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May 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Love Feast

Seeing Auden in a new light
Photograph of W. H. Auden by Irving Penn, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation

Photograph of W. H. Auden by Irving Penn, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation


The Love Feast

Seeing Auden in a new light

Discussed in this essay:

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927–1939, edited by Edward Mendelson. Princeton University Press. 848 pages. $58.70.

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940–1973, edited by Edward Mendelson. Princeton University Press. 1,120 pages. $60.

One evening in August 1933, after hearing some new poetry read aloud, the British diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson opened his diary and made a confession:

A man like Auden with his fierce repudiation of half-way houses and his gentle integrity makes one feel terribly discontented with one’s own smug successfulness. I go to bed feeling terribly Edwardian and back-number, and yet, thank God, delighted that people like Wystan Auden should actually exist.

The poet whose reading excited this envy and admiration was twenty-six years old. The adjective “Audenesque” was already in use, and people would soon speak (both reverently and critically) of “the Auden generation” and “the Auden age.” The awe that his verse and presence inspired could rise to a comic pitch; in the same year that Nicolson confided gratitude to his diary, Charles Madge wrote a poem containing these memorable lines: “But there waited for me in the summer morning, / Auden, fiercely. I read, shuddered and knew.”

The young poet’s cultural dominance came to a rather sudden end in January 1939, when he and his friend Christopher Isherwood boarded a ship and left Europe and England for the United States, never permanently to return. (Each became an American citizen in 1946.) Many British people felt that Auden had abandoned his mother country in its time of greatest need, and this was not soon forgotten. In 1951, Evelyn Waugh sneered that Auden had scuttled across the Atlantic “at the first squeak of an air-raid warning,” and even in 1973, Anthony Powell, having breakfast with Kingsley Amis, beamed when the morning paper told him that Auden was dead: “No more Auden. I’m delighted that shit has gone. It should have happened years ago.”

For British intellectuals to the left of Waugh and Powell, Auden became controversial for other reasons, primarily his return, soon after his move to the United States, to the Anglican Christianity of his childhood. Some found this new religiosity offensive; to others it was merely inexplicable. In 1940, Auden moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights that he shared with an extraordinary collection of people, including the composer Benjamin Britten, the novelist Carson McCullers, and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee—who paid more rent than all of them because she was the only one making a good living. Among the residents was Auden’s brother-in-law Golo Mann, son of the great German novelist Thomas Mann. (In 1935, Auden, though gay, had married Golo’s sister Erika, whose German citizenship had been revoked by the Nazis. The marriage gave her a British passport.) Golo noticed that “on Sundays he began to disappear for a couple of hours and returned with a look of happiness on his face.” What could possibly explain this strange behavior? Only after several weeks did Auden reveal that he was going to church. That this possibility had never occurred to Golo speaks volumes about the social world Auden inhabited.

Golo showed Auden the terrible things being said about him in the British newspapers and expected him to respond, but Auden saw no point. “The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to,” he proclaimed. “They have nothing to offer and their protests echo in empty space.” Auden often said in later years that it was the unbelieving world’s inability to explain why Hitler was wrong that brought him back to the church.

This change in belief led to great changes in his poetry as well. The reverence and astonishment he had inspired early on stemmed from his ability to unite the archaic and the modern in ways that struck readers as magical, even though they did not understand what precisely was being said. One of his most famous early poems begins,

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly—look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.

The syntax can’t be disentangled, but reading this and other early poems one can easily see how their “magical lyric phrases”—as Auden dismissively called them in 1942—would have captured imaginations. Dylan Thomas’s lush Welsh romanticism may seem worlds apart from Auden’s cool and quasi-Nordic observations, but Thomas bought Auden’s first collection when he was sixteen and kept it all his life. (Now at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Thomas’s copy has been perused nearly to shreds and is held together with tape.)

The young Auden was determined to invest with magic what seemed to others ordinary and perhaps even sordid. One of his greatest early works, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” celebrates a one-night stand in quietly ecstatic terms, a mode that would previously have been reserved for professions of eternal devotion:

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.

