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Newsletter 17 (March 1998)

March 1998

The W. H. Auden Society


Auden on "Tradition and Experiment"

On Saturday evening, December 24, 1951, W. H. Auden appeared as guest on a weekly half-hour book program on Radio Station WEVD in New York City. The program, "The World in Books", was hosted by William Kennedy and myself, and we would have a guest who was prominent in those years in the book world for an unscripted interview.

Kennedy and I met Auden sometime during 1949 through our friendship with Christopher Isherwood. We met Isherwood in Salka Viertel's home in Santa Monica in January of 1949. Other guests that evening included Bertha Case, a literary agent who was instrumental in our being invited; Farley Granger and Shelley Winters, young film performers who at that time were attracting some attention; and Arthur Laurents, the playwright and screen writer.

As a result of that encounter, Isherwood invited Kennedy and me to his home in Santa Monica Canyon, which he shared at the time with the photographer, Bill Caskey. We kept in touch and when Isherwood came to visit Auden in New York sometime late in 1951, he introduced us to the poet. We had already arranged to interview Isherwood on "The World in Books", and asked Auden if he would also be willing to join us for an informal discussion - to which he graciously agreed.

My participation in the interview was negligible, limited to a brief introduction and a closing announcement of the following week's program. Although it was part of my job as co-host to ask questions and make comments, I was so intimidated by a discussion which I felt was intellectually beyond my ability to take part in that I was painfully mute. Kennedy, who could approach any guest on his or her intellectual level, carried on a dialogue with Auden on the subject selected - "Tradition and Experiment".

Here, 46 years after the event, is the text of Auden's appearance on "The World in Books". This interview was never transcribed or copied in any manner until now, and has existed to date only on an old-fashioned LP recording.


ANNOUNCER: WEVD University of the Air presents another program in the series "The World in Books". Each week at this time your hosts, William Kennedy and Vernon Brooks, interview a prominent personality from the book world and discuss with them the current literary scene. Tonight's guest is W. H. Auden, distinguished poet, critic and essayist. But first here is William Kennedy.

WK: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. W. H. Auden, the poet, critic and essayist, has agreed to join us for our Christmas program this evening. We decided that you have heard a good deal of White Christmas and Jingle Bells and so on, on other programs on other stations. We did mention to Mr. Auden the possibility of joining in a Christmas carol, but Mr. Auden told us he thought that was a very bad idea.

WHA: You would bitterly regret it.

WK: So, we asked Mr. Auden then if he wouldn't discuss with us the subject of "Tradition and Experiment", a subject which goes very close to the heart of Mr. Auden's work. He may deny this a little bit later, but at any rate that has, until now, been my impression.

[VB and WK then introduce WHA to the listening audience with a brief biography, a list of recent publications and a mention of his collaboration in writing the libretto for The Rake's Progress.]

WK: I'd like to begin by asking you, Mr. Auden: the subject "Tradition and Experiment", does that imply that the artist experiments in some way with tradition?

WHA: Yes, I think it does. If one has to define what "Tradition" means, one has to guard against two misconceptions of it. One is that the past tradition is something to be got rid of, because the past has nothing whatever to do with the present -so that, all right, we scrap everything, we start always - at every moment - again. The other view is that tradition is wonderful, the past is wonderful, but the present has no novelty. So that what you mean by being traditional is exact imitation of the past. The real problem of carrying on with tradition - in a real sense - is not denying the past but seeing what, in the present, are the kind of tasks which are analogous to those of the past; it's not identical but at the same time it is a relative...I think one can tie this up by saying it's an analogous relation.

WK: When you speak of trying to find the elements in the past which are analogous to present problems, you mean that the artist must experiment with first one element of one tradition and then another element? How does he go about this? Of course if he doesn't know something about the past he's stuck.

WHA: Well of course we all are bound to know something about the past...Mr. [T.S.] Eliot once made a famous remark: `of course we know more than the past did because they are what we know'. I think it's impossible to imagine that actually any artist now is unaware of the past. If you go back to say the eighteenth century, what people meant by originality in relation to tradition was making quite a slight modification in the work of their immediate predecessors. Now obviously the situation is completely different. With the increased publication of books and the fact that books are translated, with museums, etcetera, we are now in a position where the whole of the past, not only of our own European past but of other cultures, is exposed to us as if it were all the present. Another point about the sense of tradition is in seeing which event comes before which, which one affected the other. I think it's terrible when people don't know any dates.

WK: Which ones contain meaning for you?

WHA: Oh, well, dozens. Obviously each individual artist - we can talk about poetry as it's my business - finds people in the past who are a particular help to them in solving what their particular problems are. Eliot, for example, has told us that the people who were the greatest help to him were, on the one hand, the French symbolists like [Jules] Laforgue and Tristan Corbière, and, on the other, the late Elizabethan dramatists like [John] Webster and [Cyril] Tourneur. In my own case the people happened to be different. The first thing I picked up was Anglo-Saxon poetry; then there were a lot of other people...Horace...Dante...and so on. The people who are helpful to one are naturally different for each person.

