W.H. Auden was one of the most important influences on my development as a poet, and the centenary of his birth has prompted me to return to his poetry in depth. The intensity and energy of much of his early poetry is almost overwhelming. This work has sometimes been overshadowed by that of his later, American period, which is more discursive, more informal, colloquial, and occasional, though always metrically masterful. But while Auden wrote some fine poems later on, it is the early work that matters most to me. Though Auden suppressed and distorted much of it, it is this work for which I remember him in his centennial year.
Auden and his circle, including C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, all currently under-rated when read at all (at least in the US; I don’t know their current standing in England) were among the first Anglophone poets for whom the modern, urban, technological world was neither alien, frightening, exotic, nor evil. As Edward Mendelson writes, perhaps overstating the case, “Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century. He welcomed into his poetry all the disordered conditions of his time, all its variety of language and event” (Auden, Selected Poems ix). The Auden group experimented with both form and subject matter, intertwining private intimacies with public address, engaging both politics and poetics, and incorporating the contemporary city as a real, inhabited environment, not, as so often in Eliot, as a primarily symbolic or allegorical presence. Coming of age in the Great Depression, Auden and his fellows looked out at an England of industrial stagnation and mass unemployment, not Eliot’s spiritual, metaphorical Waste Land but a literal waste land of poverty and “depressed areas.” Mixing Marx, Freud, and later a more grounded, less mystical and ritualistic religious sensibility than Eliot’s, Auden sought both to diagnose and to heal the ills of his era, though poetry, as he acknowledged, makes nothing happen. “His continuing subject was the task of the present moment: erotic and political tasks in his early poems, ethical and religious ones later” (ibid.).
I have always been drawn to the psychological landscapes of Auden’s early poetry, the loneliness and desire embodied in its craggy limestone wastes, desolate cityscapes, and cryptic vignettes of mysterious wars in which opposing soldiers steal moments of intimacy during lulls in the fighting. Edward Mendelson describes them very well, though he evaluates negatively exactly those elements that powerfully resonated for me: “These first poems often have the air of gnomic fragments; they seem to be elements of some…private myth whose individual details never quite resolve themselves into a unified narrative. The same qualities of division and irresolution that mark the poems also mark the world they describe, a world where doomed heroes [or anti-heroes] look down in isolation on an equally doomed society….The elusiveness and indecipherability of the early poems are part of their meaning; they enact the isolation they describe” (op. cit. xii). This work vividly exemplifies Eliot’s principle of the objective correlative, in which some concrete scene contains and embodies an otherwise unmanageable emotional content. Auden’s poems’ overtly homosexual undertones (the paradoxical formulation is intentional) seduced me as well. Love was a secret agent operating in the shadows and interstices, always in danger of being exposed and betrayed.
In form and diction, Auden’s work is capacious and elastic, combining poetic wit, irony, juxtaposition, and collage learned from Eliot, narrative and historical scope learned from Thomas Hardy, metrical and verbal techniques learned from Anglo-Saxon poetry, John Skelton, Hopkins, and Wilfred Owen, and the popular rhythms of English music halls and American blues. It is a case study in poetry’s capacity to incorporate any subject matter and any vocabulary, its capacity to take in and transform the most apparently recalcitrant materials while still leaving them as themselves.
The poetry and much of the prose that Auden wrote before his 1940 move to America has been collected in The English Auden, now sadly out of print. For an excellent study of Auden and his literary, intellectual, social, and historical context, see Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s, published by Princeton University Press in 1976 and also now out of print. I also recommend Edward Mendelson’s literary biography Early Auden, originally published in 1981.
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed,
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters; two there were
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch the gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way
And in his final valley went to ground.
Go home now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.
From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.
Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.
The Secret Agent
Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced with the old tricks.
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.
The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily who were never joined.
Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in the windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.
Again in the room with the sofa hiding the grate,
Look down to the river when the rain is over,
See him turn to the window, hearing our last
Of Captain Ferguson.
It is seen how excellent hands have turned to commonness.
One staring too long, went blind in a tower,
One sold all his manors to fight, broke through, and faltered.
Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under the headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.
But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see the farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed the hammering stops
And men go home.
Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.
Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.
There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.
Save him from hostile capture,
From sudden tiger’s spring at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.
What does the song hope for? And the moved hands
A little way from the birds, the shy, the delightful?
To be bewildered and happy,
Or most of all the knowledge of life?
But the beautiful are content with the sharp notes of the air;
The warmth is enough. O if winter really
Oppose, if the weak snowflake,
What will the wish, what will the dance do?