Wystan Hugh Auden 1907-1973

Wystan Hugh Auden or “Uncle Wiz” as he was more affectionately called, was a third son of a York physician. He was a not-quite modernist; not quite socialist; a Freudian; leaning toward the northern Germanic Volksmarchen and Kunstmarchen not Southern European Romanticism; “more at home with Goethe that with Baudelaire; a Marxist who became a Christian”; entres deux guerres; falling between the Modernists and the Georgians; spoke of the tocsins of totalitarianism yet cautioned on capitalism; all the while on the road to neo-classicism from an “atheistic Freudian communist to Christian existentialist literal” always “inquiring as to the nature of man.” His journey began at Oxford along with other members of the post-war middle class disillusioned group of young lads with “the twentieth century blues”

In this strange illusion,
Chaos and confusion,
People seem to lose their way.
What is there to strive for,
Love or keep alive for? Say
Hey, hey call it a day.
Blues, nothing to win or to lose
It’s getting me down.
Blues, I’ve got those weary Twentieth Century Blues.” Cavalcade Noel Coward

Within this time-frame, 1920 to 1930, between the end of one world war and the beginning of another all major countries collapsed economically and politically. There were no winners at the end of World War I. It did spawn loyalists, fascists, socialists, communists, royalists, anarchists; plenty of choices for the young, disillusioned, student population where words like “honor, courage, and patriotism” had fallen from favor replaced with a decadent and valueless society.

While the first World War raged Auden was a star pupil at St. Edmunds all-boys school, the darling of his teachers. At first, his interests followed politics, economics, and philosophy only incidentally English. He never completed his degree commenting that “great poets do not need good degrees.” During the Russian Revolution and the end of the Czar; Ireland’s civil war which gave home-rule to the South, and the rise of fascism in Italy he was at Gresham School and still a star pupil.

He continued on to Christ Church, Oxford as an exhibitioner (TA in modern parlance) in Natural Sciences switching to politics, philosophy and economics. But for Auden, his decision to become a poet was made when he was fifteen years old oddly enough because on “one Sunday afternoon in March 1922 a friend suggested that I should.”

Auden set out to travel the world to seek answers to a “better life” this adventure was paid for by his life-long publishers Faber and Faber. Auden was in search of his Nordic roots which, according to his father, flowed through the family tree. He once wrote that his childhood was filled with “more of Norse myth than of Greek”:

“With northern myths my little brain was laden,With deeds of Thor and Loki and such scenes;…”

And in his Letters from Iceland:

“My name occurs in several of the sagas,Is common over Iceland still. Down underWhere Das Volk order sausages and lagersI ought to be the prize, the living wonder,The really pure from any Rassenschänder,In fact I am the great big white barbarian,The Nordic type, the too too truly Aryan.”

He read Tolkien while at Oxford and was taken by the strong alliterative stress of traditional Germanic verse so o n his second trip to Iceland he recorded his experience:

“They seem to have preserved a passion for ingenuity helped by their damnably inflected language…they write palindrome verses which can be read forwards or backwards and verses where the second half is made up of the beheaded words of the first…

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Snuddar margur trassin traudurTreinist slangur daginnNudda argur rassin raudurreinist langur aginn.
Many a lazy idler loungesAnd finds the day long;The wicked one rubs his red bottomAnd finds discipline irksome.

…“Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.” After his second trip he wrote it is a place where “all men are equal. But not vulgar – not yet.

When he returned to England the “national government” was in place with Winston Churchill as the P.M.. With the appeasement by Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement Auden links up with Christopher Isherwood and flees first to China, then Japan and finally the U.S. where he takes up residency in the Brooklyn Heights. By now he is an established writer of plays, scripts, music hall libretti and popular on the poetry reading circuit.

He could be characterized as a binary thinker in that many of his poems present conflicting forces, for example of A.E. Housman he wrote Jehovah Housman and Satan Housman. “In Auden’s system…the duality is symbolic of man’s divided nature.” He writes:

“Can I imagine I love when in fact I do not? Certainly. Can I imagine that I do not hate when in fact I do? Certainly. Can I imagine I only hate when in fact I both hate and love? Yes, that is possible too, but could I imagine that I hated when in fact I did not? Under what circumstances could I have a motive for deceiving myself about this?”

Opinions are several as to how to describe Auden’s poetic career. One critic divides the career into two periods – England and America while another identifies four distinct stages and yet another insists on only three periods “the early years, the political period, the religious period. There is no doubt that the first four years, 1927-1932, brought instant fame with these two publications: The Orators and Paid on Both Sides. Of these two, the satirical Orators leads the avant-garde. Hayward wrote of it, “I have no doubt that it is the most valuable contribution to English poetry since The Waste Land. Auden’s high point came much later in 1948 he wins a Pulitzer for Age of Anxiety. This is a baroque eclogue on human isolation and the loss of traditions and beliefs. The setting is a bar in New York City. Three men and a woman, complete strangers, talk through the night. They continue to the woman’s apartment but shortly before dawn two men leave, a third passes out, the woman left unrequited. Some students leave somewhat shaken after reading the words of Rosetta:

“Give me my passage home, let me see that harbour once again just as it was before I learned the bad words. Patriarchs wiser than Abraham mended their nets on the modest wharf; white and wonderful beings undressed on the sand dunes; sunset glittered on the plate-glass windows of the Marine Biological Station; far off in the extreme horizon a whale spouted. Look, Uncle, look. They have broken my glasses and I have lost my silver whistle; Pick me up, Uncle, let little Johnny ride away on your massive shoulders to recover his green kingdom.”

