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Newsletter 21 (February 2001)

February 2001

The W. H. Auden Society


Rachel Wetzsteon on Auden

Brooding on the many ways Auden has shaped my poetry and my life, I'm reminded of a line from his essay on Hardy in which he admits, "I cannot write objectively about Thomas Hardy because I was once in love with him." Describing my relationship to Auden seems similarly threatened by storms of subjectivity. But I can't think of a more fitting tribute to one of the most articulate people of the last century than to gather my thoughts into something like a unity. So I'll give it a try.

Although I was interested in poetry from an early age, I came to Auden's work scandalously late. Before I got to college, I was only vaguely aware of his poems, which reached me through the various anthologies I read at school: I remember being struck by "Musée des Beaux Arts" and "Lullaby" especially. I also dimly recall my parents talking about him as a kind of eminence grise of the East Village, where they had lived in the 1960s. But as a student at Yale in the late 1980s, I took a modern poetry course taught by Marie Borroff in which I read large chunks of Auden for the first time. Auden clearly wasn't Borroff's favorite poet-the bulk of her syllabus was devoted to Frost, Stevens and Bishop-but she did spend a few classes on him, and made the interesting move of pairing him with Dylan Thomas, calling one "Apollonian," the other "Dionysian." Something must have clicked then and there, because much as I loved the course I remember being dissatisfied by this handy Nietzschean opposition. Surely Auden's variety gave it the lie?

Auden's influence took hold more powerfully when I spent the summer after my sophomore year in London, working as a waitress in the Victoria and Albert Museum by day, and writing my first real poems by night. (I'd dabbled in writing for the last few years, but now, I told myself, I was going to Get Serious.) In ways I was only partly aware of at the time, I looked to Auden as my model of all a poet should be: I carried the Faber and Faber Collected Shorter Poems everywhere (I still can't look at its faded purple cover without remembering that summer's discoveries), marveled at his range, and wrote poems that, I now see, shamelessly bore his imprint. Most of these poems were short, satirical character studies: one recounted the life and times of an aesthete; another described the mayhem that ensues when a librarian gets drunk and falls from her ladder. I suppose I'd call them "Audenesque" because of their tightly rhyming stanzas and their jaundiced-yet-tender portraiture. At this point in my writing career I seem to have been responding mostly to Auden's lightest, bounciest poems. It would be several years before his darker and more difficult work-the elegies, the longer poems and sequences, the religious explorations-would be important for me as well.

Back from England, I enrolled in a course in Advanced Verse Writing taught by John Hollander. In addition to showing the class poems by Auden and doing so much to enhance my understanding of literature generally, Hollander provided me with a wonderful example of a living poet who had been hugely influenced by Auden. All the while, I was wildly reading Auden's poetry, and after I graduated I spent several years writing poems-first as a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, then as a creative writing teacher at the Saint Albans School-that loudly declared his influence. Perhaps too loudly: reading these poems now, I'm embarrassed by the way I strove for his wit and his technical agility without aiming for, let alone achieving, any of his profounder effects. One, "Thirty Devils," describes (in double dactyls!) a chaotic symposium of "fiends of the world." In another, "Priapus," a modern-day satyr narrates his conquests in intricately rhymed stanzas. ("The hard part is to keep my women straight. / How many times I've jeopardized my fate/ by having more than one! / Last month I wore chains meant for Thursday's harlot / to the apartment of my Sunday starlet, / a horrified ex-nun." And so on.) I also wrote a short drama in verse, "Slander and Stern," in which a man appears at a psychologist's door and tries to convince him to lie to his patients for the sheer fun of it. Even though these poems now seem little more than clever trifles, I do think they're reasonably accomplished from a formal standpoint: my desire to emulate Auden gave me a sense of poetry as a discipline that I might otherwise never have had. He made me want to make things difficult for myself.

None of these early poems found its way into the manuscript that became my first book, The Other Stars. But the book's variety of forms-sestinas, villanelles, sonnets, sapphics-certainly owes much to Auden's example. I hope his influence takes more subtle forms, too. My interest in urban settings; my attempts to steer my love poems away from sentimentality; my importing of the language of other disciplines, all seem to bear Auden's stamp. (One fussy disclaimer: a reviewer of this book claimed that I appeared "to be modeling (my) poems on W. H. Auden's." Although Auden was definitely my biggest influence at the time, I'd hate to think that my relation to Auden-or the relation of any two poets!-is as simple as this. Even at the height of my Auden craze I was reading, and learning from, many other poets too.)

For Home and Away, my next book, I wrote my first and, so far, only explicit homage to another poet: "In Memory of W. H. Auden." Even though Auden had been dead for twenty-five years when I wrote the poem, I wanted to express my thoughts on what I, and other poets who followed in his wake, could learn from him. I'll frankly confess that I'm proud of this poem, as I think it shows how my debt to him had deepened since my earlier efforts. I start the poem by suggesting how writers after Auden-the "shore of mourners" at the poem's beginning-can inherit his mantle in ways both good and bad. Referring dismissively to people who wear "the tight coat of impressive learning" and "the formal outfit, frayed on the inside," I imply that highly allusive and formally sophisticated poems are not necessarily worthy successors to Auden. Looking back at the poem now, I realize that these phrases are not only a smack at a certain kind of Auden-inspired poetry I didn't like, but also a critique of my own early, cleverer-than-thou poems. I go on to praise Auden's ability to "hold head and heart in such a tight balance"; his "moods" which, "more facets than masks, reveal/ the depth and breadth of the ideal person"; and his gift of teaching us "not how to follow in your footsteps, but / how to carve out paths for ourselves." This last point-that the most valuable followers of Auden will not copy him too closely, but rather infuse their poems with his particular energies and concerns-is reflected in the poem's form. It is written in alcaic stanzas which, by borrowing the form of the Freud elegy, demonstrate a debt and a continuity. But since the poem lasts one stanza longer than the elegy, I also wanted to enact the going-down of my own roads.

I wrote these two books while I was a graduate student in English at Columbia, where, not surprisingly, I chose to write my dissertation on Auden. Titled Influential Ghosts, it examines Auden's relation to his sources: two chapters focus on his relation to specific writers-Hardy and Kierkegaard-and the other two are more broadly thematic, discussing Auden's relation to a poetic genre (the elegy) and a literary technique (allusion). In all four chapters I try to show the ways in which Auden's relation to writers and genres is both reverential and critical. Thus, he began his career smitten with Hardy's "hawk's vision," but went on to replace it with a closer attention to specific people and places; he made much use of Kierkegaard's vocabulary and beliefs, but eventually came to question his "spiritual prima donna" attitudes; he wrote some of the greatest elegies of the twentieth century, but also displayed a marked ambivalence to both their subjects and the entire elegiac tradition. In many ways, I now see, my dissertation is the prose equivalent of my elegy, or the other way around: clearly I was obsessed with the ways in which poets lovingly apprentice themselves to earlier poets, but then begin to go their own way, "carve out paths for themselves."

