Review: Simon Weston W.H. Auden

Auden’s Skirmish With The Real

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bath-rooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

So begins W. H. Auden’s late poem ‘Doggerel by a Senior Citizen’ — though doggerel is hardly an accurate description of what is a carefully composed piece in regular metre. There is a video recording of the author reciting it from memory for a television chat program. He was 62 at the time. He looks like a fish out of water — his generously wrinkled face, his voice quiet and stately. Unfazed by the context, he gives each word a gravitas that belies the comic verse form and the intimate tone. Yet the poem does not shy away from making pronouncements as if it aimed to embody society’s conscience:

Sex was, of course — it always is —
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news-stands did not yet supply
Manichaean pornography.

Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

before concluding with a challenge to those who might be quick to dismiss the author as out of touch:

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is Real.

That last stanza lifts the poem beyond the realms of doggerel, and reminds us that its author was not merely a grumpy old man, but still one of the sharpest writers of his age. How was it that Auden could be, as Edward Mendelson describes him in the introduction to these volumes, both the most universal of modern poets and the most individual? What did it mean for Auden to be a ‘sworn citizen’ who must skirmish with the Real?

The books under review comprise the final two volumes of the collected prose of Auden published by Princeton University Press under the exemplary editorship of Edward Mendelson. They cover the last ten years of the poet’s life, from 1963 through to 1973 when he died at the age of 66. They contain material well-known to readers, such as A Certain World, the T.S. Eliot lectures, Secondary Worlds, and some of the essays that would make up Forewords and Afterwords. But there is also much previously uncollected and some previously unpublished material. Auden had based himself in New York since 1939, having left, or as some back home had seen it, abandoned England shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and he had been an American citizen since 1946. Since 1957 he spent each summer in a house he had bought outside Vienna. In his final years he was a more regular visitor to England. Auden’s poetic creations in this period comprise About the House (1965) and City without Walls (1969), then Epistle to a Grandson (1972) and the posthumous Thank You, Fog (1974). Some would say Auden’s greatest poetry was already behind him. But it would be wrong to focus on the light and occasional verse which became more frequent in these last years. It is a period in which he experimented widely with verse forms and metres. There are also key works, ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat’, for example, a sequence of poems on the various rooms of his house in Austria. As he wrote to Christopher Isherwood of this sequence, though it could be characteristic of much of his late poetry, ‘for the first time I have felt old enough and sure enough of myself to speak in my own person’.

In his prose he had already confidently found such a voice much earlier. For Auden the writing of literary non-fiction prose, which largely consists of reviews, prefaces, and lectures, was far from hack work. America allowed Auden to make a living as a freelance prose writer, and he took the job very seriously. The two volumes in question total well over a thousand pages. It is striking how consistently measured and thoughtful each piece is. He may repeat ideas in different forums, but you never have the sense that he has a deadline to meet, or that he ever was rash in his judgement or expression. In these last two volumes we learn a little more of his personal life, particularly his childhood, and there are discussions on homosexuality, and the occasional reflective comment on his own poetry (‘I have always thought about myself as a comic poet’, he writes in 1971). But it is his clarity of thought in describing our age of anxiety that give his prose such lasting weight.


As I read these pieces I found myself less concerned with Auden’s insights on particular authors, and very much interested in his more general ideas about art and society. One of the refreshing things about Auden is the way he wrote outwards, trying to encapsulate the specific in the universal. Reviewing and essay writing by the fifties had become Auden’s way to reach a wider public. Freelance work was his pulpit or lectern. He made a rule for himself only to write on books he generally liked. There were limits to his freedom, but two striking examples suggest that he stuck by what he thought. In 1966 he was commissioned by Life magazine to write an essay on the end of the Roman Empire for $10,000, a tidy amount even today. But when he refused to recast the ending, which the editors had found too pessimistic, the piece was rejected. Here are the concluding two paragraphs.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilization, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neo-platonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats (who also, oddly enough, seem adverse to washing), instead of mortification of the flesh, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered by television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheatre, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

A second story is already well known, but is now described in more detail by Mendelson. It relates to Auden’s refusal to change his introduction to the English edition of Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, which is said to have cost him the 1964 Nobel Prize. Auden had been Hammarskjöld’s choice for the award before his death. In 1963, when it was won by George Seferis, Auden was one of three finalists, and was widely expected to get up the following year. In the spring of that year Hammarskjöld’s executors and friends in the diplomatic service were said to have been ‘horrified and offended’ by Auden’s introduction when they read it in typescript. As Edward Mendelson recounts in his own introduction:

A high Swedish official visited Auden in New York and hinted that the Swedish Academy would be distressed if his introduction should be printed as written. Auden refused to rewrite it, and, that evening, said to his friend Lincoln Kirstein, ‘There goes the Nobel Prize’.


