The Power to Enchant

by Frank Kermode | April 26, 1999

Later Auden

By Edward Mendelson

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pp., $30)

W.H. Auden: A Commentary

By John Fuller

(Princeton University Press, 613 pp., $35)

The poet Auden, though not an immodest man and even in some ways a humble man, decently enjoyed his fame, and he would have been pleased, though probably not surprised, by the volume of posthumous attention that his life and works have received. There are two large-scale biographies, by Humphrey Carpenter, which appeared in 1981, and by Richard Davenport-Hines, which appeared in 1995. The life of a man so profound, so prodigious, so industrious, so silly, and in the end so sad, is worth telling twice, and it will doubtless be told again. Even Auden's juvenilia have been well edited, and valuable additions to knowledge are regularly provided by a high-class Newsletter and an excellent series of Auden Studies, edited by Nicholas Jenkins and Katherine Bucknell. And now we have two new books that reinforce the proposition that the scholarly requirements of no other twentieth-century poet have been met so sedulously.

John Fuller, himself a poet and a novelist, teaches at Oxford and has a specialist's knowledge of eighteenth-century poets. He is also celebrated for his large store of unusual and out-of-the-way information on other matters. This accomplishment is useful to a commentator on a poet such as Auden, who was learned in peculiar ways. Fuller published his first commentary on Auden's poetry in 1970; this one is twice as long and much more helpful. It deals with every poem, collected and uncollected, published and unpublished, and it has a lifetime of often curious reading behind it, for Auden leads his commentators down many strange and sometimes dark lanes. Henceforth nobody who wants a richer understanding of this great but often willful poet can dispense with Fuller's assistance.

Auden sometimes behaved oddly in his last years, but one unsilly act of the poet was to make Edward Mendelson his literary executor. Mendelson has done the job justly, with exemplary generosity to other scholars, but he has also undertaken a full-scale edition—poetry, drama, opera, prose. This work, still in progress, is of unchallengeable authority. Now he has completed his critical biography. Early Auden, which broke off the narrative around 1938, appeared in 1981. This book carries it on to 1973, when Auden died.

The earlier book was about the English Auden, and this book is about the American. Auden arrived in the United States in 1939. He did not become an American citizen until 1946, but by then he was a pretty complete New Yorker. His recent travels had included a visit to China that he came to regard as somehow inauthentic—"the false journey is really an illness," he remarked. He now decided to settle down not in England, which, however disgusted he became with it, he still loved, but in New York, a city that he might well have been expected to hate.

Though he deplored the fact, there was always something of the magician about Auden (he disliked the idea of poetry being mistaken for magic), and soon enough he made his way into glittering intellectual circles. Already something of a sage, he was also a postulant, always learning, always allowing new ideas to change his mind. Under the influence of Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr, he was with some urgency thinking his way through to a new religious position. The early years in New York were crammed with work and strenuous thinking, to say nothing of a deeply serious love affair.

Mendelson has had to devote as much space to the years 1939-1947 as to the remaining quarter-century of Auden's life.

Mendelson's book is meant to be read right through, whereas Fuller's plainly is not; indeed he himself advises against any such attempt. Yet there is an inevitable overlap between the books. Each author warmly acknowledges the help of the other, and both have shared in some of the same tough research. How tough and minute it needed to be may be illustrated by their handling of one nightmarish problem, dealt with here by Fuller, and by Mendelson in the first volume of his edition of Auden's prose. This is the poem "Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament," in Letters from Iceland (1937).

A long poem, written in rather roughshod terza rima at the end of 1936, it is full of enigmatic allusions to contemporary events and figures, the events often quite private and trivial, and most of the figures quite forgotten. Neither MacNeice nor Auden even reprinted it, doubtless treating it as a joke, or supposing that it would inevitably lose interest as time went by. Mendelson's notes (co-authored with Richard Davenport-Hines, and with contributions from Auden fans to whom he sent questionnaires) run to twenty pages in small print; Fuller does the job with twelve. From these annotations you can learn, for instance, that the new Geological Museum at South Kensington took over the fossil collection of the Jermyn Street Museum of Practical Geology in 1935; that the Oxford Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek may have introduced Auden to string figures; that Sir Bindon Blood was appointed chief royal engineer at the age of ninety-three; that the "cottage" in Piccadilly was the men's lavatory in the Underground station; and that the medieval bridge at Crowland crosses a river that is no longer there.

There are pages and pages of this kind of thing. Some names are now remembered only for reasons that could not have been guessed at in 1936: Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, for instance. Fuller notes a lot of this, but Mendelson is marginally more patient, and his notes are a triumph of pure scholarship: the facts were there and it was an editor's job to dig them out, however much trouble it might take, and even if very few people could be expected to care. A few puzzles remain for any gleaners. No doubt some will be solved in future numbers of the Newsletter.