Very few first loves (alas) retain their intensity over a lifetime; and sure enough, I've moved away from Auden's influence considerably in the last few years. At the height of my infatuation, I went so far as to affect a passion for Bellini and a stern dislike of Shelley and the French. But the flame has abated somewhat: my taste is now more continental, my poems less formal, and my range of influences-I hope-more on display. But every so often, Auden greets me anew with his grand old prospect of wonder and width. Teaching his poems recently, and wanting to give my students a sense of his immense range, I showed them "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" and "Victor" that darkly witty ballad of murder and madness-back to back. Seeing these poems through their eyes, all I could do was drop my jaw over the fact that they'd been written by the same person, just two years apart. It was like running into an old love on the street and remembering why the passion had flared up in the first place. I've also shown my writing students Auden's list of the things his "Daydream College for Bards" must do-write parodies, study cooking and liturgics, cultivate a garden plot-and been moved by the ways they respond (just as I did, years ago) to this inclusive vision of a poet's life. And when I'm pondering a difficult decision, succumbing to self-pity, or trying to come to terms with something that hasn't gone as I'd like, I often find that phrases from his poems pop into my head, and do much good. I could compile a commonplace book of these wise, generous, soft-spoken Rules to Live By: "If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me." "The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide." "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." "Find our mortal world enough." "And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands." "It is silly / To refuse the tasks of time / And, overlooking our lives, / Cry-`Miserable wicked me, / How interesting I am.' " "Love, or truth in any serious sense, / Like orthodoxy, is a reticence."

I'm also extremely grateful to Auden for leading me to writers whose work I might never have become aware of if I hadn't steeped myself so eagerly in his. His reviews, essays and scattered remarks on Henry Green, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil made me a devotée of all three; and I've also been happy to discover, thanks to him, less well-known writers like Malcolm de Chazal and Dag Hammarskjöld.

However I evolve as a poet, and whatever new role models I adopt or discard, I know that Auden's poems will always be among my favorites. My current pantheon, in no particular order: "In Praise of Limestone" (an ars poetica after my own heart), "Lullaby," "In Sickness and in Health" and "First Things First" (for being such stubbornly unsentimental love poems); "A Summer Night" (for its serene wisdom); "Refugee Blues" (for its heartbreaking compassion); "O Where are You Going" (for its almost cheeky urgency); "Horae Canonicae" (for its total profundity); the Yeats and Freud elegies (for their odd, stirring mix of praise and appraisal); the sonnets "The Novelist" and "The Composer" (for their artistic humility); "Letter to Lord Byron" (for its sheer youthful exuberance).

I think Auden offers an extraordinarily valuable example for younger poets writing today. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I know that-writing my first poems when the Poetry Wars of the 1980s were at their height-I looked to Auden as a healthy antidote to the stringencies of New Formalism and the acrobatics of "Language Poetry." (The New Formalists may have claimed Auden as a founding father, but look closer and they're distant cousins: New Formalism's tiresome insistence on accessibility couldn't be further from the myriad challenges Auden placed on himself and his readers.) Similarly, raised as I was in the shadow of confessional poetry, I might well have taken a very different route if I hadn't discovered him when I did. "Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses / force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self." Could a would-be poet hear any stricter or more welcome advice? Finally, although I often feel remorse over the brief intersection of his life and mine-I was five years old when he died-I'm also thrilled to have been around for the recent explosion of Auden scholarship. Juvenilia, Collected Prose, Auden Studies, this Newsletter. . . . It feels like a very good time for lovers of Auden to be alive, and writing.

Rachel Wetzsteon is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Other Stars and Home and Away, both published by Penguin Books.

John Hollander on Auden

You have often stated, and it is evident from your work, that Auden is one of the primary influences on your poetry, and in "W. H. Auden: A First Encounter" you talk about needing, as a younger man, to take out sections of poems that sounded too heavily indebted to Auden. How conscious have you been of Auden's influence while you were actually writing? As you have gotten older and your distance from Auden has widened, has Auden been less (or more) of a conscious presence as you write?

There are several meanings of "influence" when applied to the relations between poets: poet A can provide examples of all sorts-rhetorical, formal, occasional, structural, stylistic, to name just a few-for poet B, who consciously takes up what weren't really suggestions as if they had been suggested to him or her, even by a long-dead writer. Or B can find him or herself writing "like" A in all sorts of ways as well: this is primarily unconscious, but the unconsciousness may be trivial as well as profound. Then there are ways in which A can provide procedural models for B in a larger way. And there are those tiny but intense moments when, at a particular moment in a particular poem, some of A's will be echoed in something of B's. But that's a complex subject, and I've devoted a whole little book to it, called The Figure of Echo. I suppose that for me it was, when I was young, a matter both of the exemplary and the unwitting, echoic modes, although after my second book, I think these both faded totally.

"Under Aquarius," is, of course, an explicit homage to Auden. Could you tell us, perhaps, about the different role that Auden plays in the process of writing a poem in which he is explicitly honored and one in which he is not explicitly there?

In "Under Aquarius" I was, I suppose, allowing myself to be more Audenesque in tone, diction, syntax, etc. than I had since my very early twenties, both as part of an hommage and for the genuine pleasure it gave me. I wrote in the accentual version of classical elegiac couplets that German romantic poets favored, and I quoted from Goethe's Roman Elegies-a poem that Auden had told me he had wanted to translate some day. I was also thinking, I suppose, of how, among the early and later modernist poets who initially meant so much to me as a young reader and writer, it was Auden alone who knew and cared about poetry in German (scraps of which-let alone the lyrics of Lieder-I'd grown up with). But it wasn't a question of "honoring" in either case, but an occasion of talking directly to him in verse.

In "Reflections on Espionage" Cupcake says of Steampump, "He taught me, as you surely know, all that I know." This is an impossible question to answer fully, but perhaps you could tell us a bit about what Auden has taught you-what poetic knowledge has he passed onto you, and how?

Well, remember that this was Cupcake writing of Steampump. As for Auden and myself, I suppose that he was one of the two voices of moral instruction-not didacticism-I kept hearing when young. First it was George Bernard Shaw, the tone of whose writing voice (in the stage-directions and of course in the Prefaces, as well as the plays) started to get to me by the time I was about 10 or 11. I first read Auden when I was about fifteen. Only later on did I read much Orwell. I owe any political sanity I have gained and maintained to them in good part. But this is aside from the invitation to consider formal invention, to want to sing as well as talk, that his poetry extended and, of course, all the poets and poems he set me to reading.

What period of Auden's career most influenced you? Have different periods influenced you more or less at different points in your career?

At the most crucial point, when I first started reading his poems, I had no idea of chronology, and since his Collected Poems was arranged alphabetically by first line, I didn't know what was early or late. I loved "The Watershed" and "Paysage Moralise" as much as "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" or "Voltaire at Ferney" or "The Sea and the Mirror", for example. I was acutely aware of the publication of The Age of Anxiety-Allen Ginsberg and I read it aloud to each other from my newly-bought copy in Denver in 1947--and I suppose that, thereafter, Nones was the first "later" book of poems I acquired. I've always liked the post-1939 Auden more than my English friends ever seemed to.

In "W. H. Auden: A First Encounter" you name specific poems that are particularly important for you-among them "Sea and the Mirror," "O, Where Are You Going," "Musée des Beaux-Arts," "The Maze" and several others. Are those still the poems to which you turn most often? Has that list of most important Auden poems changed throughout your life?

I think I was referring to poems that I particularly cared about at the time I first met him. Subsequently, there have been many others: "In Praise of Limestone," "The Fall of Rome," "The Shield of Achilles," "The Proof," for example.

Your poems often display a formal mastery. What is it like to write in form after Auden? What technical/ stylistic innovations do you find most helpful in Auden's work, and why?

Auden-like Hardy-deployed a tremendous variety of verse forms and patterns; he went beyond Hardy in adapting purely accentual meters from early Germanic poetry and from folk-song and nursery rhyme and, after he had learned it from Marianne Moore, strict syllabics. Most importantly, he never seized on a scheme-Frost's pentameter, or the looser form of it Stevens finally came to, or Williams' later typographically determined versification-and stayed with it from poem to poem. I learned from Auden to treat matters of verse pattern as ad hoc and occasional, but going further than he ever did (except for the bathroom poem in the "About the House" sequence) in including various kinds of free verse among my options. But I suppose it was Auden's use of syllabics, rather than Moore's, which led me to discover their great flexibility and usefulness for myself.

