Notes from Auden Land

Why Auden is as essential to our times as Orwell.
Black and white image of Auden

Whether poetry is “relevant” has always struck me as a beginning-of-semester question—also a distinctly American one. There’s a cheerful presumptuousness to it. Poetry spans thousands of years and emerges naturally across times and cultures. What are the odds that such a vast creative output has nothing to teach us?

Still, poets often proclaim their own marginality, even while defending their art. William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” W.H. Auden: “poetry makes nothing happen.” Even the swaggering Percy Bysshe Shelley saw poetic influence as essentially thankless: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In each case the writer concedes poetry’s distance from the main cultural arena. Auden went so far as to quip that Shelley’s phrase describes the secret police, not poets. It’s a great line, but Auden’s own career powerfully refutes it.

Of course, poems don’t move stock markets or armies. But they have a way of surfacing, calmly, whenever the “acknowledged” legislators scramble. Usually all sorts of pragmatic disciplines—economics, political science, statistical analysis—seem to hold the globe in hand; then, one day, the markets plummet, treaties crumble, pollsters wake to shock, and suddenly poetry looks old and solid enough to cling to. Verses of mourning or anger or consolation make the social-media rounds. Impassioned members of Congress start quoting the poem enshrined at the Statue of Liberty, forgetting that it’s nowhere enshrined in law; it’s “only” a sonnet, the brainchild of a single 19th-century citizen and an afterthought to the statue’s original conception. 

During the upheavals of recent years, many readers have looked to Auden, too, as monument and beacon. Most famously, his World War II poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely after 9/11. It caught the mood of the moment, but the moment was a prologue. We are really in Auden Land now. In 2015, as the U.S. presidential campaign turned ugly, actor Jeffrey Tambor quoted from the same poem: “Love one another or die.” When the election went to the billionaire realtor, angry bigot, and alleged sexual predator, the poem looked more clairvoyant than ever: “The lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky.” Friends and pundits, some of whom had never shown much interest in poetry, quoted it on social media for weeks afterward. The day after the inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, Madonna did her part to sanctify what’s long since become a mantra: “We must love one another or die.”

But Auden, of course, is more than the one classic, which in later life he came to resent. He was one of his century’s most uncanny prophets in any genre; whatever seedy atmosphere our politics lurches into, his lyrics seem to be audible in the background. This is especially true of those poems collected in the landmark 1940 volume Another Time. Reading about corporate data mining or NSA surveillance, I hear the sardonic close of “The Unknown Citizen”:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

As the new administration bars refugees and hounds “illegal aliens,” I hear the opening of “Refugee Blues”:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: 
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

And when the new president brags online about meeting some “really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS,” how can an Auden fan help but hear the “Epitaph on a Tyrant”?

    He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets. … 

Meanwhile the deeper trend of entropy, often associated with Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart”), conjures too the mocking, apocalyptic lilt of Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”:

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Auden isn’t politically irreproachable, but in dozens of poems, essays, interviews—in the deepest texture and meaning of his work—he has become indispensable. You could navigate a dysfunctional country without him, just as you could without knowing your Orwell, but why would you? His witty, accurate, dark, dissenting music has soundtracked the world history of the past 80 years. Listening closely now may lend some small advantage.

Take just ten of Auden’s best poems—“September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “The Fall of Rome,” “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “Refugee Blues,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “August 1968,” and “The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning”—plus selections from the longer sequences and essays, and you’ve got a pocket anthology of modern political reality. Think of it as a literary supply kit for whatever the coming years bring. Just as instructive for writers, though, is the broader sweep of Auden’s career: his triumphs and disenchantments as the great political poet of his age.

Auden’s mature style bloomed amid the nightmare of 1930s Europe, which brought depression, then war, then cataclysmic war. A model of the engagé artist throughout the decade—in one characteristic gesture, he traveled to observe the Spanish Civil War, then donated proceeds from his poem-pamphlet Spain to a relief organization—he angered many of his compatriots by resettling in America in 1939. Some viewed it as a desertion; as late as his centenary in 2007, the Guardian reported “muted celebrations for poet who shunned Britain.” But the move only helped the poetry, the gathering brilliance of which blazed out into the annus mirabilis of 1939–1940.