As for professions of eternal devotion, Auden could shrewdly satirize those, as when the narrator of “As I Walked Out One Evening” overhears a lover crying:

I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

As the lover falls silent, the narrator hears a very different set of voices:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time. . . . ”

It is perhaps this willingness to disenchant that Thomas had in mind when writing for the periodical New Verse, which published a special issue on Auden in 1937, the year he turned thirty. After affirming that Auden was “as potentially productive of greatness as any poet writing in English,” he added, “P.S.—Congratulations on Auden’s seventieth birthday.”

There was always something eerily mature about the young Auden: his close friend Stephen Spender once wrote that, as an undergraduate at Oxford, he “was not so much a leader as a doctor and teacher among his patients, each of which he treated as a distinct case, and separately.” Auden’s father, George Augustus Auden, was a physician and an early reader of Freud; the young poet saw himself also as a healer, though in a rather different mode, less an M.D. than a magus. Spender noted that Auden believed implicitly in his ability to look into people’s hearts and minds and diagnose their disorders; and as we know from the example of Freud, a central figure for the young Auden, the task of the healer often involves the removal of illusions. The young Auden enchanted and disenchanted, wove some beautiful images while dispelling others. He assumed a role of great power, but when he crossed the sea to his new land and new life, he set all such practices aside. Not long after moving to the United States he wrote an ambitious long poem featuring characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, among them Prospero, the great wizard who at the end of that play breaks his staff and drowns his book: “This rough magic / I here abjure.” Auden has Prospero tell his spirit-servant Ariel that he “knows now what magic is;—the power to enchant / That comes from disillusion.”

When Auden’s poetry changed, many of those who had most admired him were puzzled, disappointed, and even angry. In 1952, the American poet Randall Jarrell wrote:

One feels that the man who, during the 1930s, was one of the five or six best poets in the world, has gradually turned into a rhetoric-mill grinding away at the bottom of Limbo, into an automaton that keeps making brilliant little jokes, extraordinary little plays on words, unbelievable little rhetorical engines, as compulsively and unendingly and uneasily as a neurotic washes his hands.

In 1960, in The Spectator, Philip Larkin worried, whats become of wystan? And in a lecture delivered in 1986, Seamus Heaney sounded a more nuanced version of the same concern:

The price of an art that is so faithfully wedded to disenchantment and disintoxication . . . that is impelled not only to lay down the law but to keep a civil tongue, the price of all this is a certain diminution of the language’s autonomy.

When Auden broke his staff and drowned his book, these poets believed, something wonderful was lost. They still read, but they had ceased to shudder; had ceased to know. And yet those of us reading decades later may find that Auden did not transform himself quite as completely as his contemporaries thought—as he himself thought.

If Heaney’s judgment is more balanced than those of Jarrell and Larkin, if he sees the potential poetic value of laying down the law and keeping a civil tongue, that’s indicative of a shift in the common narrative about Auden, a reconsideration: Maybe he didn’t simply forget how to write poetry at age thirty-two. Maybe there’s more to the later poetry than a finger-wagging sort of disenchantment, a diminution, unbelievable little rhetorical engines. And insofar as a general reappraisal of that verse has happened in the past few decades, the person primarily responsible is Edward Mendelson, the editor of Auden’s Complete Works, which has now, with the publication of the two volumes under consideration here, been brought to a conclusion. (A final collection of letters and poems for friends will be published later, as a kind of pendant to the project.)

Mendelson first met Auden while writing a doctoral thesis on the poet, and was later invited by Auden to help collect some of his essays into a book; eventually he was named the executor of Auden’s literary estate, a responsibility he has fulfilled with remarkable diligence and fidelity for nearly fifty years. For forty of those years he has—while pursuing a career as a teacher, writer, and adviser to other scholars, including myself—painstakingly sifted through a vast body of work, some of which, especially the poems, appears in multiple versions. Along the way, in books and essays, Mendelson has championed a reassessment of the poet’s later work. He has not achieved this through polemic, but rather through a patient and careful effort, especially in his book Later Auden, of taking the post–1939 career as seriously as everyone has always taken the early work.

In almost every reading of Auden, the familiar hinge of his career remains visible—and indeed is emphasized in the division of these two volumes, the first of which ends in 1939 and the second of which begins in 1940. But thanks to Mendelson, it is now generally seen to mark a transition, not from excellence to incompetence, but from one kind of excellence to another. And this way of viewing the transition is now typically accepted even by those, such as Heaney, who prefer the earlier verse and lament what was lost.

