MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Age of Auden

"My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain."

“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”

Last month marked four decades since W.H. Auden died (he was only 66). How has he managed to retain that oracular hold over us, to continue to play the role of prophet? Auden himself abjured the myth that attached to his earliest work, the poems that first made him a celebrity. He later pointed out the foolishness of the fake choice – “we must love one another or die” – and steeled himself against the Siren sway of poetry’s utopian promise, even as he embraced other utopias.

How unforgettably Auden bids farewell to the image of the vatic poet in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, while recognizing the pressure of posterity to forge its own meaning from what the poet has left behind: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”

Jess Cotton considers Auden’s strange holding power despite the wild swerves of tone and style in the later work:

Auden tried on styles like hats, finding only a couple too trivial to salvage. His poetic inventiveness and intellectual restlessness invites reels of criticism; though that is not to say that anything goes. The words of a poem are not the sum of its parts; and Auden’s poetry rarely yields its meaning quite as easily as its perfectly light verse would suggest. In fact, one of the masterful tricks of his poetry is that it’s quite often saying the opposite of what the reader has decided to hear. Ever alive to the limitations— and fundamental frivolity—of art, Auden’s greatness lies in believing at once in the power of art to enchant, while allowing irony to do its duty.

Can Auden really have it both ways? Irony but also enchantment in the Age of Anxiety?

This self-consciousness that “poetry makes nothing happen” doesn’t necessarily undercut the magic; in fact, he suggests, it may be one of magic’s expedients. Both “Stop all the clocks” and “September I, 1939,” are written in pastiche mode—the former to show precisely what happens when lines are taken out of context; the latter, far from the call to arms it is often taken for, salutes a rootless, ironic mode of being. As he writes of Yeats’ afterlife, Auden’s poetry is forever “Modified in the guts of the living;” its meaning distilled and rendered to fit the occasion. But poetry is mainly sound—the meanings will only take you so far; and to have sounded, in poetry, the tones of the age, is no small feat. To still sound them today, 40 years after his death, is surely a great one.

Filed under: poetry

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  1. James Hatch says:

    Thank you for this reminder of the anniversary of Auden’s death. In addition to being a great poet, he wrote scores of important and illuminating critical essays. The real man (or woman) of letters is rare. (I am thinking here, for instance, of the late, lamented Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill.) There are outstanding critics who are mediocre poets (R. P. Blackmur) and many poets who never write much, or any, criticism worth reading (fill in any one of a thousand names). But to be able to do both, and well, is remarkable. — I’m afraid Jess Cotton’s article is a little misleading. Chester Kallman never “jilted” Auden: they just had different sexual tastes and spent parts of each year apart. But they collaborated on opera libretti and were a couple to the end of Auden’s life. Poems (long and short), criticism, libretti, and plays–the only thing Auden didn’t attempt (that I know of) were novels and short stories. And by all accounts Auden was a generous and kind man. That may be the most important thing to remember. –Thank you, again. Your blog is wonderful.

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