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Newsletter 8 (December 1991)

December 1991

The W. H. Auden Society


Unattributed Auden Works?

As I'm not a scholar but only an Audenophile, I leave to other readers of the Newsletter proof or disproof of the possibility that The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, which WHA edited with his colleague Louis Kronenberger, contains three aphorisms by himself. Its index has no listings under WHA's name, but I notice that the listings under "Anonymous" are all classified according to nationality (Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Russian), with two exceptions. The very last is attributed to "An Old Lady," and four previous (pp. 304, 308, 310, and 344) have no classification at all. They are:

There is only one way of speaking well from the tribune, and that is to be fully persuaded as you get into it that you are the most intelligent man in the world.

Three systems of colonization: the English, colonies with colonials; the French, colonies without colonials; the Germans, colonials without colonies.

He is not the best statesman who is the greatest doer, but he who sets others doing with the greatest success.

Religion is a man using a divining rod. Philosophy is a man using a pick and shovel.

The first three are all found in the chapter titled "States and Governments," one of Auden's most persistent preoccupations. The last falls under the heading of "The Life of the Mind," and it is also concerned with religion. Auden, as editor of the collection, wouldn't, of course, have included anything alien to him, but I hear a particularly Audenian ring to these. The first reminds me of other maximizing statements he is known to have made, such as "At any gathering, I always feel as though I am the youngest person in the room." The comment on colonies is funny, a bit outrageous, and very much in his classifying manner. Apart from being a successful doer, he was good at inspiring others to do. And the last comment would suit a man who gave both religion and philosophy their due, not to mention mining the earth. It's interesting how revelation is conceived as coming from the bowels of the earth rather than from the empyrean as most poets would have it. The characteristically Audenian tug of war between blazing self-confidence and self-effacement can be seen in the choice to include his aphorisms-if that's what they are-along with those of La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Blake, and Nietzsche, but without attribution.

The selection attributed to "An Old Lady," by the way, is not really an aphorism, yet is something WHA would indisputably have had a special affection for. She says: "Since Penelope Noakes of Duppas Hill is gone, there is no one who will ever call me Nellie again" (p. 393). The book was published in 1962, at a moment when WHA, whatever his feelings in a crowded room about being the youngest, had nevertheless already lost a number of early companions. In a slightly different direction, I'm reminded of an anecdote concerning him during those latter years, which I have at, I believe, second or third hand. He had entertained a respected scholar and poet-I think it was Rolfe Humphries-to dinner at his St. Mark's Place apartment, along with a few close friends. All evening there was discussion of topics of special interest to the scholar, and, within limits, to WHA as well-Welsh verse forms, and so on. When at last the scholar went home, WHA closed the door, leaned against it and said, "If somebody doesn't call me Nellie this minute, I'm going to scream."


Alfred Corn is a poet. His new collection, Autobiographies, will be published by the Viking Press this year.

For Auden at Sixty

This tribute by Daniel Hoffman was broadcast on Radio 3 on 20 February 1967 in honour of Auden's sixtieth birthday. Ten poets were asked to celebrate Auden's work and those participating included Stephen Spender, George Barker, and, as what, 25 years later, he describes as "the visiting American," Hoffman. This piece was apparently the only one to concentrate on a poem written by Auden after he left Britain for the United States.

In homage to W. H. Auden I choose to read his sonnet "Words." Every reader of poetry makes a mental anthology of his irreplaceable poems; in such collections we must all have a goodly number by Auden. Some of these have been in our consciousness for twenty or thirty years; this poem is more recent, and perhaps less familiar. I think it is a beautifully concentrated statement of Auden's view of the nature of poetry itself, particularly of his own poetry. Therefore it seems appropriate to count it among the blessings he has given us.


If, in the mental anthology I have mentioned, I had room for twenty sonnets of this century, I think about seventeen of them would be by Auden. He has rescued the form from desuetude and reinterpreted its intrinsic power-as he has done for so many other traditional forms. His sonnets dramatize the voice of a man who is thinking hard and feeling deeply at the same time.

In the one I've just read, "Syntactically," he says, "it must be clear." Yet the poem says more than its clarity at first makes clear. It is as though the speaker of the poem has set out to tell us what he thinks he feels about words, but, as he does so, he feels his way toward what he thinks, not knowing what that is until it reveals itself to him. In the process, the character of the speaker is changed. Which is of course the effect of revelation. At first, the speaker is a Grammarian. It is he who proposes that

I call him a Grammarian not only because of his slavish belief in the power of language to create truth, but also because he has contributed to the poem his own unlyrical vocabulary, such words and phrases as "a sentence uttered....syntactically....fact not fiction...verbal chance," and so forth. It must be this Grammarian who tells us we can neither "change the subject half-way through, / Nor alter tenses." Yet, in the second half of the poem, the tense is altered from the present to the conditional-"But should we want to gossip all the time"-and the subject changes from the Grammarian's assertion of the truthfulness of words to a demonstration of their being only imitations of the truth. Words express our fate, the poem concludes,

Remembering that a rustic ring-dance is a bumpkin celebration of love, it's all the more surprising that what's being mimed is the quest of the lone Knight-at-Arms at the cross-roads. Auden is saying that love itself is an act of imitation, one whose original is being sought in solitude by the Knight. And who is this Knight? He may be Don Quixote, or Spencer's Red Crosse Knight, or any man whose life is a search for that love of which our love is a copy. Such dedication to a truth that words can only indirectly state makes him a hero of the moral imagination. Poetry, like words themselves-the poem all but says-can do no more than show us such analogies as this to a truth we cannot apprehend without it.

