Auden at 100
Dear Steve and Aidan,
Last week was W.H. Auden's 100th birthday—or would have been, had he not died at the age of 67 in 1973. According to a biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden seemed worn down at the time of his death, and the poet's friends have said that the years of drinking, heavy smoking, and barbiturate use had taken their toll. But it is tempting to imagine that it wasn't the drugs and liquor that prematurely aged him, but his literary aesthetic itself: the mantle of moral and political responsibility he believed came with the job of being a poet. If he was a formidably craggy slab of a man by the time he turned 60, it wasn't just the Chesterfields, it was the crushing responsibility.
Auden has enjoyed a jag in popularity during the last decade. His poem "Funeral Blues" was a cornerstone of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. His drumbeat of a poem, "September 1, 1939"—composed after Germany invaded Poland—was e-mailed and faxed around the country in the days after 9/11. Its unexpected relevance and its closing note of uplift gave it grassroots appeal: "May I .../ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair,/ Show an affirming flame." So perhaps it's not a surprise that this anniversary brings with it not one but two new editions of his poetry, each compiled by Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor: the hefty Collected Poems (Modern Library), and a revised and expanded Selected Poems from Vintage (with a new set of notes). The Selected Poems is more likely to be of interest to lay readers: It's lighter and the notes are helpful. It's also the only of the two to contain the poem "September 1, 1939." The other edition bends to Auden's wishes, expressed when he put together a Collected Poems in 1966, and leaves it out. Auden's disavowal of this poem and others is characteristic of an ambivalence he felt about his own rhetorical powers—and is one of the many things I hope we can talk about.
What made Auden so important, and why is he still so present in the cultural conversation? Aidan, you're our resident expert. Trying to take Auden's measure as a student-dabbler, I've found myself going back to the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, who zeroed in on at least two Audens—a reductive view that has come in for lots of debate, but that gets at one basic tension in the work of this endlessly evolving poet. In this narrative, Auden began his career in England in the 1920s composing precociously stunning love poems and meditative fantasias. (Among my favorites is "Lullaby": "Lay your sleeping head, my love/ Human on my faithless arm.") The early Auden was, as Jarrell put it, "oracular (obscure, original), bad at organization, neglectful of logic, full of astonishing or magical language, intent on his own world and his own forms." This is some of the work I love most, with its curious Icelandic preoccupations (Auden had a romance with the idea of Northernness); the frequency of phrases like "spring's green/ preliminary shiver" and "love's worn circuit re-begun"; and its Anglo-Saxon tones (inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins), rung in lines like "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle."
In the 1930s, though, Auden self-consciously turned away from the private rhythms of Modernism—away from Eliot and Pound and even Hardy—in search of another kind of poetry: an accessible rhetoric that would connect the individual to the public world—what he later called "the common meditative norm." More of the poems he began to write in the 1930s (and after) were highly organized, logical, formal, didactic, and above all rhetorical, if we mean by that word language that is intent on persuasion. They concerned themselves with the legacy of Marx and Freud—with, well, civilization and its discontents. Plenty of the poems still displayed the lovely lyric figuration Auden was capable of; but a distinct category needed it less, the way a politician has less need for the sublime vistas of the sea. I'm being schematic, here—there were poems, many very good ones, that occupied the wide territory between these modes (more on this below)—but I'm thinking mainly of work like "New Year Letter" (an essay in tetrameter couplets) and even the "The Age of Anxiety" from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title.
This shift probably had something to do with Auden's political commitments. Like the rest of the so-called "Auden Group"—Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, all of whom met at Oxford—Auden started out as a left-leaning thinker whose intellect and poetic outlook were shaped by witnessing firsthand Europe's struggle against fascism. He spent time in Weimar Berlin and in Spain during the Civil War, and he came back frustrated at the ineffectiveness of "pink liberalism." (Around this time, as Jarrell puts it, Communists thought he was too liberal, and liberals thought he was too Communist.) And he began to follow through on the impulse toward oratory that had always been there in his poems. In 1939, he immigrated to America, where he re-embraced Christianity and grappled with what it might mean to anatomize, in verse, the work that citizens could do to create a better world—to become more humanist, more subtle in their interactions, more committed to the Christian principles of love—of "caritas" and "agape."
The poems of the "second" Auden help explain why he still matters in the public arena—why so many journalists, liberals, and public intellectuals admire him: They spoke to the cultivated reader of op-ed pages (and there was no Sanskrit in them, as there was in Eliot's poems). And the search for a common idiom in which to combat the soapbox orthodoxies of fascism helped Auden shape gems like "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and "Musée Des Beaux Arts," which direct a moralizing public rhetoric at an intimate audience—at the individual. These are pretty great poems. And given poetry's almost total isolation from public discourse today, there's something deeply appealing about Auden's quest to establish a poetry of public intimacy. His own hands-on experiences lent that quest some nuance; poets should have "more than a bit of a reporting journalist," he once said. If his poems could devolve into vague liberal wishes for the individual to be an "affirming flame," he also knew that "art … cannot be midwife to society."
Yet the spokespoet stance plainly could lead Auden into torturous abstraction: "Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood/ Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,/ Dreading to find its Father lest it find/ The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:/ Alone, alone about our dreadful wood." A number of the resulting poems were neither elegant poetry nor philosophically astute. Finally, it is important to note Auden's own ambivalence about much of this work. He revised his poems obsessively because he found earlier tones and expressions false, and he cut some of his most famous poems ("Spain" and "September 1, 1939") from later editions: "Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest. … A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained," he said.
This last bit is, let's face it, pretty odd. Most poets don't repudiate their earlier work so absolutely. I'd love to know what you make of it, and how you think it's most helpful to conceptualize the many different Audens to be found in this big body of work. Which do you like most?
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.