Auden, more lucidly than most, was able to identify and describe characteristics of the cultural malaise that continues to resonate 40 years after his death. Many aspects of modern life tend to alienate us from any communality, and shut us within our subjective selves. It becomes difficult to believe in the reality of other people. Fragmentation, a lack of encounters with the sacred, and a monotone impressionism characterize much of our artistic production. In verse of the last 60 years the result has been a hyper-subjectivity in its two polarized forms of hermeticism and confessionalism. In the face of such a situation, Auden argued, ‘Art can only have one subject – man as a conscious unique person’. The characteristic hero of our age is not the great man, or the romantic rebel, but the humble individual on a ‘quest for authenticity’:

Everybody who lives in a technological civilization (and in the West we have lived in one for a century and a half), is in constant danger of ceasing to be himself – ceasing to be even a member of a certain nation, class, or profession and becoming an anonymous unit of the public.

And yet, Auden is also a self-effacing writer, and rarely autobiographical. When he writes, ‘The only proper resistance is the cultivation of a dispassionate passion to see things as they are and to remember what really happened’, we understand that his self must raise itself out of the extremes of subjectivism, if necessary by its bootstraps, and be in relation to others. The result was Auden’s great civic poetry. In talking of his art in these pieces he returns to the metaphor of a community – as opposed to that inchoate crowd, the public:

The subject matter of a poem is comprised of a crowd of recollected occasions of feeling, among which the most important are recollections of encounters with sacred beings or events. This crowd the poet attempts to transform into a community by embodying it in a verbal society.

Because poetry is made from the medium of language, and words are a product of human society, they embody the ideal not only of communication but of community. If, as Auden wrote, a poet ‘is, before everything else, a person who is passionately in love with language’, then he is also necessarily a believer in the possibility of human love more widely. In a well-known phrase from The Dyer’s Hand Auden expressed this as follows:

Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.

The cumulative power of such thoughts is an eloquent defence of something we have almost forgotten, the moral importance of poetry.


Many of these ideas had been formulated by Auden prior to 1963, and resurface repeatedly in his last ten years. However the last decade also saw the development of important new ideas. Characteristically for Auden, they came to be expressed as dichotomies: Nowness and Permanence, and later Primary and Secondary Worlds. I will present these ideas by quoting generously from Auden himself, who once said that ideally a review should consist entirely of carefully selected passages from the book in question.

Auden had long been describing the modern hero’s struggle to become a unique person. He was now, however, more and more concerned to distinguish between two modes of expressing that struggle: personal utterance and self-expression.

The experience an artist attempts to embody is of a reality common to all, and only his in that it is perceived from a perspective which nobody but he can occupy. He will never succeed in creating a satisfactory work, unless he can master his narcissism and learn to look at his experience with complete detachment, as if it were somebody else’s.

Personal utterance requires one to embody the individual in the universal. Self-expression on the other hand tends to forget our common reality by focussing inwards. One can sense Auden taking aim at confessional poets like Plath and Sexton here, and also Robert Lowell, poets ‘petrified by their gorgon egos’, as he wrote in ‘Ode to the Medieval Poets’:

+++++ Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,

bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,

+++++beset by every creature comfort,
+++++immune, they believe, to all superstitions,

even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.

The focus on self-expression in contemporary poetry is often accompanied by a preference for Nowness over Permanence. In Auden’s scheme, Permanence is a quality which can only be found by bringing the personal experience clearly into the universal domain.

Every genuine work of art exhibits two qualities, Nowness – an art-historian can assign at least an approximate date to its making – and Permanence – it remains on hand in the world long after its maker and his society have ceased to exist.

Auden swam against the tide in emphasising the importance of the second of these terms. His example of Nowness is limited to the art historian who will focus on technical aspects needed to date a work, rather than on the individual’s self-expression or display of originality. Time and again he celebrates the quality of Permanence as an ideal for poetic creation. On the one hand the present moment is a distraction with its flux of chaotic phenomena. On the other, the work of art allows us to commune with the past:

one of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts is that they are out chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and I think that, without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.

