Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Alan Jacobs

The Poet's Nature Subdued

W. H. Auden's last major work.

This fourth volume of W. H. Auden's prose, edited and introduced by Edward Mendelson with customary mastery, covers a mere six years of the poet's life. But they were eventful years for him, personally and intellectually. In 1956 he was named Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, the University of Oxford; in 1957 he won the Feltrinelli Prize for Literature, which allowed him for the first time in his life to buy his own house, a cottage in Austria; and in 1962 he published a large, heterogenous, yet comprehensive account of his key critical ideas, The Dyer's Hand. Though at the end of this period Auden was only fifty-five, The Dyer's Hand would be the last truly major work of his career.

Auden's selection as Professor of Poetry was deeply gratifying to him, largely because his relationship to Oxford was complex. Though recognized as among the brightest undergraduates of his time there (1925-28), he had received only a third-class degree. This was found generally inexplicable. A friend of Auden's would later say, "We all took it more as a joke than a serious matter and I cannot remember Wystan ever speaking of it at all." But J. I. M. Stewart took his exams with Auden, sitting across from him during the written portion, and later remembered that as Auden wrote, "The tears were coursing down his pale and ample cheeks." (Stewart earned a First and later became an Oxford don and, under the name Michael Innes, a crime novelist.)

Perhaps more troubling to Auden, many English people had never really forgiven him for leaving the country for America in 1939, when war was about to break out, and not returning once war did break out. Indeed, a number of the electors of the Professor of Poetry (all holders of the M.A. from Oxford) declined to vote for Auden for this very reason.

So as he planned the lectures he was obliged to deliver—public addresses, three each year during his five-year term, were his chief professorial responsibilities—he did so with trepidation. He would defer to the authority of the Oxford dons and, as Mendelson points out, flatter them extravagantly. But in the midst of the politeness he was developing, with exceptional imaginative acuity, a vision of literary creation and reception worthy to be compared with Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. And this cannot be said of any other 20th-century poet.

After completing his term as Professor of Poetry, Auden resumed his long practice of dividing his year between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a place in Europe—though now he had his own Austrian home to give him comfort, stability, and a sense of coming into his full maturity. As he wrote in his long poetic sequence "Thanksgiving for a Habitat,"

What I dared not hope or fight for
is, in my fifties, mine, a toft-and-croft
where I needn't, ever, be at home to

those I am not at home with, not a cradle,
a magic Eden without clocks,
and not a windowless grave, but a place
I may go both in and out of.

From this new place of geographical and spiritual security, and buoyed perhaps by the success of his Oxford professorship, Auden began to sift through his critical writings of the previous decade to see if he could assemble them into a comprehensive critical testament.

But he would not do it in the way that Coleridge had done, producing a unified argument or story. For Auden, such an approach would be inconsistent with his critical preferences: "A poem must be a closed system, but there is something, in my opinion, lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism," he wrote. "In going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic's notebooks to his treatises."

But a treatise would also have been inconsistent with his experience as a freelance writer, who had long devoted half of each year to producing reviews and essays so he could buy a few months in which to write poetry. As Mendelson points out in his introduction, Auden had an extraordinary facility for using review assignments to ride his own hobby-horses, to develop the critical and poetic ideas that he wanted to develop regardless of what happened to be published at any given time. For example, read this passage and try to guess what book Auden was reviewing:

The difficulty of presenting a complete picture of reality lies in the gulf between the subjectively real, a man's experience of his own existence, and the objectively real, his experience of the lives of others and the world about him. Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives, made for a short- term or long-term purpose; the actions I take, that is to say, are less significant to me than the conflicts of motives, temptations, doubts in which they originate. Further, my subjective experience of time is not of a cyclical motion outside myself but of an irreversible history of unique moments which are made by my decisions.

Answer: The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien. (Auden loved it, and his New York Times reviews of it and, two years earlier, of The Fellowship of the Ring did a great deal to generate an American audience for Tolkien's trilogy.)

So the title Auden chose for his big book was appropriate in more than one way. He took it from Shakespeare's Sonnet 111: "My nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer's hand." The title first implies that these are the reflections not of a scholar or professional literary critic, but of a poet: poetry is what he "works in," and poetry therefore shapes his nature and the nature of his critical writing. But it's also Auden's sly acknowledgement that almost all of his criticism emerged from his simple need to pay the bills. So if "there is something … lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism," that is especially true of Auden's own critical writing.