This search I take to be the constant subject of Auden's work. His poems speak to us with an irresistible delight in the resources-limited though they may be-of words, syntax, and forms. In his poems contemporary reality is refracted by the power of an analytical mind that sees in every possible position the definition of its opposite. And the imagination that conceives the extremes between which we are fated to suffer, endows the world so conceived with sanity as well as joy and terror. Auden has said that in every poet there is a struggle between Prospero and Ariel. If, in his work, Prospero usually rules, he does so in full knowledge that his art must acknowledge the brute realities of Caliban, and that he can best discover his own wisdom with Ariel's grace. What more can we gratefully say to Wystan Auden than his own words to T. S. Eliot on his birthday, "Your sixty years have not been wasted."


Daniel Hoffman's book An Armada of Thirty Whales was chosen by Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1954. This tribute will appear in his forthcoming Words to Create a World (University of Michigan Press).


Time Packaged, Pyramid at Sea

Julian Symons. The Thirties and the Nineties. 184 pp. Carcanet, Manchester, £14.95.

The bulk of The Thirties and the Nineties is Symons" 1960 book The Thirties: A Dream Revolved reprinted. Competition at that date had been minimal-Koestler and Cockburn caught in the classic perjurer's vice: "I was lying, believe me, I speak true"; Muggeridge, treating everything as a religious traipse; Spender playing shuffle-pack with Time to produce, for example, three contradictory versions of a single episode in Spain (see the New Statesman in 1937; The God That Failed in 1950; World Within World in 1951): little else. The opportunity existed for providing recollection with some intellectual dignity, a rational shape. That Symons has been seen to do so must explain the considerable influence his work has had since, though he himself is modest about this. His rationale was simple: what the Thirties had thought Reality was a Dream from which the war was the rude awakener. Also simply, he limited his dreamers to the intelligentsia, seen as a Pyramid: artists at the top, audience at the bottom, "protagonists" who might move either way between.

Such simplicities are perhaps a little dreamlike themselves. If they are to achieve credence, some agency is required and as Symons" predecessors-the perjurers, the Christian and the cardsharp-could all agree, this was the communist party, more specifically those communists who could be fitted into Symons pyramid. He found them easy to spot:

The Left Review editors ... did not lack sensibility or talent, but they thought it right that this talent should fit into a Communist pattern. "It is the strongest argument for a Writers" International", Slater remarked, "that it can bring writers in touch with life. "Life", in this context, equals the class struggle" ...

I doubt if communists of any brand would question the importance of the class struggle, though most would find "a communist pattern" hard to define. But how about this?

... to keep art going [is] a movement which to some of us seems today merely banal and disgusting ... The arts are disintegrating. The object of art today is to divert attention from the class struggle ... The intelligentsia who try to nurture the coy bloom of art as we know it are tending a dying flower ...

This may, to some, sound communist, but it is in fact Symons-anti-communist in the 1930s as since-writing in 1943. By 1960 he again observes:

Those who tried to solve the problem [of individual versus social tensions in art] by subordinating their art entirely to political feeling became Communist Party helots, or like Edgell Rickword (an avowed communist) found themselves subdued to silence ...

And yet, also in 1943, non-communist Symons made a different supposition:

A transition might take place ... in which the writing of creative literature in any way satisfactory to the artist seemed increasingly difficult and even unimportant; that will be the point at which the creative artist who is also an honest man will lay down his pen. This consummation would grieve all artists, and be death to some; but the transition from the bourgeois art of the last three hundred years to any possible Socialist art of the future will not be made without such sacrifices ... [Quotes here and above from Symons" articles in Now 5, Focus One and the American Partisan Review.]

I do not wish to throw an old friend's follies in his face so much as make it plain that the follies were, obsessively, his-not those which demonology requires of the communist party (always hugely respectful of "bourgeois art of the last three hundred years"). Certainly there were idiot communists aplenty in the Thirties; equally, there was no communist group subscription to the views wished off on them by Symons and some others. What The Thirties: A Dream Revolved attempts is an explanation by hindsight of his own beliefs, pin them where he will.

The major difficulty however lies in the view of Time. History or recollection by decade-Naughty Nineties, Swinging Sixties and the rest-is perhaps unhelpful. Consider a larger period which happens to include the Thirties--1926 to 1946, say, General Strike to Labour Landslide-and much looks different. For example, little sense remains to Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen", a claim to which Symons constantly returns, or "No poem of mine saved any Jew from the gas-chamber". Much happened; if tragically late, many were saved. Moreover not just the structure but the philosophy of gas-chambers was defeated, and enough of old allegiance survived for this to be seen, electorally, as conservative-connected. Amidst such large, lurching, Churchill-bewildering processes, how could anyone claim or disclaim a poem's effect?