He points out that in art there is no such thing as progress, and political terms like conservative or radical are meaningless. One art work does not supersede its predecessors in the way a new government or scientific discovery may. Rather the artist hopes ‘to make something which will endure and, in due time, take its permanent place in the tradition’. The visual image of this might be Raphael’s Parnassus fresco in the Vatican. As he argued in the poem ‘Shorts II’, ‘What should I write at sixty-four? is a fair question but ‘What should I write in Nineteen-Hundred-and-Seventy-One? is a folly’. This idea was repeated in numerous contexts in the prose, where it is more fleshed out:

‘What sort of poetry should I write at the age of sixty-five’ is a sensible question, but to ask ‘what should I write in the year 1972?’ is sheer folly. It can only result in submission to the fashion of the moment, a desperate attempt to be ‘with it’. Plato tried to model political life on artistic fabrication: this as we know, can only lead to political tyranny. The error made by all too many artists today is the exact opposite: they try to model artistic fabrication on political action so that, instead of trying to make an artistic object of permanent value, they surrender to the tyranny of the immediate moment and produce meaningless ‘happenings’.

This idea led to two criticisms of Auden’s contemporaries which seem equally pertinent today. Firstly, that the desire for originality in art, however attractive it may seem in our hyper-consumerist society, is a chimera

Only pseudo-artists bother their heads about being original. To think consciously of being original is to have one’s eye fixed not upon the work to be made but upon the works of others, one’s efforts centred upon not doing what others have done or are doing, instead of upon what one should be doing oneself; and the result is most certain to be fake.

The consumption of art is also damaging:

We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music, than we can possibly absorb; and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday’s newspaper. The focus on nowness leads in short to a situation where ‘the work of art is a random happening, which neither the artist or the public are expected to interpret or judge; all they can do is register that it has occurred.

The second criticism concerns the danger of confusing poetry and political action. This relates to the point expressed in the passage above regarding Plato, but again it is worth quoting in full.

By all means let a poet, if he wants to, write an engagé poem, protesting against this or that social evil or injustice, so long as he doesn’t imagine that it will alter anything: the person who will most profit from it is himself, for it will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does. In trying to improve the world only two things are effective, political action and straight journalistic rapportage of the facts. The poet, qua poet, has only one political duty: by his own example, to try to preserve the purity of language against corruption and misuse, for, when words lose their meaning, then physical force gives the orders.

Auden correctly identifies the perils of self-expression in its tendency to draw us away from reality.

I may be wrong but I think we are nearing the end of a period in which the philosophers and scientists were convinced that the ‘reality’ behind appearances was a soulless mechanism; and the artists, in reaction, rejected the phenomenal world in favour of the cultivation of their subjective emotions – an attitude summed up by Blake’s statement: ‘some people see the sun as a round disk the size of a guinea, but I see it as a host crying Holy, Holy, Holy’, in which he denies all value to what his physical eyes see…

If Blake stands near the beginning of that subjective tradition, and is often seen as one of its most positive embodiments, it was the twentieth century which taught us the dangers of subjectivism, as Auden described in one of his best poems of this period, ‘The Cave of Making’:

+++++More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
+++++but we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we know that subjectively,
+++++all is possible.

This reminds me of that chapter in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table called ‘Uranium’ in which the narrator meets Bonino, a man who happily invents fanciful stories about his heroic exploits during the war, while being oblivious to the harrowing experiences of his interlocutor. And yet, it still requires a certain courage to invoke such ideals as truth in today’s world where we are urged to valorise our personal interpretation or experience of events over the event itself: ‘How was it for you?’, ‘How did it make you feel?’. ‘As Auden wrote in the poem ‘Plains’ from the sequence Bucolics:

nothing is lovely,
not even in poetry, which is not the case.

A poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting, he wrote. This famously led him to change the ending of a much loved poem, ‘September 1 1939’, and then to disown the poem completely. As he recounts in one of the pieces collected here:

Rereading a poem of mine, ‘1st September, 1939’ [sic] after it had been published, I came to the line
We must love one another or die
and said to myself: ‘that’s a damned lie! We must die anyway’. So, in the next edition, I altered it to
We must love one another and die.
This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty and must be scrapped.


The importance of reaffirming our relation to reality in art, and of speaking honestly, led Auden in the sixties to formulate another major idea of his late prose: the distinction between primary and secondary worlds. It was a theme that allowed him to bring the tensions of nowness and permanence into a harmonious rapport. Auden took the terms from J.R.R. Tolkien, and first used in the title to his T.S. Eliot lectures, published in 1969 as Secondary Worlds. The primary world is that of reality common to all of us. The secondary world is that fictive and mythic world each artist creates. On another level, of course, the secondary world is also the world of language, at one remove from reality. However, each secondary world must aim to be faithful to the primary world, from which it draws its material and spirit.

The initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by encounters, in the Primary World, with sacred beings or events. This feeling of awe is an imperative, that is to say, one is not free to choose the object or the event that arouses it. Though every work of art is a Secondary World, it cannot be constructed ex nihilo, but is a selection from and a recombination of the contents of the Primary World.

On a number of occasions Auden returned to describe a game he played as a child, which must have been a formative moment in his artistic development, the construction of an imaginary lead-mining community. It bears many similarities to the elaborate horse-racing games Gerald Murnane describes repeatedly in his fiction.

Most of what I know about the writing of poetry, or at least about the kind I am interested in writing, I discovered long before I took any interest in poetry itself. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry — lead-mining. … As regards my particular lead-mining world, I decided, or rather, without conscious decision, I instinctively felt that I must impose two restrictions upon my freedom of fantasy. In choosing what objects were to be included, I was free to select this and reject that, on condition that both were real objects in the primary world, to choose, for example, between two kinds of water turbine, … I was not allowed to invent one.

Auden goes on to describe how at a certain point in this game he made a key discovery about his secondary world which was to have implications for his poetry, and particularly the choice exemplified in the rejection of ‘September 1, 1939’ .

As I was planning my Platonic Idea of a concentrating mill, I ran into difficulties. I had to choose between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes, called a buddle. One type I found more sacred or ‘beautiful’, but the other type was, as I knew from my reading, the more efficient. At this point I realized that it was my moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

When in 1970 Auden compiled his commonplace book, which he thought of as a sort of self-portrait, he returned to the secondary world idea, by naming it A Certain World. The book is made up of quotations from other writers and short reflections by the author arranged under headings and presented alphabetically. The final heading, ‘Writing’, concludes with the description of Auden’s lead-mining world quoted above, followed by a repetition of the distinction between self-expression and the unique perspective on a common reality; and then finally this quotation from St Augustine:

The truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s; but belongs to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it, warning us terrible, not to account it private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it.

The idea of the creative tension between the primary and secondary worlds and our need to remain open to that common reality finds concise expression once again in ‘The Cave of Making’, and goes to show how the preoccupations of Auden’s prose and poetry were very close:

… I should like to become, if possible,
+++++a minor Atlantic Goethe,
with his passion for weather and stones but without his silliness
+++++re the Cross: at times a bore, but,
while knowing Speech can at best, a shadow echoing
+++++the silent light, bear witness
to the Truth it is not, he wished it were, as the francophil
+++++gaggle of pure songsters
are too vain to. …


‘To bear witness to the Truth it is not’ might be a neat description of Auden’s poetics. In both his poetry and prose I have the sense that personal experience has been translated into a universal form. Earlier I described this as writing outwards from the self. Auden might have called it, keeping the secondary world close to the primary. It sounds obvious, but when our hold on the primary world is so tendentious it is easy to lose the clear-sightedness of the maxim and to focus on our subjective selves. His work in this period is characterised by the aphorism. He didn’t have much time for Latin literature apart from Horace, but the Latin moralists such as Seneca were doing something similar in their sententiae. When Dante evoked ‘moral Seneca’ in the Middle Ages the adjective still had that positive sense of manifesting high principles for leading a good life. Today more often than not literature aims at diversion and illusion. We are quick to see the negative side of moralism: its prescriptiveness and its reluctance to accentuate the subtle differences of individual experience. We hear authority and think authoritarian. But as Seneca himself wrote, in words that recall St Augustine above, ‘Truth is open to all, it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations’.

Auden was a lover of the aphorism, and in many ways the maxim characterises his prose style. The aphorism is so difficult to master because, unlike most criticism which focuses on details, and most theories which tend to abstraction, it must be concrete while convincing every reader that it is ‘either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions’, as he wrote in the Foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms in 1962. The link to moralism is complex, however. The aphorism does not tell us how we should live, but points out how we do live. Like Auden’s prose, it is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Auden doesn’t often discuss his own poetics directly in these volumes, but there is one comment that stuck in my mind. He writes,, ‘The ideal at which I aim is a style which shall combine the drab sober truthfulness of prose with a poetic uniqueness of expression’. His essays are certainly full of sober truthfulness, but they also contain a uniqueness of expression. In a well-known passage from ‘The Cave of Making’ he wrote of poetry:

… After all, it’s rather a privilege
+++++amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
+++++background noise for study
or hung as a status-trophy by rising executives,
+++++cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
+++++being read or ignored …

I like to think this might equally be true of much of his prose.