Auden - like Wordsworth, unlike Yeats - has never quite been able to make his own, final view of the trajectory of his career stick. The bulky Collected Poems, the nearest we can get to the summatory book that Auden had in mind at the time of his death, was published in 1976 and has now been through five impressions. For a variety of reasons, though, it continues, to exude what he once called "the beautiful loneliness of the banks."
Some of the arguments for this lack, not of respect but of love, are straightforwardly literary, some are not. Ever since the Collected Poems appeared, for instance, there has been a feeling that the cramped, typewriterish typeface used is unsatisfactory. (A distinguished American poet once turned to me in an elevator as we were riding grimly towards a post-reading glass of YMCA wine and described the type as the "barbed wire" separating him from Auden.) This being so, it has now been decided to reset the book. On 25 March 1991, Random House in the United States will publish a new 976-page edition of the Collected Poems in its "Vintage International" series ($16.00, paperback, ISBN 0-679-73197-0) and John Bodley, Auden's editor at Faber and Faber, has promised an English edition in the near future.
In spite of Auden's continual re-writing and re-arrangement of his works after 1942 and his declared delight for the appearance of such "sacred" books as Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, it has been conventional to assert that he neither bothered about correcting proofs of his own nor worried what the volumes looked like. In fact, at certain periods, Auden took an active interest in book design, and it is, ironically, the case that the appearance of the work he took most care over is the book that Faber & Faber tried to evoke when, after his death, they set the original, ugly edition of the Collected Poems.
During the final years of the Second World War and in the period immediately after it, Auden's relations with Random House seem to have been under some strain. In 1946, he actually threatened to leave them if they followed through on their decision to cut Ezra Pound out of an anthology, but he had already been annoyed by their slowness to issue his Collected Poetry. On 13 June 1944, after receiving proofs of For The Time Being, he wrote to Bennett Cerf, his editor there, about their refusal to set "Caliban to the Audience" in italics:
Maybe you are right about the italics, though I think it would be clearer with them. About the chapter headings, however, my opinion is unchanged. It isnt that I dont realise that, as such things go, the fount is well designed. It's a matter of principle. You would never think of using such a fount for, say, "The Embryology of the Elasmobranch Liver", so why use it for poetry? I feel very strongly that "aesthetic" books should not be put in a special class. The fact that literature in this country is taught almost exclusively by women causes enough trouble as it is, and nothing should be done to make matters worse.
In the next contract he signed with his publishers, the one for The Age of Anxiety, he specified that he would have control of the appearance of the book. On 15 January 1947, Auden triumphantly told Alan Ansen about this and he went on:
Now they bow and scrape whenever I come into the office. They used to treat me like an unwelcome office boy. But I don't like all this kow-towing. The man in charge [probably Ray Freiman, Random House's designer] must be very annoyed over having to make a fuss over me since he must think I blame him for the things I don't like - and I do. The book [The Age of Anxiety] is going to be very small, the poetry is set in very small type and the prose is still smaller.
And in Publisher's Weekly on 6 January 1951, invited by the same Ray Freiman to discuss book design, Auden pounded home the message:
As a writer of poetry...I have a violent prejudice against arty paper and printing which is too often considered fitting for unsalable prestige books, and by inverted snobbery I favor the shiny white paper and format of the textbook. Further, perhaps because I am near-sighted and hold the page nearer my nose than is normal, I have a strong preference for small type.
In 1946, when he told Random House what he wanted for The Age of Anxiety, he loaned them his copy of A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Cross Fell, with Remarks on Mineral Veins, by Westgarth Forster, a book originally published in 1821 but that he seems to have owned in the third edition of 1883, and instructed them to copy its appearance. They did. A Treatise on a Section of the Strata had been set in Scotch, an extremely popular 19th century typeface, and the Kingsport Press in Tennessee used the Linotype version of Scotch for Auden's book. However, in 1976, when Faber came to print the Collected Poems, hoping to evoke the look of a type Auden had expressed a preference for, they selected the rarely-used Impressum, a typeface only designed in 1962. For the 2nd edition of the Collected Poems, Random House have abandoned the effort to replicate the effects of The Age of Anxiety and have chosen instead the digitized version of Bembo - the type, incidentally, used in Poems (1930) and Look, Stranger! (1936).
Edward Mendelson has taken advantage of the resetting to make several important changes to the text of the work itself. First, the datings of poems throughout the book have been revised (though usually by now more than a couple of months at most). Second, Section XIII - the final 1971-1973 section - has been reordered: the previous arrangement, that ended with "A Lullaby" (now retitled "Lullaby," it becomes the first poem of the section in the new edition), was based on an arbitrary editorial order, since no information was available at the time of publication in 1976 to permit a chronological one. Now, thanks to his researches during the intervening years, there are enough indications of date of composition to allow a chronological ordering. Thus, this new edition of the Collected Poems ends with "Archaeology," written in August 1973, little more than a month before Auden's death. Thirdly, and, perhaps, most importantly, consultation of the typescripts of the later collections that Auden submitted to his publishers has allowed Mendelson to preserve and restore the calculated "literariness" in Auden's late manner. It is apparent from these typescripts that copy editors often ironed out Auden's carefully-cultivated peculiarities in order to make him approximate to a house style. Thus, for instance, in "The Cave of Making," as Mendelson writes in his preface, "the quasi-scientific `francophil' was altered to the bland `Francophile.' "
This is the last major revision that the Collected Poems is likely to undergo before the picture of Auden's whole career is qualified and complicated still further by the two-volume edition of Complete Poems in the Princeton/Faber edition of Auden's Complete Works. Perhaps, then, this is the moment to turn again to the Collected Poems and see what new stories it can tell. After years of centrifugal criticism, splitting Auden's writing into a trivilalized succession of ideological and literary phases, it may be that now is the time for some centripetal ideas of logic, pattern, and unity. In 1963, Auden told T. G. Foote: "When I'm dead, I want all the various parts to form a consistent ouevre. Each work may be disjointed, but the whole will be consistent." Which version, after all, will take us further: a narrative of randomness or one of growth and order?