What seemed once to support this convenient packaging by decade is that by 1939, the year of defeat in Spain and outbreak of World (and at first phoney) War, apparent desertion of the Left in Britain was widespread. What in a longer timescale comes to seem one more river to cross in a continuing advance, at the time itself looked like the end of all dry land-certainly for those of us inhabiting that frightened period. Fascism would descend by parachute on a convincingly right-wing Britain and the Left be slaughtered. Auden and Isherwood sailed away. Gollancz and plenty of others went into such effective hiding that literally they could not be found. In pain at the end of a long, honourable life my old friend Amabel Williams-Ellis, a founder-editor of Left Review, never a communist, told me one sunny afternoon over tea that if her aches got any worse there was always a suicide capsule left over from 1939: "Brother John [Strachey] had one. Oh, lots of us had them." By 1960 of course, when Symons published, desertion seemed doubly plain: the Forties had supervened, a decade most often packaged as War but tied up neatly by the public indecencies of McCarthyism in the States, here by the more gentlemanly shushing of McMumble-a quiet process, shouldering the unregenerate aside to be dropped by publishers, film and theatre companies, simply omitted from critical canon and autobiography alike. A process so quiet indeed that it could go unrecorded.

But of course, as is increasingly obvious now, this doesn't work. Auden certainly remains supreme, his "Spain", whatever he later said of it, a huge, emblematic statement. But Isherwood's neat precisions? All that mewling by Spender? Patrick Hamilton and Sean O'Casey, authors canonically omitted from Valentine Cunningham's "exhaustive" British Writers of the Thirties, reclaim their stature. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edgell Rickword, Idris Davies, Montagu Slater, Rex Warner of course demand the attention of biography and reprint. Or the forty or more chiefly working class writers hitherto buried in critical detritus at last dug out in Andy Croft's Red Letter Days. One isn't claiming (as Symons in his additional and the Nineties most inaccurately suggests) Auden status for these and other authors-but larger than Spender for sure-simply uncondescending recognition of their existence. To have any value, recollection must attempt a total picture.

In The Nineties Symons has now added the double disadvantage of approving The Thirties and at the same time failing to recognise that book's progeny in Hynes's The Auden Generation, Cunningham's partialities, Bergonzi's Reading the Thirties-all titles either disapproved or granted only qualified approval, yet all titles accepting if not the Pyramid image at least all Symons" communist-ridiculing assumptions. For the rest, The Nineties offers a collection of curmudgeonly remarks of a kind I sometimes find myself making now, by elder's privilege-except I don't, I hope, blame younger generations for a lack of moral value, so much as my own and Symons's for betraying ours.

What always limited the idea of dream revolved, its sensitivity sometimes, was its arbitrary packaging. Consider the even larger sweep than 1926 to 1946 of, say, 1931 to 1991, Betrayal of Labour to Destruction of Welfare, and not only those self-denying Audenances won't do: neither will Symons's Pyramid. To describe all who read artworks as the intelligentsia's audience quite mistakes the real human materials moving history. Those readers read before the Thirties intelligentsia's arrival and continued after, when, by Symons's imagery, the Pyramid dispersed itself. That audience-a bad word for participants-was part of a far longer process by which old traditions were caught up in present literary experiment, adventure, discovery on its way, their way, to a defeat of fascism which Capital had never intended, and the creation of a Welfare which Capital cannot tolerate. This was a vast and creative process of which artists, later ashamed of it or not, were to their eternal credit part. The Pyramid, if anything, is a white shirt hoist on a raft at sea-less in surrender, one may hope, than as s.o.s.

There is this to add. History has the habit of fulfilling Time's desiderata long before Time herself has even felt the itch. Remarkably, the means are ready to hand when needed. People were on the hoof as villagers and agglomerating themselves in towns before ever industrial production required it of them. Methodism had already induced self-abnegation among the poor before Pitt discovered the advisability of a docile workforce. More recently, nationalisation had refused to socialise itself long before privatisation ogled us, trades unions to de-institutionalise themselves before home ownership waggled her hips. The distinction of Art is that it changes, transforms perception in whoever receives it, so that audiences in turn transform the life about them. Art destabilises, teaches both dissatisfaction and vision. Revolution hugs it, reaction loathes it. To belittle, trivialise, misattribute opinion-so encouraging others to omit-falsifies Art, denies its transforming power and leads to the elevation, into the void created, of the detective story (not least by Symons), the well-made play, the lazy poem, the sneer. Waggle-hips is delighted, desire fulfilled. We are where we are-amid museum charges, humanities under attack, a reduced Arts Council, bookprice war with bookshop victims, closed arts centres, universities in retreat, literature lost-because the means for such a state of affairs, remarkably once more, were ready to hand.


Arnold Rattenbury was a schoolboy in the 1930s and sold the Daily Worker in his dormitory. In the early 1940s, he was involved in founding Our Time. He is a poet.

Writer to Reader

Wendell Stacy Johnson. W. H. Auden. 175 pp. Continuum, New York, 1990, $18.95.

Reading this book, I kept remembering that life-changing doodle of Wittgenstein's which shows that what looks like a duck from one angle looks like a rabbit from another. Wendell Johnson's mild and modest study is ostensibly a critical introduction to Auden for the "general reader and the student." Professor Johnson, who died in June 1990 (see Newsletter No. 5), spells out his sense of the poet's greatness with an unruffled, mid-afternoon sense of assurance. "The integrity of his written work," he says, "derives from its being at once the expression of a consistently recognizable mind but also to its being devoted consistently to public purpose."

Fuelled by a gently-expressed and gently-numbing anti-Romanticism, W.·H. Auden contains many unfashionable opinions, some of which, such as the assertion that For the Time Being is one of Auden's "great works," seem hard to endorse, and difficult even to want to react against. Some of his emphases, however, may be worth pondering. There is, for instance, his treatment of another much-neglected, and this time really important, work, The Age of Anxiety, as an extension of Auden's involvement with drama.

