The mistake wasn’t in thinking that poetry was a game, but in thinking that the game had to be played in so limited a way, according to rules that he adhered to with less imagination over time, and with an increasingly impoverished faith in what they could allow him. Philip Larkin, in “What’s Become of Wystan?”, a mournfully vituperative elegy on the still-living poet’s late work: “one cannot escape the conclusion that in some way Auden, never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one. For some time he has insisted that poetry is a game, with the elements of a crossword puzzle: it is “the luck of verbal playing.” One need not be a romantic to suspect that this attitude will produce poetry exactly answering to that description.” Of course “the luck of verbal playing” is essential to poetry; but Auden’s poetry trusts less and less to luck, since he slots the words into the lines in increasingly predictable ways. Having read a couple of poems, the manual lies open, and we know how he will follow it. The ingenuity of Ikea.
More robustly analytic than Larkin’s dirge, but more devastating in its effects, is Randall Jarrell’s essay on Auden, “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry.” Devastating because Jarrell dismantles the poetry into blocks or components that could be presented on power-point: attitudes, sources, and, most brutal, the rhetorical devices (all 26 of them categorized, and several straggling in later paragraphs!) by which Auden makes the case, from poem to poem, that the world, its loves, justices, and threats, fit together in such-and-such a way. The Auden-defense might immediately object: Renaissance manuals of rhetoric exist and we could anatomize Shakespeare in just the same way, pulling apart the various figures and devices recurrent in his poetry and plays. But Jarrell’s attack does not succeed on account of enumeration; it succeeds because the enumeration feels adequate to the task of explaining how many of the poems, early or late, work. Rhetorical analyses of Shakespeare are not explanations of the poetry’s power.
Both Larkin and Jarrell are responding to the late Auden. The post-war, or American, Auden. And yet their misgivings about the late Auden slink into misgivings about the early Auden too, even as they profess admiration for that poet’s powers. “The terrible thing,” Jarrell writes, “about such rhetorical devices, about any of the mechanisms and patented insights that make up so much of any style, is that they are habit-forming, something the style demands in ever-increasing quantities.” But knowing that the style will demands its own excesses, will bear degenerate fruit, it’s difficult to look quite so easily at its early stages, in the poems of the early 1930s. Jarrell’s account is a variation on the Parnassian as Hopkins conceived it: There are times when, if I imagine myself being that poet, even though I could not write anything so good myself, I imagine that is just what I would write (this is not inspiration); there are other times when, even if I imagine what it would to be that poet, I cannot imagine how I would write that wonderful work (this is inspired poetry). Once the tricks and devices pall, once they cloy, in the later poetry, then we can see how the earlier poetry was not such inspired stuff after all, but was really only the invention of a style that, once invented, would be used in predictable ways. Style, on this account, is the danger: what a poet ought to do is to move beyond it, to surpass the style that they have worked so hard to form. The first challenge is finding a style to say what is meant; the next is breaking that style to exceed what one already knows one has to say.
Jarrell’s criticism offers a challenge: given that it often indulges in the same rhetorical devices as the later poetry, where does the early poetry exceed the same devices and stylistic conventions upon which it rests? Where does Auden in the earliest poetry escape the Parnassian?
Larkin might provide an answer. For though wary of later Auden, he maintained a lively admiration of the earlier poetry, on account of its feeling; he was not bothered, as Jarrell was, by the style. Across Larkin’s several review essays on Auden and his critics, Larkin returns to the insecurity and anxiety that pervades Auden’s earlier work:
What rang true was that inimitable Thirties fear, the sense that something was going to fall like rain, on the other side of which, if we were lucky, we might build the Just City. English Auden was a superb, magnetic, wide-angled poet, but the poetry was in the blaming and warning.
I think, myself, that if I were analysing Auden’s poetry with a view to diagnosing its latter failure–and I do no more than throw this out as a hint–I should start from the fact that if one were to mark all the passages in his work that might be called ‘typical’ Auden one would find that a surprisingly high proportion of them consist of direct or indirect expression of emotions connected with dread, guilt. disaster or disease.
My guess is that the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has, or that once ‘the next War’ really arrived everything since seemed to him an anticlimax.
Jarrell would likely agree that this set of feelings that Larkin sees, more a skein than an orderly bracket, drove the necessity of the style that Auden found and achieved—but more than this, we might look for moments where the same feelings proved the achievement inadequate.