At the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on October 3, Joseph Brodsky and Stephen Spender met for one of the lunchtime discussions in the ICA's East European Forum. Their conversation, moderated by the poet and journalist Blake Morrison, ranged from the timely issues of German reunification and Soviet disintegration to poetry and poets and the importance, for both of them, of W. H. Auden. Their comments on Auden were familiar, but they led to one or two moments of fresh illumination.
It seemed easy for Brodsky and Spender to agree that Spender was too much of a lyric poet to have been genuinely influenced by Auden, although Spender reminded us that Auden had made him think, for the first time, about what he was doing as a poet. Until his meeting with Auden in Oxford in the late 1920s, Spender said, he thought of poetry as a medium for expressing romantic subjective feelings; Auden made him think of a poem as a verbal artifact. Brodsky's sense of having been influenced by Auden, is on the other hand, obsessive. He recalled how on first reading Auden in 1963 or 1964, in an anthology of poetry translated from English, he was not overly impressed; but when in 1966 someone told him that his poems were like Auden's, he was pleased to be compared with a poet less obvious than T. S. Eliot, and so tried reading Auden again. He enjoyed Auden's "intelligence that sort of flatters you. You think you are as intelligent as he as you read the poems."
For over twenty years, Brodsky said, he has considered himself to be a member of the thirties generation: "I wish there were my name on those anthologies", he remarked, and he told Spender that Spender's recently published novel written in the 1920s, The Temple, and its dedication (to Isherwood, Auden, and later to Herbert List) made him feel a "blood brotherhood" with Spender. Taking up the question of Brodsky's sense that he belonged to the thirties generation, Spender suggested that this was because he had an important relation to an older generation of Russian poets (Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and others) just as the thirties writers had had an important relation to an older generation of English writers (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Lawrence, and others). Brodsky added Hardy to this list. Furthermore, Spender said, these English writers were antipolitical, while his own younger generation had been forced into political stances by the world around them. He, however, felt that his own generation in Russia remained politically neutral, though he called it "a jarring obvious neutrality". They were apolitical by default.
Spender also introduced the question of Rilke's influence on these earlier Russian poets, as opposed to the influence on Eliot of French poets such as Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Laforgue. Brodsky asserted, oddly insisting that it has been overlooked until now, that Auden was more influenced by Rilke than by Brecht, citing the line "And the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead" (from Auden's 1937 ballad beginning "As I walked out one evening") as an example of Rilkean syntax. Brodsky then gave a masterful account of Rilke's varying influence on the Russian poets Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova, which hinted that perhaps his own similarities or affinities with Auden might have been shaped indirectly by their shared debt to Rilke.
In answer to one of the questions from the audience, Spender argued that poets nowadays should resist a political stance, and he said it's easier to do it now than it was in the thirties, yet he was critical of Auden's turn against political poetry because, he said, Auden took this too far. He could not accept that, as Auden once said, the world would be the same if Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe had never written a line, and he said that "The Shield of Achilles", which he called "Auden's greatest poetry", is political.
A path has at last been cleared to the W. H. Auden papers held in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. After the inevitable delays, full cataloging of the Berg's Auden holdings was completed in September 1990.
In 1989, the year before she died, the Berg's curator Dr Lola Szladits noted that "the Berg Collection is the proud possessor of Auden's largest literary archive," containing within it the "most....important source of material on the poet on either side of the Atlantic." A catalog, though, is the essential complement to these resources, for without it, in order to be sure of missing nothing relevant to his research, each visitor would be forced to trudge the length of the entire archive.
From 1968 on Dr Szladits set out to acquire everything by or about Auden that was available. And Lola got a great deal of what she wanted. Much came into the library's possession by way of benefaction. The Kallman bequest is perhaps the most obvious and important instance, but other donors - in particular Alan Ansen, Wendell Stacy Johnson, and Monroe K. Spears - also deserve special mention for their contributions. A considerable amount was also drawn in by purchases, either on the auction floor, directly from private hands, or from book dealers with long-standing ties to the Berg.
Any litany of the collection's most important treasures would include the ledger notebook from 1940 containing a preliminary draft of "New Year Letter," an extensive cache of letters from Auden to Nevill Coghill (in one, written during the preparation of the "definitive" 1966 Collected Shorter Poems, Auden offers this savory aside: "God! How careless and downright incompetent I used to be. I feel that I am only now beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded American Ph.D. student."), and another large run of letters to his colleague Sir Stephen Spender.
However, it should not be imagined that the collection is now considered complete: purchases continue, the most recent being the original typescript, with Auden's manuscript revisions, of his Kierkegaardian essay "Purely Subjective" (1943), and seven letters to the Austrian writer Adolph Opel, one of which encloses a copy, in Auden's hand, of his poem "The More Loving One." (Those interested in such acquisitions will have an opportunity to view some of them in a Berg exhibition entitled "New in the Berg Collection: 1986-1990," scheduled to open this summer.) The catalog will, naturally, grow in the future to take note of any further additions.
In terms of sheer physical presence, the body of Auden material in the Berg is neither slight nor bulky. Loose sheets laid into acid-free folders (the foolscap on which Auden often wrote is itself not so dangerously acidic as to require immediate conservation treatment) fill 18 manuscript boxes - including one box of photographs - while bound ledger notebooks and cased manuscripts occupy 5 linear feet of metal shelving.
