I recently read for the first time Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H Auden, published in the early 80s. I had admired some of the poems and was roughly aware of the trajectory of his life, but had never thought to seek any further. Curiously, this was spurred by driving around Weardale and the North Pennines. Auden regularly visited this area as a child and I was aware of lines like `In Rookhope I was first aware / Of death and not death, self and dread`. This is one of the least known and least touristed areas of England. Vast, bleak, and upland moors roll for miles, occasionally interrupted by streams or small plantations of trees. It feels very different from the rest of County Durham and, returning from the heights, you feel as if you are marching into Spring.
Being inland, it has the snowiest climate in England, with drifts of several feet blocking the roads in winter. It even has a ski-field! Some people will remember Hannah Hauxwell, astonishingly still alive, who spent a whole lifetime in a Teesdale farmhouse with no central heating or insulation. In some winters the cold was so severe that sheets of ice began to form on her back and she was forced to sleep in the byre with her cow: the only source of warmth. Summers are short and cool. When it doesn’t snow, it tends to rain. This probably contributes to the lack of tourists and places like Blanchland are mercifully unknown to the wider public.
A century and a half ago, it was thickly dotted with farmhouses and miners. The area has deposits of tin, lead and other minerals. Now, disused shafts dot the landscape and strange, ugly, artificial alien hills are piled up beside the roads with unnaturally steep banks: the grassed over remains of old slag heaps like giant wounds, or scar tissue. Sauron can torture the very hills. Ruined houses litter the higher fells, victims of the decline in agriculture and the pull of easier work in the lowlands. Some of these farmhouses are 400 or 500 years old. A few even appear in an 1380 census by the Prince-Bishop of Durham, who owned much of the land.
The area had already deindustrialised 100 years ago when Auden started to visit it as a child. He would make up elaborate fantasies involving mining machinery and take long hikes on the moors. Later he returned with Gabriel Carritt after graduating from Oxford and embarassed his friend by ordering Champagne from the bar at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland, which presumably bewildered the locals. He had by this time acquired the deshabille look that would only deepen over the years, ending with him wearing the same jumper for months on end.
So, what to make of the poems? It’s always astonishing how little of a poet’s corpus really enters the mind of the public. His contemporary fame probably rests on a few lines: `We must love one another, or die`, `Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone`, `Lay your sleeping head, my love / Human on my faithless arm`, `History to the defeated may say alas, but cannot help or pardon`, `O tell me the truth about love`, `As I walked out one evening`,`You shall love your crooked neighbour / With all your crooked heart`, `Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent`, `About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters`.
All of Auden’s life, all of his often frenetic genius and productivity produced a few hundred lines of memorable verse, and that was enough. Curiously, it was precisely these poems that Auden sought to forget, either by mangling them through revision, or through excising them entirely. `We must love one another, or die` from `September, 1939` had the or changed to and and he denounced the poem as `the most dishonest I have ever written`. The concluding lines from `Spain` represented `a wicked doctrine` and `that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable`. He nearly got rid of `Lay your Sleeping Head, my Love` entirely, but his boyfriend Chester Kallman made him leave it in.
The stated objection to his earlier poetry was that: `In so much “serious poetry” I find an element of “theatre”, of exagerrated gesture and fuss, of indifference to the naked truth, which, as I get older, increasingly revolts me`. He wanted `a style which shall combine the drab sober truthfulness of prose with a poetic uniqueness of expression`. In a late interview on TV with Michael Parkinson, he asserted that nothing he had ever wrote in the 30s had saved a single Jew.
His later poetry, particularly after 1950, descended into garrulous, twee prose. Compare, for instance, these two from 1933 and 1962 respectively:
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:
That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.
Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.
She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power stations lie
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers
And blankly as a butcher stares
Upon the marvelous pictures.
To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here, though we
Whom hunger does not move,
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:
And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.
Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.
But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears,
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears,
May these delights we dread to lose,
This privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong,
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned parental voices rise
In unlamenting song.
After discharges of alarm
All unpredicted let them calm
The pulse of nervous nations,
Forgive the murderer in the glass,
Tough in their patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.