WK: Weren't you strongly influenced, for instance, by Piers Plowman of Langland?

WHA: Yes. Piers Plowman follows on from the literary tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was actually more Anglo-Saxon directly, I think, than Piers Plowman, though that certainly comes in.

WK: That's very interesting. You know, I'm reminded, I'm not sure this is quite the place to bring it in, but I'm reminded of a quotation from The Enchafèd Flood which impressed me very much. May I read it out?

WHA: Sure.

WK: `For every individual the present moment is a polemical situation and his battle is always on two fronts. He has to fight against his own past, not only his personal past but also those elements in the previous generation with which he is personally involved - in the case of a poet, for instance, the poetic tradition and attitudes of the preceding generation - and simultaneously he has to fight against the present of others, who are a threat to him, against the beliefs and attitudes of the society in which he lives, which are hostile to his conception of Art.' We're talking now about the first part of that, about the fight against the past. Perhaps you'd tell us a little more about what you meant by fight against the past.

WHA: Yes. I was thinking a little more about a generation slightly older than mine, in that direct sense, rather than myself. If you look at all the names of the people that we think of as having created the modern style in "Art", in literature and poetry they might be Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost. Perhaps [Pablo] Picasso and [Henri] Matisse in Art, someone like [Igor] Stravinsky in music. If you look up when they were born, you will find it was in the [18]70s and 80s. Now what does that mean? I think it means that a real revolutionary break with the past occurred when there was a real revolutionary break in sensibility (which is absolutely required), which applied to that generation (those whose first work was beginning to appear before 1914). They used to speak with the explorers. Now I feel that people who were born later, like myself (I was born in 1907), we are not living in an essentially different period. What has happened is that now the pace of the whole thing has accelerated enormously. We have not reached a new epoch from the epoch which these people first saw. But that means for anybody in my own generation, we have to beware against trying to think that we can make the same kind of revolutionary break with our immediate predecessors as they could make, shall we say, with the Nineteenth Century. That I don't think is possible. There's a temptation to do that because everyone has a nice romantic idea that one is an explorer. As a matter of fact I don't think that we can be explorers in that sense, I think we have to be colonisers of this territory that has been opened up. That is naturally a less romantic kind of occupation, but, no doubt, necessary...just as colonisers are necessary after explorers for us; and I think we have to accept that as being our particular kind of task.

WK: I find myself agreeing with you completely without knowing exactly why I do. I'd like to know what there was about the time in which Eliot and Stravinsky and Picasso began to work. How do we know that that was the revolutionary period? And how do we know that the generation of artists that you and I both belong to are the colonisers, the followers?

WHA: Well, I think of central kinds of things that modern artists (in the general sense) had to meet, which [were] industrialism, mass production, the general rise in bureaucracy, all those things...now all those had already begun. And all the things that we think of as being problems which we face...pseudo-scientific politics...sociology ...mass societies in general...all that had already started. All that has happened is that it has got more intense. I don't see that anything new has happened.

WK: I see. All this mechanisation and so on, was revolted against by this generation.?.

WHA: They already began to see it happen.

WK: And thus they followed a new idiom, a new language...

WHA: It became impossible, for example, to be the sort of National Bard in the same kind of way, because I think one of the things you'll notice if you look at the sort of I with which any modern poet speaks (I mean the poem speaks, I don't mean the poet himself, I mean the I of the poem), it doesn't address a public group. The largest kind of group which it addresses is about twelve people, whom it addresses personally, you see. Because the whole problem, it seems to me now, is to fight against depersonalisation, to fight for the unique person against the cypher, the member of a class, the statistic in a State document. Which is felt, I think, just as much by readers as it is by artists. We hear a great deal about how the intellectual is separated from the masses. Well, that's all very true, but I don't hear quite enough about the ways in which they're alike.

WK: That's very interesting.

WHA: Supposing I meet an Indian peasant or even, shall I say, a farmer from Tennessee. Now, differences in our education and interests will probably make it rather difficult for us to talk over much to each other. However, if we both meet a public government official we should both have exactly the same feelings; you wouldn't trust him further than you could throw a grand piano [laughter]. Again, if we both go into a police station, we shall both, in spite of all our differences, have the same feeling of apprehension . . . perhaps we shall never get out; because in that sense what is called `The Man in the Street' and the Intellectual both sense, I think, in the Public Official role that smell of unreality in which people aren't treated as unique individuals but as statistics on paper.

WK: And both you and the Indian peasant have the same kind of mixed feelings...

WHA: Not mixed at all! Very definitely ...I don't think I'm mixed in the least.

WK: Then that would mean of course that the government official or the Police Station, for example, could be used, say, in a poem or in a novel, to communicate, or to evoke, feelings that almost everybody would have?

WHA: Yes, well of course the question of communication they are talking about is a different problem. I mean the symbol may work but there are difficulties in actual communication, the language people use and their degree of knowledge of the language, which is not something that I think is easily bridged. One cannot possibly say that all art should be capable of being understood by a child of seven.

WK: I enjoyed very much what you said just before the programme about the poet standing in relation to the language as a man stands to his wife. You suggested that the Ode to a Nightingale was by Keats out of English.