The catalog, though, more truly reflects the mass of Auden information available and signposted in the archive. Seasoned users of the Berg Collection's card catalog will find the Auden files greatly expanded, now swelling nearly full 2 trays. The correspondence file alone (where catalog records for letters from various persons to Auden are gathered under Auden's name as recipient) has grown tenfold to include 60 separate entries. On the other side, proofs of Auden's power and generosity as a correspondent are evident in the much augmented file of letters from him to such close associates as Rhoda Jaffe, Chester Kallman, David Luke, Elizabeth Mayer, Peter Salus, and Stephen Spender. Indeed, until a Collected Letters of W. H. Auden is brought out, the Berg Collection will remain the most important single location of Auden correspondence which, with its abundant insights into his writing, will prove an alluring attraction to American Ph.D. students, and others.
Attention should also be drawn to the 27 holograph notebooks in the Berg Collection which Auden kept from the earliest stages of his career in 1927 until his death in 1973. Because they contain so many draft fragments of poems, particular care has been taken in cataloging them. Finding aids extend to a list of contents laid into the notebooks themselves. Each contribution is also given its own catalog record. An archaeologist at the Auden archive will discover, for example, that bits of the 1959 poem "Secondary Epic" can be dug up on twelve pages (page numbers are indicated on the catalog card) in a notebook in use during the years from 1957 to 1959, and on two pages in another notebook that Auden kept from 1945 to 1961. Cross-indexing to Bloomfield and Mendelson's W. H. Auden: A Bibliography, 2nd edition (Charlottesville, 1972) has, of course, also been noted when appropriate.
Such technical refinements are exceptional and are mainly due to the far-sightedness of the Auden collection's original, and principal, cataloger, Patrick Lawlor. Mr Lawlor, editor of the recently-published facsimile of Auden's Poems 1927-1929 ledger notebook (New York Public Library, 1989), set a high standard for me as his successor, whose lighter task it was to complete what was so well begun.
Not surprisingly, because the Auden catalog has just lately been put into place, it has so far received only scant use. This, one hopes, will change once the word is out. Moreover, plans are underway to enter the Auden records into RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network), an on-line computer system that amalgamates descriptions of the holdings of more than 100 research libraries and archival repositories around the country. When the process is finished, those working at distant locations will nevertheless have instant access to the Berg Collection's catalog.
Until fuller use of this extraordinary resource is made, its true value to the understanding of Auden will remain unclear. The Berg continues to do its part: it is ready to provide a secure and useful context for its existing collection and for further Auden donations. The rest is up to the scholars, the critics, and, perhaps, History.
Stephen Crook is the Librarian of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library
Once in a while the odd thing happens by Paul Godfrey. Cottesloe Theatre 18 September - 1 December 1990. Text published by Methuen, £4.99, $10.95
Paul Godfrey's three-act play takes the formative decade of 1935-45 in which to explore the life of Benjamin Britten. It starts near the time when he first met Auden and ends with the premiere of Peter Grimes. Godfrey says: "The play is fiction but I have portrayed the characters as I believe they were and shown events as I understand them." He spent an afternoon with Peter Pears in 1985 and much longer with the composer's sister, Beth, shortly before she died. Then, instead of writing a response to Britten's music, Godfrey became involved with the Auden-Britten-Pears triangle and the women who looked after Britten - Beth in England and Beata Mayer when Britten and Pears were in America between May 1939 and March 1942. The interaction between all these personalities is intensely interesting to students of any one of them and is increasingly documented. (See My Brother Benjamin by Beth Britten, from the Kelsal Press, 1986; Britten and Auden in the Thirties by Donald Mitchell, Faber, 1981; and Donald Mitchell's essay in the 1988 Faber edition of Paul Bunyan; also my own book Lennox Berkeley, Thames Publishing, 1988.)
It was an extraordinary experience for me to encounter three people I had known brought to life on stage. Stephen Boxer's portrayal of Auden - chain-smoking, of course - was immediately gripping, even though his face lacked the wrinkles of later years. I found Britten (Michael Maloney) too exaggerated, too inclined to bluster. The urbane Pears (Julian Wadham) worked well and the two women made essential contributions - Hilary Dawson as Beth and Deborah Findlay as Beata, not always stable in a German-American accent.
What made the play fascinating was its subtle handling of the whole subject. There was really no suggestion of imitating Auden's exact style with poetic pastiche. Most of the writing is a kind of free verse, sometimes slightly archaic, but without direct quotation. In that sense the play is about a composer, a poet, and a singer and their response to society at a time of turmoil. It is about their homosexuality too. Paul Godfrey's own production uses lighting to shade deftly from one short scene to the next. This scene, for instance, is simply a monologue from Auden:
The truth is
my tongue is
only loosely attached
and though I'd scarcely admit it
I do not hold
with most of what
from my own lips.
It is for this reason
that I put the words
of a capricious mind.
This catches Auden's play-acting attitudinising, a quality which became bullying in his approach to Britten and which eventually caused their breach - not, fortunately, before Auden had provided texts for several of Britten's works and, with Paul Bunyan, cut his teeth on the musical theatre which led towards The Rake's Progress in partnership with Stravinsky.
Act I and Act II are played before the interval, leaving a short Act III as a conclusion. This feels as if it ought to be a celebration of the success of Peter Grimes but the ending came as a surprise. Auden makes a final appearance in this Act, arguing with Britten and possibly jealous of his success in re-establishing himself in England. Godfrey has Auden saying:
As if you could write music about a place.
As if an artist could ever have a country.
And music, music above all: that is just
Itself and need refer to nothing.
