[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]
W H Auden
The Franklin Library, 1978; Limited Edition, The Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century. Bound in green leather, embossed and titled in gold, with ridged spine; gold edges to pages, moiré endpapers and satin book mark.
When I was a young boy, but old enough to hear jazz as a distinct form of music, I bought my first LP – ‘Jazz for People Who Do Not Like Jazz.’ All of the poets who feature in this book might attract a similar label, and none more so than Auden. But it took me some time when I got a bit older to adjust to the proposition that the following poem was addressed to a boy or young man. This may not have been a rite of passage, but it was at least a hurdle on the path of education.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms to break of day
Let the living creature die,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Auden had a dream upbringing and education, and studied English at Christ Church, Oxford. He was ferociously bright, and would later write critical prose up to the intellectual standard of that of T S Eliot. His poetry is, though, more accessible to the general reader than that of Eliot. So, we might suspect, was his personality. He had a long association with Christopher Isherwood, and he also had a following of acolytes. The young Stephen Spender was desperate to get the attention of Auden.
‘You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.’ This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: ‘But do you really think I am any good?’ ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly. ‘But why?’ ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation’, he added in his icy voice – and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.
That was the kind of preppy stuff that bright young men went on with at Oxford in those days, and it is as well to recall how many of them went clean off the rails.
Here is Auden, perhaps a little out of character, in Roman Wall Blues.
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging round her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish:
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
Like so many of that ilk, Auden was drawn to the Spanish Civil War, but he would come to see it with an eye as clear as that of Orwell. He contributed to the booklet Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, but he did so in a pained way that showed the pain in his own mind. Still, he did better than some other big hitters. Ezra Pound: ‘Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’ Evelyn Waugh: ‘If I were a Spaniard, I should be fighting for General Franco.’ T S Eliot: ‘While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best if at least a few men of letters should remain isolated.’ The only thing more limp-wristed than that is an aetherised hand upon a table.
He also had a clear mind on that curious notion, the role of the artist.
Artists and politicians would get along a lot better in the time of crisis , if the latter would only realise that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed.
If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.
Tolstoy, who, knowing that art makes nothing happen, scrapped it, is more to be respected than the Marxist critic who finds ingenious reasons for admitting the great artists of the past to the State Pantheon.
Here is an intellectual and Anglican poet on religion.
With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,
He saw the Devil busy in the wind,
Over the chiming steeples and then under
The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.
What apparatus could stave off disaster
Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?
Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,
World a still pond in which its children drown.
The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:
‘Lord, smoke these honeyed insects from their hives
All works, Great Men, Societies are bad.
The Just shall live by Faith…’ he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad,
Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.
Auden wrote a luminous and scholarly paper on Melville and others. In his poem Herman Melville, he said:
Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to goodness every day,
Even in drawing rooms among a crowd of faults;
He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,
But wears a stammer like a decoration;
And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.
Later in life, Auden got interested in Tolkien.
Tolkien is a man of average height, rather thin. He lives in a hideous house – I can’t tell you how awful it is – with hideous pictures on the walls. I first encountered him in 1926, at a lecture at Oxford. He read a passage from Beowulf so beautifully that I decided Anglo-Saxon must be interesting, and that has had a great interest on my life.
Auden might remind us of Schubert. Or, perhaps, Louis Armstrong. You could just turn him on like a tap. This gorgeously handsome volume runs to more than 700 pages. That is a lot of poetry.
Auden died in 1973. The first poem in this volume is dated December 1927. The last poem is dated April 1972 and finishes:
Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,
For all, both sweet and horrid,
Are jokes in dubious taste,
Too jejune to have truck with.
Sleep Big Baby, sleep your fill.
In one of the Forewords to his collections, Auden said:
In art as in life, bad manners, not to be confused with a deliberate intention to cause offence, are the consequences of an over-concern with one’s own ego and a lack of consideration for (and knowledge of) others. Readers, like friends, must not be shouted out or treated with brash familiarity. Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.
Auden said that in 1965. He was not to know that he was speaking of what has become in 2017 the malaise of our time.