Johnson began his academic career as a junior instructor at Smith, and he met Auden when the poet came for a spell at the college during 1953. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his book gravitates towards the works that Auden was writing around the time when Johnson knew him best. There is an extended discussion of the great "Bucolics" cycle and Johnson is often adept at teasing out points from the vast haystack of Auden's later prose. He also differentiates valuably between the ironically-ornate sophistication of the 50s style and the dryer, plainer-spoken, strain that Auden developed in the 60s under the influence of Jonson and Herbert. So much for the duck, then; where's that rabbit?

Perhaps, the best clue lies in Johnson's use of "great" to mean, essentially, "favourite." Turned on its side, W.·H. Auden is actually an affectionate literary memoir. Auden evidently liked Johnson: he wrote him a longish piece of light verse (extracted here), and there is an interesting series of letters from the mid-50s in the Berg Collection which shows that the younger man was one of the few people with whom Auden felt able to discuss his poetry. What anyone other than a "general reader" takes away from this book, then, are the little slivers of Auden arcana. Some are just straightforward bits of information such as the fact, previously unknown, that Auden voted against awarding Pound the Bollingen Prize in 1949. "Very privately," Johnson says, Auden "wondered if a man whose bigotry and treason so marred, so embittered his character could achieve the highest poetic integrity." Backing up Auden's self-description as one "In his cups neither savage nor maudlin, / but all too prone / to hold forth," Johnson, who grew up in Missouri, near Kansas City, points out that "Plains" was dedicated to him because Auden mistakenly maintained that the whole of the Midwest was flat as a paving-stone. Perhaps the most suggestive remark relayed here, however, is Auden's comment about Milton, abruptly treated in the Introduction to Volume 3 of Poets of the English Language as the archetype of the Romantic Bard, the poet-prophet who exalts art as the most sacred of human activities. Auden told Johnson that, although he was certain that he would have disliked Milton personally, he could not escape from his influence.

Besides this footnote fodder, many of Johnson's stories are of an enjoyably outré kind. One learns with delight that Auden occasionally referred to T.·S. Eliot as "Daddy" and that after his death he wanted to be roasted and eaten by his friends. It is also fortifying to know that he once started heckling at a lecture given by that narcoleptic kitsch-meister Joseph Campbell.

Worth noting as well is Auden's answer to one of his own parlour-game questions about where would one ideally want to live. He said he wanted to be in a pleasant house within a great green park, but in the centre of a city. There he could play croquet, his favorite game (vide the detail in "Streams"), and yet have access to libraries, parties, and the opera. Turn your head sideways, squint at that, and don't you see a revealing sketch of life, in all its grandeur and loneliness, inside Buckingham Palace?


Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Benjamin Britten. Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten [Vols 1 and 2: 1923-1945], eds. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed. 1403 pp. Faber and Faber, £75.00; University of California Press, $175.00.

This collection of letters and diaries is a confusingly hybrid work, somewhere between a collection of Britten's letters and, as Mitchell proposes in his long introductory essay, "the autobiography that Britten himself would never have written. But write it, in fact, he did." Immediately one asks, But whose story is this? For the materials collected here reflect Mitchell's view of Letters as a double biography, as "the life of the two of us", the "two" being Britten and Peter Pears. Thus the "letters" of the title are those to and from Britten, starting with his first extant letter, to his mother from school in 1923, but also Pears's correspondence to and from Britten and others. In addition Mitchell has made substantial use of the diaries which Britten kept between 1928 and 1939, using excerpts and sequences from them in footnotes and in self-contained sections, particularly to cover those periods when Britten's letters to others, especially Auden, have not survived.

Yet another layer is added to Letters by the huge dimensions of Mitchell's editorial apparatus, which exhaustively documents not only persons, places and events but also includes Mitchell's own commentary on their significance. Mitchell uses this commentary to look backwards and forwards in Britten's life, "placing" persons and events in a larger context. To give some of the extent of Mitchell's editing, the half-page diary entry for January 1936 generates seven pages of commentary. Six of them document Britten's relationship with Piers Dunkerley-a dedicatee of the War Requiem-from their initial meeting in 1934 up to Dunkerley's suicide in 1959, and beyond to 1970 and a proposed ballet, with designs by Sir Sidney Nolan, memorialising Dunkerley as a victim of war.

The readings of events which Mitchell offers are usually supported by the encyclopaedic information which underpins the commentary but sometimes Mitchell indulges in amateur psychology, such as comparing Britten to the mother-fixated Michael Ransom, the hero of Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6: "One cannot doubt that Mrs. Britten helped her son to scale his Everest. Was she always there, beckoning him on with the litany of her four Bs?" [Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten]. This "mummy's boy" reading of Britten's psychology and, implicitly, his sexuality (a fixation, according to Mitchell, only finally exorcised in Albert Herring) seems irritatingly simplistic. Similarly, Mitchell occasionally succumbs to the biographer's temptation to over-determine experiences, boldly conjecturing significances and connections where none may exist. For example, the interval between Britten hearing a broadcast of James's The Turn of the Screw in 1932--"a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scarey [sic] play"-and the composition of his opera on that text becomes "twenty one years" germination" or "the longest period of gestation in Britten's work". Gestation and germination imply an accretive process but apart from Britten's reading of the novella in 1933 Mitchell documents no further references to the work during the period covered by these volumes. Perhaps those still to come will corroborate Mitchell's inferred sense of Britten's hidden purposiveness.