WHA: Yes, it seems to me that this applies particularly in poetry, while I don't think it applies in the same way in prose, in writing a novel . The actual structure and laws of the language itself play a very large part so that, in one sense, the poet is the person who begets a poem on the language, so that in the case of all poetry it's a little like what I think somewhere E. M. Forster quoted a lady as saying: `How can I tell what I think till I see what I say.' A poet has to be someone who is very much in love with language and woos it. Obviously, like all husbands, in the end he's got to be master in his own house - but that's another matter.

WK: But when the poet gives birth today, you feel the emphasis should be laid upon trying to give birth to something which has meaning for other people, in other words by emphasising the things which you have in common...

WHA: Well, I don't really know whether it's really possible to think about that; I mean, you have to think about making something as well as you can and in that is contained things which on the whole you think are important to say, or you believe to be true. You cannot really think about other people. I mean you produce this child and let it go out into the world and if it is popular, it is. But you cannot make your child popular with the others... and you shouldn't think about that at the time.

WK: Do you feel that poetry today is showing a greater awareness of the things that men have in common?

WHA: The contents of poetry, however esoteric it looks, are probably things that in actual fact are preoccupying most people. There are differences in communication. The very fact that people complain about modern art in general, that communication is difficult, is more a sign that probably to all of us (it's not a question of us being intellectuals but of the kind of society in which we live), the problems of deep communication between one person and another, whoever they are, are getting very difficult. With the lack of common religion, the increased specialisation of labour and all those things [like the] lack of common experiences, [is] making communication at any deep level rather difficult for everybody. And I think that it's inevitable that art in that kind of society should reflect that fact. It's not quite fair to blame the artist for reflecting something which is true of everyone.

WK: Of course you mentioned, brilliantly, that the generation preceding ours was a generation of explorers, and you mentioned Eliot and Picasso and Stravinsky; people who themselves and whose followers have used idioms which at any rate were temporarily difficult for a large public, and I think that in the last few years the difficulty of some of the artists of that generation, and perhaps especially of poetry, have been rather emphasised. Well now, when you spoke a few minutes ago about emphasising the things that we all have in common, the question that occurred to me was: `Is our generation going to find an idiom, a language of communication, which perhaps is less special for some reason than [that of] the generation of explorers?'

WHA: No I don't think so. Because I think we're in exactly the same period where communication between one person and another is difficult and I think that is bound to be reflected in art. I don't think the situation has changed essentially.

WK: The situation has not changed?

WHA: No.

WK: Then what is the resource of the poet; I mean the poet is condemned, or must resign himself to a small audience - but I don't feel that you do.

WHA: Oh, sure, of course we do. Previously, maybe, the audience has never been a very big one. The difference is that at one time it possibly belonged all to one's small class, and now they may turn up anywhere. The number probably doesn't increase very much, though God knows, it may do, because one has no method of checking on it...

WK: I'd like to hit below the belt here and point out that in fact The Age of Anxiety has reached a very large audience indeed.

WHA: The work, or the title?

WK: The title certainly, and I had always imagined the work itself as well.

WHA: Well, I wouldn't know. But the title certainly has caught on.

WK: It has communicated something profoundly important about our whole age. Well, what are the elements from the past, to get back to tradition, what are the elements from the past which you feel are today most usable, or is that too difficult a question?

WHA: I'm not quite sure what you mean, Mr. Kennedy, by that. All elements in the past are useful, any individual artist has to find out which particular elements he can make use of himself in interpreting the present, but to say that any of them are more useful than others...

WK: Well...

WHA: ...well that, in a general sense, I would very much doubt. You can obviously see it in certain changes in taste that have occurred if you look over a long run, if one looks at a period like the Victorian period, where metaphysical poets, for example, were ignored. But right now they're very much, in fact I think even that's gone far enough and we want to get away from them a little. That's my private opinion. Personally I would think that it's important that people should now turn their attention maybe to people of a certain kind of elegance and discipline because there's a certain danger to think that somehow to be free is sincere. I think that is possibly a danger but that's purely a little private quarrel of my own. But free verse I think, there are so few people that can do it, it's so much more difficult to do than the other.

WK: Free verse is much more difficult to do than the other?

WHA: Of course it is, because you've really got to have such a perfect ear to know exactly why a line should stop there, and very few people - certainly I haven't got it - I think should risk it, because so often you feel it's quite accidental. In the best poems, of course, you don't.

WK: But you feel that the language, I mean if the poet disciplines himself strenuously today, as of course all artists do...I have heard that Picasso was a very fine draughtsman...

WHA: Wonderful.

WK: ...for example, even though a good many people find it difficult to know exactly what it is he's painting. Well now, if the poet disciplines himself severely today, do you think that's going to help him in communicating with a larger audience, or is it simply the problem of expression?

WHA: It's just a problem of the work...

WK: A problem of the work itself...

WHA: ...I don't think it has anything to do with a general capacity for communication, which is something quite different, I think. No, it's simply that, I think it's important to know your craft and it's also important to know the language. I think that a thorough knowledge of the sort of whole history of words is also not a bad thing to possess.