Nobody I know would like to be buried
with a silver cocktail-shaker,
a transistor radio and a strangled
daily help, or keep his word because
of a great-great-grandmother who got laid
by a sacred beast. Only a press lord
could have built San Simeon: no unearned income
can buy us back the gait and gestures
to manage a baroque staircase, or the art
of believing footmen don’t hear
human speech. (In adulterine castles
our half-strong might hang their jackets
while mending their lethal bicycle-chains:
luckily, there are not enough
crags to go round.) Still, Hetty Pegler’s Tump
is worth a visit, so is Schönbrunn,
to look at someone’s idea of the body
that should have been his, as the flesh
Mum formulated shouldn’t: that whatever
he does or feels in the mood for,
stock-taking, horse-play, worship, making love,
he stays the same shape, disgraces
a Royal I. To be over-admired is not
good enough: although a fine figure
is rare in either sex, others like it
have existed before. One may
be a Proustian snob or a sound Jacksonian
democrat, but which of us wants
to be touched inadvertently, even
by his beloved? We know all about graphs
and Darwin, enormous rooms no longer
superhumanise, but earnest
city-planners are mistaken: a pen
for a rational animal
is no fitting habitat for Adam’s
sovereign clone. I, a transplant
from overseas, at last am dominant
over three acres and a blooming
conurbation of country lives, few of whom
I shall ever meet, and with fewer
converse. Linnaeus recoiled from the Amphibia
as a naked gruesome rabble,
Arachnids give me the shudders, but fools
who deface their emblem of guilt
are germane to Hitler: the race of spiders
shall be allowed their webs. I should like
to be to my water-brethren as a spell
of fine weather: Many are stupid,
and some, maybe, are heartless, but who is not
vulnerable, easy to scare,
and jealous of his privacy? (I am glad
the blackbird, for instance, cannot
tell if I’m talking English, German or
just typewriting: that what he utters
I may enjoy as an alien rigmarole.) I ought
to outlast the limber dragonflies
as the muscle-bound firs are certainly
going to outlast me: I shall not end
down any oesophagus, though I may succumb
to a filter-passing predator,
shall, anyhow, stop eating, surrender my smidge
of nitrogen to the World Fund
with a drawn-out Oh (unless at the nod
of some jittery commander
I be translated in a nano-second
to a c.c. of poisonous nothing
in a giga-death). Should conventional
blunderbuss war and its routiers
invest my bailiwick, I shall of course
assume the submissive posture:
but men are not wolves and it probably
won’t help. Territory, status,
and love, sing all the birds, are what matter:
what I dared not hope or fight for
is, in my fifties, mine, a toft-and-croft
where I needn’t, ever, be at home to
those I am not at home with, not a cradle,
a magic Eden without clocks,
and not a windowless grave, but a place
I may go both in and out of.
A bit of a contrast! I love `A Summer Night`, the first poem, as it describes an experience that Auden had whilst a teacher in Great Malvern. One evening, with colleagues he didn’t know very well and not befuddled with alcohol, Auden felt himself invaded by a sense of absolute love. He felt `their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and I rejoiced in it` and this experience may have precipitated his conversion to Christianity several years later. I used to live with a lovely group of people, including an extroverted Canadian called Thomas. He was the most energetic man I have ever met and by far the most extroverted, almost absurdly. I found him immensely irritating at times and he was my age. One day, he showed his passport picture around the lounge. I noticed that he kept his thumb firmly over the date-of-birth section. He tripped on something and dropped the passport: terror came into his eyes as I made to pick it up and he snatched it from me.
He left the passport lying around somewhere. I looked at it and he turned out to be 18, ludicrously. I told someone, telling them to keep quiet, but they told someone else and it all got out. He nearly got into a fight with me and much drama ensued. The night before he left, Thomas and I were sleeping in the same room. We talked about everything until about 6 in the morning. No one else seemed to be able to sleep and all 5 of us ended up in the living room. I felt myself invaded by the same force that Auden described. I felt as if nothing really mattered, that we were all part of a family and somehow everything everywhere would turn out all right. We would never see each other again on this side of the grave, but we would always be friends. All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. It was ecstatically calming. I have to emphasise that I dislike drugs! But the sense of benevolence in the poem is exactly described and ever since then I have known that Auden was a genius.
The second poem is too prosaic to really be described as such. But Auden started writing like that because he forgot that poems are not meant to be authentic, or intellectual exercises, or consistent. They are, as Wordsworth said, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. The glory of Shakespeare, as Keats saw it, was that he had negative capability: the ability to be in uncertainity without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. `We must love one another, or die` is true. It also isn’t. `History to the defeated may say alas / But cannot help or pardon` is both true and untrue. The race, after all, usually is to the swift and the battle usually is to the strong. By banishing emotion and resorting to stated fact, Auden cut off the taproot of his talent.
He moved to the United States in 1939, which undoubtedly changed his outlook and is usually taken as the dividing line between his early and late periods. But too few people have asked whether or not his drug-habit permanently damaged him. From 1940 onwards he was taking heroic quantities of Benzedrine, an amphetamine, to help him with his work. He certainly produced and the next few decades saw essays, several opera-libretti, prosaic poetry, radio talks and other ephemera. Curiously, one of the apparent side-effects of Modafinil, a descendant of Benzedrine, and other `smart drugs` in use today is a loss of creativity. The mind can fire on all cylinders and write dissertations in hours but the deeper wells of inspiration run dry. I suspect this was what happened.
To some extent, Auden’s poetry was always creaking and straining against the weight of his ideas. Even in very early poems like `Taller today`, `To ask the hard question is simple` or `To my pupils`, you can feel the expectations of his mind pouring into the misshapen cast of text: splashing too quickly, spilling out and threatening to run out over the floor. In a poem as great as `Musée des Beaux Arts`, you can feel him champing at the bit. It was only when Auden fully disciplined himself within a strict metre, that he achieved greatness, however inauthentic or artificial in his own eyes. Once he became self-confident enough to dismiss his critics or friends, he wrote the sort of poetry that he liked, regardless of what others thought. Like Newton descanting on the apocalypse or Bentley annotating Paradise Lost, he spent his time doing what he liked doing, regardless of whether or not it was what he ought to have done.
But, in spite of all that, he was a great poet. I thought about `Musée des Beaux Arts` when watching Brexit happen and Trump get elected. Or in old films of plumed monarchs, where the wind catches someone’s hat, or someone scratches their head, or throws away an apple core. Life goes on.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.