Auden’s poems are most interesting to me when one of two things happen: they embody, in their phrasing, the vulnerability and isolation (brought on by Eros and/or Thanatos) that they express; they do scrutinize, and again embody, the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the mundane and the remarkable. I’m curious if these meet, or if they can be accounted for by something broader, or if they are instead two parts of Auden’s mind. There are many good examples of the first of these (“Lullaby,” “Orpheus,” “Casino,” “This Lunar Beauty”); the latter is exemplified by “Musee des Beaux Arts,” and possibly “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Because there are so many more examples of the former, it suggests that the latter is a variation on what was really Auden’s central preoccupation, all the more since it’s hardly a leap to find the death in either—even though desire is absent. Maybe this is what makes them feel so distinct from the first class of poems: they are public, and so their vulnerability and isolation, is not what it was, and they are not “public,” as some of Auden’s early poetry was, where the poetic trick is to invent a public in the poem that feels alien to any readership, as if it were a coterie or enclave public life being addressed as we listen in. Both of these are instead poems about a public that has been established on terms that are not, and cannot be, Auden’s own: the visitors to the museum in Brussels and Yeats’ readers.
“Musee des Beaux Arts” is distinct in Auden’s body of work because of how clearly it suggests its own specific occasion in place and time—the museum, happening across that painting, speaking to someone at their side. It possesses more of the qualities of a dramatic monologue than other poems by Auden. I’ve written before and will come back now to the first line of “Musee des Beaux Arts,” one of the most memorably of all opening lines: “About suffering they were never wrong, the old master.” What makes it so wonderful is that it places itself simultaneously but also precisely in several contexts: one friend turning to another, a stranger turning to another museum-goer, or a lecturer. But then against all of those, there is something mournful in the inversion of the syntax, lending weight to “suffering,” and “never,” seeming either the bait for a friendly argument, a pedagogical provocation, or generalized excess inspired by this particular work, admitting also a weight of defeat. Hence the vulnerability gets in. But it is not, for Auden, vulnerability by love and death, but more than vulnerability, a brokenness, misfit, ill-fit, “queer” in the broad and narrow senses of the term, that distinguish “Lullaby,” “Orpheus,” “Casino,” and “This Lunar Beauty” (among others).
In the two sonnets published with “Musee des Beaux Arts,” the effect can be seen, in one with greater success than the other:
First, the less successful, “The Novelist”:
Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.
They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.
For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar comoplaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Dully put up with the wrongs of Man.
And the “The Composer”:
All the others translate: the painter sketches
A visible world to love or reject;
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches
The images that hurt and connect,
From Life to Art by painstaking adaption,
Relying on us to cover the rift;
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.
Pour out your presence, a delight cascading
The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,
Our climate of silence and doubt invading;
You alone, alone, imaginary song
Are unable to say existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.
“The Novelist,” no less than “The Composer,” is about the relation of art to pain, art to vulnerability, and art to brokenness; it is about how the novelist’s art must admit and accommodate these, becoming one with them. But the penultimate line “And in his own weak person, if he can, | Dully put up with all the wrongs of man” detaches Auden from the subject; it is about a novelist, but not at all about the experience of reading novels, the grounds of Auden’s knowledge of what a novelist does; he exempts himself from the poem. The vulnerability, then, is all elsewhere: “the wrongs of Man” and “his own weak person.” Auden’s own weak person is not denied, but it is not acknowledged either, and the poem ends with a note of schoolmaster pedagogy, which Auden elsewhere can place and critique. Though less impressive in its opening stanza or two (Auden seems more invested in the exhilaration of poetry, and the experience of reading poetry, in “The Novelist”), “The Composer” opens up to involve the poet and the poem in the experience of the composer’s art. “You alone, alone, imaginary song” apprehends both the aloneness of the listener and the aloneness of the music, as well as the loneliness of both, the repetition of “alone” not chiming, but modulating and breaking what in Auden’s poetry, and in the closing couplet of “The Novelist,” can be a rhetorical poise that can seem a mask that has hardened into a face—but with “alone, alone,” that gives way, the mask shifts, and it shifts at the moment of release: the last lines are about, strangely but wonderfully, the guilt that music makes irrelevant, forgiving, if it really can be called forgiveness, by an expressiveness that cannot accuse or judge. In the other sonnet of the group, different in its specificity, which usually comes to the aid of Auden, is “Rimbaud,” whose opening lines reflect on the phenomenon I’m describing at the end of “The Composer”:
The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky,
His horrible companions did not know it;
But in that child the rhetorician’s lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.
Here is the brokenness of self, but also the brokenness of rhetoric, the poetry not being the opposite of rhetoric, but living in it; guided and sustained by the rhetoric that guides and sustains life, the infrastructure of personhood yields poetry when the cold breaks it.
We can hear something cracking in the word “never” at the start of “Musee des Beaux Arts”. We hear it also in “suffering,” depending on the stress we give that word. But this poem, unlike “The Novelist” or “The Composer,” does not take as its subject the vulnerability, precarity and privacy of the work of art; it does not come into diret contact with, or bring us into direct contact with, the suffering of Eros and Thanatos. The word “suffering” pulls us in a direction that the miraculous birth and fall of Icarus might not have; for though the terror of the fall and the pains of birth are part of the one and the other, these are not events we characterize first and foremost by suffering. The martyr’s death does ground the word, since it is integral to martyrdom that suffering happen. The poem is coming close to tying into a knot suffering, the extraordinary (that which breaks routine, and also breaks the self), the work of art, and private experience. To say that they were “never wrong” about suffering is to say that the public cannot bear witness to the fullness of the event; that such witness is private, perhaps necessarily imaginary, even if afforded by art in a public institution. There is a further bind: the suffering that Auden speaks of in this poem is not just any suffering, it is suffering that coincides with (depends upon?) a publicly visible rupture of the quotidian. It is not just the traditional subject of art but is also art itself: art as wound that puts itself on display only to be ignored, the wound that is the brokenness of the understanding in religion, the failure that hubris entails, the nose for suffering that is martyrdom. Each of these figures is a different configuration of Eros and Thanatos (T.S. Eliot in “Journey of the Magi”: “this birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like death”). The suffering the Old Masters were never wrong about was that of the impulse to create, the desire to represent the extremes of desire, of yearning, of faith, that the world turns from because the ordinary is, by its nature, axiomatically, resistant to the extraordinary.