As well as correspondence, diaries and commentary there is yet more material included in the Letters. Where appropriate in the footnotes, Mitchell has provided copious reviews of contemporary performances, the aim of which is to provide a "changing profile of public attitudes and opinions" to the reception and evaluation of Britten's (and Pears's?) work. All this makes for fascinating but also indigestible reading. Mitchell and Reed have created a valuable work of reference for scholars but at the cost of continually distracting from the "good read" still discernible in the narrative of these letters.

Something else has been lost, too. If Letters purports to be a double "autobiography", "the life of the two of us", of Britten and Pears, then Pears has been short-changed: hardly surprising when Pears spent over thirty years of his life without Britten. Letters gives the impression that Pears has been diminishingly subsumed into Britten's life. Mitchell's questionable justification for this assumes that the lives of composer and singer "fused" after their relationship was finally physically consummated whilst staying at Grand Rapids in 1939. Yet their letters in these two volumes testify to their continual absences from each other; absences dictated as importantly by Pears's own working life as a singer as by Britten's commitments as a composer.

The letters between Britten and Pears provide the most enjoyable and humanly satisfying, if not substantial reading. In them we get behind the polite social and professional masks of Britten's assiduous letter-writing, to hear the growth and candour of his feelings for Pears; vulnerably dependent, wryly humorous, touchingly solicitous. In comparison Pears seems psychologically tougher, more extrovert and confidently erotic.

Central to the period covered by the Letters is Britten and Pears's "stay" in America from 1939 to 1942. It was a very mixed experience. Britten's motives for going to America emerge as confused; he seemed uncertain whether he was visiting or emigrating. Whatever he thought, disillusionment quickly set in. As early as April 1940 Britten writes "America is a great disappointment ... I find it almost unbearable". Britten's ill-health and the mostly poor reception of works such as the Sinfonia da Requiem and Paul Bunyan added to the sour taste of the American years. But they were highly productive and inspired musically: Les Illuminations, the Violin Concerto, several overtures and the Michaelangelo Sonnets date from this period. Letters offers few purely musical insights into these or any of Britten's other compositions. His letters may date the circumstances and progress of his works but they are not creatively self-conscious and therefore reveal little about the life of Britten's musical imagination. Not least of all, and somewhat ambivalently for Britten, America meant Auden.

One of the surprises in Letters is the almost complete absence of any correspondence between Britten and Auden. One explanation, of course, is Auden's habit of destroying letters but what of his to Britten? Only one letter from Britten survives and only two from Auden are printed in full here. One of these-Auden's controversial admonition of Britten "playing the lovable talented little boy"-has already been published in Mitchell's Britten and Auden in the Thirties. Yet clearly there are other letters from Auden which exist since Mitchell quotes substantially from two of them in his footnotes. Otherwise most of the indexed entries for Auden are merely passing references in Britten's letters to others. This de-selection of the Auden-Britten material is strange in itself but doubly so, given Mitchell's assertion that for Britten "the impulse to self-documentation, and above all accurate self-documentation, was a powerful one".

The creative relationship between Britten and Auden, (significantly, the Letters make "partnership" seem out of the question), begun in 1935 at the G.P.O. Film Unit, culminated in their collaboration on Paul Bunyan, first performed in May 1941. With Britten's return to England in 1942 the relationship changed and was eventually ruptured, Mitchell deduces, by a disagreement over Britten's opera Gloriana. The downside of Britten's admiration for Auden was that he always felt intellectually inferior to him. Even distance didn't diminish his sense of Auden's stature: "He seems more like a giant when one is removed from him than ever". If Auden was an uncomfortable colleague, Britten's awed perception of him as such was as much to blame as the poet's wilfulness in writing difficult, even unusable librettos, especially For the Time Being from which Britten intended to set an "Oratorio". Certainly when Britten, writing to Pears of his dissatisfaction with Montagu Slater's work on the libretto for Peter Grimes, thought of possible alternatives he ruled out Auden: "Wystan, well-there are the old objections". But the rueful phrasing suggests more a history of disappointment than dislike. Only six years before Auden had written out "two grand poems" for Britten in the Lyons Corner House on 8 January, 1936: these new poems were "Lay your sleeping head, my love" and "It's farewell to the drawing room's civilised cry".

In those six years, and throughout the period definitively documented in these two volumes, from Britten's schooldays to the first performances of Peter Grimes, Britten wrote music and letters at such a pace that it comes as a shock to realise towards the end of the first six hundred pages that Britten is still barely 25 years old and after eleven hundred pages that he is "nearly thirty". These are letters from a very full life. Or should that be two lives?


Jim Friedman lectures in English at Loughborough University.

Canon to Right of Him, Canon to Left of Him

Peter McDonald. Louis MacNeice: the Poet in his Contexts. 241 pp, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, £30.00.

No major poet of the "Auden Generation" was personally closer to the Master than Louis MacNeice, and Auden eventually made the co-author of Letters from Iceland the subject of a moving elegy. Yet MacNeice was his own man, a loner, an Irishman. He was never dazzled by Marxism, yet he was at his most "political" in the later thirties when Auden and others were edging away from politics. At the moment, he looks like the only poet of the "Generation" who might deserve the same "major" status as Auden himself. Yet he is rarely accorded it. Why?

