I’m teaching a course on twentieth century British poetry, and we’re whipping through six poets in about fifteen weeks. My students appreciated T. S. Eliot, and enjoyed Robert Graves, but we are halfway through W. H. Auden, and he has enthralled them, hitting them square in their hearts with brutally accurate yearning and empathy. We’ve taken a thematic approach in working through the Selected Poems: quotidian life, war & politics, and most recently: the love poems. (We’ll hit the transcendence of art & religion, and then touch on the longer lyric sequences, too.) And if any of them weren’t quite sold on the dailiness, on the social convictions, Auden got them when he started talking about that vulnerable, unreliable, most essential of organs: the heart.
The Selected Poems, originally chosen by Auden and then expanded by his literary executor Edward Mendelson (also the author of a very good critical biography of the poet), proceeds chronologically through his corpus, presenting a broad selection of his early, mature, and late lyrics. (Its most painful but understandable omission is Auden’s Christmas oratio, For the Time Being.) Auden, born in 1907, began as every inch the heir of his modernist predecessors: for heaven’s sake, T. S. Eliot himself selected his first collection for publication by Faber. The early poems are cryptic almost to a fault, and more ironic, arch, and sly, playing off the usual modernist assumptions of isolation and estrangement from the world, a play with language for its own sake. And that play can be amazing: his translation of the Old English poem “The Wayfarer” is spooky and delicious. Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle, oh yes indeed. I am so far from home that I don’t even recognize the birds of this place? Oh yes, we are isolated, homesick souls, aren’t we all?
But Auden seemed to realize that this avenue would be, for him, a dead end, and his poetry ignites with a new kind of energy as he moves into maturity. The middle period from about 1933-1948 is my favorite of his work: Auden abandons his alienated artiste pose and starts seriously looking at the world and the people around him, in no small part due to his own heightened political engagement (he famously went to assist in the Spanish Civil War; his visit to the front shook up his smug political convictions and heightened his empathy for civilians). The poet, he argues, has an obligation to other people, to the problems in the world; the great gift and the great burden we bear is that of our daily obligation to choose to love and respond to others–and Auden likely felt this in a keen, distinct way from others due to his own queerness, which he sometimes saw as an obstacle to romantic love, but perhaps heightened his sense of love for outsiders and others. The political poetry from this period expresses this perhaps better than anything else, as in poems like “Refugee Blues”, written in early 1939 when many were still denying the scope of Hitler’s genocidal plans:
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us…
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Unsurprisingly, the music-loving Auden capably captures the mood of the blues and applies it to the woes of Jewish refugees; unlike many writers from this period, though, rather than othering his subjects, he puts us into their subjectivity. We see these refugees not as untrustworthy migrants from the outside, but rather as vulnerable, yearning souls within their own experience. (I can hardly stress enough how infrequent this was: British intelligentsia of this time, including Auden’s mentor Eliot, were riddled with a viciously nonchalant anti-Semitism.)
It’s this strain of tenderness and authenticity that won my students over–and that wins me too, every time I dive back into his work. Even knowing that “Funeral Blues” was originally written as an ironic, mocking piece, we loved it–because Auden is so aware that grief makes us ridiculous, and also that what makes the grief in the poem inauthentic is if it is performed publicly for others, but as an expression of private anguish, it feels painfully true:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
In Adam Gopnik’s 2003 tribute to Auden, he wrote with a certain zesty flair (which Auden would have appreciated): “The traditional Christian said fuck the world and love thy neighbor; Auden said love the world and fuck thy neighbor, a related but a distinct thought.” But more accurately, Auden’s secret life was one of private kindnesses not necessarily animated by desire: Mendelson wrote, “Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.”
No wonder one of my students said tenderly, “Guys, Auden is my man.”
This is not to say that Auden cannot be incredibly funny, particularly when he cares deeply about something. “O Tell Me the Truth About Love” never stops being hilarious; you ought to laugh when a speaker asks if love will come “will it come without warning / Just as I’m picking my nose?” But the irony is paired with the deep sincerity of the followup: “Will it alter my life altogether? / O tell me the truth about love.” We make often our best jokes about the things that matter most profoundly, and Auden knows this well. Maybe love does actually smell like llamas (as he suggests in the poem), and who would want to know more than the man who finds himself yearning for it and seemingly never accessing it? How better to hide the depths of your yearning than behind some quipping that would fit into a Gershwin or Cole Porter tune?
This isn’t to say that all of the poetry is perfect. Auden can crawl up his own ass at times: “In Sickness and in Health” is almost too riddled with erudition, while also being too impersonal to land in the same way as some of the lighter lyrics. The later poetry can feel like a bit of a half-baked retreat of those glory days from 1933-1948. But one never supposes that Auden stopped giving a shit about people. So he gets a little maudlin in his old age: well, he was a lonely man who struggled with alcohol and amphetamines who was also ruthless with himself about writing on a schedule and meeting his deadlines, who worked constantly to “love [his] crooked neighbour / With all [his] crooked heart.” But this was a man who saw our decision, our constant voluntary choice to love other people as the purest, best thing we could ever do, and wrote poetry enticing us to do exactly that: to love people in all their fallibility, fragility, and mortality, and see it as the finest gift of human existence.
There is a reason why Auden remains a pop cultural touchstone: why his disavowed poem “September 1, 1939” was passed around after 9/11,* why popular novelists like Alexander McCall Smith write about him, why he got that killer moment in the original Four Weddings and a Funeral (a moment that I believe he would have loved): for all his jokes, his irony, he desperately sought the truth about both art and love, and to share it with all of us.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” he famously wrote in his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” But we too often forget what he followed that with “it survives / In the valley of its making… / …it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth”:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
It’s not a perfect assemblage of Auden’s verse, and Auden’s verse is never perfect. And maybe it makes nothing happen. But this is what I love about Auden: it offers a glimpse of a healing fountain, a little hint of a way of happening, a way of being in this world that might make us more whole through our choice to love others.
Guys, Auden is my man, too.
(PS: Please enjoy this magnificent, Oscar Wildean photo of Auden, taken by Irving Penn in 1947 for Vogue, yes Vogue, Anna Wintour will never commission anything so delightful.)
* There is a lot to love in “September 1, 1939,” but Auden hated that it was ultimately a call to apolitical apathy rather than true engagement, that it failed to indicate where the just come from how how they are sustained in a brutal and bloody era, and that it implied that love is something demanded from us rather than something voluntarily given. I appreciate that Mendelson put it back into the Selected; it’s worth wrestling with, and it is one of his most famous works, for all that he wound up hating it.