By Alan Jacobs
In 2006, as lovers of poetry became aware that the 100th anniversary of W. H. Auden's birth was coming up, some of them began to fret that the event wouldn't receive the attention it deserved. No major celebrations seemed to be forthcoming, in pronounced contrast to the festivals for John Betjeman's centenary that were going on throughout England in the second half of 2006. The BBC gave Betjeman a whole month of festivities, and wasn't Auden a much greater poet, worthy of far more honor?
Yes, but … Betjeman was an enormously popular and beloved poet in England. (Almost the only person who didn't love him was his tutor at Oxford, a young don named C. S. Lewis—not yet a Christian, by the way—who told his diary "I wish I could get rid of the idle prig," and later wrote his pupil a letter which began, "Dear Betjemann [sic], You called the tune of irony from the first time you met me, and I have never heard you speak of a serious subject without a snigger." Betjeman responded, in a book he published when he was twenty–seven, by offering effusive thanks to Lewis, "whose jolly personality and encouragement to the author in his youth have remained an unfading memory for the author's declining years.") And it was not just Betjeman's poetry but also his deep love of Englishness—English architecture, English history, the traditional forms of English society, and the Church of England—that endeared him to his countrymen. As Richard Jenkyns has recently written, "Betjeman was not always sure that Christ was the Son of God, but he was absolutely sure that the Church of England was the true church"—an epistemological condition that for many an Englishman indicates well–ordered priorities.
Auden, by contrast, left England for America in January of 1939 and never returned for anything more than an extended visit. Though only thirty–one at the time, he was one of the most famous writers in England—he was twenty–six when the phrase "the Auden generation" entered the language—and his failure to return to his native land when war broke out later that year was denounced by angry MPs in the House of Commons. And if his wartime detachment cost him the respect of British conservatives, his conversion to Christianity two years later alienated, dramatically and permanently, the political Left, for whom he had been a hero.
Auden almost immediately assumed a significant public presence in the United States: in the war years and after he wrote for a remarkable range of periodicals, including The New York Times, The New Republic, Commonweal, and The Nation. But American intellectuals were nearly as befuddled by Auden's religion as his British ex–admirers. Randall Jarrell, the country's most brilliant and influential critic of poetry and a fine poet himself, treated the Christian Auden with something approaching contempt, and convinced more than a few others to do the same. Auden was never forgotten, and occasionally his brilliance was recognized—even at times by Jarrell, who was so awestruck by a poem called "Under Sirius" that he could only respond, "Well, back to my greeting cards"—but his reputation underwent a long, slow decline which lasted through the rest of his life.
Where does that reputation stand now? It's hard to say. Probably the most common view is that Auden was a major poet in his twenties but, after his move to America and subsequent religious conversion, drifted off the path. Many poets and critics read Auden's story as one of a prodigious talent mostly frittered away. The greatness of those early poems is rarely disputed; the question is whether that one decade of greatness is sufficient to make a major career.
One might think that Christians, at least, would champion his work, but they have rarely done so, in part because of his lifelong homosexuality (and for other reasons which I have explored in this essay). But here at the centenary I think the most important thing to note is this: in the early 1940s Auden began writing poems that scarcely anyone knew how to read—that scarcely anyone even today knows how to read.
After that agitation in 2006, readers and poets and critics roused themselves and did proper honor to Auden on his birthday, February 21st, 2007. There were festivities here and in England: the BBC even did its part, with a series of programs, including radio essays by poets on Auden and, best of all, a Good Friday reading of Auden's great poetic sequence Horae Canonicae, introduced by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But reading through the many reflections and tributes that turned up in the English–language press, I couldn't help noticing how many writers seemed to be groping, uncertain what to say about a man who clearly was for them an enigmatic figure.
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.
But this gets Auden precisely wrong: when he became a Christian, when he began to cultivate a more civic and ethical mode of poetry, he unburdened himself, divesting himself of responsibilities that others wanted him to meet but that he knew himself to be incapable of sustaining. What had been "crushing" to him was his status as the spokesman for his generation; what freed him was finding, in America, a refuge from his admirers.
Naïve though it may sound, for Auden this country really was a place to start over. And he came to believe that in shrugging off the expectations others had for him, he also had to shrug off his own self–understanding, his own formation as a person and a poet. Auden had always been a critic of Romanticism and an aficionado of earlier and less fashionable poetic movements: from the beginning he had drawn on medieval literature—which he had come to love after hearing some lectures at Oxford by an Anglo–Saxonist named Tolkien—and had celebrated Alexander Pope and Lord Byron—the one Romantic poet Auden admired, in part because everyone else treated him as a minor poet who had been over–celebrated in his lifetime. Auden despised Shelley especially, often singling out for scorn the notion that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." It was a model of poetic power that, he saw, many of the great modernists had accepted as well, for all their vocal anti–Romanticism.
But as he settled into life in America, and into Christian belief, he came to think that he had absorbed more of the Romantic model of the poet as isolated genius than he'd realized. Superficially his verse had not looked Romantic, but deep down, he had accepted distinctively Romantic ideas about the singular power and unique insight of the poet.
The self–criticism that arose from this insight sometimes verged on self–loathing. Auden was certainly too hard on his earlier self and earlier work: that first decade of work truly was extraordinarily powerful and innovative, in ways that Nicholas Jenkins explores in one of the best essays to commemorate the centenary. But Adam Kirsch is also right to say,
Auden's breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th–century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision—with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice—was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.
Kirsch believes that "If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken." But I'm not sure this is correct. Auden indeed became ethically "scrupulous" about his language, about the power and the role of poetry, but there are many for whom this is a highly unattractive trait: the word Seamus Heaney uses is "censorious," and while he understands Auden's concerns, that's not a complimentary term.
Moreover, the later poems can be hard to read. The earlier poems are often obscure, but after modernism we're used to obscurity. (A friend once wrote to James Joyce, puzzled about some passages in what would become Finnegans Wake, to which Joyce gave an incomprehensible reply capped with a jaunty sign–off: "If I can throw any more obscurity on the subject, let me know.") We know how to read obscurity. But Auden's later poems, though grounded in public language and public concepts—Greek and Roman mythology, European history, Christian doctrine—are knotty and complex: they demand a distinctive kind of thinking from us. Auden wrote this way because he demanded difficult thought from himself; he resisted easy answers and comforting assurances. He explored forgotten resources from poetry's past: the medieval love for allegories of the inner life, the essayistic or letter–like meditations of the great Roman poet Horace. But these are resources that readers must struggle to reclaim, and for many it's not worth the effort.
Above all, and most unusually, Auden saw his poetry as a means of building community among his widely scattered friends. When, a decade ago, I first investigated the trove of Auden's letters held by the New York Public Library, I was struck by how often Auden turned over a sheet of stationery and, on the back of a letter to a friend, typed out a draft of a poem. And in most cases the published version of that poem would be dedicated to that friend. How many of our great modern poets do such a thing? It is a touching gesture, but also—especially for those of us with an exalted view of poetry—a challenging one.
Let us pay tribute to this remarkable man. He was deeply, deeply flawed—though no more so than I—and his model of the Christian life is, generally speaking, not one I should choose to follow. But he paid (and still pays) a great price in reputation for his embrace of Christianity, as he does for his bold and fearless rethinking of what it means to be a poet. One of the wiser decisions of Auden's later years was his selection of Edward Mendelson to be his literary executor: among many other activities on the poet's behalf, Mendelson maintains the website of the Auden Society, where you may find biographical information and many links to the texts of poems and recordings of Auden reading them. Please, go there.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
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