Peter McDonald's starting point is this problem of "canonisation". MacNeice, set up by mainstream English anthologists and critics beside Auden as a "Thirties Poet" has been positioned as both "minor" and, in one way or another, deviant. "... From the myth's point of view "uncommitted" during the 1930s, he was unrepentant after the decade ..." Never either a Fellow Traveller or Cold Warrior, "like Auden, he understood that crucial issues raised in the decade went beyond those of whether or not to join the Communist party, and he understood also that they did not go away with 1939."

His sense of these issues was affected by an Ulster Protestant upbringing, by transactions with Yeats's poetry necessarily different from those of Auden, or any English writer, and by a complicated relationship with the London metropolis. He stoutly defended Auden's decision to emigrate to America before and after he himself, despising Eire's neutrality, returned from the U.S. to London at the height of the Blitz, to serve the BBC as, amongst other things, a loyal propagandist. After the war an "allergy to England", as he called it, took him back to Ireland for a short but important creative period.

McDonald concludes his study by asserting that it "is in modern Ireland, and in Northern Ireland in particular that MacNeice's metaphysics-of the self and the other, the unity or division of identity, freedom and the forced conditioning of the voice-have been translated into real, and immediately pressing, issues." I wish McDonald had put scare quotes around "metaphysics", because "London Rain", an important poem which he doesn't mention, insists that "We need no metaphysics / To sanction what we do". But his general point is clearly right-for the Ulster generation of Paulin, Mahon and Muldoon, MacNeice has been a looming precursor.

However, his position in the canon of "Irish" literature is shaky. Such a powerful critic as Denis Donoghue has found him "insufficiently interested" in his native island. Anthologies mostly give him entry grudgingly or leave him out altogether, Muldoon's Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry being the significant exception.

Having set up the problem of canonisation, McDonald proceeds to relate MacNeice's preoccupations to both "Thirties" and "Irish" contexts. The poet's reputation overall has suffered, paradoxically, from the great success of certain much-anthologised items, including, amongst others, "Snow", "Bagpipe Music" and "The Sunlight on the Garden". These are extremely disparate in their brilliant formal arrangements and their apparent concerns. "Bagpipe Music" is easily misconstrued as "light verse", when in fact it attacks a crisis in popular culture with cold ferocity. Love lyrics in isolation can make MacNeice seem like an elegant sentimentalist. I take it that it is such considerations which have prompted McDonald to say little or nothing about several deservedly famous poems. Including juvenilia almost exhaustively in his scope, mining into neglected meditative poems, he seeks to reveal consistent serious themes and to show the origins of MacNeice's preoccupations in childhood bereavement, nightmare and alienation.

Born in the same year as Auden, MacNeice in effect beat his Oxford contemporary to the draw-Gollancz accepted his first book, Blind Fireworks, just after Faber had rejected Auden's. Though MacNeice was certainly slower than Auden to develop a characteristic "voice", McDonald can nevertheless argue that he remained a jump ahead of the New Country writers intellectually. His recognition, expressed in Poems (1935) that "ideological stability", such as seems to be given by commitment, "is alien to an imagination open to the apparently random contradictions of experience and belief" was, McDonald claims, "exemplary for the work of Spender, and even Auden, later in the decade."

MacNeice set time and flux against "history" as Marx and Yeats had tried to fix it. He struggled throughout his prolific career with the problem of the "self" and its relationship to "the other" which must be acknowledged in any serious discussion of "commitment". Pragmatically, he insisted that poetry did "make things happen", and that poets must engage with common experience. His open-ended Autumn Journal remains moving because of its honest account of leftist responses to the crises of 1938. "As the decade drew to a close", McDonald observes, "the tension between "communication" and "unity" was undiminished for MacNeice, and in this he is true to the most basic of difficulties haunting 1930s poets, that of responsibility towards society and responsibility towards form."

McDonald argues plausibly that MacNeice's "painstakingly unlyrical" work of the forties and early fifties, generally viewed as a disappointing "middle stretch", laid bases for the revival of his lyric gift in his last three books (1957-63), in which he tackled old themes in new ways-"a late flowering ... Yeatsian in character". This excellent, jargon-free study establishes that MacNeice's themes of "the problematic understanding of the self, time's subversion of history and the individual" are significant philosophically, existentially, artistically and politically: MacNeice had the scope and vision of a "major" writer. My one complaint is that McDonald doesn't describe and discuss the "personality" of MacNeice's most memorable work-its variousness, its singing, its wry courage, its technical wizardry. Philosophically he may well have been the subtlest of the "Auden Generation"-but that isn't why those anthology favourites are so much loved.


Angus Calder is a Reader in Literature and Cultural Studies at the Open University. His most recent book is The Myth of the Blitz.

Broadcast Reviews

Auden in Sound-Bites

BBC Radio 3, A Christian Ought to Write in Prose, broadcast 6 September 1991

An intelligent radio documentary devoted to Auden is a prized rarity for Auden's admirers, inevitably the subject of high hopes and eager anticipation, especially when it occurs as the centrepiece of a ten-day feast of readings from the poems. Ann Mann's "A Christian Ought to Write in Prose" came supported by Radio 3's reputation for leisurely consideration of intellectual interests and boasting an impressive line-up of contributors: Katherine Bucknell, Terry Eagleton, John Fuller and Peter Porter as well as Rita Auden and Anita Money, Auden's nieces, and Sheila Auden, his sister-in-law.

