‘Audenesque’ was coined, he created a poetic world that mirrored the unease of his contemporaries in the interwar years. Take, for example the following untitled poem:

Who will endure
Heat of day and winter danger,
Journey from one place to another,
Nor be content to lie
Till evening upon headland over bay,
Between the land and sea
Or smoking wait till hour of food,
Leaning on chained-up gate
At edge of wood?

Metals run
Burnished or rusty in the sun
From town to town
And signals all along are down;
Yet nothing passes
But envelopes between these places …

This is certainly not one of Auden’s most well-known poems, but I wouldn’t like to say that it is ‘without importance’. With its cloak and dagger atmosphere and its staccato, almost telegraphic mode of expression, it is one of many that evoke the political uncertainties of his age and add to the cumulative effect of that phase of his work. Throughout his career, Auden also wrote many poems he classed as ‘songs’, implying thereby a certain slightness, insignificance even. And yet, amongst them, there are many that readers remember like ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’. Many, also, like ‘Our Hunting Fathers, in spite of their musicality, are dense with meaning. Then there are the many poems about people and places which, inspired no doubt by Rilke’s Neue Gedichte’, he wrote with such facility. Epigrammatic and witty, they also stay with the reader across the years:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honors on, he sighed for one,
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvelous letters but kept none

Many of Auden’s poems might also be considered ‘mere’ reportage, however well observed and professional. Yet, quite often, what seems at first occasional or even mundane surprises us with some profounder insight or lines of stunning beauty. Here are the opening stanzas of ‘Casino’:

Only their hands are living, to the wheel attracted,
are moved, as deer trek desperately towards a creek
through the dust and scrub of a desert, or gently,
as sunflowers turn to the light,

and, as night takes up the cries of feverish children,
the cravings of lions in dens, the loves of dons,
gathers them all and remains the night, the
great room is full of their prayers.

Traditional wisdom has it that Auden’s poetic career divides into two. There is the English Auden and then, after 1939, when he moved to The United States, there is the American Auden. At this point in his life, he had had enough of being, in Mendelson’s phrase, ‘court poet to the Left’, but, for many of this persuasion, his departure from England just before the war was a betrayal and disastrous for his poetry. I have never subscribed to this view and it seems to me that he wrote many of his finest poems in the1940s and the 1950s. The first collection published in America, though much of it was written in the two years prior to his departure, was Another Time (1940). Informed by the Christianity he now espoused and inspired by his reading of Kierkegaard, it is, for my money, his best individual collection. Among its many highlights I would include: ‘Wrapped in a Yielding Air,’ ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head My love,’ ‘Musée des Beaux Arts,’ and his great elegies for Yeats and Sigmund Freud. Even amongst its ‘Lighter Poems’ one finds the exquisite ‘Epitaph on A Tyrant’:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Shortly after his arrival in the United States, as if to mark a break with his earlier self, he produced a series of book-length poems in a dazzling array of forms, all inspired by his new found beliefs. New Year Letter, written in tetrameter couplets is famous for its concise encapsulation of his ars poetica:

Art in intention is mimesis
But realized, the resemblance ceases;
Art is not life and cannot be
A midwife to society.

‘The Sea and the Mirror, a Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest’ is written in syllabics, a new verse form he was increasingly to embrace, but interspersed with more traditional lyrics. Thereafter, throughout the Fifties, he wrote three collections of shorter poems: Nones (1951), The Shield of Achilles (1955) and Homage to Clio (1960), in which we see him writing at the height of his powers. ‘In Praise of Limestone’ from Nones is one of his finest paysages moralisés, in which his slowly unwinding syntax shows a complete mastery of syllabics:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
xxxAre consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
xxxWith their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
xxxThat spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
xxxIts own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
xxxOf short distances and definite places:

He concludes, some ninety lines later:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxDear …

when I try to imagine a faultless love
xxxOr the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

However, the leisurely tempo of these lines is in marked contrast to the cinematic quatrains of ‘The Fall of Rome’, where the poet’s gaze sweeps from its forlorn opening image to an ominous conclusion:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves…

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

W.H. Auden is one of the most exciting, wide-ranging and entertaining of the great poets produced by the twentieth century. It is because his journey through life was a quest for meaning which mirrors one’s own, even if one does not share his religious beliefs, that one can return to him again and again. It is no accident that the idea of the ‘Quest’ is one of the unifying archetypes of his work. Intellectually challenging and replete with wisdom, his insight into the possibilities of language and his devotion to his art are an object lesson for anyone who aspires to call themselves a poet. These two handsomely produced volumes from Princeton University Press are not only a monument to their editor’s scholarship but a timely reminder of the enduring importance of poetry and, in particular, the contribution made to it by W.H. Auden.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection of poetry is The Metal Exchange, recently published by Littoral Press.

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1 thought on “W.H. Auden: Living in Time and Place

  1. This has been most interesting to read, David. Thank you. I agree with you on the ending to ‘September 1, 1939′ and I’m glad to be introduced to the untitled poem ‘Who will endure / Heat of day and winter danger …’. One of my own favourites is his ‘Vision of Agape’ : ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed … etc’.


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