All the themes of Auden’s later verse converge on a rejection of the heroic and triumphal modes, and the substitution of a different register, that of the repeated and the mundane. In the second half of his career, Auden patiently worked out, in both prose and masterful verse, the implications of his homemade anthropology—his own account of what his friend Hannah Arendt would later call, in a 1958 book, The Human Condition. That anthropology ultimately centers on two core propositions: that we are prone to trust and love what breaks our hearts, and that we are creatures alongside the birds and the social insects, albeit creatures who, as he says in one poem, have “assumed responsibility for time.” We must live simultaneously in nature and history, though we forever are tempted by those prophets who tell us we can only take full refuge in one or the other.

“Beloved, we are always in the wrong,” Auden wrote in 1940, echoing Kierkegaard, who was at that time the single brightest star in his intellectual firmament. (Either/Or concludes with a sermon called “The Edifying in the Thought that Against God We Are Always in the Wrong.”) For several years Auden’s theological anthropology was dominated by a focus on human depravity, on our inability to claim any merit in ourselves, but even when the grip of what he called his “neo-Calvinist” theology eased, he remained ever aware of his own personal weaknesses. He repeatedly told friends that he kept to a rigid work schedule, one bounded by the taking of Benzedrine in the morning and barbiturates at night—a practice that almost certainly contributed to the heart disease that killed him at age sixty-six—because he otherwise lacked the discipline to get his work done. That weakness of will, he believed, threatened to make him a go-along-to-get-along person. Above all else he feared intellectual dishonesty, because that was a temptation to which he had succumbed. “Whatever we obey becomes our fate,” he wrote in a previously unpublished poem from 1940; we must, therefore, bestow our obedience only upon careful reflection.

Eight months after arriving in the United States, after the German army invaded Poland and thus began World War II, Auden wrote a poem that, he later came to believe, emerged from the residue of the bad intellectual habits he had left Europe to escape. “September 1, 1939” was the name of the poem, and Auden came to have a particular loathing for its most famous line: “We must love one another or die.” Only a few years after writing the poem he insisted that the line be changed to “We must love one another and die,” but that was a half measure, and he later excised the poem from collections of his work. In 1963, when asked by an anthologist for permission to reprint the poem and four others from the same period, he agreed, but on the condition that this note would be appended: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.” When, in 1967, his old friend Mitchison wrote an essay praising “September 1, 1939” and lamenting the lack of “memorability” in Auden’s more recent work, the poet drafted (though apparently did not send) a reply: “I don’t know, of course, what poems of mine, if any, you do read, but if, by memorable you mean a poem like ‘Sept 1st, 1939,’ I pray to God that I shall never be memorable again.”

When Auden accepted an invitation in 1965 from his British publisher Faber & Faber to make a revised edition of his Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957, he concluded his editorial work with a new foreword. In it he wrote, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring. A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.” He singled out for condemnation his poem “Spain 1937”—a meditation on the Spanish Civil War, in which Auden had participated as an ambulance driver—because it contained these lines:

History to the defeated
may say alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Interestingly, one line in the original version of this poem—“The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”—was singled out for critique by George Orwell in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”: “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” That was not the line Auden condemned, though he did, before excising the poem altogether, revise that line to “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.” About what history says to the defeated, Auden wrote,

To say this is to equate goodness with success. It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.

This is how the poet is tempted to dishonesty: when offered the poisoned chalice of rhetorical effectiveness.

Auden’s awareness of how easily he could be seduced by applause, how readily he could say things that he knew not to be true if they flattered his readers, haunted him for the rest of his career. He had to remain alert to the dangers of the contagion of social conformity. This fear manifested itself in the form of near-constant restlessness after the war. Reluctant to dwell always within the intellectual coteries of New York City, he spent half of each year in some European backwater. In the late Forties, after writing a series of long, intellectually ambitious, theologically serious poems of a rather abstract character, he pulled up stakes and made for Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. As one of “the pallid children / Of a potato, beer-or-whiskey / Guilt culture,” he knew he needed the corrective of “a sunburnt otherwhere” with different rules. He thus joined the small crew of those “In middle-age hoping to twig from / What we are not what we might be next.”