No wonder Britten responds by saying he never really understood Auden's poetry. They part inconclusively and Auden finds three epithets for Britten's music - "Mercurial but eloquent yet uncomfortable". From Auden's point of view this is well observed but still undefined. Another parting of the ways is that between Britten and his sister, who admits she understood little of his music after the war years. This occurs in a scene brought forward in time to when Beth Britten talked to Paul Godfrey - one of a few miscalculations.
Actual music is left to the imagination, apart from the Romance from the Frank Bridge Variations at the end of Act II and the curtain going up on Grimes at the end of Act III. Ultimately Auden is seen to criticise Britten's accommodation into the English establishment, which he appears to have anticipated and which he himself went to America to avoid. The truth in all these issues may be more complex than any fiction but the play remained interesting viewing.
The real Auden (in the Chorus of Old Trees near the start of Paul Bunyan) explains in his own inimitable rhythm and rhyme:
But once in a while the odd thing happen,
Once in a while the dream comes true,
And the whole pattern of life is altered,
Once in a while the moon turns blue.
Hans Werner Henze's The Bassarids - with Auden and Kallman's version of Euripides' Bacchae as its libretto - had its New York première on 27 October 1990 in a concert performance by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Christoph von Dohnányi, who conducted the world première in Salzburg in 1966, conducted the opera again in New York, after two performances a few days earlier in Cleveland, where von Dohnányi is music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.
The composer has made some changes in the opera since it was first performed. For the American première in Santa Fé in 1968 a prologue was added, spoken by Dionysus and written by Chester Kallman; the prologue was omitted in later productions and was not heard in New York. Henze has more than once encouraged producers to omit the intermezzo that was the centerpiece of the original libretto, as von Dohnányi did in this performance.
The omission of the lightly ironic intermezzo, with its deliberately baroque trvialization of the sexual intensities of the rest of the work, made the libretto seem more relentlessly dark than Auden and Kallman's original conception. The effect was somewhat similar to that of Paid on Both Sides without the expressionist extravagance of John Nower's dream.
The performance was probably as masterly as any that the opera has yet received. One or two oddities of characterization marred the general level of excellence: most notably a Dionysus who sang as if he remembered only the second of the two adjectives in Euripides" characterization of the god as `most terrible and yet most gentle to mankind.'"
One tantalizing note in the programme mentioned that one of the singers had recorded the opera with another conductor. No more definite report of any such recording has yet reached the Newsletter.
A retrospective exhibition of the work of Sir William Coldstream, at the Tate Gallery, London until 6 January 1991 and subsequently on tour in England and Wales.
Sir William Coldstream (1908 - 1987) was important to generations of artists in Britain through the example of his paintings and his teaching at the Euston Road School, Camberwell and the Slade School of Fine Art; this exhibition, comprising some eighty paintings dating from 1928 to 1983, is the largest survey of his work to date. The exhibition, organized by Sir Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, both long time friends of the late artist, includes nudes, landscapes, still lifes, and commissioned and private portraits.
The work selected for exhibition firmly establishes Coldstream as the realist painter he was. The principals of drawing are easily detectable; many of the canvases reveal perspective and squaring lines and attest to the draftsmanlike quality inherent in his work. His palette consisted of warm, earth tones, occasionally accented with green, blue and orange. Coldstream worked with large, broad areas of colour, applied in what appears to be a rapid manner, yet we know his working technique to be deliberate and thorough. In keeping with the fashion of his day, Coldstream subtly acknowledged abstract influences, as evidenced in the sketchy appearance of his nudes and portraits. Although Coldstream captured the psychological character of his sitter, he did not specify facial features.
The exhibition begins with a group of portraits from the late 1930s. Missing from this is that of W. H. Auden, whom Coldstream met in the autumn of 1925 during Auden's first term at Christ Church College, Oxford. In mid-June of 1937, Coldstream began his likeness of Auden and it is indeed a pity that it has been left out of the current exhibition. However portraits of Auden's mother and Stephen and Inez Spender, dating from this period, are included. The second gallery presents Coldstream's war-time activity (1943-45) - chiefly comprised of landscapes - while he was the Official Army Artist stationed in Egypt and Italy. In the third and fourth galleries, various female nudes in seated, standing, and reclining positions are exhibited. Since the nudes in these two galleries span Coldstream's career, we are able to follow the tightening of his composition and the greater rendering of forms and attention to details which progressively occur in his work. Generally, the opposite happens; as an artist ages, his technique loosens. Two galleries are devoted to Coldstream the draftsman with works drawn mostly from his early career. These include beautiful examples of clear, precise pen lines taken mainly from his sketch books. The last gallery presents a series of late, complete still life studies in which more colour is introduced and scenes of Westminster seen from high vantage points. Throughout his career, the hallmark of Coldstream's art was his fidelity to realism.
At the Tate the installation was well hung and the wall colour complemented the artist's palette nicely. Although Coldstream is little known outside Great Britain, the exhibition readily proves that her schools imparted strong painting traditions. Coldstream was perhaps the best and certainly the most influential of these artists. The tour, organized by the South Bank Centre, will travel to Newport Art Gallery, the Castle Museum, Norwich and the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. The accompanying catalogue includes contributions from David Sylvester, Sir Lawrence Gowing and Colin St. John Wilson as well as extracts from Coldstream's notebooks.
Susan Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate at the Courtauld Institute in London.