Everything is political in some sense, but politics in the ordinary sense so suffused Auden’s imagination that it stamped even his love poems. “Funeral Blues” (1936), famous as a lover’s poem of grief, bears traces of its original conception as a satirical elegy for a dictator:

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

In “Lullaby” (1937), one of Auden’s purest love songs, the speaker hears “fashionable madmen raise / Their pedantic boring cry”—likely the sound of fascists overtaking Europe. (Notice the parallel imagery in “September 1, 1939”: dictators talking “elderly rubbish” to “an apathetic grave,” and so on.) That contemporary threat, along with the universal hazards of “faithless” love and “the mortal world,” provides the dramatic occasion for the poem. The lovers may be resting on Venus’s “enchanted slope,” but the world around them is careering downhill.

Auden excelled not only at humanizing politics but also at politicizing humans, at mapping the individual as a microcosm of the civic. In a 1941 essay, Randall Jarrell highlighted “a certain kind of spatial metaphor Auden uses for people,” in which, for example, “The provinces of Yeats’s body revolted,” “Matthew Arnold is a dark disordered city,” and Edward Lear “became a land.” It can’t be an accident that the people in Jarrell’s examples are also writers. As the most celebrated English poet of his generation, Auden felt early the artist’s burden of “representing” his culture—not entirely different from the politician’s mode of “representation.” Both figures are spokespersons; both must be accountable but not completely beholden to their public. (Auden’s elder model Yeats had straddled both roles, serving a stint in the Irish Senate.)

As Jarrell surveys Auden’s work—his subject was only 34 at the time, yet Jarrell divided it into “early” and “late” periods—it’s astonishing how much ground it covers, how large a mandate Auden claimed for himself. He offers not just stylistic novelty, or clever sound play, or quiet epiphanies but also a far-ranging moral and intellectual vision. He was a master of thinking in verse, obliquely but always cogently, such that we can muck around in the landscape of his ideas (about everything from Freud to democracy to space travel) as we could the most capacious essayist’s. Recall that he imagined poetry itself as a realm apart:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in. …

To absorb this landscape in all its autonomy and breadth is to realize how much territory most poets cede up front. (Or is it only their critics?) Auden can downplay his ambitions all he wants, but when Jarrell reaches for Marxism, evolutionary biology, Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas, the Hegelian dialectic, Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus, and popular song—all in one paragraph—to make sense of Auden’s achievement, poetry looks anything but parochial. Elsewhere Jarrell writes, almost offhandedly, that Auden “took the world for his province without much hesitation.” It’s meant as a sideswipe, but a young poet today is likely to find it thrilling. 

“Poetry makes nothing happen.” How many poets’ hearts have felt the dagger of that line? It comes from Auden’s elegy for Yeats, a poet who never won over his beloved or saved his troubled country. Readers who resist the line usually point to the end of that stanza, which clarifies that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.” Or they look to section III, which instructs the poet to do what she can for her people: sing, heal, teach.

All fair enough. But to me the best counterstatement comes from “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” which begins:

    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.

What use would a tyrant have for something that makes nothing happen?

Where the elegy for Yeats imagines poetry as a private country that scares off “executives,” these lines warn us that executives have their poetry, too, and it’s always threatening to invade ours. It’s the stuff of crude slogans: sentimentality, bombast, cliché. It contains no genuine feeling, but its folly can grip entire nations:

    When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
    And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

At worst it’s pure gibberish, as in Auden’s “August 1968,” another vision of the ruler as monster:

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips. 

Why read poetry? One answer: if you don’t learn to recognize the real stuff, you’ll be a sucker for the tyrant’s kind.

But is the real stuff effective only by contrast with the fake? Auden seemed to adopt that stance toward the end of his career. Here he is in a 1974 Paris Review interview:

A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over. By all means, let a poet, if he wants to, write what is now called an “engagé” poem, so long as he realizes that it is mainly himself who will benefit from it. It will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does.