WK: Why does the poet experiment?

WHA: Obviously, in one sense, every poem, if it's any good, is a unique object. In that sense it is always an experiment and I can't imagine writing without imagining that one is trying to solve a particular problem; which at any rate for you was a new problem - in that sense an experiment. I cannot imagine why you should want to do it otherwise.

WK: And in the solution of that problem and the creation of that unique object you may draw upon all kinds of tradition, and influences from the past? In fact, you will whether you know it or not?

WHA: Surely. I am sure one will, yes.

WK: And in doing that you are at the same time combating a tendency, the contemporary tendency, shall we say, to make cyphers out of people, to make them statistics, because when you've created a unique object you've asserted an individuality.

WHA: Well that's a question of any art, I mean, modern artists - people may not be very good, but as long as there are people allowed to do it, and are doing it, it is always a witness that personality, a human person, a unique person, is valuable. I think that when we get very dissatisfied with modern art, and I don't wonder that people do, at any rate it is worth remembering that.

WK: Yes, there can't be any doubt whatever that the artists are in the forefront of those who are keeping the whole belief in the individual alive today throughout Western culture, would you agree with that?

WHA: Well, I think at any rate it's one of their jobs, which they do as long as they are allowed to do it, which is why very often there is such a great deal of hostility to artists who are not understood, not on the grounds - you would think if people didn't understand it they would just leave it alone, they would say "that's all right, I don't like this, I won't have anything to do with it". But they go much further than that. They then begin to suspect not only that it's not nice but that there's something subversive and wrong about it.

WK: That's from people who mistrust individual freedom and individual expression...

WHA: I think so, yes. I mean, it's very noticeable in the arguments that instead of just saying well, this doesn't interest us and we'll buy what we want, there's a suggestion that some deliberate malice is being played on them, and goodness knows what that means.

WK: Well, Mr. Auden, thank you very much indeed for coming here this evening and for giving us some light on our own past and on the problems of the artist in the present and thank you particularly for your assertion of faith in the function of the artist and in his aims, a faith which all of us share, and which we admire in you as an example.

WHA: Thank you.

A Glimpse of Auden: Sunday 17 December 1972

I had thought that Auden must be unique in seeing a parallel between Italy and the Pennines, but I recently came across Sid Chaplin's remark in The Smell of Sunday Dinner: "Of all the places I have travelled to explore, Tuscany is my darling, because it is mountainous limestone country and also because the so-called Southern temperament is very akin to the Northern".

This reciprocal Auden echo is the more poignant in the light of Chaplin's meeting with the poet at the Turk's Head in Newcastle in December 1972. Richard Davenport-Hines' 1995 biography quotes Auden's wounding remark on that occasion [Paul Bailey recounted to Davenport-Hines his recollection of Auden's reaction to Sid Chaplin's confession that he also wrote: "Oh I see, a regional author" - Ed.]. That might have been the last word on the matter but for Michael Chaplin's exciting discovery of his father's notes on the encounter and subsequent excursion, tucked inside Auden's Collected Poems, and signed in the manner described hereafter. This fascinating sketch does not include the remark Paul Bailey overheard, but does tell us a good deal about Auden's state in the last year of his life and, incidentally, throws Chaplin's own compassionate and forbearing attitude into sharp and admirable relief.

Sid Chaplin's remarkable thumbnail portrait of Auden in decline confirms the distance that now lay between the North Pennine "boy of wish" and the old man who refused to stroll five minutes to view the Roman Wall, the boundary of his one-time "great good place".


With Michael Standen picked up Auden from Turk's Head, Newcastle and drove him out to Chollerford, where we had lunch together with Philip Bomford who had motored over from his home at Acomb to join us. The reason for this outing was that the poet had expressed a wish (or had it wished upon him) to see something of the Roman Wall country again, also the fringe of the lead-mining area.

He came shambling down from his room at the hotel and neither shook hands nor evinced the slightest interest in who we were, shuffling ahead and out. Scruffy in the extreme, he wore carpet slippers. It never dawned on us for a moment that he might be shy. His is the most extraordinary face I have ever looked upon. But dead. And reluctant. Glum is the only word for it, constrained as only a pressed man can be. While he had to be in the car he wasn't going to be driven to talk.

A spark of life only when I got the drinks in The George (his a dry Martini on the rocks), when he discovered that I'd been a miner Bishop Auckland way. Momentarily his eyes lit up. He talked of Rookhope, still lead mining when he knew it. When did he first go? At 12. His father a doctor interested in geology, his brother in Geological Survey. His two most treasured books, he told me, the Geological Survey of Weardale (1923) and Westgarth Foster's Sections of the Strata from Newcastle upon Tyne to Alston. Said I was the first person he'd met who had read the latter. My note: "Obviously little or no feeling for folk - I doubt if he'd ever made friends with a Weardale or Alston lead miner". Quoted Chesterton and Karl Kraus.