My memories of W. H. Auden stretch back a long way because of his friendship with my parents, Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr. I was able to attend his birthday parties as his birthday, 21st February, was close to a long weekend in the U.S.A. (George Washington's birthday is celebrated on 22nd February). Auden also, on occasion, joined the Niebuhr family for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
I believe it was at Thanksgiving one year that Auden urged me to read the biography of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, whose day is 16th November. Bishop Hugh was known for opposing taxes for an unjust war and also required the King of England to provide relocation payments for people displaced by the building works done in penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket. Auden added that Hugh, which was his own second name, was appropriate for America in the late 1960s when the country was waging an unjust war in Vietnam and cities were being torn apart by relocation for which governments were not doing their fair share. He used to ask my advice before voting on the ballot questions on the New York state ballot. These were usually about the appropriation of monies and I would try to give him both sides of the question so that he could make an intelligent choice in the November elections, after being away in Italy or Austria for the long summer.
On occasion Auden would write pieces of light verse for his friends. I still remember the limerick he wrote for me, which read:
Christopher, doing a Quiz
Was stumped by the following "Is
A Third Under Sec
Whose last name is Beck
A Mr or Mrs or Miss?"
So far as I recall, Beck is a purely imaginary person, used to preserve the rhyme. But many people have complimented me that I got an up-to-date poem, with "Miss" pronounced "Ms" to preserve the rhyme.
These programme notes were written by the composer Ned Rorem for his Auden song cycle, commissioned by The Santa Fé Chamber Music Festival, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and the Ravinia Festival, for performance at these places in the summer of 1990. The text is taken, by kind permission, from The Auden Songs (Boosey & Hawkes, New York, 1990). The song cycle includes seven poems: "The Shield of Achilles"; "Lady, weeping at the crossroads"; "Epitaph on a Tyrant"; "Lay your sleeping head, my love"; "But I Can't"; "Yes, we are going to suffer now" and "Nocturne" ("Make this night loveable").
Composers compose. If they had trouble weaving their musical ideas, or even finding musical ideas to weave, they wouldn't be composers. Trouble, at least in the case of song composers, lies in finding apt texts to clothe with their notes. The most arduous process in confecting a cycle, as distinct from a miscellany of songs that "go together", is the search for a fatality in a domain where fatality was never before in question. (How many poets writhe in their graves at the thought of how their verse has been used!)
Thus, when commissioned to write a sizeable work specifically for tenor and piano trio (with John Aler as tenor, myself as pianist), I was clear about the limitations and advantages of the drama I would build, but vague about the literary impulse for the drama. I had, so to speak, the colors and the canvas, but no subject.
After weeks of returning to every poet I've ever loved, foraging especially among those I'd never set (a rarefied task; to date I've used for music 120 separate poets, some of them dozens of times), finally only W. H. Auden seemed inevitable. Then, the choice of which Auden required days of re-reading.
Why did I settle on these seven famous poems, all from his so-called middle period? Because, as we Quakers say, they spoke to my condition. Each is an admixture of cynicism and vulnerability, of force and hopelessness, of hot sadness and cold joy, of an objectivity which nevertheless surges. Whether writing of the Trojan War - which could as well be the Vietnam War for all we've learned meanwhile - or of a modern romance between two petty lovers who are nonetheless sanctified, Auden's wry pen is master, there's something to sing about, and one thing leads to another.
Once the texts were decided upon, the musical parturition occurred during a mere seven weeks, from June 21 to August 16, 1989.
U.K. readers of the Newsletter may like to know about two television programmes to be broadcast during 1991 in connection with a new Open University course Literature in the Modern World, which includes some attention to 1930s writing. One television programme, Left and Right, includes interviews with Stephen Spender, Naomi Mitchison, and Julian Symons, discussing the political and social climate of the period. Another programme, Crossing the Border, discusses conceptions of Englishness as an inherited ideology which `30s writing variously challenged. It includes an extract from Grierson's film about the Post Office train from London to Glasgow for which Auden wrote "Night Mail". The broadcasts can be seen:
17 April Crossing the Border 12 midnight BBC2
1 May Left and Right 12 midnight BBC2
Lucy McDiarmid. Auden's Apologies for Poetry. 176pp. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1990, $24.95.
Lucy McDiarmid proposes a somewhat radical reading of the later Auden. It has been traditional to take the view that when Auden emigrated to America he either lost his true subject (humanity in the killing double-bind of the intelligence) or found it (humanity redeemed by its intuitions of ultimate forms of knowledge). For McDiarmid, Auden "immigrated" to America, bringing with him the ripening notion that his real subject was the entirely self-defeating one that poetry is useless: "Every major poem and every major essay bec[a]me a retractio, a statement of art's frivolity, vanity, and guilt."
Her prosecution of this dismaying argument moves between two tonal polarities, on the one hand thesis-triumphant, repetitive, insistent; on the other calculated, buoyant, clever. It is rich with finely-judged explication and proceeds with a scholarly assurance that is often brilliant, sometimes questionable, sometimes merely auntish.
A good example of her tone occurs in her discussion of the postscript to "The Cave of Making" where Auden ruefully contemplates the fact that a life of indulged temptations at least produces material for poems. It is for him an example of the felix culpa (that lucky mistake or necessary error that is part of the Christian scheme of exoneration) and the ruefulness is due largely to the fancy that he could be reduced to tears of shame when God recites to him at Judgement Day the poems he would have written had his life been good. But whether the "good" life actually produces "good" poems is a question that is half left open. God's recital might be as bland as the art of the Houyhnhnms. What would that make the poet qua poet feel? The poet's "shame" is the shame of literary success as much as it is the shame of the unblameless life. He is Auden, not Mittenhofer, but he is the poet who created Mittenhofer.
