The conundrum of Auden’s poetry—the conundrum of how to compare its aims and achievements to those of his contemporaries and to earlier poets—consists of several parts and is best sustained by a comparison to Yeats and also to French verse. The parts in brief:
1) Auden’s sense of history is flat: the past is not absorbed into his poems as a foreign element, as alien material against which his thought and beliefs must struggle, but is immediate and convertible to the same forms, verbal turns, and stylistic conventions as the present; similarly, the English language, the medium of the poetry, is not freighted with the social doctrines of a past that is alien to Auden; the language is at hand, blocks to build with into whatever shapes a poem demands.
2) Like Yeats, he seeks to transcend his given historical moment: he writes a poetry that assumes a vantage point associated, in French, with classicism, and in English, with the high style, albeit he does so without writing in a recognizable high style, often heralding the comic and light forms of verse, ballads and songs.
3) Implicit in the poems, there is no grand stretch of historical change, or Yeatsian cycle of historical recurrence, but instead a division of individual experience into childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, with any of the four always available as a perspective on existence.
4) All of the above is in sharp tension with modernism on the surface, but beneath that surface, it is similarly preoccupied with history even in so far as it rejects history as few poets have; the rejection is so total as to make the poetry seem a transfiguration of any historical era or world: the poetry is history put through the Auden translation machine.
5) What remains is not history but temporality and its affective dimensions, above all anxiety and dread. Where the poetry is best, its affective sense of the future (rarely the past) is sharpest; where worst, it is complacency. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age are capable of anxiety and complacency alike.
6) Prohibitions, standards of rightness, wrongness, correctness: these are the subject matter of many of the poems and in the best, they are encountered uneasily, the orientation towards them, and by way of them, uncertain. Children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly must, he implies, re-learn what it means to learn these. Though what counts as right or wrong, correct or incorrect, differs from place to place and time to time, culture to culture, custom to custom, Auden wants to survey and describe an experience of rightness, the possibility of rightness and wrongness, that underlies or transcends any moment, that itself induces anxiety.
7) Formal poetry, with its self-sustained conventions, its openness to being a game and arbitrary in its norms, even as it only itself, something at all, on account of them, is the natural (so it seems) vehicle for Auden’s deepest preoccupation: the rightness of formal judgment can be set against, or else sustain, whatever other experiences of rightness the poetry describes.
8) Attending the transfiguration of history to poetry, the homogeneity that Auden achieves, is a different sort of anxiety, not about temporality, but about the relation of the poet’s experience of the world to the world: the awareness of the fragility of his experience, the uncertainty of his orientation. In many of the very early poems, this anxiety is most noticeable and it could be said to guard against the accusation that they have turned away from history nonchalantly; their isolation is felt.
9) Auden becomes less and less worried by (i.e. it disturbs him less) the transfiguration of history into poem over the course of his career; “Spain” and “September 1” are rejected from the Collected Poems, the latter on the ground that the poem contains an untruth, but both are firmly wedded to a historical reality and their truths are reactions to history, not untruths.
10) Where Auden is most openly in debt to the first generation of modernists, Eliot especially, is in the poetry’s desire to speak to a public from which it feels itself to be estranged. In Auden the estrangement is not debilitating, but the possibility of estrangement, and the uncertainty of who hears, is a condition of the earliest verse. The poetry retains to the end a belief that there is a public for poetry, a public to which poetry is addressed, but the later poems are less ambitious in what they can tell that public and less concerned with the obstructions that might lie between poet and public.
11) Auden’s elevated perspective, his willingness to speak to an entire public, his breadth of view, and his anxiety, and his forward-oriented vision set his early poems in the rhetorical mode of prophet—albeit it is the prophet without History, and the prophet of several modes: adolescent as prophet, unsure of himself, or else adult as prophet, unsure as to whether he can be understood (in the 1930s, Auden taught at several secondary schools; in the early poems, the adult perspective is accompanied by the lurking suspicion that the students might be sniggering and failing to comprehend). Auden, like other modernists, is concerned to reinvent the prophetic mode, and also concerned about (variously) the dangers, stupidity, and possibility of the vantage point that a prophet assumes. Does it matter whether the prophet is right or wrong or whether the prophet attends and helps others attend to the fallacious or vacuous standards by which they know rightness and correctness in the world?