Auden claimed that "His guardian-angel/has always told him/What and Whom to read next." Sometimes this meant that the teachings and the mantras of some particular sage would color his writing only for a relatively brief period, but he was capable of being faithful for years. Anthony Collett's book The Changing Face of England, published in 1926, came out in a cheap edition in 1932, and left its mark on both the Prologue to On This Island, written in that year, and the splendid panoramic opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin, Auden's collaboration with Isherwood in 1935. You can see why: Collett's is a wonderfully well-written book with an almost poetic interest in geology, a subject in which Auden had a fully poetic interest. And at this date he was, to borrow a phrase of Fuller's, "unafraid of magnificence." He borrows chunks of Collett's prose, sometimes with little change, and serves them up in grandiloquent verse that owes much to Paul Claudel, another of his interests at the time. What is remarkable is that Collett, who disappears from view around 1935, turns up again in 1948, as Fuller and Mendelson duly observe, in the famous poem "In Praise of Limestone." Thus he made an incursion into a quite different phase of Auden's life. Perhaps the poet had looked again at Collett; perhaps it was just the thought of limestone that brought him back to mind.

Always ready to plunder other writers, Auden read enormously, and some books took a strong hold on him. One such book was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, a book published in 1938 and described by Fuller as "an unusual and now forgotten effort [forgotten by everybody except Fuller and Mendelson, one presumes] to make weltgeschichtisch sense of revolutionary movements in history." The half-dozen quotations from this author that Auden includes in his commonplace book A Certain World (1970)—a "map of my planet" as he calls it—are not very impressive. One needs no guru to explain that "three-quarters of a soldier's life is spent in aimlessly waiting about." But Mendelson points out that one of the revolutions believed by Rosenstock-Huessy to have advanced the Second Coming was the institution in A.D. 998 of All Souls, a feast not celebrated in Protestant churches but greatly valued by Catholics, as anyone will testify who has tried to fly anywhere from an Italian airport on the previous day.

This particular "revolution," which instituted a universal celebration of death rather than attending to a single saint, greatly impressed the poet; and he took note of the other revolutions that his mentor described. Always troubled in his post-Marxist days by the apparent disorder of history, he admired writers who could discover purpose or pattern in it. So he read the whole of Arnold Toynbee's Study of History, having, as Mendelson remarks, a taste for "polymathic generalizers." Reading Rosenstock-Huessy's book, he felt it had been written especially for him. In the same way he valued Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, because it expounded his own ideas about vocation and alienation.

For poets must have ideas: "A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas." The poet will welcome echoes of those ideas wherever he finds them: in Kierkegaard, for example. Sometimes you can see why a particular remark hit the spot, as when Kierkegaard says that "most people believe that the Christian commandments (e.g., to love one's neighbor as oneself) are intentionally a little too severe—like putting the clock ahead half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning." This was an observation after Auden's own heart, even before his later years, when punctuality became a mania.

Some of Auden's other intellectual infatuations call for more elaborate explanations. The list of Auden's authorities is long—from Homer Lane and Gerald Heard (The Ascent of Humanity) in early life to A.T.W. Simeons (Man's Presumptuous Brain) in late. He was a tremendous worker: an unusually productive writer but also a productive reader. Uncannily well informed about almost everything from medicine to theology, he thought continually about what he read, and he tried to make sense of his knowledge as a whole. And since he was inescapably a poet, his ultimate way of making sense of his knowledge was by writing poetry.

The beauty of Mendelson's book is his patient tracking of these processes. He reverses the guardian-angel relationship: what Auden was told to read next, he, Auden's posthumous guardian angel, reads next in his turn. Almost as soon as he arrived in New York, Auden returned to Christianity, but in a form very different from the Anglo-Catholicism of his mother. He learned much from Niebuhr, especially about the relation of Christianity to politics. Mendelson calls his newly acquired religious position "a lonely existentialist Protestantism."

At about the same time, he began to show a certain distrust of the trade of poet, finding reasons to think it unethical, though sure that he was a poet and could be nothing else. His conscience urged him to act as if he loved his neighbor, but his sense of vocation, his belief in his "gift," was very strong, and it seemed to conflict with the ethical imperative. He spoke admiringly of Milton's gift, which did not seem to hinder Milton's moral actions, and he nursed a secret sense that he was meant to be a leader of men. The mistrust that accompanied this conviction was based on a fear that poetry was self-centered, incapable of standing up against the terrors of history and the real world.

Was poetry, in the end, all feigning? What can it have to do with loving one's neighbor? "History opposes its grief to our buoyant song," he wrote. If you contemplate seriously the terrors of history, you may be forced to say, as Auden did in his elegy for Yeats, that "poetry makes nothing happen." At best it might heal, console, and liberate; and even this saving clause lost its efficacy in the course of time. Yet still the poems kept coming. His "gift" could not be renounced, even when seen as "indifferent," in Mendelson's words, "to public disasters." In fact, the gift never quite failed, but his mistrust of it led him to be, on occasion, quietly boring rather than curative or liberating.