What do you think Auden made possible for younger poets?

All sorts of things-different things for different poets, in fact. But you ought to ask Aidan Wasley, author of a splendid as-yet-unpublished book on the question of Auden's legacy to post-modern American poets.

What (if anything) was available to Auden as a poet, as a member of the twenties generation, that is not available to you, as a member of a younger generation?

Everything that has happened to my poetry since I was about thirty comes from American-and some from Judaic-tradition. Yet as a transatlantic poet in a very different way from Eliot's, he meant something for my deep sense, starting with my first reading in early childhood, of a complex sort of pas de deux that English writing and American experience of other kinds were performing in my imagination.

Have you been influenced by Auden's public persona (both in England and America)?

I'm not sure precisely what you mean by that. But in any event probably no, once I'd been out of college for a year or so.

What is your perception of the public place that Auden now occupies? He is not as influential and imposing a figure today as he was in his life-time, but what role do you think he still plays in shaping the contemporary poetic climate?

He is still very important for people who really read poetry and think about it, but perhaps not for all the hundreds of poor writers, trained in workshops and not in their own reading, who pour out verse and don't read great poetry. But I have seen Auden's shaping spirit playing about the work of excellent younger poets-Rachel Wetzsteon, for example, or Karl Kirchwey-in a clear but different way from that of his presence for my generation.

Your first book of poems was chosen by Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Did Auden's responses to your work affect the way you wrote subsequent poems? In particular, did his reflections on your work-for example his praise in his introduction of your more song-like poems, or his criticism there of the word "extrapolation" in "Icarus before Knossos"-cause you to re-assess your own work in any way? Did you find Auden's comments helpful or misguided, and if you showed Auden your poetry in later years, did his comments affect your writing?

Well, "extrapolate" was a word he might have used when he was young, although it was technical terms from geology rather than from what is now called "pre-calculus" that he was drawn to-I didn't take that observation very seriously at all. But his saying that the speakers of poems of mine gave the impression "that, on returning from a walk, they could tell one more about what they'd worried about than what they'd seen" was undeniably true. I've spent my whole conceptual and imaginative life peering through clouds of worrying, fogs of remembering, the smoke of puzzling at occluded bits of the world. But of course, the occlusions, and what each one does to the light, are bits of the world themselves. I didn't show Auden poetry in later years, although I'd have him sent my books; but I never wanted to inflict my work on anyone but the closest friends.

Finally, were there any conversations you had with Auden about poetry or anything else that you think in any way altered the way you write (or wrote) poems or think about your own work?

That's hard to answer: one can't know too well what is really influencing one, no matter what one may think. I can say, though, that I took to heart a lot of what he'd said about not harping on oneself, in reading poems publicly, in talking about one's own work. That was the good side of the coin of high-modernist impersonality, although it has left me ill-equipped to listen without disgust to the way a lot of poets-both younger and those I'd have thought old enough to know better-carry on in mindless and self-promoting anecdotal fashion. I think I may have learned a kind of public decorum from him. I certainly learned a good deal directly, from conversation in particular, about writing for musical setting, for example.

John Hollander, who teaches at Yale, is the author of more than fifteen volumes of poetry, most recently The Figurehead & Other Poems published in 1999 by Knopf. He is also the author of numerous books of criticism, and the editor of several anthologies.

A Blue Plaque for W. H. Auden

A blue plaque to honor W. H. Auden was unveiled in Harborne, Birmingham by his nephew Giles Auden, on October 9th 2000. The site chosen, on the front of the public swimming baths seemed more appropriate than on the Mormon church which now stands where the family home, 42 Lordswood Road, once stood.

The occasion was hosted jointly by Birmingham Civic Society and the University of Birmingham. Professor Tony Davies, head of the department of English collaborated with Mr Bruce Tanner, chairman of Birmingham Civic Society in drawing up the guest list.

Mr Bruce Tanner opened the proceeding with a speech recalling a translation from Goethe made by Wystan which he had enjoyed reading. Professor Michael Clarke, pro vice Chancellor, gave a welcome speech on behalf of the university. The Lord Mayor, Mrs Teresa Steward, spoke warmly of George Augustus, Wystan's father, the first medical officer for schools. Mr Giles Auden then introduced the members of the family present, including his sister Mrs Peter James and his cousin Mrs Anita Money and their sons and daughter and others more distantly related.

Mr Giles Auden next proceeded to read an account of times spent in 42 Lordswood Road written by his sister, Mrs Jane Hanly who now lives in Dublin and was unfortunately unable to attend. [Mrs Hanly's memoir is printed below.] We learned that Wystan was left one evening to mind his baby niece, Mary, and afterwards wrote "Lay your sleeping head, my love."

Dr. Richard Hoggart, an early admirer of Wystan's work and later a friend, gave an address, towards the end recalling the man he had known. Professor Steve Ellis then read a note from Seamus Heaney, apologizing for his absence and quoting the lines composed for the unveiling of Wystan's portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.


Memories of 42 Lordswood Road

I am sorry not to be able to share with you in person, a few childhood memories of 42 Lordswood Road, but Mrs Davies thought you might like to hear them anyway.

I would have first stayed in the house with my grandparents in 1934. Children are not given to comparisons and I don't remember being struck by its grander style compared to our log home in the prairies of Alberta, but I always liked the feel of the house. Bright bay windows at the rear looked onto a pleasant garden, the garden being functional rather than spectacular, with large lawn, borders, trees bearing rosy apples and a surrounding palisade. And always a dog, one of a succession of terriers all called Biddy.

A predominant memory is of sunlight, of my grandmother sewing in a sunny window. The house had an abundance of embroidered napkins, runners, tablecloths. There were fine tall boys, chests of drawers with mahogany dressing table mirrors and a Broadwood piano. A lot of delft, Quimper platters and a dinner service decorated in blackberry pattern. Books everywhere. I think some of the hung-pictures were of religious subjects, particularly of saints. There was a large cool larder stocked with stone ginger beer and damson cheese, specialties of the house.

My grandfather's study and consulting room, however, was a forbidding place, especially when one's squiggles were subjected to psychological interpretation.

Memories of my parents at meals or around the house are strangely absent, possibly because they both on occasion were confined to bed, my father by a knee operation and my mother by the birth of my sister Mary. Wystan, perhaps an unlikely candidate for the job, had to mind the baby one evening when we all went to the pantomime. For most of the time I was looked after by my grandmother, a strict disciplinarian and by a nursemaid.

Visitors came and went but most important were my uncles John and Wystan. I remember Wystan taking photographs of me and feeding my vanity by remarking on a good profile. John saved me from long sits over hated rice pudding by eating the helpings himself.

In retrospect the house would have been of its time and class, maybe a bit staid but well lived in and very much a family home. I regretted my grandparents' later move to 13 Coart Oak Road; it didn't have the same atmosphere.

Although 42 Lordswood Road has gone, the site should surely resonate with the echoes of Auden voices. It is a pity that the voice of Wystan cannot describe his own memories, but it is good that his connection with the place has now been re-established.


In the Footsteps of Auden

On Saturday, 8 July 2000, as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2000, diminutive and feisty New York-born journalist Linda Hart led a group of some thirty festival visitors on a newly devised literary walk to the nearby Malvern Hills, celebrating the early life and works of W. H. Auden.