Came to life again when Philip talked of Germany - mimicked Hitler as he'd heard him, a long harangue in German beginning: "I will give every German girl a German husband...". (Obviously a well-rehearsed party piece, but rattling good fun for all that. When I asked what it meant he gave a translation.) Said to read classics is to get a view of English one wouldn't otherwise get.

Then died again at lunch. Evidently eating is a very serious business with him. (I couldn't help feeling envious, remembering how the thought of speaking takes the edge off my appetite.) Said "let's go home" when I suggested looking at Chesters, only five minutes walk away. Well, that was O.K. with me. Michael struggled with him all the way home: I dozed off. Awoke to find Auden in full flow about plum jobs, lecturing in Sheldonian. Michael wondered who would put up for Professorship in Poetry in Fuller's place. Auden: "One doesn't put up; one is put up." Grudgingly signed books for us, crossing out his name on title page and writing it in neat and small. Annoyed at the time; now I can see a man of considerable moral rectitude; reluctant to put a "yours" or "yours sincerely" when he didn't feel it. At the same time a sad burnt-out case, or is he so physically ill? Only 64 years of age but moves like senile old man of 80 or over. Bent, trousers bagging with belly hanging over.

The reading was terrible. Auden's remarkable gift of total recall was obviously badly impaired. Little ripples of worried laughter when audience didn't quite catch a point. Acute embarrassment as he kept saying "excuse me" before repeating a fluffed line; or searching for a poem in the script his memory had lost. Reminded me of Randolph Churchill. Sad, sad, sad. He had made great play of his $1000 readings in the U.S. And yet in dressing room afterwards he was so obviously elated it was all over that one couldn't but warm to him. Didn't seem to expect compliments, which was a relief. Shuffled off at 9.40, remarking that his usual bed-time was 9.30.

One had the impression of an odd, arid soul. Or an essentially shy man who is at home with his friends alone. And why not?


Michael Standen's recollections of the meeting (which, like Sid Chaplin's account, were published in the Northern Review [Winter 1996]) are as follows:

We presented ourselves at the desk of the now-defunct Turk's Head on Grey Street, Newcastle. It was a fairly mild and misty day in December 1972. We were myself, WEA Tutor-Organiser in County Durham and member of the Northern Arts Literature Panel, and Sid Chaplin (1916-86), Chairman of the Panel. I was there because I had a car. Our trepidation in the foyer was on account of the task, to collect and transport one now announced over the Tannoy [public-address system] by a youth Sid had collared and identified to me as a "bellhop". "Mr. W. Orthon to the desk please!" boomed out. Sid had barely time to mutter incredulous outrage before Auden appeared in the legendary carpet slippers, bearing the fabled corrugated face. A committee must have risen to the occasion of the visit and agreed that lunch should take place at Chollerford at a picturesquely situated hotel bordering the River Tyne in one of its most [Thomas] Bewick passages. The day was fine; my five-year-old Morris Traveller had recently been treated to fibreglass wings, not yet painted - a motley car and a motley collection into it.

The drive was forty minutes or more and the great man smoked half a dozen cigarettes. I was sketchy in my knowledge of his work, which I distantly admired, but for Sid this very mortal man was one of the immortals of his own heroically acquired literary culture. For Sid, the whole trip was a let-down, but he was stuck on the uncomfortable back seat with noisy engine and his own hearing a little strained. Auden was interesting, charming, making an effort when everything in him wanted to retreat, to get rid of the burden of consciousness. We discussed how you work with Stravinsky and I remember agreeing with him that Chou En-lai was the only Chinese statesman it was possible to get on with. It was like my first novel which tackled the unknown realms of Law and Agriculture, only this time it was Opera and China. But it was his small talk; he had no need to impress me of all people. He once wound down the window to let the smoke of Senior Service mingle with the mist and he said: "It must be twenty miles to High Cup Nick, which is one of the holy places of the earth". I made a mental note to go there and acted on it twenty years later.


The following is a précis of that part of Michael Standen's account not published in Northern Review:

During lunch (poor quality) Auden spoke of U.S. Presidents but claimed not to follow the cultural scene. The only journal he took was Scientific American. Back at the Turk's Head, the curious method of book-signing, which annoyed Chaplin at the time, was apparently coined from T. S. Eliot. Standen remembers the reading itself as "coruscating and bitter, remarkable and memorable", and as rather more successful than Chaplin did; though Auden made no attempt to woo the audience, meet it half way or milk sympathy.

Book Reviews

Pascal Aquien, W. H. Auden: De l'Eden perdu au jardin des mots (Paris: Éditions l'Harmattan, 1996), 286 pp.