It was there, on Ischia, that he achieved a major turn in his poetry, and in his Christian theology too: while not quite rejecting the emphasis on human depravity that had dominated his thinking, he came to believe, as he said in a late interview, that such a mode of thought had “done all it can, and is now a danger. . . . It doesn’t pay proper attention to the body.” To achieve a poetics and a theology of the inarticulate human body became one of his two chief tasks for the next decade, and Mendelson is right to say, as he does in his book Later Auden, that Auden went on to write “some of his most profound poems, works whose depth and breadth have been underestimated because their treatment of their subject matter was novel and unexpected.”

In these years Auden still writes erotic poems, but typically now in a comic mode, and he is inclined to think of desire less as an impulse of the body than as an impulse of a rebellious will. In “The Love Feast” he depicts a party as a parody of a gathering of early Christians, one populated by people devoted to “the gospel / Of the radio-phonograph.” He ends by channeling a famous line by St. Augustine:

But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . . .
I am sorry I’m not sorry . . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.

But the body itself he now tends to see less as an engine of sexual desire than a thing with simpler needs, needs shared with other organisms. (In “Compline,” part of his great sequence “Horae Canonicae,” he writes of the end of the average day, when “the body escapes, / Section by section, to join / Plants in their chaster peace which is more / To its real taste.” To be embodied is to participate in a fellowship of creatureliness, one which even the stones join, as we see in the anatomy of geological formations in “In Praise of Limestone.” Because we are part of nature, natural imagery can therefore be illuminating: the “granite wastes” speak to “Saints-to-be,” the “clays and gravels” offer their services to “Intendant Caesars,” and as for a limestone landscape:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water.

Even the stones speak to us and of us, because before we are sinners we are creatures. Auden comes to think of our sinfulness as but part of the human story, and to see that a single-minded focus on it can diminish or even occlude gratitude. In “Prime,” the first poem in the “Horae Canonicae,” he writes of the moment of awaking:

Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world, and rejoice
Unvexed. . . .

The world we are with, the world we are into each morning thrown, speaks to us of ourselves: light can be laconic, mountains can have poise. That said, the day he describes will bring about a death—the sacrifice of one he does not name but refers to only as “our victim”—and that leads us to Auden’s second great task in his Ischian years: the articulation of a new model of politics, by which I mean not the endorsement of a party or platform, but a vision of what it means to live with other embodied creatures in the polis, the human community. Which is to say, to live not just in nature but also in history, where our charge, we are reminded, is to “assume responsibility for time.”

In 1945, Auden spent several months working for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, documenting the devastation that Allied bombing had inflicted on Germany. The experience shook him profoundly, and a couple of years afterward, in “Memorial for the City,” he recorded the history of attempts to name and define our common life—the Sinful City, the Rational City, the Glittering City—all of which have left us “in this night / Among the ruins of the Post-Virgilian City.” Virgil had sung of the city that would bring the Pax Romana; but the destruction Auden saw in, for instance, Darmstadt—“where there once was a town,” he wrote to a friend—showed him what Virgilian dreams had come to. Years later he remembered the experience: “We asked them if they minded being bombed. We went to a city which lay in ruins and asked if it had been hit. We got no answers we didn’t expect.”

If the key polarity of Auden’s poems on embodied life is nature versus history, the key polarity of his poems on the polis is Arcadia versus Utopia. Arcadians, like Auden himself, habitually look back toward an innocent and hence ideal past; Utopians habitually look forward to a perfected and ideal future. In the prose poem “Vespers,” the fifth of the “Horae Canonicae,” Auden imagines a twilit encounter, on the streets of the city, with his Utopian “Anti-type”: “Neither speaks. What experience could we possibly share?” But late in the poem, he muses that their meeting could be something more than “a fortuitous intersection of life-paths, loyal to different fibs”—it could, perhaps, be

a rendezvous between accomplices who, in spite of themselves, cannot resist meeting / to remind the other (do both, at bottom, desire truth?) of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget.

Perhaps each needs the other to force him to see the idealizing “fib” of his own political preferences. Perhaps “our dear old bag of a democracy” requires just such “fortuitous” encounters.

It is a thought worthy of reflection. But it must also be said that “Vespers” concludes with the insistence that any bond between Arcadian and Utopian is forged by a shared recognition of “our victim”—a phrase that can be read in specifically Christian terms, but that Auden seems to want to open to broader interpretation. When he says “without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand,” he asks Arcadians and Utopians alike this question: What have we opposites, together, sacrificed to make our common city what it is?