The whole of The Dyer's Hand appears in this volume of the Complete Works, and most of what Auden drew from in making up the book is here too, in its original and unrevised form. (A few pieces are in the previous volume of the series.) There are essays on D. H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Henry Adams, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare—indeed, a whole section on Shakespeare—plus a number of essays and collections of pensées on literary, psychological, and theological subjects. Any reader's first impression of the book would be of a grab-bag.

Yet Auden also writes, in his preface to the book, that "The order of the chapters, however, is deliberate, and I would like them to be read in sequence." So what is this sequence? Is there a treatise lurking within the grab-bag? Edward Mendelson writes,

Auden never explained in detail the deliberate "order of the chapters" in The Dyer's Hand. He wrote to Stephen Spender, who had evidently mentioned the section titled "Postscript: Christianity & Art": "Re Xtianity and Art, that is what the whole book is really about, the theme which dictated my selection of pieces and their order." The sequence of pieces within some of the separate parts seems to move from the pagan world of the Poet to the Christian world of the Historian …. The sequence of eight parts in the whole book seems to move, with some interruptions, through a spectrum of moral experience that gradually becomes more complex and problematic before shifting toward a vision of forgiveness in time and an eternity beyond it.

The distinction between the Poet and the Historian was, Mendelson explains, central to Auden's thought in these years. The Poet discerns sacred beings, sees the sacred in created beings, and celebrates them; the Historian, by contrast, "is interested only in human beings and the choices that shape their lives …. In the Historian's world, unlike the Poet's, persons are always making or facing choices." I would disagree with Mendelson that the Poet can be identified with paganism, the Historian with Christianity; but Auden's early poems, the ones that had made him famous, were completely products of the Poet, and at about the time of his conversion to Christianity in the early 1940s he began to cultivate the ways of the Historian as a corrective to his earlier impulses.

The Poet's interest in the sacred does not make the Poet more religious than the Historian; rather, one might say, the Poet always has a tendency to reduce religion to aesthetics, while the Historian's comparable temptation is to reduce it to ethics. In Auden's view, most writers contain both tendencies at least to some degree; this means that the way of health involves understanding their relationship, placing them in proper balance, and allowing each to correct the other. The sound-minded writer, especially if he or she is a Christian, must always cultivate this internal conversation.

The Dyer's Hand may be understood, then, as an attempt to make the internal conversation public. It begins with the elemental and essential activities: the first two essays are called "Reading" and "Writing." After this "Prologue" comes a section borrowing the book's title: but this time "The Dyer's Hand" considers, in three long and ambitious essays, the place of the artist in society. What are the social frameworks of late modernity within which a poet must find his or her place—and to which the poet's "nature" is "subdued"?

Next comes "The Well of Narcissus," a series of essays and pensées about self-reflection. Auden is chiefly concerned to outline the careful discernment needed to distinguish a serious critical examination of oneself from mere egotism: As one of this section's aphorisms notes, "'After all,' sighed Narcissus the hunchback, 'on me it looks good.' " And: "The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to confession to a priest: be brief, be blunt, be gone. Be brief, be blunt, forget. The scrupuland is a nasty specimen." The implication of the structure here is that one must understand one's cultural contexts well before proceeding to the task of inquiry into the self.

In the three sections that follow, Auden considers how certain major poets have explored our social and natural contexts and the manner in which those contexts have formed (and often distorted) our projects of self-understanding. (Shakespeare is the chief figure here: the section called "The Shakespearian City" is the longest in the book.) These essays strive to outline the ways that the questions raised in the earlier sections present themselves differently, and suggest different answers, in varying times and places: in the age of Rome, in the early modern Europe of Shakespeare's plays (especially the Venetian plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice), and in America as opposed to Europe. By the time Auden published this book he had been living in America for more than twenty years, and with some justification considered himself an expert on the differences between the American and the European scenes.

This brings us to the seventh and penultimate section, "The Shield of Perseus." One might not guess from the title that this is the one that forthrightly considers "Xtianity and Art," but the phrase is appropriate, given Auden's conviction, which he learned from Kierkegaard, that in the post-Christian, or at least post-Constantinian, world, Christianity can only be presented indirectly: Perseus cannot look straight at Medusa, but must observe her reflection in the polished metal of his shield.

The image returns us to the complex relations of the Poet and the Historian, for the sheen of Perseus' shield is a figure for art itself: it would seem a waste of energy to polish a shield, a piece of soldier's gear, so highly that it becomes a sharp and clear mirror. How indulgent these artists are, so concerned for appearance rather than use, rubbing away at the big heavy disc long after any reasonable workman would have set it aside as a job well done! Yet it is this very superfluity of makerly attention that in the end makes the shield useful—not as protection against attack but as a tool for vision and discernment.