The programme offered an entertaining variety of good things and challenging statements. There was a rare reading from Auden's juvenilia as well as further readings in Auden's own voice. We also heard excerpts from Britten's settings of "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and "Calypso". There were reminiscences of Auden in India, flouting convention by shaking hands with the servants and the discovery that what drew Auden and his sister-in-law closer together was, initially, a shared knowledge of Dean Farrar's delightfully dreadful tale of moral warning, Eric, or Little by Little. Critics raised fascinating points, Peter Porter in particular questioning the received wisdom that venerates Auden for his technical skill and views him as a great librettist. So why, at the end of the broadcast, did I feel so disappointed?

In part, the nature of the programme may be to blame. With the exception of Rita Auden and Anita Money, each contributor seemed to have been interviewed separately. Their remarks were then, presumably, cut into "sound-bites"-too often a packaged conclusion without the train of thought leading up to it. This resulted in some absurdities. For example, Katherine Bucknell offered a number of insights into Auden's relationship with his parents which avoided the common over-simplifications and valuably elucidated the juvenile poem, "The Old Lead-Mine", (although I am not sure that I concur in her reading). However her suggestion that Auden's 20s and 30s can be seen chiefly as "a flight from the intensity of his mother" needed further illustration and argument. Did the editorial scissors abridge her remarks? Terry Eagleton had earlier outlined Auden's synthesis of Freudian psychology and Marxism-a brief discussion between Bucknell and Eagleton might have achieved a productive amplification of both critics" remarks.

Instead of hearing critics advancing theses and arguing together I, as solitary listener, was left in the frustrating position of arguing with my radio set, which, as soon as I moved into the attack, disconcertingly shifted its ground to another topic altogether.

Perhaps this would not have mattered so much had the programme as a whole seemed more coherent. It began, as the title indicated, as an investigation into the roots of Auden's Christianity. But "Christianity" is no longer a simple, universally comprehensible term and the exact nature of Auden's Christianity requires definition. In simple denominational terms we need to understand what Auden's choice of the Church of England of his roots meant to him. The choice between Church of England and Roman Catholicism was a live issue in Britain in the 1930s with Greene and Waugh as notable Catholic converts and T. S. Eliot and Charles Williams representing the rituals of Anglicanism. Quakerism too was a practice known to Auden, who taught at a Quaker school (the Downs) and college (Swarthmore). At the time of writing The Prolific and the Devourer, Auden was certainly impressed by the method of the Quaker business meeting. But the programme, apart from a couple of tantalising clues dropped, as it were, in passing, never attempted to approach what Auden actually believed nor made an examination of his own various accounts of his path to faith.

Instead Christianity was represented by the ethereal voices of a church choir as though it were divorced from the mundane business of day-to-day living and existed in a world apart as some kind of beautiful magic. This contrasted with Auden's own reading from "Musée des Beaux Arts" in which events of Christian and classical mythology are located in Breughel's recognisably everyday world.

Nor did the programme examine what effect, if any, Christianity had on Auden's life. This was an inevitable result of the programme's decision to concentrate on the "more private" aspects of Auden's life. While Auden's earlier, Marxist poems are surprisingly personal, the later, Christian works are located firmly in the sphere of public action and responsibility. Terry Eagleton suggested as much early on but was banished from the latter part of the programme. For the Time Being locates the Nativity amid the persecutions and massacres of 1940s Europe with Herod representing the failure of the liberal conscience. While the death of Auden's mother, commemorated in the dedication of For the Time Being, may have been one important factor in Auden's conversion, it is unwise to neglect Auden's own need to find an absolute standard by which the brutalities of Nazism could be condemned. Theological influences such as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were notable for their fusion of religious with political statements. And Auden himself warned, "Either we serve the Unconditional, / Or some Hitlerian monster will supply / An iron convention to do evil by." To omit, as this radio programme did, the public dimension in Auden's faith, is to amend the authority which compelled Auden's continuing concern with the outside world into a mere private foible.

Auden's poems tell another story. "Horae Canonicae" is not only a meditation on the crucifixion and on personal guilt but also an examination of the responsibilities of citizenship through the metaphor of the city. The individual is only allowed the isolation which correlates with innocence while asleep. To wake is not only to feel guilt but also to become part of the city. "The Shield of Achilles" alludes to the crucifixion as an aspect of our modern, fallen world and sets it against the old heroic ideals (themselves suspect-Achilles is "Iron-hearted man-slaying") of classical mythology. Even the bleakness of "Friday's Child" suggests that the Christian doctrine of free will leaves the believing individual no choice but political action-if God will not intervene against tyrants it is the duty of human beings like Bonhoeffer to do so.

Instead of looking at the religious imperatives which Auden believed in, the programme offered a consideration of Auden's attitudes to relationships, work and music, becoming increasingly anecdotal as it progressed. I enjoyed the story told by one of Auden's nieces of his visit to Simpson's restaurant in London, where he wore the inevitable carpet slippers and entertained bemused diners with his rendition of "Take back your mink," but its inclusion here seemed an indication that the programme had lost its way. Good stories and intelligent remarks alike should be recorded, but this programme was not necessarily the best place for their transmission. Their bearing on the subject of Auden as Christian poet was often little more than tangential.