This is the same bind that leads Auden, in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” to write the line “for poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” It’s survival is reduced and elevated here, “a way of happening, a mouth”: the skepticism of the lines is well noted, seeming to relegate poetry to irrelevance, but the lines grant also something fundamental to survival, “a way of happening,” that cannot be subsumed into other categories, that is itself, “a mouth” speaking words, gaping, in awe, but available as a response to life. And the final section of the poem suggests a more hopeful vision, with “let the healing fountains start.” In this poem, the challenge of a public poetry is both the subject and circumstance, and the two are given ideal balance in the third section, where Auden’s taut stanza form and steady meter stripped to an austerity suggestive of both decorum and straitened circumstances and precarity:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
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.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
What’s superb about “persuade us to rejoice” is that it does not itself seek to persuade, and here where the poem has adopted the movement of a public address to the late figure, and to all that he represents, Auden beseeches and implores; he has composed a first-person plural prayer that not only refuses to set Auden apart from the “us,” but that depends on his being among this public, weakened, threatened, collectively in need because of what they have collectively become as individuals. He could not have written “In the prison of our days / Teach us free men how to praise,” or he could have but it would have been pompous and absurd. He could more easily have written “In the prison of their days / Teach all free men how to praise.” Then we realize “your” appears only once in “your unconstraining voice,” “us” once in “persuade us to rejoice,” and “his” in “prison of his days.” There are no other personal pronouns. The “his” is the individual who is Auden, but who is also others; it is generic, general, but a representative, including Auden and others besides. The thought behind the third section is not “we need you now more than ever,” or even “we hear you now more than ever,” and it is neither because the first of these makes no sense—the poetry remains, if we need it, then it can be read—and the second because if it were true, there would be no need to write this section at all. Instead, the affirmation that Yeats’ poetry might do something is imperiled by, and grows out of the anxiety that, the possibility that its surviving might not matter. It can teach how to praise only if it is recognized as itself deserving praise. The jussive mode of these lines (“let”) straddles the axis of authority and helplessness; it is where Auden believed public poetry must be, reaching out not only to an absent ideal of a poet who could reach and teach a public, but on behalf of a public, a larger whole, to which the poet can only imagine, in fantasy, his poem belongs. The unwavering gait of the lines sustains itself over the desperation of prayer; to imagine an audience or suitable subject for this, whether Yeats, or a reading public, is an article of faith. To such a prayer, there can be no response; the poem is its own answer.
Knowing how much Auden once meant to me, it has seemed a shame that I could no longer come into contact with that poetry as I once did; maybe I had changed, but it seemed worth a recovery effort, and the acceptance of what Auden makes of Freud peculiarly led me back not an embrace of Freud’s etiological analyses, but to his account, really a re-accounting, since it was, as he said, anticipated in literature and philosophy, of the circumstance of our wounding.
What does it mean to come into contact with the feeling of a work of literature or art? To enter into what a conductor might call, speaking of a symphony, its line of motion? It cannot mean just asking why it was started; the reason that led to the work, the conditions and circumstances of its creation do not answer why it is what it is, as a whole. They do not explain why or how it is that a work of art does that strange and wonderful thing, being both extraordinary and right—extra-ordinary because it reaches beyond what is already, ordinarily there, and right because it contains within itself its justification for why it is the way it is, because it satisfies the conditions of its own being. But in this formulation, we arrive nearer to what it means to come into contact with the feeling of a work of literature, to come into contact with its line of motion. The question is not why it began, but why and how it becomes complete and satisfies its own beginning with an ending. That sense of fulfillment, present in each moment of the greatest works, identifiable in the sense that each moment is both right and answering a need, a craving or yearning, for something otherwise not met, something beyond the reach of what you or I or the ordinary person or life could provide; this is the feeling we need to recognize: what does this work strive to fulfill, what absence or desire or lack does it recognize, or open, or create, and then satisfy, make, in some sense, “complete” or “whole.” Very strong feelings from an author can fail to create such works; and very proficient authors may write many works that are complete or whole by the measure of plot or action alone, the facile romance or the thriller; at the same time, it’s foolish to pretend the enjoyment of these means nothing. The fulfillment of a work of art, though, is different from the fulfillment of other parts of life: it is a fulfillment brought about in the representation of the absence or lack; the feeling of need or yearning, the vulnerability they entail, are not satisfied materially, but are represented in a way, formally, technically, that renders the absence complete. It is the representation of absence that is fulfilled and fulfilling; the completion of the understanding of desire, rather than any ultimate resolution to desire itself, that is the pleasure that is the end of understanding. There is, at its root, a common element to judgment and desire: a sense of absence, of negation, of things not being right, and this it is that makes the judgment of a work of art more than an arid intellectual activity, why it is that too excessive a concern with form cannot, if criticism is to do justice to literature, preclude the feelings of unsatisfied desire that form perfects (and, from a psychological and social perspective both, could be said to master and control). This is in the background of criticism, even as the focus remains on the words, what they do, and why they are how they are.