Mendelson is often quite severe on his author, finding some poems "clumsy and complacent," others "evasive." Speaking of Auden's temporary interest in the contemplative saints, he says sharply that "they briefly but disastrously took over much of his work, and they ruined every poem they touched." Auden wrote a vast number of poems, and it is inevitable that some should be ruined by one obsession or another; his willingness to point this out makes Mendelson's commentary all the more persuasive. On the whole he likes the post-1939 poems better than the early work that made Auden's first reputation. If I wanted to qualify my admiration for his book, I would say that he finds it hard to do justice to poems that Auden himself disliked and rejected as "grand, emphatic, and false." Auden was not an infallible judge, though he was an honest one.

The turn—the moment when early, opinionated virtuosity came to be tempered by self-critical maturity—is said to have occurred just after "September 1, 1939," a poem in which the poet detected the sort of falseness he came to attribute to Yeats. The new style is announced in the elegy on Freud. Both Mendelson and Fuller point out that this remarkable poem—with its marvelous conclusion, "Sad is Eros, builder of cities,/And weeping anarchic Aphrodite"—is Auden's first attempt at syllabic verse. Auden learned about it from Marianne Moore (though he did not use her complex stanzas); and as Mendelson says, the Freud elegy and later poems combine "the dignity of regular forms with the intimacy of a personal voice. Auden transformed syllabic verse into one of the great permanent resources of English poetry."

There has been much argument on this point. I remember Louis MacNeice scolding me for claiming that I liked some syllabic verse of Thom Gunn, and saying, with much emphasis, that syllabics were alien to the English tradition and could ruin it. But Auden was now an American, and syllabics certainly became a permanent resource of his. He had many other resources, of course; and it may be that syllabics occasionally caused moments of dullness or triviality, though that could certainly not be said of their use in the Freud elegy or in "The Sea and the Mirror."

Mendelson's great admiration for this long poem, and the other extraordinary long poems of the 1940s, is easily understandable. "New Year Letter," though important for the biographer, is perhaps the least of them; it falls into what the poet called "the preacher's loose immodest tone." "For the Time Being" is more remarkable, but the greatest of these works of the '40s is "The Sea and the Mirror," a long poem, or series of poems, of great depth and technical virtuosity. It is subtitled "A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest," and is spoken by the characters of the play in turn.Mendelson gives a brilliant and admiring account of this work, which may well be the peak of Auden's achievement.

Fuller calls this work an ars poetica (it uses a large variety of verse forms), and he stresses also its autobiographical aspect: Auden was hurt by the infidelities of Chester Kallman, to whom he regarded himself as married, and his pain shows through. Mendelson reveals traces in the poem of Auden's odd belief that he owed his life to a miscarriage suffered by his mother before he was born, so that he could, on occasion, think of himself as a murderer. He sometimes reminded himself that his own good fortune (for instance, in being alive) could be thought of as due to the ill luck of somebody else.

I have no doubt that "The Sea and the Mirror" is one of the great poems of the age. No quotation could suggest the variety and richness of the verse, but here is Prospero saying goodbye to Ariel:

Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master, Who knows now what magic is—the power to enchant That comes from disillusion. What the books can teach one Is that most desires end up in stinking ponds, But we have only to learn to sit still and give no orders, To make you offer us your echo and your mirror; We have only to believe you, then you dare not lie; To ask for nothing, and at once from your calm eyes, With their lucid proof of apprehension and disorder, All we are not stares back at what we are.

Mendelson says that in this poem Auden "produced emotional splendors with few parallels in modern literature," and this is true, even though the technical virtuosity of the poems, the astonishing prose speech of Caliban, and the presence of much cool irony may at first command the attention of readers and defer the moment when they become fully aware of those splendors.

The age of anxiety, a quite different kind of work though not less complex, followed in 1947, only three years after "The Sea and the Mirror." Later there were more long poems, or long series of poems, notably the sequence "Horae Canonicae" and "The Shield of Achilles." The very late books contain poems that are moving enough, and sometimes still need a lot of explaining, though the poet had long renounced the obscurities of his early verse; but there is nothing more on the grandest scale. Mendelson complains of some "formulaic triviality," and he quotes Auden's description of himself as a comic poet (which he often was), but even Mendelson misses, in the late work, the sense that poems can be "acts of sacred awe." Once again we hear the sad story of the poet's last days, his withdrawal, his dreadful loneliness in Oxford or almost anywhere; the fifty cigarettes a day and the endless martinis, his squibs about death.

He still loves life but O O O O how he wishes the Good Lord would take him. (As Auden told Kallman, to make this a seventeen-syllable haiku you have to count the four Os as three, a permissible move.)

Since Fuller is himself an ingenious and witty poet, we could expect that he would know englyns, cynydds, and tankas, not to speak of accentual Asclepiadeans, sapphics, galliambics, and choriambs, when he saw them. Such ingenuities delight the more traditional kind of poet; they belong to the secrets of a craft, and Auden was in a very strong sense a traditional poet, and always a craftsman, whatever he was doing: plays, libretti, critical essays, anything written. Mendelson is equally aware of the metrical subtleties and all the other evidences of craftsmanship. Neither author is afraid to scold the great man; but both have earned over and over again the right to do that, and are also fully entitled to praise him. Auden thought well of the act of praising. He even wanted to praise "all there is for being." One can certainly praise both these books for being.

Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.

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