For all of Auden’s (quite sincere) talk about the dangers of poetic hubris—he often said that the claim about poetry that he most despised was Shelley’s dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—his two great tasks exhibit an exceptional ambition. And while some efforts have been made to comprehend the scope of Auden’s thought in his Ischian years, and to grasp the character of the poetic resources he brought to bear, the poems of that period remain depressingly little-known. They await their readership. But poems that speak of learning to love our bodies and our neighbors, poems that know what it means to live in the ruins of a city and to seek the means of rebuilding it, poems that can name wrongs and cultivate gratitude, are surely poems that can speak to our condition.

The poem I quoted above about the need for a “sunburnt otherwhere” is called “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno.” After a decade or so, Auden felt that the possibilities of his Ischian interlude had been exhausted, that some danger hovered, some chance of descending into rote behavior or indiscipline. With money he received from a big international poetry prize, he bought a cottage in Kirchstetten, an Austrian village an hour’s drive from Vienna. There he settled into a kind of senescence. He continued to write, and while those later poems feature some lovely moments and some shrewd insights, they lack electricity. He had—in large part, I think, through “the chemical life” that had sustained his work for so long—damaged his health in such a way that he fell into the very patterns he feared. In his last decade, he became increasingly garrulous, prone to declaiming a standard set of utterances and lacking the energy to do much more than play slight variations on old themes. His departure from Ischia, as it turned out, marked the end of his career as a major poet.

One feature of these final years, as has already been suggested, is an extended argument with his younger self, a repudiation of the poet he had been. Mendelson’s editorial apparatus shuns interpretative commentary, but faithfully records this argument—as it must, because the argument is primarily expressed in Auden’s revisions of his early poems, sometimes for the better, but often enough for the worse. One of the finest of his early poems, “Out on the lawn I lie in bed,” was mutilated by his later edits. In 1965, he wrote to a friend that “the revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. aspirant,” but it is hard not to think that the anality is Auden’s. If you read this edition’s extensive notes, you may, as I did, come to see the revisions as a kind of military campaign, as though Auden perceives his younger self as even more of an “Anti-type” than his Utopian interlocutor in “Vespers.”

I have been reading and teaching and writing about Auden’s poetry for many years, but I have taken the opportunity offered by these two volumes to try, as best I can, to encounter it all anew. And as I set the books down, I find myself wondering whether—even if that hinge of 1939 remains always visible, even if the campaign against the earlier poetry is constant—we may eventually be able to perceive the essential continuities in Auden’s thought. It seems to me now that the early conjuror’s verse, studded with those unforgettable “magical lyric phrases”—that playful, dynamic, innovative, almost hedonistic poetry—regularly undermines itself, is accompanied by a kind of second voice, an ethically questioning voice, that becomes dominant after 1939. It is, after all, years before his return to Christianity that his clocks prophesied to the young lover, and to us, that we shall, at most and at best, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. And if you listen very, very carefully, you can hear even in the verse of Auden’s old age some of the tones of his youthful exuberance. There’s a lovely poem from 1965, “Since,” in which the poet recalls a day of lovemaking from thirty years earlier, and then reflects with wonderment:

Since then, other enchantments
have blazed and faded,
enemies changed their address,
and War made ugly
an uncountable number
of unknown neighbors,
precious as us to themselves:
but round your image
there is no fog, and the Earth
can still astonish.

I suspect that as the years pass, these continuities will become increasingly evident, that future readers will wonder whether the poet’s debate with himself needed to be quite so fierce. There is, from beginning to end of Auden’s career, an awareness of the manifold ways in which we deceive ourselves, and a determination not to take himself too seriously. Late in life, he wrote a terse message he could always have affirmed:

At lucky moments we seem on the brink
Of really saying what we think we think:
But, even then, an honest eye should wink.

One of the poems I think about most often is “Orpheus,” which Auden wrote in 1937. “What does the song hope for?” the poet asks. “To be bewildered and happy, / Or most of all the knowledge of life?” It was a question he asked throughout his days, even if his answers often changed. He is one poet, after all.

 is the author, most recently, of Breaking Bread with the Dead. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Status Anxiety,” appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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