Along with his natural scholarly endowment came such eccentricities as “wearing green eye-shades in a darkened room”; the need to sleep under heavy covers “taking down curtains… framed pictures, pulling up the stair carpet” to supply that need. Though tall, he regularly required the OED for a chair booster. He also wore unmatched bed slippers on the street and on formal occasion. He had odd tastes of environmental beauty seeking out “tram lines and slag heaps” rather than fresh woods and pastures; “gasworks and derelict canals” rather than rustling leaves and gentle streams; the “pylon poet”.

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Our first characteristic is wide array of metrical forms.

“Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon” Spain

“Lines on a face betoken a mounting care
For the ifs and buts of Time, a growing grief

At lost opportunity
But line on a hand declare,
Day after wasted day; ‘I am just what I am,
There is no one else like Me.’” Hands

“Basta! Maestro, make your minions play!
In all hearts, as in our finale, may
Reason and Love be Crowned, assume their rightful sway.”

“Good Queen Victoria,
In a fit of euphoria,
Commanded Disraeli
To blow up the Old Bailey.”

“Our hunting fathers told the story
Of the sadness of the creatures,
Pitied the limits and the lack
Set in their finished features;
Saw in the lion’s intolerant look,
Behind the quarry’s dying glare,
Love raging for the personal glory
That reason’s gift would add,
The liberal appetite and power
The rightness of a god.

Who nurtured in that fine tradition
Predicted the result,
Guessed love by nature suited to
The intricate ways of guilt?
That human ligaments could so
His southern gestures modify,
And make it his mature ambition
To think no thought but ours,
To hunger, work illegally,
And be anonymous” Our Hunting Fathers

“I well might think myself
A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless roman arrogance” Haiku

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“In The Sea and the Mirror, Auden marked the difference between characters by giving each a different verse form…Miranda’s villanelle; Sebastian’s sestina; …irregular iambics in lines of only three feet [to mimic speed]; terza rima for Antonio; Stefano’s had the ballad.” mkf

“In Our Hunting Fathers, to direct to be an allegory, note the pararhymes add/god; result/guilt.” Daiches

“His real importance lies in his poetry…he is remarkably versatile. His forms range from free verse through strict stanzas of rime royal to a free adaptation of the alliterative verse of Old English poetry.” Hornstein

“Technically he is an astonishing virtuoso…” World Literature

Our second characteristic is parable art, social commentary, verse drama.

“Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.” Christmas Oratorio

“A work that lasts two hundred years is tough,
And operas, God knows, must stand enough:
What greatness made, small vanities abuse.
What must they not endure? The Diva whose
Fioriture and climactic note
The silly old composer never wrote,
Conductor X, that over-rated bore
Who alters tempi and who cuts the score,
Director Y who with ingenious wit
Places his wretched singers in the pit
Wild dancers mime their roles, Z the Designer
Who sets the whole thing on an ocean liner,
The girls in shorts, the men in yachting caps;
Yet Genius triumphs over all mishaps,
Survives a greater obstacle than thee,
Translation into foreign Operese
(English sopranos are condemned to languish
Because our tenors have to hide their anquish)
It soothes the Frank, it stimulates the Greek:
Genius surpasses all things, even Chic.
We who know nothing which is just as well

About the future, can, at least, foretell,
Whether they live in air-borne nylon cubes,
Practice group-marriage or are fed through tubes…” Metalogue to the Magic Flute

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

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“You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experience, from which each according to his own immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions.” Auden Psychology and Art Today – 1935

“…mastered an expository mode and the art of verse essay at a moment in literary history when these had become most discredited…

Our third characteristic is detached, observant, analytical, reflective.

“I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
Our hatred for all weeds of every kind.
Is this: ‘Let each child have that’s in our care
As much neurosis as the child can bear.” Letter to Lord Byron

“The Questioner who sits so sly
Small never know how to reply.”

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“The striking thing of these lines [Spain] is that treat the Spanish war in psychological , not political terms…a sickness of modern society.”

“He [Auden] was unwilling to assign good and evil to causes.”

“His poem Spain is characterized as ‘the best of the English war poems’ is the least partisan, the least passionate, the least concerned with actual war, and the least Spanish.”

“Like the hawk and the airman that make symbolic appearances in his poetry, he sees things impersonally and in a long perspective…his love poetry meditates rather than emotes.” Hussey

“A poet must preserve a ‘necessary personality’ … the poet’s personality my be absolutely detached, like that of a surgeon or a scientist…” Auden

“…very few of Auden’s poems betray personal emotions or fears…he (the poet) has no right to take up the time of his readers with his own hear-searchings…” Hoggart

…noting his impersonality “He is all ice and wooden-faced acrobatics” Wyndham Lewis

“The character Ransom in The Ascent of F.6 has often the air of an aside …Auden’s position above the scene he describes, from his appearing to look at the object without being himself fully involved.” Hoggart

“…a young middle-class poet who merely happens to be rather there than here.” Fuller

Our fourth characteristic is witty, satirical, name-dropping couplets.

“Hugo De Vries,
During a visit to Greece,
Composed a pastoral poem,
Xylem & Phloem.”

“William Blake
Found Newton hard to take,
And was not enormously taken
With Francis Bacon”

“Good Queen Victoria,
In a fit of euphoria,
Commanded Disraeli
To blow up the Old Bailey.”

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

His later work was essentially skeptical, satiric, and ironic.” World Literature

We close with these words from Collected Poems:

“All the rest is silence
On the other side of the wall;
And the silence ripeness,
And the ripeness all.”

The inscription on the Auden’s memorial at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey reads:

“In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

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