McDiarmid will have none of this, pronouncing: "Naughty, naughty me, says the poet, displaying his dildo, pompously romping, being clever, immoral, cheerfully trivial." Her brisk summary depends on the accumulation of related tags from other poems, but few of them are apposite. Auden is simply not as blithely unrecalcitrant as this. The indulged temptations may have involved a "dildo", of course, but this one is introduced from "In Praise of Limestone" because McDiarmid thinks that there it is the poet's own, just as she thinks that the Poet in that poem is Auden. These equations are unnecessary simplifications (and no doubt it would be equally a simplification for me to assert that the Poet "is" Wallace Stevens). It seems to me, moreover, that she misses the affection in "In Praise of Limestone" just as she misses the ambivalent ruefulness in the postscript to "The Cave of Making". She wants Auden to connive all the time with this notion of his work's "frivolity, vanity, and guilt", whereas in truth his poems are quite busy accomplishing the sort of positive things that poems can still accomplish, though she claims that they "deny their power to make grand definitive statements about anything except their own insignificance" (my italics). As far as grand statements go, I would have thought that psychological investigations of the sources of evil such as those found in the parabolic Bassarids or the penitential Age of Anxiety were definitive enough, and undemeaning to the poet's art, but she does not mention them. Quite often when she refers to particular views it is only to belittle them: when Auden defends the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (in "Doggerel by a Senior Citizen") she cannot believe that this is anything other than a "fuddy-duddy" bit of "later, baggy-pants Auden", somewhat in need of a reproof that the poet fails to provide. She provides it.
"The Sea and the Mirror" cannot for her be a vindication of the power of poetry, called into being through man's inability to understand his imperfect world. It has itself exclusively to represent that imperfect understanding, with Caliban delivering a Jamesian sermon from the period of Auden's shift from his quasi-erotic and oral to his more distant and literate model for poetry. She is very good on such distinctions, but I wonder whether she is right here about Caliban. She reproves all critics who have merely reported that Caliban's speech is based on James without saying why. For her it is because James's is the ultimate written style (though she does not acknowledge that the late convoluted James was dictated) whereas I would have thought it was because the Prick is most defeatingly and comically represented by a supreme stylist rumoured to have been emasculated (to Auden, completely stuck with his handling of this section, the stylistic discovery seemed "blindingly `right' "). The real James is surely an example of the sublimation of the "incorrigible staginess" of art's moral concern, accommodating the unspeakable just as Caliban must be accommodated. Although in "The Sea and the Mirror" the unspeakable is indeed brought into sharp proximity with the unknowable, I believe that most readers are mightily encouraged by the ability of a "mere poem" to suggest that this can actually be accomplished. It is, anyway, an example of what I would call a "grand definitive statement". Auden saw it as his Ars Poetica. In McDiarmid's account, the poet emerges as a posturing wreck who survives only through constant appeal to some maternal symbol (a "Mommy" who may be Elizabeth Mayer, or Limestone, or Clio) to excuse his infantile playfulness in the face of the "greater" reality about which nothing can really be said at all. When Auden happens on occasion to say that nothing can be said about it, that at least is saying something about it, and is about all that can be said about it. He presents a far less pious, and indeed more good-humoured, view of the matter than McDiarmid does.
This is an important, if a trifle chilling, book, probably the most considerable in its intensity and seriousness since Mendelson's Early Auden appeared almost ten years ago, and its substance will have to be reckoned with. Indeed, readers of this Newsletter will almost certainly want to buy it and read it immediately. If its truth doesn't quite feel right to me, it may well do so to Christians.
W. H. Auden: "The Map of All My Youth". Early Works, Friends, and Influences. Auden Studies 1. Edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins. 245pp. Clarendon Press, Oxford, £27.50, $55.00
Many readers will turn first to the last item in the book, Edward Mendelson's supplement to his and B.C. Bloomfield's Auden bibliography (Charlottesville, 1970) bringing the entries up to the end of 1987, which on its own would make this rather expensive miscellany a necessity for anyone seriously interested in Auden's poetry. It follows an article by Robert A. Wilson, a retired New York bookseller who purchased much of Auden's library on his final departure from America on 1972, which makes the collector's task sound rather too easy. Even Wilson's own little pamphlet, Auden's Library (300 copies, none for sale), seldom turns up in catalogues nowadays.
The first four sections comprise hitherto unpublished writings by Auden, notably six poems in German probably written in Helensburgh during the latter part of 1930 and concerned with the working class boys he paid to share his bed when staying in Berlin, of which David Constantine provides a prose crib and verse adaptations in English. They contain phrases Auden used in some of his contemporaneous English poems, and No. 5 has affinities with a draft poem scrawled upside down in pencil on the last page of an early poetical notebook now in the British Library (Add. MS 52430), suggesting that the poems were first written in English and then translated into Auden's idiosyncratic German.
Katherine Bucknell introduces and edits the original handwritten version of Auden's essay on "Writing" which, after considerable amendment by Naomi Mitchison (who contributes a Foreword), was included in An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents (1932) which she edited for Gollancz. Nicholas Jenkins introduces and edits eleven letters written by Auden to Stephen Spender between 1930 and 1951 and adds an Appendix tracing, so far as it can now be ascertained, Auden's itinerary during his fleeting visit to war-torn Spain early in 1937. Kathleen Bell introduces and edits six letters written by Auden to Professor and Mrs E.R. Dodds during the period of the "phoney war", in which he sought to justify his decision to sit out the war on the safe side of the Atlantic. The latter series is more guarded, less sincere perhaps, than Auden's spontaneous effusions to Spender, whose verse play Trial of a Judge (1938) he called "with all seriousness . . . the greatest poem of our time" making him "feel that almost everything I've written is shabby superficial trash" - a testimonial that ought to induce Messrs Faber to bring this exemplary work back into print. Auden was less complimentary about a poem Spender had written "about Lorca and De falla" [sic], four lines of which he [mis]quoted from memory and which Jenkins says was apparently never published. In fact the poem, "The Word Dead and the Music Mad" appeared in the July 29, 1938 number of the Spectator and was reprinted in the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (1980).