Hart is no stranger to leading literary walks: as the founder of the Friends of the Dymock Poets and its ongoing chairwoman, she has pioneered a number of poetry trails in the area, and is an active member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

The walk started in the small village of Colwall, at the Downs school, where Auden taught during the 1930s. Hart talked about Auden's life at the school. She wove an entertaining portrait of Auden-"Uncle Wiz" as he was known-striding around the school, with black Flemish hat and an ever-present box of cigarettes in hand, teaching classes that veered between the conventional and riotous. We heard of Auden's impact on the school magazine, including a highly amusing account of a visit to the Carpathians entitled "In Search of Dracula." Hart also spoke of the cabarets put on by Auden for the boys, and of regular visits by Benjamin Britten, C. Day Lewis, William Coldstream and others.

The route led through open countryside at the foot of the western slopes of the Malvern Hills. As the walk progressed, Hart drew our attention to landscape features that had links to Auden (throwing in for good measure some fascinating references to William Langland). The group wandered through the wooded Wych cutting, then gently climbed slopes that offered ever-more striking panoramic views of this unspoiled part of England. After a watery coffee stop at the top, Hart gave a well-researched account of Auden's marriage to Thomas Mann's daughter Erika, in the medieval town council offices of Ledbury. A few curious sheep wandered up, nonchalantly chewing as this stop concluded with a reading of "The Malverns."

From here the walk dropped down back towards Colwall. When the group arrived at the school, Hart announced her piece de résistance: the school has recently become more kindly disposed towards publicity regarding Auden's time as schoolmaster there, and for the first time, the lawn outside the Master's Lodge where WHA had found his inspiration for "Out on the lawn I lie in bed," would be opened to an outside group. Hart read Auden's poem; it was not difficult, even in a gentle summer drizzle, to imagine WHA holding court on a warm summer's night.

This was an excellent walk. Just the right length even for the smoking walker, it was well-paced and informative-suitable for both the cognoscenti and the novice. I understand that the work of Auden is to be featured in next year's Ledbury Poetry Festival. It will be well worth a visit.


Richard Surman is a writer and photographer who has exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic. He specializes in books about cats, and is one of the founders of the Ledbury Poetry Festival

The Omnibus Tape: Auden's 1954 Essay on Eliot

Among Auden ephemera there is a script1 that he prepared for an Omnibus program telecast on the CBS Television Network on 14 February 1954, to coincide with the staging on Broadway of The Confidential Clerk, T. S. Eliot's sixth play.

Omnibus' host Alistair Cooke-after the "smallest thumbnail sketch of Eliot as a person" ("lean and cadaverous," "a surgeon who knows the worst and hopes to ease you kindlily out this world into the next")-introduced Auden as "very much the same sort of titan to the youngest generation of poets that Eliot was to his." 2

Then Auden said the following:

Imagine that World War I has just recently ended, a few enterprising spirits own crystal sets, phonographs still have horns and are wound by hand, automobiles have not lost resemblance to horse carriages, and Mr and Mrs Smith are worried because their daughter is turning into a flapper.

Imagine further that you are standing on some college campus where intellectual undergraduates walk in the afternoons, excitedly discussing, as they have done since civilization began, their latest revelations in philosophy, politics, arts, and what have you.

Well, where fifty years before you might have heard their fathers reciting-

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;That even the weariest river
Winds up somewhere safe to sea,3

now you would hear declaimed with the same gusto-

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates,4

and, needless to say, far off in their clubs, their poor bewildered papas are grumbling, "I try to read this T. S. Eliot my son is always talking about. Can't make head or tail of it. Sounds that the fellow was drunk."

For at the beginning of the 20th century poetry had come, as it comes every now and then, to a dead end.

For instance, suppose you were a young poet who wanted to write a long dramatic poem on a modern subject. Well, the natural medium that would occur to you would be blank verse which would sound like, shall we say, Browning-

All Balzac's novels occupy one shelf,
The new edition fifty volumes long;
And little Greek books, with the funny type
They get up well at Leipsic, fill the next:5

but you would have been worried and would have thought to yourself, "Oh dear, oh dear, I wish I could think of a more flexible kind of medium . . ."

Then-with what excitement you would have read for the first time a passage like-

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rainNor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.6

Again, it is one of the pleasures characteristic of our age to enjoy ironic contrast-the putting side by side of opposite characteristics, the sordid and the grand, the extraordinary and the commonplace. Mr Eliot did not-of course-invent this pleasure for us, but he was one of the first to gratify it, in such verses as this-

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney's knees. . .7

I think, personally, that Mr Eliot is so idiosyncratic a figure that for any poet to allow himself to be directly influenced by him could only result in pale imitation. But, indirectly, his sense of technical and emotional discipline, his demonstration that a poet can be at once traditional and modern, has had so immense an influence that one cannot imagine 20th-century poetry without him.

Mr Eliot has himself perfectly described the poet's task (I quote)-

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate-but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lostAnd found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. . . . 8

To which I can only add that in these unpropitious days Mr Eliot has been one of the lucky few who found.9


Jaæek Niecko's critical edition of Czes³aw Mi³osz's correspondence with Pave³ Mayewski, the editor of the first anthology of American poetry in Polish translation (Bloomfield and Mendelson T303) was published in Poland in 2000.

Setting Auden To Music

I first came across Auden's poetry in the mid 1950s when I was an undergraduate and Organ Scholar at Queens' College, Cambridge. Auden was in the Penguin Contemporary Verse and then I bought his Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 from Heffers, the bookshop that used to be in the street called Petty Cury before the old shops and the coaching hotel, The Red Lion, were demolished. I was immediately captivated by the apparent spontaneity of the language-as fresh as ever today-and its unforced relation to inherited stanza forms. I responded both to the Hopkins-like assonances and alliterations of "Look, stranger" and to other musical devices, such as the whimsical refrain "agreeably, agreeably, agreeably" in "Carry her over the water." I wrote my first cycle, "Four Auden Songs," in September, 1956.

Appropriately enough for the seascape of "Look, stranger," our house was only a few hundred yards from the estuary of the River Ribble. At this time Auden was very much in the news and on 17 June 1956 the Sunday Times had printed an extract from his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

The third section of Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 is called "Songs and Other Musical Pieces." I must have regarded this as an open invitation, like Yeats's "Words for Music Perhaps," since, apart from "Happy Ending," all of the eight Auden poems that I have set came from there. I worked with the natural rhythm of the spoken text in relation to the metrical scheme, all qualified by the mood of the poem. The process was instinctive at the time when I first set Auden-a kind of love at first sight-but later on I felt that I wanted to know everything I could about a poet before composing a song cycle. I have even told composition students that it is bad manners to find just one poem in an anthology and then set that! I think the composer has a greater responsibility. From that point of view I have usually tried to create a musical language to suit the poet's world, often closely following the structure of a poem. The personality of the poet has affected me too-the barn-storming legend of Dylan Thomas or the reclusive Emily Dickinson. I was less aware of this with Auden and had no idea about his private life until much later.

I had written the "Four Auden Songs" for one of the best sopranos in Cambridge, Janet Edmonds (now Durran), and not for my sister, Meriel, with whom I later performed the songs. In the 1950s Britten's settings of Auden were not often heard and I knew none of them before making my own. When I first came across his 1937 cycle, "On This Island," I remember being disappointed by the conventional roulades in "Let the florid music" and the harmonically limited piano part of "Look, stranger" but I admired the melodic arcs of "Nocturne" and the wit of "As it is, plenty." An American critic recently detected the influence of Britten in my Auden songs but this actually came from Lennox Berkeley.