Had Auden not emigrated to the United States in 1939 and later acquired American citizenship, would he stand today as one of the giants of modern poetry in English? This is of course an unanswerable question, but it does bring out the important part played by the powerful American academic and publishing industry in the promotion of a poet whom America has claimed as one of her own. If one adds to this the dedicated support of his many British admirers and the odour of scandal surrounding the trivia of this prominent homosexual's private life, which never fails to titillate the interest of the public, it is easy to understand why most of Auden's _uvre (the poetry, the prose, the plays, the libretti, etc.) most of it superbly edited, is still in print almost a quarter of a century after his death. (And indeed, as I write this review, I learn that the indefatigable Edward Mendelson has just published a new 836-page edition of the prose written by "the English Auden" [reviewed in this issue]). The exception to this high standard is Collected Poems (1976), now outdated, though in fact Auden's poetry will no doubt soon be made available in a new volume of the Complete Works. As for the poet's life, what with all the memoirs and the three full-length biographies (by Charles Osborne, Humphrey Carpenter and Richard Davenport-Hines), one might wonder if there is anything more to be said. Looking, now, at the critical attention which Auden has received, it is quite impressive, and one cannot but admire the work done over the years by Mendelson himself, as well as by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins, who have already produced three volumes of Auden Studies, not forgetting the dedication of the editors of the Newsletter, whose 10th anniversary is coming up shortly [next April]. But all this is mostly either editorial work or the compilation of short, highly specialised studies, and I would be at a loss to name an unquestionably outstanding general study published since Justin Replogle's Auden's Poetry and John Fuller's A Reader's Guide to W. H. Auden, which both date back to the days when Auden was still alive.

Pascal Aquien's remarkable book, now published after many years of extensive research, should be approached in the same context as these latter books. Aquien, who is a distinguished member of the younger generation of French academics, was recently appointed Professor of English Literature at the University of Reims, and his book confirms him as one of the major Auden specialists. Its foremost quality lies in its self-coherence, with a well-balanced overall architecture which neatly falls into four parts and ten chapters. The method is consistently and accurately based on post-Saussurian developments in linguistics and poetics, and on the Freudian theory of the human psyche; and the relevance of this combined methodological choice is demonstrated throughout with great authority. Auden was fascinated by language - he was in love with words, forms and codes, and, as a poet, he was always primarily a maker, a man whose virtuosity with words was practically unequalled. On the other hand, the author of "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" believed for a long time that he could at one and the same time speak in defence of psychoanalysis and be its living illustration, with the dashes of narcissism, self-awareness and irony that such an attitude implies. So the "text" Pascal Aquien sets himself to decipher as a whole is not limited to the written works. It is the text of Auden's _uvre as destiny. There is no break, according to Aquien, between, on the one hand, the life history of the man whose initially smooth face (as seen through Cecil Beaton's eyes in 1930) was later to bear the ravages and ravines of time and, on the other hand, the poems themselves, each of which constitutes "a verbal Garden of Eden" written in compensation for the loss of the original Paradise. No break, in other words, between body and corpus; the whole problem is their articulation. Such is the thesis that Aquien develops so convincingly, and the very table of contents demonstrates how, in the choice of his titles, he combines firmness of purpose with elegance of style. His intellectual and stylistic elegance is indeed undeniable, but it never detracts from the sense of seriousness and competence he conveys. Where necessary, he follows Auden's exploration of ideas and systems, moving with ease through the vast domains of history, politics, psychoanalysis, philosophy and theology. Yet he can also position himself as closely to the lines, words, syllables and letters as it is possible to do, working to the letter. Here Aquien the student of poetics, himself a lover of language, is at his best. What he writes, for example, on the literal interplay between Auden's patronymic and the key signifiers Eden, Adam, Odin, is memorable indeed.

One should not, of course, expect any great revelation from Aquien's work. There is no magic formula, no secret disclosed, no ultimate truth attained. How could there be, indeed? But as far as I am concerned this is the best "reading" of Auden so far. By this I mean that it is a genuine interpretation, at one and the same time an explanation and a sort of performance. It takes us as far as one can go in the deciphering of Auden, to the very edge of that zone of obscure silence where language is articulated onto body. And it does so very convincingly. One might almost take the A-en shared by A(ud)en and A(qui)en - A-en, ahan? "d'ahan...vers d'autres nébuleuses?" - to signal some secret empathy between poet and reader.

In conclusion: two regrets, and one wish. Though it may have been the publisher's decision, I regret the fact that all the quotations from Auden's poems are provided in the body of the text, thus obliterating the effect that is produced by the layout of poetry on what Mallarmé called "le significatif silence" of the white page. I regret, too, that no index has been provided. But this can be easily remedied - and I hope it soon will be, for it is my wish that Aquien's book should rapidly find a publisher in Britain or America, so that an English version of De l'Eden perdu au jardin des mots can be made available to all admirers of Auden and lovers of poetry.


Adolphe Haberer is Professor of English Literature at the Université Lumière-Lyon 2. He is the author of Louis MacNeice. L'homme et la poésie (Bordeaux: UP, 1986).

W. H. Auden. Prose 1926-38: Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1996). 836 pp. £40.

In his introduction to Prose 1926-1938, Edward Mendelson suggests that Auden's presiding theme during the period was "duality": of instinct and intellect, of mind and will, of collective action and individual thought. To Mendelson, the duality even extends to the intellectual status of his prose and poetry - "the division of the secret labyrinths of his poems from the lucid highways of his prose". In this volume of Prose (more are to follow), such duality can be seen to reflect Auden's teasing out of the philosophies and mental processes which most concerned him in the 30s, and which he was able to resolve, at least to his own satisfaction, in later decades.

