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.