12) Where history resides in the poetry, it resides in nouns: in the objects of his time and world. These would seem to anchor him to history, resisting translation and transfiguration, but they instead more often serve the opposite role: that the developments of technology, the landscape of the world, can be made to feel detached from history is a testament of the poet’s strength, his capacity to translate. Translatability, in fact, comes to seem an ideal to which Auden’s poetry aspires: if only the form and rhythm could be preserved, one feels, then he has arranged words so that any language ought to suffice. The poems resist, then, despite their formal virtuosities, that rightness can take only one form; they are generous to versions of rightness and correctness, because they are open to the universal difficulty of getting anything right.
Among the much-loved poems by Auden, take “Musée des Beaux Arts”:
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;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The first line should be a tip that this is not a poem about the Brueghel painting first and foremost: it is about what it means to understand or get something right, and about sympathy to those who do not recognize “importance” or significance. “About suffering they were never wrong” asks too much, and asks that we understand the desperation of Auden’s asking: “never wrong”? Surely sometimes. But with that phrase, Auden sets his own need into the poem’s praise. And that phrase set against another of insistent certainty: “there always must be…” and “…delicate ship that must have seen,” in both of which the “must” desires as much as it reveals, wanting for things to be a certain way, insisting that they are a certain way, despite not knowing. It is, as much about Auden seeing the picture, as it is about the picture, and as much about the force of persuasion that the picture occasions. Auden is very much the adult here, even the schoolteacher, and the painting is an instance (and only an instance) of historical significance that is not significant much beyond its own mattering; and the poem is very much about his position, his enjoining us to feel what he feels, rather than about the painting itself.
Compare W.C. Williams’ poem on the same painting:
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Williams’ poem mirrors the painting, is at one in its attending with the attention of Brueghel, fascinated by the features of the world that fascinate the painter.
Auden, however, opens his attention to the rightness of the Old Masters, to this Old Master, to the understandable desires of the people in the painting, to the amazing significance of what is happening (not “unsignificantly” for Auden, or, as Auden knows, for Brueghel) and neglected by others in the painting, and finally to his own urgency to be right about what he sees; his own desire to get the painting right is set against the painting’s own reminder of how difficult getting something right is, how what is necessary, true, and correct may be plural.
It is a rule of thumb that when Auden sets his own experience of rightness, and his own disorientation and anxiety at the possibility of something being right, into a poem, it is a better poem as a consequence. This may be done without a first person:
This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early,
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.
This like a dream
Keeps other time
And daytime is
The loss of this,
For time is inches
And the heart’s changes
Where ghost has haunted
Lost and wanted.
But this was never
A ghost’s endeavor
Nor finished this,
Was ghost at ease,
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.
The impersonality of the verse is met by the intensely personal experience implied by the form, the lines unrolling, one into the next, with awed bewilderment at the perfection of beauty, its unchanging finality and Platonic reality separate from the poem’s earthly ground, from which the poet stares up, correcting for the error of the human gaze (without which the beauty would not be what it is).
And other times, it is effected through the first-person, vulnerable and exposed in the transfigured landscape of the poet’s own fashioning.
Now from my window-sill I watch the night,
The church clock’s yellow face, the green pier light
Burn for a new imprudent year;
The silence buzzes in my ear;
The lights of near-by families are out.
Under the darkness nothing seems to stir;
The lilac bush like a conspirator
Shams dead upon the lawn, and there
Above the flagstaff the Great Bear
Hangs as a portent over Helensburgh.
O Lords of Limit, training dark and light
And setting a tabu ‘twixt left and right,
The influential quiet twins
From whom all property begins,
Look leniently upon us all to-night.
No one has seen you: none can say, “Of late—
Here. You can see the marks—They lay in wait,”
But in my thoughts to-night you seem
Forms which I saw once in a dream,
The stocky keepers of a wild estate.
With guns beneath your arms, in sun and wet,
At doorways posted or on ridges set,
By cope or bridge we know you there
Whose sleepless presences endear
Our peace to us with a perpetual threat.
Look not too closely, be not over-quick;
We have no invitation, but we are sick,
Using the mole’s device, the carriage
Of peacock or rat’s desperate courage,
And we shall only pass you by a trick.
Deeper towards the summer the year moves on.
What if the starving visionary have seen
The carnival within our gates,
Your bodies kicked about the streets,
We need your power still: use it, that none,
O, from their tables break uncontrollably away,
Lunging, insensible to injury,
Dangerous in a room or out wild-
-ly spinning like a top in the field,
Mopping and mowing through the sleepless day.
Yeats meets Rimbaud. “I” rises, after the prayer to the Lords of Limit, to assume the responsibilities of the “we,” among which is the acknowledgement that “we” might not include the reader, but also the possibility that it does. This poem might stand as an epigraph for all of Auden’s work.