Classification is the essence of Auden’s style: as Jarrell notes, myths and folklore are ready at hand because these can stand in for entire swathes of experiences; the world’s geography is neatly parsed into landscapes; civilization spreads forth in units of habitation, industry, and governance, each unit a type replicated with variations the world across; abstract nouns abound, often juxtaposed with concrete nouns, so that the former are given firmer hold on the world’s practical affairs, and the latter are made to seem essences or forms at a level of symbolic generality; there is constant play on articles, “a” and “the” reversed and dropped, once again elevating to generality at will; pronouns fluctuate between “they” and “we”; there is an outside and inside; he writes from within an enclave; there are threats and there are havens, and these are identified as such, on Auden’s imaginative map.
I’d propose that the achievement of Auden’s style is felt to be least adequate to his feelings where he loses interest in it, where he seems less confident that it will hold together to contain the matter of the verse. On these occasions, the distinctiveness of the style remains in place, and in play; but it is made to actually play, rather than follow rules, because Auden must improvise around the uncertainty of the material of his feelings, feelings that are by nature liable to random fluctuation—and also around the uncertainty of his status as a public and private poet expressing those feelings that were at once intensely personal and, as Larkin notes, of the clime and time. (The early Auden is a private public poet or a public private poet, or a private-public poet, since some force of simultaneous conjunction and disjunction, as a hyphen offers, is necessary to effect the uneasy relationship between the two).
Hence “Letter to Lord Byron” anticipates later duller Auden: here the feelings are stifled, the material of the verse is known too well by the poet beforehand, and he can subordinate it to his style at will, while dazzling with the ottava rima party trick, for a public whose approbation he seems to seek, yearn after, without misgiving. Hence “Lullaby,” one of the most beautiful of Auden’s poems, to my ears. In that poem, the accessories of Auden’s style, classificatory phrases such as “the hermit’s carnal ecstasy” or else lines like “All the dreaded cards foretell” or “Their pedantic boring cry,” with their schoolboy impishness, are detached from too densely intricate a landscape of symbols or objects; he is not setting out what the world is like, he is not really classifying the world at all—he mentions some of the stuff found in it, incidentally, as he goes about the central purpose: asking for respite, asking for a space of love set apart from the landscape, and envisioning it—and because it is set apart, and because he desires to keep it that way, envisioning it in images that are hazier, looser, than those on the normal map.
Or elsewhere, in a poem that questions and raises more questions than it can answer, or than it seeks an answer for:
Our hunting fathers told the story
Of the sadness of the creatures,
Pitied the limits and the lack
Set in their finished features;
Saw in the lion’s intolerant look,
Behind the quarry’s dying glare,
Love raging for, the personal glory
That reason’s gift would add,
The liberal appetite and power,
The rightness of a god.
Who, nurtured in that fine tradition,
Predicted the result,
Guessed Love by nature suited to
The intricate ways of guilt,
That human ligaments could so
His southern gestures modify
And make it his mature ambition
To think no thought but ours,
To hunger, work illegally,
And be anonymous?
A question that cannot be answered in quite the right way, since anonymity precludes provision of a name. The devices and the method are on display more clearly than in “Lullaby” in “Our Hunting Fathers,” but the style and devices buck against the world that it laments: a world in which there is no space but for thinking one way–and these are another way of thinking, one that is not offered, as in later Auden, as an efficient means of public communication, but as—and this holds true for much of early Auden—as an escape route from the obligations and traps that established forms of public communication describe. As Larkin recognized, early Auden speaks to and for a public that is afraid; Larkin does not necessarily see that Auden is never, perhaps because of sexual orientation, peacefully of that public, though; his enclave is selective, a haven into which not all can enter, and not all could enter, and not all should be allowed to enter, if Auden had his way. The tricks of rhetoric, the devices, the cross-word puzzle codes, the habits, are habits of evasion, not of responsibility, but of the standard conduct of public discourse, and the standards of that discourse, that are themselves a source of uneasiness, a source of fear. At Auden’s best in those early years, the devices and tricks of rhetoric are placed under strain between public and private: they cannot be entrusted to widespread comprehension, but they are the only means that communication beyond the enclave, or to other enclaves, is possible.