From the archive: the Auden centenary

Parnassus after all is not a mountain
Reserved for A.1. climbers such as you;
It’s got a park, it’s got a public fountain.
The most I ask is leave to share a pew
With Bradford or with Cottam, that will do …

Reading these lines from ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1936) on this, the occasion of their author’s centenary, one is struck by at least the suspicion of false modesty. Did W. H. Auden really think of himself as being on a par with Bradford and Cottam? Did he really imagine that either of those poets could turn a line with such assurance? Byron himself was seldom so practised! It was, wrote Auden, in 1970, a poet’s hope ‘to be, / like some valley cheese, / local, but prized everywhere’ (‘Shorts II’). I can think of no better description of the man who gave his name to a generation and who now takes his place on Mount Parnassus, not on a pew with Bradford and Cottam, but with Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats.

Our greatest modern verse technician, Auden wrote sonnets, songs, ballads, lyrics, limericks, sestinas, villanelles, elegies and dramatic monologues. The range of his prosody was staggering, and yet he was no mere filler-in of forms. Auden, indeed, had such depths of feeling as allowed him to invest even a music hall ditty or Elizabethan pastiche with emotional substance. ‘Open your eyes, my dearest dallier; / Let hunt with your hands for escaping me …’ It is almost as if all the poets of the past had come together into a great baggy monster with the power to wring every last drop of lyricism out of our rich, if rhyme-poor, language.

His was, let us say, an auspicious beginning. Bursting onto the scene in the late 1920s, Auden seemed to arrive fully formed, causing even T. S. Eliot to fall off his chair in admiration. The early poems are indeed a knockout. Elliptic and with strange syntactical glitches, they have a sort of oblique potency – such that the reader can barely draw breath. Readers are right to be suspicious of poets who talk about ‘different levels of meaning’, but with Auden the phrase can be used with confidence. Don’t go scratching for some meaningful kernel. The poems are rather states to be shared.

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women …
(‘The Wanderer’)

Born in York in 1907, Auden spent much of his childhood in the Midlands, the landscape of which obsessed and inspired him. No member of the English Cowpat School, his was a sort of industrial-pastoral – an austere landscape of valleys and uplands scarred by a slowly dying industry, by slagheaps, tramlines and derelict watersheds. But if the scenery of the poems is distinctly English, the atmosphere owes more to continental Europe, and to the rise of Fascism in particular. For the Garden of Auden is a policed landscape; the walls have ears and the hills have eyes. Its microclimate is one of fear.

The sky is darkening like a stain;
Something is going to fall like rain,
And it won’t be flowers.
(‘The Witnesses’)

Much ink has been spilled on whether this ‘something’ – this ‘gradual ruin spreading like a stain’ – was political, economic or cosmic. The answer, I think, is that it was all three and that the malevolent power stalking the land – a sort of ur-Fascist, referred to, variously, as ‘the Adversary’, ‘The Thing’ and the ‘Supreme Antagonist’ – was, for Auden, the sum of all fears. George Orwell called Auden ‘a sort of gutless Kipling’, and while that was rude, it was oddly pertinent. For Auden drew inspiration from fear, especially fear of collective mania. In the terrifying poem, ‘O What is That Sound’, the soldiers, referred to throughout as ‘they’, become, in the final stanza, an ‘it’:

O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.

For Auden, this ‘it’ had its nemesis in love. Auden was certainly not a love poet in the sense that Sir Thomas Wyatt was a love poet. Rather, he was a poet of love; love was his subject and his inspiration. It also lay at the heart of his politics. For the homosexual, love is political and in Auden’s poetry Love of Man and a love for individual men combine to produce a sort of sexualised camaraderie in opposition to the ‘Abundant wish for death’.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
(‘Lullaby’)

That Auden found love in the late 1930s is one of the reasons sometimes given for the subsequent decline in his poetry’s quality. Another often-cited reason is his decision to move to the United States at the beginning of 1939. In any case and for whatever reason, 1940 or thereabouts was a Prospero moment for the still-young Auden. It is as if he came to distrust his own magic, swapping his staff for a pipe and slippers.

After 1940, Auden’s poetry became more conceptual and less inspired. Nevertheless, he still wrote great poems. ‘If I Could Tell You’ is, in my view, one of the finest villanelles in the language, while ‘August 1968’ (on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) is political poetry at its most effective. Only eight lines long, it is especially notable for the way its wonderful final line restores the word ‘drivel’ to its original meaning – such that it both describes and denounces:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

Perhaps it is how we choose to quote Auden that gives us a clue as to the nature of his greatness. Larkin once said that ‘This Be The Verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’) would end up being his ‘Innisfree’ – the mediocre poem everyone remembers. Notwithstanding ‘Funeral Blues’ (popularised by Four Weddings and a Funeral), Auden has suffered no such fate. When the Twin Towers crumbled to rubble and dust, it was ‘September 1, 1939’ that seemed to capture the prevailing mood.

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, wrote Auden, in his beautiful elegy for W. B. Yeats. Well, it may make nothing happen, but it makes what happens easier to bear. I fear we’re going to need a lot of it in the remaining ninety-three years of this century and can think of no better poet than Auden to accompany us on our perilous journey.

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First published in The Weekend Australian in 2007