Across southern Australia there is a beautiful tree called leucopogan. If you google it and find a picture, you’ll realise you know it quite well. The leucopogan seed can germinate only once it has passed through the gut of a bird. The bird eats the seed, softening it through digestion, so that when it drops on the ground, it can open and grow. Twentieth century poetry is the Leucopogan tree. W H Auden is the bird. Next slide please.
Another natural history lesson includes the maxim that in polite company, you should never discuss politics, sex or religion. Auden was cleaning this theory one night when it went off. Almost everything he wrote about, and he wrote about almost everything, was politics, sex or religion.
It was Auden who said that you don’t read a book, a book reads you; a description of the way the creative impulse communicates itself in art. From an early age he himself was read by a lot of history and literature. He was multi-lingual, saw world events very clearly and he wrote all the time. He also smoked all the time, read all the time and talked all the time. He published verse, prose, criticism and lyrics. He wrote letters, gave lectures and kept a journal all his life. He wrote about love, death, fear, hope and gossip. By the time he was twenty-five a large queue had already formed behind him, waiting to see where he would go next. He pulled journalism into poetry. He pushed politics and ethics into forms previously used only once a week to drive to church. He wrote with such ease and covered such ground that he ran most of his generation out in the heats. People are still copying him and there are strong traces of him even in writers who claim they never touch the stuff.
I have only one small window on all this. In 1966 I was wandering around my school in Wellington with a book of Auden’s letters tucked into my belt in order to ward off evil spirits. My English teacher took me aside and explained the following: When Auden was a young man, the first world war had just blown everything apart. It was no longer possible to write about daffodils or the skylark; the only legitimate subject was the war, the mindless carnage and waste. So Auden and Louis MacNeice, who could not write about the war since they were too young to have been at it, and could not write about anything else since only the war was a proper subject, decided to embark on a venture that was uniquely theirs and out of which they could write. So they went to Iceland with a friend who was a teacher and was taking a party of boys up there on a walking tour. They wrote throughout the trip and eventually published a book about it called ‘Letters from Iceland’. ‘And’ said my English teacher, ‘I was the schoolteacher. So if ever you’d like to read any of Auden’s real letters, let me know. I have boxes of them.’ And so it was that I spent some time reading Auden’s rather chatty letters to Bill Hoyland. The handwriting was small, upright, swift, assured and fluent, in a blue fountain pen, with no corrections. I had no knowledge of Auden of course. The person most illuminated for me here was my English teacher. He told me that Auden’s two grandfathers, MacNeice’s father and many of the Hoylands were churchmen, and that during the 1930s the young men had sought a way of investing Christian ethics in secular society. Hoyland, a Quaker and our school chaplain, never spoke of scripture. His sermons were about philosophy. So were Auden’s.
Wystan Hugh Auden was born in 1907 in York and grew up in the Midlands where his eyes swallowed the limestone country and where he expected to go into the lead mining business. When he got to university he studied English instead and became a prodigiously gifted shambles at the centre of a group that included MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis. Like them, during the 1930s Auden wanted poetry to be a force for change. He was to be disappointed, ‘For poetry makes nothing happen.’ But he certainly changed poetry. Even his rhythm was new. It sometimes doesn’t look like rhythm at all. It looks like talk.
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place while
Someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’
And have a look at the sweep of the ideas. Here he is on Freud:
‘Of course they called on God: but he went his way,
Down among the lost people like Dante, down
To the stinking fosse where the injured
Lead the ugly life of the rejected.
And showed us what evil is: not, as we thought
Deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
Our dishonest mood of denial,
The concupiscence of the oppressor.
For one who’d lived among enemies so long:
If often he was wrong and at times absurd,
To us he is no more a person
Now but a whole climate of opinion'
On the real events of his time, Auden is deadly. Here he is in 1939, in a poem officially about Yeats:
‘In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.‘
And again, in New York, two days before war was declared.
‘I sit in one of the dives
On fifty-second street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade’
A lot of Auden’s poems read like this. He’s not a performer; he’s a writer who is thinking aloud. The poet’s project is himself.
Auden and Christopher Isherwood (See ‘Cabaret’) left England for America in 1939. Auden married Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika, to get her out of Germany and accepted American offers to lecture. Debate has raged about this ever since. The English establishment disliked Auden because he had sided with the left in Spain in 1936. The left disliked him because he changed his mind after going to Spain in 1937. George Orwell criticised him for writing that during war we all acquiesce in ‘the necessary murder.’ Orwell called him ‘a gutless Kipling.’ Auden thought this was unfair and, upon reflection, so did Orwell. Auden also agreed with Orwell, disliking some of his own writing of this period and pulling it from his collections.
One of the criticisms made of modernism is that it was essentially selfish; clever and exciting by all means and for a while there the arts were very cool. But modernism did not warn of the two great monsters, Hitler and Stalin. What use is art if it doesn’t pop up a signal before 50 million people get killed? Why should we listen to artists if they don’t have a problem with fascism, racism and mass murder? As Auden himself pointed out, his writing didn’t save a single Jew. This wouldn’t have bothered a lot of poets but to Auden it was a significant moral failure and must be acknowledged. This is a very honest man. Reading him is like being in the disinterested but clever company of a big man who’d have been happy to be small, a famous man who’d have been content to be anonymous and a somewhat distant figure, who desperately wants to be close.
The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.