It is also possible to trace Auden's maturing mind, though the line traced is far from straight. In 1927, in collaboration with Cecil Day-Lewis, he portentously suggested that Oxford Poetry 1927 (which the poets co-edited) reflected "an infinitesimal progression towards a new synthesis" necessary because "no universalised system...has been bequeathed to us". After living in Berlin for ten months and perceiving civil disorder at a proletarian level, his writing became more political, but still naive. The Orators propounded a confused political message which could be either communist or fascist (as Graham Greene noted in a contemporary review); Mendelson points out that in an early draft of an essay included in Prose, "Writing", Auden proposed a return to an oral tradition in literature, but "We shall do nothing without some sort of faith either religious like Catholicism or political like Communism" (the discarded draft is included in Mendelson's textual notes). Auden alternately embraced and discarded historical determinism, rejecting in Letters from Iceland the "anarchist's loony...cry" that "No choices are good", seeing personal redemption in a local carnival - "the growth, the wonder/ Not symbols of an end, not cold extremities/ Of a tradition sick at heart". Next year, after spending some weeks in Spain, Auden wrote "Spain 1937", which reaffirmed a determinist view, but after visiting China in 1938 and witnessing the war with Japan with Isherwood, he concluded (in his sonnet sequence "In Time of War") that "We live in freedom by necessity". Yet two years later in an extraordinarily impersonal essay (his contribution to a volume of personal philosophies entitled I Believe), Auden was a determinist again, stating that "our present acts are the product of past acts". Perhaps it is a sign of maturity to continually debate with oneself the duality of individual action and historical inevitability; though for Auden - and especially in "Morality in an Age of Change", Auden's contribution to I Believe - the two concepts never seem contradictory.

When reading this volume - especially in conjunction with poetry Auden wrote at the time - it is possible to form a number of theories as to why the writer vacillated in his thinking and changed his personal philosophies. But one reading suggests that the times Auden spent away from England had a lot to do with his absorption of new ideas and theories. For several years after he returned from Berlin in 1929 Auden wrote reviews and essays containing revolutionary rhetoric. In reviewing a book by Bertrand Russell on education in 1932, he concluded: "The failure of modern education lies...in the fact that nobody genuinely believes in our society". In his contribution to a book of school reminiscences, he wrote: "The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state". Auden's three months in Iceland in 1936 caused him to believe in the individual act as an antidote to the march of history, as we have noted. He also realised that travel offered him only "limited hope" of escape from the real world, of being "far from any/ Physician". Europe is ever-present - the civil war in Spain broke out when Auden was in Iceland. (Though Auden came to see travel to the North as escape to "place[s] we had yet to disappoint" in later life, in poems such as "Hammerfest" and "Iceland Revisited.") But if not escape, travel gave time for reflection, time to clarify one's thoughts. Iceland produced Letter to Lord Byron, China in 1938 the sonnet sequence In Time of War, the former a personal reflection , the latter a societal one. And the Spanish Civil War taught Auden - temporarily, later to be repudiated - that "History to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon".

Prose is of significance to scholars and admirers of Auden alike. It is important first for its completeness - here, in one volume, is everything that Auden wrote in prose, independently or in collaboration, before he emigrated to America. Edward Mendelson has ensured too, that the essays and reviews are as Auden originally intended, before editors amended or excised parts of the texts. Auden's two Thirties travel-book collaborations, Letters from Iceland and Journey to a War are reproduced in full. It has been a cause of frustration that Faber's reprints have, up to now, excluded Auden's photographs from both volumes. These are now reinstated, with their captions, which shed additional light on some of the poetry Auden wrote at the time (the captions are, in some cases, lines of poetry). In addition, Mendelson has included appendices on "Auden as Anthologist and Editor"; "Reported Lectures" (in some cases making what sense he can of contemporary transcriptions); "Auden on the Air", a listing of his broadcasts in the Thirties; "Public Letters Signed by Auden and Others"; and "Lost and Unwritten Work". The latter appendix includes the intriguing news that Auden asked Brian Howard to collaborate on a book with him, an idea which unfortunately came to naught. Equally intriguing, in the first appendix, is a record of a broadcast on the BBC entitled "Up the Garden Path" a compilation of bad verse and bad music put together by Auden and Benjamin Britten. The Funeral March by Chopin is included, "Selections from Shakespeare" and a number of poems, the authors of some of which are unknown to me. It would have been interesting to have heard the entire broadcast!

The volume concludes with detailed textual notes of great help to scholars; indeed the detailed history of the development of the travel books, Letters from Iceland and Journey to a War, making fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in Auden. He was a publisher's nightmare, asking for changes to a map at galley stage (after his father, on Auden's behalf, had already caused a new block to be produced); and requesting separate title pages for each chapter at a similarly late stage in the publishing process. The Faber editor, Richard de la Mare, was eventually obliged to protest: "the manuscript came to us in such a muddle that it was not at all easy to get it in proper order for the printers. I know this because I had to do it myself!"