When the "Four Auden Songs" were due to be performed at the Cambridge University Musical Club-probably the University Composers' Club first-I realized that I ought to get the author's permission to use the poems and so I wrote to him. They were untitled in the 1950 edition I used: XIV: "Look, stranger, on this island now," V: "Eyes look into the well," III: "Carry her over the water," XXXVII: "What's in your mind, my dove, my coney." Auden replied from Ischia on 11 January 1957 with unexpected generosity:

Dear Mr Dickinson:
Thank you for your letter of Jan 4th. Of course I should be delighted if your settings are performed at the Cambridge University Composers' Club, and I hope, when I come over in the Summer Term, I shall have a chance of meeting you and hearing them. If, as I hope it will, there should come a professional performance involving fees, then you will have to get in touch with my agent, Curtis Brown Ltd. [address provided]
Yours sincerely,
W. H. Auden

I was thrilled to get this response. The letter was handwritten on a large sheet of paper with the writing placed in the centre. For some time afterwards I imitated this style and once caused considerable offence when writing a bread-and-butter letter to some stuffy conventional people who considered it insultingly eccentric.

"The Four Auden Songs" were performed at the Cambridge University Musical Club on 11 May 1957 by Janet Edmonds and Colin Tilney (later known as a harpsichordist) and on 4 February 1958 at the Wigmore Hall in London by Pamela Woolmore and Keith Humble at a concert of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. On 6 February the Daily Telegraph reported:

Peter Dickinson's "Four Auden Songs" displayed a gift for a personal and graceful melodic line-but a gift within limits and unwilling to venture beyond them, or so the strict similarity of manner and mannerism between the four songs suggested. They were excellently sung by Pamela Woolmore.

The moods of the "Four Auden Songs" provide a four-movement contrast-expansive, tragic, playful and exhilarating. Unfortunately they were not "excellently sung" since there should have been plenty of variety in tempo which was simply not observed by the performers. The first American performance, which was better, was given by Louise Patterson and Ryan Edwards on 3 February 1961 at the Judson Hall, New York, in a snowstorm which was so severe that it closed Manhattan to traffic for three days.

But before the London performance, emboldened by Auden's reply in January, I had written to him again when I saw he was giving a reading in Cambridge. He replied from Christ Church, Oxford, this time on 3 June 1957:

Dear Mr Dickinson:
Thank you for your letter. I don't know what plans my hosts have for me in Cambridge but I should very much like to come and hear your songs if there is a moment to spare. I shall arrive just after lunch on the 15th and leave on the Sunday.
Yours sincerely
W. H. Auden

I must have telephoned him after that since I arranged a private performance of the songs, with Janet Edmonds and Colin Tilney, at 3:30 at Queens' College in the Music Room on Queens' Lane. Auden was charming and inscribed my copy of the Collected Shorter Poems 1930-44:

To Peter Dickinson with many thanks for his nice settings and best wishes from Wystan Auden. Cambridge June 15th, 1957.

After that Auden went even further. He came to tea with me, the performers and my parents at the Blue Boar Hotel in Trinity Street before we all went along to King's College for his reading at 5:00. His delivery, complete with surprising flat American vowels, was as idiosyncratic as ever; my mother, who had been professionally trained in the 1920s, simply thought that, like most poets, he read badly.

An interesting consequence of my setting these four poems was the effect they had on Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose music I much admired and with whom I had a few lessons at this time. Berkeley had been at Gresham's School from 1914-18 but Auden arrived two years after that; Berkeley was at Merton College, Oxford from 1922-26; and Auden arrived at Christchurch in 1925. During the year when they overlapped, C. Day Lewis sang three of Berkeley's songs with the composer at the piano. This was not a success, as Day Lewis recounts in The Buried Day (London 1960) and which I discuss in The Music of Lennox Berkeley (London 1988), but the last two songs were to poems of Auden. One of these was probably "Trippers," or some of the extended version of this stanza which concludes "Bank Holiday," and these must have been the first musical settings of Auden. Unfortunately the music has disappeared.

Berkeley set Auden next in 1937-"Night covers up the rigid land," which was significantly dedicated to Benjamin Britten, a great friend of Berkeley's at this time. Britten also set this poem. But it was after I had shown Berkeley my "Four W. H. Auden Songs" that he asked Auden's permission to set five poems himself in response to an American commission the following year. It later turned out that Berkeley used three of the four poems I had chosen. Berkeley told me at the time that Auden encouraged him to make any changes he liked in the text. Of course he didn't and the work became "Five Poems by W. H. Auden," Op.53, commissioned by the New York singer, Mrs Alice Esty.

My next encounter with Auden was in New York City. In 1958 I went to the Juilliard School as a graduate student on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship. I was living in International House on Riverside Drive and discovered that various cultural events were put on there. I suggested that Auden should come and read his poems. He agreed, as long as I would go and collect him. I dutifully went down to his flat at St Marks Place by subway, then hailed a cab and brought him uptown. This was around the period of the libretto he and Kallman were writing for Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers and our conversation all the way was based on characters in opera. He discussed them all as if they were real people and I was completely out of my depth with this sort of detail. It seemed that he was not particularly looking forward to giving the reading and he even asked: why is one so public-spirited? I think we had some supper at International House and I remember him accepting a lager when he certainly needed at least a martini.

I remember little of the reading itself but Auden and I got on well enough for me to arrange to visit him on 19 December 1959, when I had returned to New York for a second year, working as a pianist, church organist and critic. I again rang the bell at St Marks Place but this time had been invited for tea so went upstairs and into the living room on the left. It was extraordinary to see Auden's rugged face again at close quarters. Even in 1951 Stravinsky had said, "Soon we will have to smooth him out to see who it is." My diary records that his flat was "a gorgeous mess with galley proofs literally all over the place." Actually the scene reminded me of the famous cartoon of Liszt playing the piano with the keys dropping off at either end. Only here it was the long proof sheets which were draped thickly over chairs and tables. We talked of England and America. I may have mentioned that I had been to Mexico which prompted one of Auden's stock pronouncements: "Of course highbrows are the only people who should be allowed to travel since they're the only people prepared to eat the food." He understood the problems of working freelance in New York, which I appreciated since I was having to leave the music staff of the New York City Ballet, where I had played for Balanchine to choreograph, because I was not a member of the American Musicians' Union and could not have become one without applying for citizenship. He used what seemed an odd phrase when he asked me, "Have you a little money?" with the emphasis on "little" but I felt unable to discuss my dwindling finances.

Auden did not seem to know Berkeley's settings of his poems-surprisingly the composer may never have sent him a copy-but I was able to ask him about Marvin David Levy's oratorio For the Time Being. This extended poem had originally been designed for Britten to set but he found it too constricting and probably too long. I had been taken to the premiere at Carnegie Hall on 7 December 1959. The work was commissioned by Margaret Hillis, who conducted the Collegiate Chorale, the Symphony of the Air and a glittering cast of soloists-Lucine Amara, Reri Grist, Maureen Forrester, Robert Rounseville, Martial Singher and Ezio Flagello with Claude Rains as narrator. But I was so distressed by the way Auden's poetry had been treated that I asked one of the journals to which I was a regular contributor if I could review it. This is part of what I wrote in the Musical Courier (January 1960):

Miss Hillis gave an able and convincing performance of this large-scale work. . . But, having acknowledged this, one is inevitably drawn to the controversial issues which this score raises. The oratorio presents five spoken words at certain points in the narrative: when the words of Auden's poem were spoken by Claude Rains, the poet's characteristic personal approach to the Nativity story was clearly communicated. In the musical setting, however, this was not the case: another ponderous interminable mass of oratorio was in progress. To be sure, there was some admirable work from the soloists, the orchestra sometimes descended with the force of a cannon, and the accomplished chorus proclaimed a double fugue. But the mawkish sentimentality of extended passages where the chorus or soloists sing "Ah" or "Amen" is questionable. The oratorio owes its form to Mendelssohn and its spirit to Stainer. . . the difficulty of giving conventional oratorio a new life was not surmounted. . . Nobody asks contemporary music to sound like Boulez all the time, but if a historical musical form is used, it must make imaginative sense in terms of the musical language of today.

