The Book Club

Did Auden’s Talent Outstrip His Genius?

Meghan and Aidan,

Aidan—you sly devil. Would American poetry have been what it was without Auden, the transplanted Brit? The answer is: No, on two accounts. First, without Auden there could be no James Merrill, Auden’s most obvious heir as a great and lightsome technician, as a master of The Tradition, and as a semi-closeted gay man (and native-born American, son of old Charlie Merrill himself). But another of Auden’s legacies is less often discussed.  From 1951 to 1959 Auden awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a critical career-maker given each year to an American poet under 40. His chosen recipients were: Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Edgar Bogardus, Daniel Hoffman, John Ashbery, James Wright, John Hollander, and William Dickey. I can only say, having now re-read this list—holy shit.


Meghan, your reading of  “The Fall of Rome” is lovely and deft. I would add: Isn’t it odd that this wasn’t the poem the liberal artsies seized upon after 9/11? I mean, “Outlaws fill the mountain caves”? Hello?  “Fantastic grow the evening gowns”? The final stanza has always been a corker for me, in that way you indicate: It brings something very real and terrifying up only to half-consciousness, where it most retains its power to terrify. So what about those reindeer?  “Altogether elsewhere, vast/ Herds of reindeer move across/ Miles and miles of golden moss,/ Silently and very fast.” Rome is rotting from within, but its powers of disruption are centrifugal, and so vast that even at a seemingly unconnected  periphery, there is evidence of panic and flight. This is the poem we ought to be reading now as the Imperium of Overconsumption begins to unbalance every last ecosystem.


Meghan, you’ve also given me an opening: I will now admit I find Auden admirable but unsatisfying. I have the same experience with him every time. I return thinking, “Now I am ready!” and leave appropriately dazzled but also exhausted. As Edward Mendelson, his literary executor and chief American proponent, writes in his introduction to the new Collected, “Auden wrote stirring ballads, satiric couplets, gnomic riddles, comic songs, meditations on landscape and history, an expressionistic charade, a Christmas Oratorio, a baroque eclogue in a wartime bar, ironic prayers, political squibs, limericks, haiku, prose poems, sonnets … ”  In reply to this enumeration of poetic superpowers, I would ask: Yes, but did he ever write a poem as good as Yeats’ “Prayer For My Daughter” or Frost’s “To Earthward”?  “The Fall of Rome”; “September 1st, 1939.” The answer may well be: Yes. But I’ve noticed that admiring criticism of Auden often recites a set of qualities about Auden, as if poems were most importantly evidence of one man’s superiority—in Auden’s case, superior  wit, inventiveness, gusto, discrimination.


For all his exceptional mastery, though, and as with a lot of early bloomers, Auden allowed his talent to skip off ahead of his genius. He wrote too fluently and too much. Many great poets write painstakingly and rarely—Bishop and Larkin come to mind—and compared with them, Auden was a graphomaniac. When reading even his best short poems, I feel an impulse to move on, to keep snacking, and I suspect this must be an echo of his habits of composition. His fluency is tied to a certain coolness, his coolness is tied to a preference for surface feelings of attraction and repulsion, for the glance of appraisal through a Chesterfield haze. This remoteness takes precedence over and above, say, one’s own confusion, lust, joy, loathing, self-abnegation, or experience of loss. I want to be clear—most great poetry, maybe all of it, chastens us against feeling cheaply, and acts to contain and refine emotions.  But the original emotion being recollected tranquilly in a poem can be intense, and with Auden one doesn’t feel that it was. His famous poetic virtues, his stunning erudition and technical control, only point up his froideur. To read him in bulk is to feel, in the end, vaguely shown up.


Auden recognized this tendency in himself. He ends “At The Grave of Henry James”

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling …

And he had Prospero, in “The Sea and the Mirror,” say

Can I learn to suffer without saying
Something ironic or funny
About suffering?

I suppose I distrust Auden. He makes one case with his utter brilliance—I am the artist, the Great Exception!—and quite another with his Christian didacticism. As he once put it,  “The only serious possession of men is not their gifts, but what they all possess equally, independent of fortune, namely their will, in other words, their love, and the only serious matter is what they love, themselves, or God, or their neighbor … ”  So is the ability to fashion haiku, sonnet, charade, and eclogue an unserious possession?


Well, the metaphysics of the over-gifted aside, here is what I love about Auden. He came here and saw postwar America for what it was: both a large, evolving bureaucratic state, managerially devoted to maximizing production and consumption; and a place that nonetheless allowed people a certain beneficent freedom to be themselves, to carve out their own little polis from their intimacies. As he once wrote, “Our only choice lies between an external and false necessity passively accepted and an internal necessity consciously decided, but that is the difference between slavery and freedom.” Auden was no Horkheimer, but he did see that America had severely conformist tendencies that had to be stayed by the eccentricities of a self-consciously high art. For that he remains a hero.


I’ll conclude by saying that I am not religious (yet), but that the closest I come is to Auden’s religion, which as he put it was “Liturgically, Anglo Catholic, but hopefully not too spikey,” and theologically Augustinian with heavy shades of Kierkegaard. Auden lost his faith in the ‘20s, but in the series of conversions he made around the composition of “New Year Letter”—from Brit to American, principally—he regained it, and in 1940 returned to the Church. From his poetry I take the following, though I may not be right: Auden believed that each of us, as a fallible human being, as a consciousness encased in flesh, recapitulates the story of Christ, of God made man. In other words, the central fact of the New Testament is its absurdity, that the infinite would trammel itself in space and time, and this absurdity is its claim to universality. We come to God only by acknowledging our fallen-ness, and so move toward the good: toward order, repose, and, ultimately, love. Here, centrally, is why Auden is not a Romantic; it is through conscious artifice and reflection and self-control that experience becomes art, and only through avowal, over and against baser inclinations, that love becomes meaningfully human. Or as he put it in “In Sickness and In Health,” one of my favorite Auden poems:

Rejoice, dear love, in Love’s peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
So, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.