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Alan Jacobs

The Poet in Old Age

Auden's late prose.

With the publication of these two books, Edward Mendelson brings to a close the second stage of a massive project,the Complete Works of W. H. Auden. The first stage was the publication of the dramatic writings, the plays and libretti that Auden worked on often on throughout his career, in two volumes. The second stage collects, in six large volumes, Auden's prodigious output of prose, most of it written to order for magazines and newspapers. Now that that task is complete, Mendelson will turn his attention to Auden's poetry, which will appear in a projected three volumes. Given Auden's penchant for revising his poems, this third stage of the project will present quite a challenge to Mendelson. But as Auden's literary executor since 1972, and a prodigiously skilled textual editor and critic, he is the only person in the world truly qualified to do the job.

Auden always insisted that he wrote prose only for the money. Like Robert Graves, who described popular novels as show dogs he raised and sold in order to feed his beloved cat Poetry, Auden spent about half of every year writing reviews and essays that would enable him to spend the other half of the year on his true calling.

Nevertheless, Auden improved the time by using book reviews as opportunities to work through ideas that interested him. For instance, in 1944 he convinced The New Republic to allow him to review a book that had been published years earlier, Charles Norris Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture, largely so he could sort out his own strong responses to Cochrane's argument. (He also wanted more people to know about the book, which he believed to be a masterpiece.) More oddly, Auden's 1956 review in The New York Times of Tolkien's Return of the King goes on for several paragraphs in this vein:

The difficulty in 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.

Somehow I doubt that the Times of today would be willing to tolerate so peculiar a digression from the assignment of the reviewer.

If throughout his career Auden used book reviewing as a way of testing ideas, in the last stage of his life (reflected in these two volumes), he became especially interested in thinking about the shape or form or character of a humanlife—especially his own. Starting in the early Sixties, Mendelson observes, "Auden thought of himself as having withdrawn from the public eye, while, at the same time, he began to say more in public about his inner self and his private history than he had ever done before … . For the rest of his life, until his death at sixty-six in 1973, he declared himself a champion of privacy while revealing, in direct and indirect ways in prose and verse, the secrets of his inner life."

He was reluctant to write a straightforward autobiography, and in fact often denounced autobiographies by and biographies of poets and other artists, but that didn't stop him, in the last decade of his life, from regularly turning book reviews and essays into venues for thinking about how he had come to be who he was. Especially interesting to him, at least to judge from his periodical writing, were his homosexuality (which was lifelong) and his return to Christian faith (which happened when he was in his early 30s). However, it was easier for him to write about the latter than the former, since, though Auden made no secret of his sexuality, he could rarely write about it explicitly in major American or for that matter British publications.

Auden pursues this autobiographical exploration mostly informally and anecdotally: the highly organizational impulse that governs much of his intellectual life—he was for decades a great maker of detailed charts and complex tables—seems to have waned late in life. To a considerable extent this was simply a side effect of depleted energy. Auden had lived for too long what he called "the chemical life": his days were marked at their beginnings by the consumption of amphetamines and at their end by the consumption of barbiturates, with plenty of alcohol imbibed in the intervening hours. Auden felt that he needed such stimuli in order to maintain regularity of habit, which he prized greatly, but the practice took an enormous toll on his health, and he was already feeling, and to a considerable extent acting, like an elderly man by the time he reached his mid-50s. In this last stage of his life there is something geriatric about his imagination, in poetry and prose, though I do not mean that as an insult. There are few enough writers who reflect in any genuinely thoughtful way about what it means to grow old.

But if the intellectual electricity that coursed through his earlier work is largely absent in the work gathered here, and when present present only at lower voltages, there remains much of interest in these volumes. For instance, the T. S. Eliot Lectures he gave at the University of Canterbury in 1968, later published under the title Secondary Worlds, while less tightly organized than his earlier work had been, contain many thoughtful passages, especially about the relationship between Christianity and the arts—a topic in which he shared an interest with Eliot, though they did not have a great deal of agreement. If Elliot's habitual concern was with incapability—"each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, / With shabby equipment always deteriorating"—Auden was more worried about power that was real but misapplied.