Of particular interest because it makes out a convincing case for a hitherto unperceived major influence on Auden's thinking while still at Gresham's is John Bridgen's essay on Frank McEachran (1900-1975), a master at the school and author of several works of philosophy, traces of whose humanist world-view can be detected in Auden's poetry until it was displaced by Kierkegaard's existentialist teaching in the early forties.
The miscellany is less satisfactory when it turns to criticism. Trawling through the poetry for references to Flaubert, John Fuller seems to me to allow his presence to loom too large, especially when he argues that the quest hero in that most obscure of sonnets "He parried every question that they hurled" is actually Flaubert, though I acknowledge that some of its detail seems to derive from Auden's reading of Flaubert's letters. I cannot see the connection between the Emperor's injunction in the poem "not to push" with Flaubert's "ne pas conclure", though apparently obvious to Fuller; nor do I identify "The bare man Nothing in the Beggar's Bush" with Christ. As to the latter line, which seems to me deliberate nonsense, it may remotely refer to the melancholy Jaques' retort to the Clown in As You Like It who proposed to marry Audrey without due formality: "And will you (being a man of your breeding) be married under a bush like a beggar? Get you to church . . ." Also, it may or may not be relevant that Beggar's Bush is the name of a hamlet in Radnorshire, a part of Wales Auden had visited in youth.
The critics invited to take part in the symposium on "A Communist to Others" ought to have taken warning from the discomfiture of the academics who engaged in a similar exercise, published in The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964), in respect of "A Change of Air". Except for Julian Symons, all of them emerge from the encounter with egg on their faces, their particular difficulty having been deciding to whom the pronouns "we" and "you" in the poem refer; but really it is, for Auden, pretty straightforward. In the first four stanza Auden, speaking on behalf of his fellow middle class intellectuals ("we"), rather patronizingly addresses the working class ("you"). He then, as self-appointed spokesman for the workers (the new category of "we"), addresses in turn certain types (each of them a separate "you") who are doing them down: a specimen of jeunesse dorée whose day is nearly over (st. 5-8); religious mystics concerned only with their own salvation (st. 9-11); various academics including economists and psychologists - even worse than the factory bosses - who in their lofty fashion try to reduce the miseries of the poor to mere abstraction (st. 12-17). In stanza 18, speaking in propria persona, Auden calls down nasty retribution on them; though in any case (st. 19) they are on the verge of extinction. Once more speaking for the workers in stanzas 20 and 21, he addresses a representative escapist poet, inviting him to support the cause; and finally (st. 22), again in propria persona, he assures the workers that everyone is held in unseen connection by some "Love outside our own election".
"O God what rubbish!" was the older Auden's (surely just) verdict on the poem, a comment too nearly applicable to some of the exegetical flounderings in the symposium. For no amount of ferreting in the OED can compensate for a critic's failure to get on to Auden's wavelength, that is, to understand the words he used in the senses he intended. If in the context of "A Communist to Others" you entertain even the shadow of a possibility that a "stuma" [for stumer] is a nobbled racehorse, or that "petting" means "sulks", or that "columbines" (in the plural) have anything to do with Harlequin's girl friend, you are unlikely to make much sense of the thing.
The cuckoo in this miscellany of Auden studies is Peter McDonald's essay on MacNeice's juvenilia which, while demonstrating how certain strains that persisted in his mature poetry had their roots in his childhood, perhaps does not sufficiently emphasize how profound was the change that overtook his work when, after a period of silence during his first year of marriage, he began to write poetry again, a decisive shift from the world of myth and fantasy to the real modern world of motor cars and ice-cream soda.
Altogether, despite too many typos, this is a most rewarding contribution to Auden studies, setting a high standard for succeeding volumes in a series which it is announced will appear at two- or three-yearly intervals.
John Lehmann's "New Writing": An Author Index, 1936-50. Compiled by Ella Whitehead with an Introductory Essay by John Whitehead. Studies in Comparative Literature, Volume 13. The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, Queenstown, Lampeter, $49.95.
New Writing began publication in 1936 and for the following fourteen years was one of the most prestigious as well as enjoyable of literary journals. Its sole editor was John Lehmann, minor poet and novelist, and the brother of two distinguished sisters, Rosamund and Beatrix. He himself had begun a literary life of sorts while still at Cambridge, after which he joined the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press where he worked for two increasingly contentious years. It was during this period that he conceived the idea of editing his own journal, although given that the 1930s was a decade much marked by the launching - and frequent sinking - of literary journals, this was hardly the remarkable notion that John Whitehead seems to think it. Lehmann was, however, luckier than most. According to Whitehead it was T. S. Eliot who suggested to the young man that he should approach Allen Lane, then with the Bodley Head Press, to see whether Lane would agree to the Press's backing a journal. As a result of their discussions, "The Bodley Head undertook to publish a biennial hardbound magazine under Lehmann's editorship with the guarantee of three numbers, although in the event only the first two were brought out under The Bodley Head imprint."
Lane then left the Press to form his own company, Penguin Books. The story of how Lehmann received temporary assistance from Lawrence & Wishart and then moved to join Lane, and of how after some false starts the journal prospered to become perhaps the most famous of its time - all this is efficiently told in an Introductory Essay which takes the story through to its sad end, in 1950. The journal's heyday was the immediate post-war period when, as a quarterly, it printed as many as 100,000 copies per issue (this was in 1946). By the time Lehmann and his publishers decided to pull the plug on it the print run was drastically reduced as were the number of illustrations. Most tellingly of all, perhaps, is the fact that Penguin New Writing, as it had been called from 1940, had once more reverted to being a biennial.
