The Book Club

Is Auden the Honorary American?

Hi, Meghan and Aidan,

I thought I’d fill in and counterpoint your terrific first post by offering some ideas about Auden’s oddly mixed reception in this country, and then by engaging his poetry more directly. It’s true that Auden has enjoyed a recent and encouraging spike in popularity. But I’m not convinced (yet) that this is an important shift in his reputation among Americans, a reputation that is not so much good or bad as indistinct. I think there are three reasons for this. First, inasmuch as Americans experience poetry at all, they tend to get their most consequential dose of it early on, as students. But Auden is not a young person’s poet, the way T.S. Eliot, say, can be. The contrast with Eliot is instructive. Eliot, the American who went to England, is superficially obscure but easily mastered. For 50 years his work has filled bright high-school students with feelings of high cultural and metaphysical dread, a useful derivative, for the English teacher, of adolescent self-importance. In spite of his being personally repulsive, and disliked by the Yale (and Yale-derived) critics who have dominated literary criticism since the ‘60s, Eliot remains a totemic presence on the syllabus. On the other hand Auden, the Englishman who emigrated to America, is a poet for adults. In fact, he is everything Eliot was not: supple, feminine, urbane, funny, relaxed, erotic, gossipy, generous, worldly, and humane. It is easy to teach a person under 22 The Waste Land *. Now try teaching him or her The Age of Anxiety.

Secondly, though Auden matured far beyond his origins as a ‘30s poet nurtured in the homosocial Petrie dish known as Oxford and became a poet deeply engaged with the reality of postwar life, he remained very English—meticulously careful in his effusions, effortlessly catholic in his erudition, relaxed in that way that only the most intimidating people can be relaxed. He was the last poet for whom the university was never a meaningful patron, and for whom Latin and Greek and the entire canon of English poets seemed casually ready-to-hand. An American can become acclimated, and come to love unsentimentally, the crabby-crabbed eccentricities of Yeats more easily than he can grasp Auden’s, in part because Auden’s eccentricities are not meant to be easily grasped, if grasped at all.

So I wish you first a
Sense of theatre; only
Those who love illusion
And know it will go far:
Otherwise we spend our
Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with
Who we really are.

“Who we really are” is an American, maybe the American, obsession. It was not Auden’s, and to an American ear he can sound slippery and fey.

Thirdly, Auden has never found a dominant American critic to champion him. I may be wrong on this, but I remember Auden as entirely absent from the syllabus at every stage of my education, and have never found him written about with the same disciplined adulation that American critics have offered up to Yeats, Stevens, Moore, Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, to produce a quick list. Jarrell, as you point out, was neurotically preoccupied with Auden, and finally could not side with him; Bloom once dismissed his work as “reducing too easily to paraphrase,” though I am paraphrasing here from memory. The highly placed shill has eluded Auden. Maybe this is for the best.

Enough reputation; the poems! My favorite Auden is the American Auden, the middle-ish Auden, the Auden that started to emerge in the ‘40s, with New Year Letter, and came out more fully in the Yeats and Freud elegies, “In Sickness and in Health,” “The Fall of Rome,” “In Praise of Limestone,” and “Under Sirius,” to name some obvious choices, and culminates in the longer works The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety, and The Shield of Achilles. This Auden had self-consciously moved on: from Freud and Marx to Kierkegaard and Neibur; from the literary swim of Oxford and London to the vast, encompassing anonymity of New York City. You mentioned New Year Letter, and I agree it’s a good place to start.

New Year Letter is a long poem—eyeballing it, over a thousand lines, easy—in octosyllabic couplets, divided into three parts. It is addressed to a new friend, a German refugee living on Long Island named Elizabeth Mayer, an older woman whose company Auden is coming to realize he cherishes. The poem is about our inexorably divided self, an idea Auden was refining by reading (of course!) Montaigne and Lincoln. As Montaigne had put it: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” Auden had expanded on this in reviewing a biography of Lincoln. “The one infallible symptom of greatness is the capacity for double focus. [Great men] know that all absolutes are heretical but that one can only act in a given circumstance by assuming one … ”

The opening of the poem is instructive. The new year is a time for forward-looking reassessment—”All our reflections turn about/ A common meditative norm/ Retrenchment, Sacrifice, Reform”—especially in the new world, but this one finds Auden harkening back to the previous New Year, when he was still in Europe. ” … round me, trembling in their beds,/ Or taut with apprehensive dreads,/ The sleepless guests of Europe lay/ Wishing their centuries away/ And the low mutter of their vows/ Went echoing through her haunted house,/ As on the verge of happening/ There crouched the presence of The Thing.” The Thing—what is it? Sin, we discover as we move through the poem, by which Auden means something like: our tendency to morbid self-disowning and disorder. He also certainly has in mind the fascism that he recently fled. And, I’d like to argue, he is also thinking of our old friend Eliot. As Auden continues:

All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure of the door,
But up the staircase of events
Carrying his special instruments,
To every bedside all the same
The dreadful figure swiftly came.

How Eliotic, “the scratching on the window-sill,” the little irritant that reinforces how trapped you are in your own human smallness, how uncomfortable you are (or ought to be) in your own human skin. And precisely the sort of snickering diminution New Year Letter will go on to protest against. I believe Auden is announcing, I refuse to extract even the thinnest gauze of self-importance or rhetorical urgency from the thing I hate, even by detesting it; because by drawing on its power, I only enhance its power. Instead, the poem is about the tentative little utopia that friendship can be, though Auden wants to work, and make us work, to arrive at that affirmation. And so the first part of the poem is about not surrendering to the “vast apocalyptic dream,” and instead acknowledging that, even through our imperfection, we put forth order and calm, most commonly in works of art. There are extraordinary passages—they seem to bring together the urbanity of Dryden with the rinsing fire of Blake:

All the more honor to you then
If, weaker than some other men,
You had the courage that survives
Soiled, shabby, egotistical lives,
If poverty or ugliness
Ill-health or social unsuccess
Hunted you out of life to play
At living in another way …

And later:

Now large, magnificent and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will,
And to the growing and the weak
Your final transformations speak.

The second part details the machinations of the devil, though again, a devil of our own making, and a possible instrument of our own enlightenment. The poem ends joyously, and in a total repudiation of Europe, of fascism, of Eliot:

Convict our pride of its offense
In all things, even penitence,
Instruct us in the civil art
Of making from the muddled heart
A desert and a city where
The thoughts that have to labor there
May find locality and peace,
And pent-up feelings their release …

I suspect this is why Auden may have repudiated his earlier work. It drew too much on the specter of European collapse, and so took its self-importance from a way of thinking and feeling, about the miseries of history, that Auden wanted to transcend. New Year Letter affirms Auden as an honorary if still doubt-afflicted American—as at least a somewhat optimistic and forward-looking poet. Anyhow, I am out of time. 


Correction, March 5, 2007: An earlier version of this entry mistakenly identified T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land as The Wasteland. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)