Auden, who had famously collaborated with Stravinsky in The Rake's Progress, but apparently didn't like Bernstein's Second Symphony based on The Age of Anxiety, was far more succinct. He simply said: "It wasn't as bad as I expected."

The main reason for my visit to Auden was to discuss the work of the British writer and critic, Alan Porter (1899-1942), whose life was cut short by cancer. A cousin on my mother's side, he had had a brilliant career at Oxford, edited John Clare with Robert Graves, and worked on the Spectator, becoming Literary Editor in 1924. Then he moved to New York in 1930, the year when his slim volume of poems, The Signature of Pain, was published to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and at a time when his marriage to pioneer film critic Iris Barry had collapsed. Porter became a committed Marxist and, after teaching at the New School in New York, went to Vassar and was on the faculty there when he died. Had he lived he would certainly have been given rough treatment by Senator McCarthy since he went around proselytizing.

Auden said he had met him and I was able to show him a copy of The Signature of Pain as well as the few poems that had appeared in periodicals since. On 2 March 1935 Porter had written in the Vassar Miscellany News:

Auden has been greeted by some notable critics as the truest and most impressive poetic talent to appear in the last fifteen or twenty years. I myself share their opinion: indeed his are the only poems I have read during the last twelve years which have knocked me flat-they have made my blood run cold, they have irritated me, they have enchanted me, and they have revived in me an ability to respond to literature which I had come to think irrecoverably lost.

In November 1937, reviewing Letters from Iceland in the Vassar Review, Porter had some reservations, which now reflected his own position, where politics had driven out poetry:

Those who have watched with interest Mr Auden's political development and have found, to their regret, some evidence of a retreat from his earlier convictions will see in this book new confirmation of their fears. . . He seems to have lost what positive fervour he once possessed, and to have reconciled himself to the part of an amused but indignant observer.

By April 1938, in the Vassar Review, Porter, like many intellectuals, was naively struggling to defend the indefensible-the Moscow Treason Trials.

Auden first looked at Porter's late poem, "The Dry Heart" (The Nation, 11 November 1931). In the second stanza Porter describes the sad decline of his own poetic gift:

And I can swear-for it is I
Whose blooms unseasonably die,
Whose garth is perishing with frost,
Whose ancient loving sun is lost-
I swear the sun is blood-bereft
And weeps for the dear land he left.

Auden criticized the image "blood-bereft" and objected later to the duplication of "evil and malign." He said the verse never did anything to him but thought "Translation" from The Signature of Pain "nice."

The cypresses of heavy hue
Stand up like images of glass.
A thousand diamonds of dew
Scatter the sunlight in the grass.

The burning seagulls dip and soar.
The breakers give an angry sound;
They leap against the level shore
And toss the milk-white pebbles round.

Far out a solitary boat
Worries and battles to be free:
At heaven's gate it seems to float,
Trembles and plunges in the sea.

There is some common ground here with Auden's own seascape, "Look, stranger," written five years after The Signature of Pain was published.

I asked Auden whether he thought Porter's work was worth revival. He was aware of Porter's role as an associate of Alfred Adler at Columbia University and thought the psychological aspect would have to be investigated. Otherwise Auden thought the subject would be interesting in proportion to my enthusiasm for it, which was a neat way of putting the ball back in my court. I never wrote a study of Porter but my tributes were a 20-minute choral cycle, "The Dry Heart" (1967), based on all five poems since The Signature of Pain, and "Four Poems" of Alan Porter (1968) for countertenor and harpsichord.

In 1960, after meeting Auden, I set four more poems, this time for tenor and piano. They were first performed at the College of St Mark and St John (then in Chelsea, London) by Roger Norrington (now the distinguished conductor) with me on 12 February 1963. These were XIII: "Let the florid music praise" and a group which became Three Comic Songs, containing XVI: "My second thoughts condemn," "Happy Ending," and XXIII: "Over the heather the wet wind blows." The Three Comic Songs waited until 1972 for a London premiere, which was even more unsatisfactory than that of the "Four Auden Songs." I shall never forget it. The recital was at Leighton House, that temple of Victoriana in Kensington, and the pianist stopped after the first two bars of the piano introduction, turned to the audience and said: "It sounds so terrible after Schubert!"

Unfortunately I never met Auden again, but I wrote to him when I was living in north London on 3 October 1971. He was staying not far away with the Spenders in St John's Wood. After reminding him of our previous meetings, I told him about the unusual recitals I had been putting on in London:

Last season I presented a programme of settings of e. e. cummings, and another based on the writings and music of Erik Satie. Both have been broadcast by the BBC, the latter three times. I think a programme centred upon your work is an exciting prospect, but it would be of far greater interest if you could be persuaded to help to decide the music and the performers.

On 10 October Auden replied:

Thank you for your letter. My plans for 1972/3 are at present far too vague for me to promise anything, but I will bear your kind invitation in mind.
Yours sincerely,
W. H. Auden

Sadly it was all too late. I followed up the idea with a telephone call to the Spenders' house, but I was unaware of how ill Auden then was. His apparent lack of interest in the whole idea took me by surprise. The next year he died and so my idea of an Auden programme waited to become a tribute for the 70th anniversary of his birth, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12 May 1977, with Ian and Jennifer Partridge, my sister Meriel Dickinson, and myself.

The most recent chapter in the career of my Auden songs is the currently available CD (Albany TROY 368) where I accompany my sister in the "Four Auden Songs" and Martyn Hill in the "Three Comic Songs" and "Let the florid music praise."

But there was one more connection. In 1988 I wrote my "Auden Studies" for oboe and piano, a three-movement work composed in an unusual way. It takes the musical materials of the three poems which both Lennox Berkeley and I had set-our individual Auden musics-and fuses them together. "Auden Studies" was designed as a tribute to Sir Lennox Berkeley in his 85th year and Sarah Francis and I gave the first performance at the Chester Festival on 16 July 1988 with the London premiere on 30 March 1989.

I remain fascinated by Auden. So I am grateful for those meetings and all that his work has meant and continues to mean to me, quite apart from the short period when I composed songs to his poetry and was lucky enough to gain his approval.


Peter Dickinson is a composer, pianist, writer and Emeritus Professor of the Universities of Keele and London. He is now Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London and wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Nadia Herman Colburn and Herbert Lomas in preparing this article. This article will be published in London Magazine later this year. Auden's letters are copyright by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Alan Porter's writings are copyright Peter Dickinson.

Book Review

The Silent Passage

The Silent Passage: Itineriario Poetico di W. H. Auden, by Carmen Dell'Aversano. Pisa, Edizioni ETS, 1994.