For any young poet with a savior complex, this is another dagger. (But not an ambition killer: when asked “which living writer [would you] say has served as the prime protector of the integrity of our English tongue,” Auden replied, “Why, me, of course!”) It’s hard to argue with the master, except by noting that language has no “correct” state; the idea that it does belongs more to tyrants than writers. Poetic language is less concerned with preserving definitions than inventing fresh usages. And with invention comes the possibility of subversion.

The odd, sometimes ominous kinship between poet and politician became a recurrent theme for Auden. The second of his “Sonnets from China” (1938) defines both poets and lawmakers by their failures of language; both are exiles from an Eden where word and thing were united (“…the way back by angels was defended / Against the poet and the legislator”). If tyrants are poets of a sort, Auden saw also that poets could be tyrants, reigning willfully and harshly over their imaginative domains. In the seventh sonnet of the same sequence, a bard starts his career as the people’s “servant,” then is worshipped as “a God that sings”—until the people cast him down again. In a later essay on Byron’s Don Juan, Auden quotes a shrewd remark by Lady Byron: her husband, she said, “is the absolute monarch of words, and uses them as Bonaparte did lives, for conquest without regard to their intrinsic value.” Auden adds:

What had been Byron’s defect as a serious poet, his lack of reverence for words, was a virtue for the comic poet. Serious poetry requires that the poet treat words as if they were persons, but comic poetry demands that he treat them as things and few, if any, English poets have rivaled Byron’s ability to put words through the hoops.

Auden, a gentler monarch, was never fully comfortable treating words “as things.” His work in the pure comic mode, such as “Letter to Lord Byron” and “Under Which Lyre,” earns a few wry smiles but has stiffened with age. At the same time, his “serious” verse is full of wit; “treat[ing] words as if they were persons” meant honoring the full range of their capacities, from wickedness to sorrow. And his political verse contains some of his best tragicomic inventions, from the “little birds with scarlet legs” awaiting our doom in “The Fall of Rome” to the lesson on disguising love poems as propaganda in “The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning.” Though superficially about painting and not politics, “Musée des Beaux Arts” glitters with the ironies of atrocity and witness: “the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Auden himself became a more detached witness as the years went by. The activism of his early years lapsed into a kind of quietism; he claimed to worry about “adding to the general confusion and panic” of public crises. (His politics may, however, have cost him the Nobel Prize; he’s thought to have offended the Swedish Academy by criticizing their countryman, Dag Hammarskjöld.) As his style evolved, he began second-guessing some of his earlier works—none more so than “September 1, 1939.” After the war, he cut the final stanza, then agonized over the line “We must love one another or die,” which he revised to “We must love one another and die” (emphasis mine). In 1964 he declared the whole poem “infected with an incurable dishonesty” and renounced it altogether. 

Certainly, the poem has its flaws. It’s true that no amount of love can save us from dying (though there are forms of death besides the literal). It’s possible to read “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return” as too forgiving of Nazi Germany (though the surrounding rhetoric stands fiercely against Nazism). The title is literally dated, and all the capitalized abstractions—“Authority,” “the Just”—are tough to take at first. Jarrell jeers them mercilessly. I remember scoffing at them as a twentysomething. I could see why Auden had been embarrassed.

I see a different poem now. Beyond its virtues and flaws, I see a striking resilience, a stubborn relevance. In the title, I sense a hint that it’s always September 1, 1939; modern life teeters permanently on the brink. In the abstractions, I sense the poet writing against the clock, scrapping the “show, don’t tell” style in his drive to tell it all before chaos takes over. Rather than summon up justice or despair through image and narrative, he lays them bare:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

It may be that he later found this approach maudlin, like a soldier who laughs at his own terror once the battle’s done. If so, he misjudged: he was reacting to a cultural trauma whose shadow has not left us. I find it deeply moving that, on the eve of the worst catastrophe in human history, at least one human managed to respond so adequately to the occasion. How steady his nerves must have been to raise that affirming torch. In our own time, we’ll be lucky to hold a candle to him.

Originally Published: April 26th, 2017

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.