The programme concluded with various biographical reflections on such subjects as Auden's loneliness and his relationship with Chester Kallman. The usual disagreements surfaced; John Fuller was horrified at Kallman's "betrayal" of Auden while Rita Auden looked on the relationship with respect as a true marriage. This retained my interest and attention but footnotes are a poor substitute for the text.


A Christian Ought to Write in Prose will be repeated by BBC Radio 3 in Spring 1992.

Open University Auden-A Student's Report

Open University broadcasts: Crossing the Border: Images of England in the 1930s and Left and Write: Recalling the 30s

1991 saw the first presentation of the Open University's ambitious new literature course, Literature in the Modern World, which explores several major themes in relation to a wide range of twentieth century poetry, prose and drama in the English language. Clearly, as an integral part of Open University teaching, television is intended to highlight or expand certain points from the written material and the programmes in question focus on perceptions and constructs of "Englishness" in the 1930s.

Crossing the Border emphasises Auden's desire to find a new and positive definition of "Englishness" which would get away from the rural idyll and include the working class and the industrial north. Extracts from his poem "The Malverns" are used to illustrate how Auden drew attention to the discrepancy between the ideal and reality, with clever and effective use of background film to enhance the point. Present-day colour film of the Malvern Hills gives way to black and white archive film of the unemployed, the Jarrow March and silent docklands which perfectly match the lines:

The central section of the programme attempts to define the "conventional" Englishness which Auden was rejecting. Over the strains of music by Elgar, Angus Calder refers to "the cult of village cricket", "rural England" and the "Georgian ""village of the heart"" ", locating all three in southern England; the Georgian poets" nostalgic view of a disappearing rural England being rather dismissively represented by Edmund Blunden's "Forefathers". It is not always clear whether the views expressed are Auden's or Angus Calder's, but whether one accepts this "conventional" Englishness or not, it is by no means located solely in the south. Both village cricket and rural landscapes occur in northern England and the Midlands and there are coal mines in Kent!

It is clear from the programme that the general public did not share Auden's love of industrial landscape and were making the most of increased leisure opportunities to "escape" to the countryside armed with the Shell Guide Books (edited by John Betjeman). Auden, says Calder, felt an outsider in English society due to his homosexuality and wanted openness to new human relationships; to demonstrate this he uses the poem "To settle in this village of the heart". This section again makes some rather sweeping generalizations and unsupported statements. It is asserted that homosexuals have "an innate tendency towards democracy" and that "other thirties writers ... felt sympathy, guilt and curiosity when confronted by the northern working class".

The final section is devoted to Night Mail and the introduction of a different viewpoint, from Harry Watt, was welcome. His account of working with Auden in the GPO Film Unit was amusing and informative and helpfully combined with excerpts from the film. As well as the images of working men and machinery and the symbolic uniting of North and South by the mail train, Calder points out that Auden was able to use the film to make a very Audenesque point. His concern with human relationships and the need for lonely people to relate, wherever they may be, is here powerfully represented by the letters being carried between them.

Left and Write: Recalling the 30s again used archive film to good effect and the music ("The Continental") featured prominently, drawing attention to the frequent comparisons with Europe. Britain's laws on homosexuality and obscenity were unfavourably compared with the relaxed atmosphere in Germany, which struck a poignant and ironic note in the light of subsequent events. A brief quotation from "A Bride in the 30s" was used, drawing attention to the way in which the title conceals the fact that the poem was addressed to a young man.

The idealistic and romantic (even naive) approach that writers took to the Spanish Civil War was illustrated by Stephen Spender, who drew parallels with Wordsworth's excitement about the French Revolution and quoted "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive". It was left to Julian Symons, however, to point out that the majority of people actually fighting were neither intellectuals nor middle class, but working class. Naomi Mitchison went so far as to say that many people felt that Auden went to Spain with the sole intention of writing a poem which "was not very helpful-except to himself".

In general, Naomi Mitchison's comments were particularly perceptive. She felt that Auden had very romantic ideas about the nature of politics which were "quite unreal" and her view that many writers, and particularly poets, of the time used political words and metaphors without really understanding what it was all about was refreshingly candid. The extract from Auden's letter to her from America, in which he says he is "very homesick for the English country", makes a subtle connection with the previous programme and the sentiments of Night Mail.

The programme dealt with an era when commitment was of intense importance and openly presented a left-wing view; I would have preferred a more balanced approach. In fairness, the Open University course did also offer a radio programme about Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene whose commitment was to Roman Catholicism rather than the political left, but the radio does not have the impact of powerful visual images. Nevertheless Left and Write accurately reflected the dominant intellectual view of the time for, as Stephen Spender conceded, they took a simplified view of literature in which writers were judged by their opinion and not by their work.


Linda M. Harrop has just completed the undergraduate degree course at the Open University.

Recent Publications of Interest

Critical Essays on W. H. Auden, ed. George W. Bahlke (1991). 218 pp. G. K. Hall, New York. (To be reviewed in a future number of the Newsletter.)

John R. Boly. Reading Auden: The Returns of Caliban (1991). 238 pp. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, $31.50. (To be reviewed in a future number of the Newsletter.)

Membership and Subscriptions

The W. H. Auden Society welcomes new members. Annual subscriptions are as follows:
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.

From the Editors

We would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters.

English Editor: Kathleen Bell, 37 Redwood Crescent, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England.

U. S. Editor: Nicholas Jenkins, 193 Prospect Place, Apt 4, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA.

Quotations from Auden's work are copyright by The Estate of W. H. Auden.

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