Carmen Dell'Aversano's study, The Silent Passage: Itineriario Poetico di W. H. Auden, is an interesting attempt at exploring Auden's complex aesthetic views, as they evolved from England to America. Style and form are the fundamental issues considered by Dell'Aversano, who is interested in the "secondary" world of language. She observes that Auden's critics have seldom considered his "style" as a conscious historical choice made on the basis of a given rhetorical tradition. On the contrary, formal aspects have instead been associated with romantic visions or "ideological categories" which, in turn, have been identified with "heuristic paradigms" (14). Moreover, Dell'Aversano maintains that Auden's late attitudes towards the playful and gratuitous aspects of the poetic word have often been skeptically dismissed, without seriously considering how and why they originated (15). Dell'Aversano attempts to reverse these trends and to do so by interpreting Auden with Auden-that is, by using his own poetical and prose works to develop her arguments.

In order to put Dell'Aversano's considerations in the right critical perspective, it is fair to remind the reader that The Silent Passage was published in 1994, well before John Fuller's second and amplified edition of the Commentary (1998), Edward Mendelson's Later Auden (1999), and Rainer Emig's postmodern approach to Auden's poetry in W.  H. Auden. Towards a Postmodern Poetics (1999).

The title of the monograph, derived from Prospero's famous words in "The Sea and the Mirror": "Trembling he takes/The silent passage/ Into discomfort" (Collected Longer Poems, 1968: 210), clarifies the author's views on Auden's Christian approach to art. Dell'Aversano sees Auden's later work as striking a balance between silence and frivolity, in what she calls a "reticent" luxuriant style. (All the quotations from The Silent Passage have been translated by the reviewer.) Dell'Aversano's central argument is that the English Auden considered language only as a "natural" medium delivering a meaning and granting communication between one person and another (20); early Auden used poetry as an impersonal tool, putting on different voices and never betraying his own. In the 1940s, however, he came to regard the world of art as a universe separated from reality, and language as a instrument incapable of describing it. The three figures of Prospero, Antonio and Caliban, in The Sea and the Mirror, embody different aspects of and stages in the poet's attitude towards poetry. Prospero represents the artist on his island, Auden in England, who came to a standstill and to silence. Antonio represents the romantic solipsist who considers the world a projection of his own mind. And Caliban, in his excessive speech, is associated with the Christian poet who unmasks art's dishonesty and condemns the poet either to silence or to comic reticence. It was this "honest" poetics of reticence, Dell'Aversano argues, that the Christian Auden took in his later works. Art, like science, Auden came to see, is intransitive and inhuman because it does not speak to a personal "You and I" but can only make general statements. Language and style are used in late Auden, then, to unmask the real truth that man is trapped in a self-referential world. This makes any poetic utterance worthless in the extra literary world.

In order to understand how Dell'Aversano develops her arguments, it is worth considering the three chapters of her volume in detail. And because this book is not available in English, a rather detailed outline is provided.

In the first chapter, "The English Auden," Dell'Aversano studies the poet's early aesthetic theories and practices. She relies largely on two essays: "Writing" and "Psychology and Art Today" (1935), and on the longer poem "Letter to Lord Byron." For the young Auden, psychology was more important than art which, though an instrument of self-consciousness, remained a "peripheral and parasitic form" (20). Auden's distinction between "parable art" and "escape art" suggest that the two functions of art are morality and entertainment.

According to Dell'Aversano, however, Auden had not yet separated the real world of history from the possible world of art because he could not yet unmask what she calls the Socratic lie-being able to distinguish between good and evil does not mean that one will choose the good. Dell'Aversano maintains that, since the poet was too much concerned with the "political" function of art, he seldom reflected on the metaliterary aspects of his vocation. "Letter to Lord Byron," she argues is Auden's only text of this period which displayed metaliterary aspects and defined the work of art as always connected with métier and with the historical context producing it. Auden's speculations in that poem on "light verse" detached poetry from romantic or modernist misinterpretations and pointed to his later choices. Dell'Aversano argues that metaliterary reflections in Auden's 1930s work is of secondary importance since the lyrical voice or the impersonal utterance prevailed. The first serious metaliterary reflections occurred in his 1938 poems on poets and artists ("Yeats", "Arnold," "Melville") where ingenu poetry became conscious artifice.

Dell'Aversano also argues that the Marxist and psychological frameworks were only tentative ways of coming to terms with problems which Auden always expressed in religious terms, namely love and truth. His migration to America put him in a new condition of isolation which made him reflect on the ontology of language and consider it an ideologically determined instrument. Auden's later effort was to "put a limit to falsity, by stopping literature's tendency [. . .] of devouring everything by transforming it into literature [. . .]" (38). Dell'Aversano's insights are interesting and stimulating; however, she appears at times to disregard young Auden's duplicity (see Katherine Bucknell in Auden Studies 1, 1990: 20; here Bucknell emphasizes that the young Auden did not try to reconcile his two opposite views that "[Literature] has no relation to the process of life," and that "Literature serves an emotional purpose in trying to unite isolated individuals.")

As to Auden's models, Dell'Aversano mentions Blake, Homer Lane and Lawrence, but forgets Eliot. She emphasizes Auden's ideological stance but minimizes the role of entertainment and play as aspects of Auden's English career. In the Orators, and especially in Auden's early dramas, which Dell'Aversano does not consider, ideology and social satire are often submerged in linguistic and stylistic play. In his most ideological work, The Dance of Death (1933), Auden not only plays with different styles by quoting popular and music-hall songs, parodying Lawrence and alluding to Brecht, but also refers to the Marxist aspect of his work as "a nihilistic leg-pull" (Fuller, 1999: 125). Dell'Aversano's statement, then, that "Metaliterary play, the exhibition of quotations, parody, all fundamental elements in modernist literature, have no room in Auden's English production: his poetry is only a vehicle for contents whose importance transcends the aesthetic sphere" (23) is inaccurate. She appears to be influenced by decades of criticism that disregarded an aspect of Auden's production which has only recently been acknowledged (cf. Auden Studies 2, 1994).

If in Auden's English years the ideological stance is more conspicuous, the metaliterary aspect, though not theoretically developed, is largely practiced and associated with the comic. In a letter to Spender in 1930, Auden said: "All poetry in our time is comic. There are two modes: 1) the drunken prophetic 2) the legal disclaimer." (Auden Studies 1, 1990: 60). Moreover, Auden's plays, his Oxford Book of Light Verse, both in his introduction and in his choice of texts, and his "Cabaret Songs" (1937) all show that "Letter to Lord Byron" was not an exception, and that in the thirties Auden accepted modernist practices although he did not yet discuss their ideological implications.

The second chapter of The Silent Passage concentrates on "The Sea and the Mirror" which is traditionally read as Auden's modern version of Plato's Symposium. According to Dell'Aversano, the poem represents a moment of passage from young to mature Auden; it represents the moment when Auden discovered that art belonged to a separate, isolated and morally insufficient world of possibilities (43). One of Dell'Aversano's most interesting reflections on the poem concerns the association of the mythical and virtuosic nature of the artistic sphere with the image of the island abandoned by the characters at the end of Shakespeare's play. Auden knew and made clear that his characters did not look for an Edenic place but were disenchanted and attained whichever partial state of self-consciousness their nature allowed them to reach. Disenchantment is the real function of art and Prospero is condemned to silence and death because early Auden woke up from his dream of changing the world by means of art. Yet, how ever much Prospero tries, he cannot give up his magic because, as long as people like Antonio are around he feels compelled to produce a magic circle, the metaphorical image of which is people dancing. The ring, of course, is also poetic meter (54) and a representation of Agape.