That Penguin New Writing deserved its popularity there can be no doubt. Although it underwent a variety of changes to its appearance it was always attractively produced and Lehmann was an editor of what in the circumstances seems to have been blessedly catholic tastes. He had few political convictions but he does seem to have had a nose for good writing. Many of the best - and a few of the worst - writers of the age published work in the pages of Penguin New Writing including such luminaries as Aragon, Balinski, Brecht, Capetanakis, Hernandez, Jouve, Rivière, and Seferis. Lehmann also printed some of Auden's finest poems of the period: "Lay Your Sleeping Head", "In Memoriam Ernst Toller", and "Gare du Midi", for example, all appeared in his journal, as did MacNeice's "Meeting Point", "Autolycus", "Brother Fire", and "Prayer Before Birth". There was also a sizeable chunk of what was to become Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Add to this work by the young Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, and Paul Bowles together with occasional endpieces and photographic supplements by, among others, Keith Vaughan, John Minton, and Humphrey Spender and you have a journal of enviable quality - one which is for the most part well served by this Author-Index.
The Introductory Essay, however, has some uncertain moments. John Whitehead says that Lehmann was determined to "avoid the political over-emphasis that marred the Left Review as a literary magazine." But Left Review was never intended to be a merely literary magazine. From the start it took politics to be integral to its concerns. Nevertheless, the impressive list of working-class writers it printed, often for the first time, clearly had an influence on Lehmann since several of them subsequently appeared in Penguin New Writing, and I would wager a sizeable bet that he had more to learn from Left Review than vice versa about which foreign writers deserved to be printed in his journal. Whitehead has an oddly snide remark about Auden and Isherwood choosing "not to share with their fellow-countrymen the profound experience of the coming war and its aftermath", and an even odder reference to two "sinister sketches on Marxist themes by Edward Upward", which anyway appeared in New Country. But these are minor matters and do not greatly detract from the considerable value of this work. If you want to know who wrote for Penguin New Writing, what they wrote and when, this is the book to consult.
Merlin Radical Fiction: Merlin Press has launched a new fiction series which may be of interest to members of The W. H. Auden Society. Covering radical fiction between 1780 and 1950 it is inevitable that a number of writers from the 1930s are included. Among titles now available are Rex Warner's The Wild Goose Chase and Sandwichman by Walter Brierley (author of the more famous Means-Test Man), both first published in 1937. Also included on the list are Storm Jameson's In The Second Year, an account of life in an imagined Nazi Britain, first published in 1935, and Montague Slater's 1949 historical novel Englishmen With Swords. Paperback titles range from £4.99 to £6.99.
Further details are available from The Merlin Press Ltd, 10 Malden Road, London NW5 3HR.
Andy Croft, Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s, Lawrence and Wishart, £19.95. A study of lesser-known political writers of the 1930s. Authors discussed include Walter Brierley, Katherine Burdekin, Lewis Jones, Jack Lindsay, Ethel Mannin, and the "Birmingham Group".
Adolphe Haberer, ed. Les Années Trente, No. 12 - Dylan Thomas, Université de Nantes, FFr 50 (available from Jean-Claude François, U.F.R. de Langues, Chemin de la Sensive du Tertre, 44036 Nantes Cedex, France - cheques payable to Monsieur l'Agent Comptable de l'Université de Nantes). Special issue of this French literary journal dedicated to Dylan Thomas with articles by Adolphe Haberer, Philip Lahey, George Morgan, André Topia, and Paul Volsik.
The W. H. Auden Society and the Poetry Society of America have organized a poetry reading intended to celebrate both Auden's memory and his presence as a living force in contemporary writing. On Thursday, 4 April 1991 in New York, Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky; poet and scholar (and Auden's choice as the 1958 Yale Younger Poet) John Hollander; distinguished poet, author of "7 Middagh Street" Paul Muldoon; 1988 winner of the Academy of American Poets Lamont Poetry Award Mary-Jo Salter; and Auden's literary executor Edward Mendelson will read from Auden's work and comment on his significance to them. They will be introduced to the audience by the poet and critic J. D. McClatchy.
The reading will begin at 7pm in the National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South. Tickets will cost the general public $15, but Auden Society members will pay only $10. Those who would like to attend are warned that tickets will be issued on a First Come, First Served basis only, and they are advised to call the Poetry Society of America at (212) 254-9628 a few days in advance to check on arrangements. Since the W. H. Auden Society does not, at present, provide a membership card, it has become necessary to find a way for Auden Society members to claim their discount. It has been decided, therefore, by the Rules Committee that members should identify themselves at the door by reciting the last line of the poet's "Anthem for St. Cecilia"s Day": "O wear your tribulation like a rose."
In future membership directories for The W. H. Auden Society will no longer be included with the Newsletter. Members of the Society can receive membership lists on request but it is stressed that these should not be used for commercial purposes.
The W. H. Auden Society welcomes new members. Annual subscriptions are as follows:
Concessions (students, unemployed, etc.) £3 $5
Individuals £6 $10
Institutions £8 $12
New members and members wishing to renew subscriptions should send cheques (payable to The W. H. Auden Society) to Katherine Bucknell, 78 Clarendon Road, London W11 2HW, England. Receipts on request.
The deadline for submissions to Newsletter No. 7 is 30 March 1991.
I would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion.
Editor: Kathleen Bell, 37 Redwood Crescent,
Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England.
All previously unpublished Auden material quoted in this Newsletter
is copyright 1990 by The Estate of W. H. Auden.
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