Thus Auden's affection, often presented in this section of essays, for works of art that teach without seeming to teach, that unexpectedly reveal the operations of grace. The rest of us may have thought that P. G. Wodehouse wrote "merely" comic tales, but Auden shows that the comedy contains a powerful theological parable for those with ears to hear it:

Bertie Wooster … not only knows that he is a person of no account, but also never expects to become anything else; till his dying day he will remain, he knows, a footler who requires a nanny; yet, at the same time, he is totally without envy of others who are or may become of some account. He has, in fact, that rarest of virtues, humility, and so he is blessed: it is he and no other who has for his servant the godlike Jeeves.
—All the other great men of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.
—Thank you very much, sir. I endeavor to give satisfaction.
So speaks comically—and in what other mode than the comic could it on earth truthfully speak?—the voice of Agape, of Holy Love.

For Auden, it is when art renounces the temptations to prophetic utterance that it can, indirectly but all the more powerfully for that, speak to our ultimate condition.

Conversely, overtly Christian art seems problematic to Auden: "I sometimes wonder if there is not something a bit questionable, from a Christian point of view, about all works of art which make overt Christian references. They seem to assert that there is such a thing as a Christian culture, which there cannot be. Culture is one of Caesar's things." The discomfort Auden feels here is rooted in the paradoxes of the Incarnation, which are inaccessible to the Poet, though (potentially) graspable by the Historian:

The Incarnation, the coming of Christ in the form of a servant who cannot be recognized by the eye of flesh and blood, but only by the eye of faith, puts an end to all claims of the imagination to be the faculty which decides what is truly sacred and what is profane. A pagan god can appear on earth in disguise but, so long as he wears his disguise, no man is expected to recognize him nor can. But Christ appears looking just like any other man, yet claims that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that no man can come to God the Father except through Him. The contradiction between the profane appearance and the sacred assertion is impassible to the imagination.

Therefore, Auden argues elsewhere in the book, "the saint cannot be presented aesthetically." As Kierkegaard said before him, between the Genius (the person commanding aesthetic or intellectual power) and the Apostle (the person called by God for his own often inscrutable purposes) there is a great gulf fixed.

It is perhaps surprising, in light of these somber conclusions, that the last section of The Dyer's Hand should be called "Homage to Ivor Stravinsky"—the composer with whom Auden collaborated on the opera The Rake's Progress—and that its concern should be music. Is he suggesting that we should just play a song and forget all our (aesthetic, ethical, religious) troubles?

No; rather, Auden is interested in music as the art form that can at least potentially reconcile the Poet and the Historian: "What is music about? What, as Plato would say, does it imitate? Our experience of Time in its twofold aspect, natural or organic repetition, and historical novelty created by choice." That is, music tells us about the nonhistorical world of pure Being—what is experienced by animals and the sacred beings we imagine—and also about the world of human decision and its consequences. Music suggests a possible unification of these often opposing forces and experiences, a place of reconciliation.

But this can only happen if the musician does what all other artists must do, and that is to give up on the fantasy of being able to enforce reconciliation by the power of his own Genius. To entertain such a fantasy is to assume the place of God, something that Prospero seems to learn during The Tempest, which explains his decision to break his staff and drown his book: he emerges at the end of the play, alone on stage, to ask for our prayers. Yes, Auden admits in the book's final essay, "The three romantic comedies which precede [The Tempest], Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, and which deal with similar themes, injustice, plots, separation, all end in a blaze of joy—the wrongers repent, the wronged forgive, the earthly music is a true reflection of the heavenly." But it is the note of renunciation—necessary renunciation—of artistic power on which The Tempest and The Dyer's Hand alike end. In the power of music, Auden thinks, art finds its greatest hope, but also its greatest temptation.

It has not been possible here for me to do justice to the subtlety of Auden's arguments, or the way in which his chosen form—essays interspersed with notes and pensées—creates a richly contrapuntal texture of thought. He sometimes contradicts himself; like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes. But the contradictions are those that always accompany a first-rate mind that shuns comforting self-deceptions. (Auden felt that his embrace of Christianity was inestimably helpful to him in this regard.) There is much more than The Dyer's Hand in this volume of Auden's prose, but that book is at the heart of the volume, and the heart of Auden's intellectual achievement. No more profound work of criticism was made in the 20th century.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's The Age of Anxiety is just out from Princeton University Press.

Most ReadMost Shared