Antonio, the other possible artist, is the spirit who denies, the serpent who tries to stop the dance because he is trapped in his own mental world, while Prospero and the other characters acknowledge the existence of a world outside their minds. They give up being subjects of their utterance and accept being objects (66). The truth that words work only within a closed system of signs is finally revealed by Caliban who, instead of adopting overtly virtuosic poetic forms, uses a convoluted prose style. In this way, Caliban does and does not break the enchantment, because his artistic utterance points out various levels of fiction ranging from Shakespeare, to Caliban himself. Dell'Aversano observes that Auden's "sparkling, formal complexity finally conceals the meaning and confounds the message in a form of reticence" (86). She also adds that "hiding meanings emphasizes the incapability of language to define-because both the sea and the mirror are incomplete" (87). There arises the paradox that the more complex style is, the more it uncovers its own limits. Caliban defines the difference between the worlds of reality and imagination by creating a third world, in an ad infinitum process. Dell'Aversano observes that silence is the only answer the Christian artist can finally offer because language does not apply to extraliterary contexts.

Dell'Aversano, however, neglects to mention that Prospero, Antonio and Caliban, as representatives of the aesthetic, ethical and religious man, are experienced simultaneously, and not only historically, by Auden the artist and the man. Hence the Blakean struggle (ad infinitum) of the opposites is put in perspective by the religious leap: "To set in order-that's the task / Both Eros and Apollo ask; / . . . / Though order can never be willed / But is a state of the fulfilled" (New Year Letter, 1968: 80-81). Dell'Aversano stresses the positive and negative aspects of what Auden called the "gift of double focus," but she does not appear to be interested in tracing its origins back to Freud, Marx and Kierkegaard who contributed to shaping it.

Kierkegaard, who (together with Williams and Niebuhr) helped Auden reflect on the importance of love, free will and choice, is, however, the key to understanding the final chapter-"Dichtung und Wahrheit"-of Dell'Aversano's book. Here Dell'Aversano analyses Auden's moral and aesthetic choices as analogous but not identical. She explores Auden's late views by focusing on four works: the essay "Squares and Oblongs" (1948), the poem "The Truest Poetry is the most Feigning" ("The Shield of Achilles" 1955), the pseudopoem "Dichtung und Wahrheit" ("Homage to Clio" 1960) and "The Cave of Making" ("About the House" 1964). However, prose works such as The Enchafèd Flood (1951), The Dyer's Hand (1963), and Secondary Worlds (1968) are the backbone of Dell'Aversano's analysis here as throughout her book.

As Dell'Aversano points out, in the sixties Auden experienced the contradictory but fertile condition of having to choose between silence (euphemia)-the most appropriate attitude for a Christian poet-and "exuberant linguistic vitality for its own sake, devoting his utmost attention to the formal aspects of the poetic expression, but limiting its content to morally indifferent, or spiritually secular themes" (93). Auden's determination to demythologize romantic poetics lead him to consider the artist as a creature who needed pardon, and to associate poetry with craftsmanship rather than with vocation. Eros was still the source of poetry but poetry was a frivolous, gratuitous utterance which did not move the will. The poet was finally cured of his belief in the Socratic lie and was conscious of the difference between frivolity and seriousness. This meant that the rules governing the aesthetic and ethical world of possibilities could not be applied to the real world of history, and it implied that the poet should understand which of such possibilities was good for him. If Goethe believed in his importance as an artist, Auden was aware of his own unimportance as a Christian poet and concentrated on the dualism between the personal and the impersonal, the literary and the extraliterary, the false and the true, whereas before he had considered the dichotomy between the ethical and the aesthetic, the sublime and the ordinary (107, 119).

Finally, the author points out how Auden's defense of the comic is also an anti-romantic feature. The comic operates in literature as a form of estrangement capable of accepting and mixing all possible contexts and styles: "he wants to extend the number of possible poetic objects as much as possible" (175). As a game with possibilities, poetry becomes analogous to the real world only in so far as it presents choices. Dell'Aversano mentions Auden's observations on music and opera in The Dyer's Hand where music is considered an imitation of time, and opera an imitation of human willfulness, but she does not spell out the real importance of these issues.

The last chapter of Dell'Aversano's book is probably the least satisfying. Though the problems of style and "hybridization" of style are dutifully stressed, the progress from Auden's early theory of light verse to his later theories of verbal play and pastiche in opera is not clearly outlined and, as a result, her conclusions may appear unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, by identifying Auden's mature production with what she calls a poetics of "reticence" ("reticenza") and "deviation" ("distrazione"), understood as a way of uncovering the limits of literary expression, Dell'Aversano's book has the merit of drawing attention to an important and, at the time the book was published, undervalued, aspect of Auden's work. The Silent Passage was (to the reviewer's knowledge) the first, albeit partial, attempt to trace Auden's aesthetic thought back to his linguistic and stylistic choices. If only because of this, Dell'Aversano's well-documented study, makes very interesting reading.


Paola Marchetti-Rognoni is a Reader in English at the Università Cattolica in Milan. She is working on a dissertation on Auden's libretti.

Recent and Forthcoming Events

Society members with access to the Internet will find a frequently updated list of forthcoming events and books on the Society's web site, audensociety.org. The site receives an average of more than four hundred visitors each day, and visits have been recorded from more than a hundred countries and territories.

Auden's lectures on Shakespeare reconstructed

Auden's lecture course on Shakespeare at the New School for Social Research in 1946-47 has been reconstructed by Arthur Kirsch from classroom notes taken by Alan Ansen and others. Lectures on Shakespeare is published in the US by Princeton University Press and in the UK by Faber & Faber.

Auden's first published book reissued

Poems (1930), Auden's first published book, will be reissued by its original publisher, Faber & Faber, in April 2001. The new edition corrects some typographical errors in the original text, and an appendix includes the seven poems that Auden substituted when the book went into a second edition in 1933.

Other recent and forthcoming books

The Poetry of W. H. Auden: a reader's guide to essential criticism, edited by Paul Hendon. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2000; ISBN 1-84046-0466. An American edition will be published by Columbia University Press.

Peter Firchow. W. H. Auden: contexts for poetry. Dover: University of Delaware Press, early 2001.

Harriet Hall. Bill and Patience. Lewes, Sussex: The Book Guild, 2000; ISBN 1 85776 408 0. A biography of the author's parents, with quotations from Auden's letters to Bill and Patience McElwee, whom he met at Oxford.

David Garrett Izzo. Christopher Isherwood: his era, his gang, and the legacy of the truly strong man. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, June 2001.

Editor's Notes

The cost of producing the Newsletter has increased considerably, and the Society has been lax in asking for subscription renewals. We would be deeply grateful for renewals from members who have not sent payments in more than a year.


In issue 20, in Jaæek Niecko's index to The Table Talk of W. H. Auden, Mervyn Peake's name was misspelled through no fault of the indexer.

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1 Transcribed from tape by Jaæek Niecko. Omnibus was telecast on CBS 1952-56, on ABC 1956-57, and on NBC 1957-59. The master tape of the 14 February 1954 program is at the Cinema Archives, Wesleyan University; a copy may be viewed in the Motion Picture/TV Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

2 The archives at Wesleyan University do not contain any documentation concerning Auden's participation in the Eliot program. Alistair Cooke told Niecko in 1998 that he had no memories of it.

3 A.C. Swinburne, "The Garden of Proserpine."

4  T. S. Eliot, "Morning at the Window."

5 Robert Browning, "Bishop Blougram's Apology."

6 T. S. Eliot, "Gerontion."

7  T. S. Eliot, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales."

8  T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," V.

9 Auden wrote Eliot on 22 March 1954: "I had to make my first T.V. appearance on your behalf; I was petrified but managed to remember my quotes." [The transcriber is grateful to Professor Edward Mendelson for permission to quote from this unpublished letter.]