By Alan Jacobs
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.