In one of those lectures, he comments that he and his "fellow-citizens of the Republic of Letters" had but one "political duty": "To love the Word and defend it against its enemies." And who or what are those enemies? The "principal enemies of the True Word are two: the Idle Word and the Black Magician." To write idly, in Auden's view, is primarily to write for effect rather than in obedience to the requirements of truth-telling. (He felt that he had succumbed to this temptation often as a young poet.) But the other enemy was more dangerous still. The Black Magician encourages poets to believe that they can be prophets and redeemers. Or, as Auden put it once in a review, he tries to make a person attempt "to do for himself or others by the writing of poetry what can only be done in some other way, by action, or study, or prayer."

Mendelson has also uncovered, and paid serious attention to, a lecture which Auden never published called "Work, Carnival, and Prayer":

Late in 1969 he first began writing about the theme of carnival, which he illustrated from Goethe's account in Italian Journey of the carnival at Rome. When Auden translated Italian Journey in the early 1960s, he had written that Goethe's account of carnival was "less interesting than the rest" of the book; now, and until the end of his life, he made it one of the central themes in prose and verse. He was prompted to this theme by a book he never named, Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, which had been translated by a friend from Auden's theological circle, Helene Iswolsky.

For Auden, Work, Carnival, and Prayer are the "three worlds" in which we all live, or should live:

A satisfactory human life, individually or collectively, is possible only if proper respect is paid to all three worlds. Without Prayer and Work, the Carnival laughter turns ugly, the comic obscenities grubby and pornographic, the mock aggression into real hatred and cruelty … . Without Laughter and Work, Prayer turns Gnostic, cranky, Pharisaic, while those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires—an attempt which can only end in utter catastrophe.

The entire lecture is profound and stimulating, and I find myself both immensely grateful that Mendelson has made it widely available and a little sad that Auden did not strike this rich vein of wisdom when he was still young and healthy enough to develop it fully. It boggles the mind to imagine what the Auden of the early 1950s—the period of his greatest work, the poetic sequence "Horae Canonicae"—would have made of this triumvirate of lifeworlds.

Overall, I believe, the most fascinating work presented here is Auden's "commonplace book," A Certain World, which was published in 1970 but has been out of print for many years (in the UK as well as here in the US). Auden described it as the closest thing to an autobiography he would ever write, and it is immensely revelatory indeed, though in a peculiar way.

Paul Griffiths, in his landmark book Religious Reading (1999), comments that the two key genres of religious reading are anthology and commentary, and A Certain World is a combination of the two. It is largely a collection of what seem to be utterly miscellaneous passages from books Auden read and enjoyed, but the point, clearly, is that Auden believes that this apparent miscellany adds up to something like an imaginary "world." Some of the entries: "Acronyms"; "Chiasmus"; "Dark Ages, Thank God for the"; "Home"; "Lead Mine, Visit to a"; "Paradise, the Earthly"; "Spoonerisms"; "Water, Running."

Many of the entries are quotations without comment; in others, Auden's own comments are brief; but occasionally the comments are far longer than the quotation, and in a few cases Auden speaks directly and without external references to the topic at hand. For instance, "Liturgy, Reform of" begins: "I don't know if it is any better with the Anglican Church in England, but the Episcopalian church in America seems to have gone stark raving mad."

Let me close with one more reflection by Auden, one of the longest in A Certain World, from the entry on "Friday, Good"; it exemplifies the wisdom and acuity of mind that this great man possessed, even in the somewhat diminished last years of his life:

Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I'm certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight—three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, "It's disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can't the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?" Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the honors program at Baylor University. He edited Auden's The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue and For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio for Princeton University Press.

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