Also contained within "Textual Notes" is a detailed exposition of the veiled references and the legatees in "Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament", written by Mendelson in collaboration with Richard Davenport-Hines. This is the first time that this clarification has been attempted, and it makes the "Last Will and Testament" immeasurably more interesting to a present-day reader. Doubtless the publication of this volume will encourage readers to provide even more of the missing background to the private and public references in the poem (the Newsletter would be happy to publish any it receives) - and a second printing would permit some minor corrections to be made. (Two suggestions from the present writer regarding MacNeice's bequests to Anthony Blunt and Ruthven Todd : Blunt has admitted that the "beautiful" MacNeice was "irredeemably heterosexual" when recalling the trip to Spain he took MacNeice on almost immediately prior to MacNeice's trip to Iceland. This surely is the context of the bequest to Blunt of "Love Locked Out". And one aspect of what Roy Fuller called Todd's "jackdaw ways" was his distressing habit of taking books from the household where he was staying and selling them to bookstores, including, I believe, a volume of Burns from Julian Symons; MacNeice must have been aware of this in bequeathing Todd "the works of Burns entire").

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Prose to all of Auden's readers is to remind us of his catholic interests. He wrote essays and reviews in the Thirties on literary, psychological, political - even architectural - matters. He analysed writing, language and the education system, as one might expect, out of his own experience; he also wrote about morality, unhappiness, Christianity, gossip and detective stories. In Letters from Iceland especially, he exhibited his desire to be all-encompassing. There are sections on motoring in Iceland, recommended clothing for tourists, excellent photographs, and an anthology of Icelandic literature and historical writing. There is even information on food in Iceland, which is hardly encouraging for tourism ("Dried fish is a staple food....The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one's feet"). Another attribute of Auden's prose is the way he can leaven his serious intent with light-heartedness and (one assumes) hyperbole.

This is a big book at 836 pages and not inexpensive, it has to be said. But I could not recommend more fascinating reading for anyone interested in early Auden.


Editor's Notes

Many thanks to those of you who renewed your subscriptions - and in many cases added generous donations - after the appeal in the last Newsletter. We continue to seek donations to enable the Newsletter to flourish.

I have received a copy of Collected Poems of Humphrey Moore, with a biography by John Bridgen (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1997) John Bridgen is a member of The W. H. Auden Society. In his biography of Moore he notes many similarities of upbringing and nature between Moore and Auden, and shows Moore as typifying many scholars and teachers of the Thirties in his deep admiration for Auden and for everything he wrote. When Moore died, he bequeathed his poems to Bridgen, who has collected them in this volume. Of particular interest to members of the Society are the pages in this book where Bridgen describes his determined effort to meet Auden personally and have the latter read Moore's poetry and give Bridgen his candid opinion of its worth. After exchange of correspondence (Auden's replies are reproduced) they met for an afternoon at Stephen Spender's house in St. John's Wood. Bridgen's recollection of the conversation sheds light on Auden's specific Christian beliefs. Though leaving for New York the next day, true to his word, Auden read Moore's poetry and wrote to Bridgen "I find the poems both moving and most original".

Members interested in this biography and in Humphrey Moore's poetry - and in the Auden connections - should write to The Lutterworth Press, P. O. Box 60, Cambridge CB1 2NT.

Christopher Isherwood's Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960, edited by Katherine Bucknell (reviewed in the last issue) are now available in a paperback edition.

The University Press of Virginia has published Auden and Documentary in the 1930s, by Marsha Bryant, Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida. The Press Release states that this book: "traces the intersection of Auden's status as a gay man with his part in the British documentary film movement". ISBN No. 0-8139-1756-5, price $35.00.

Edward Upward, at the age of ninety-four, has a new book of short stories - The Scenic Railway - being published by Enitharmon Press.

Bill Ostrem, a member of the Society, writes that he attended the Philip Larkin conference in Hull this summer, presenting a paper on Larkin's use of Auden's border symbolism. He may be contacted at: University of Minnesota, English Dept., 207 Lind Hall, 207 Church St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455.

Richard Searle has advised the Newsletter that he will be directing an amateur production of Paul Godfrey's play about Britten, Pears and Auden, Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens, for Group 64 Theatre in Putney. The performance dates are 3-7 March.

The Society now maintains a rather tentative and experimental site on the Internet. The text of the first three Newsletters may be found on there, as well as brief announcements of new and forthcoming books about Auden. Additional material will appear there as time and inclination permits. The address of the site is


Members of the society with access to the Internet are invited to visit the site.

I would be pleased to receive letters on any subject, but especially relating to this issue, or any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters. If members know of any articles or books relating to Auden or his coterie soon to be published, please let me know so that I may notice them and, if possible, arrange for them to be reviewed. All contributions may be subject to editing.


Memberships and Subscriptions

Annual subscriptions are as follows:

Past issues of the Newsletter are available, apply to the editor.

New members (and members wishing to renew) should send checks (cheques) - payable to "W. H. Auden Society" - to Katherine Bucknell, 78 Clarendon Road, London W11 2HW. Receipts on request.

All writings by W. H. Auden Copyright 1997 by The Estate of W. H. Auden.

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