Happy Birthday, Wystan Hugh Auden: “The enlightenment driven away / The habit-forming pain”


W.H. Auden was born on this day in York, England, 1907.

I first encountered Auden in my “Humanities” class, senior year in high school. I got a lot out of that class, and I remember we analyzed Auden’s famous most-anthologized “Musee des Beaux Arts”. It was a great opportunity for a Humanities class, because it allowed the teacher to kill two birds with one stone:
1. Analyze Auden’s poem
2. Study Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus, which Auden’s poem is about.


Musee 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 Breughel’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.

I remember reading the poem, looking at the painting, going back to the poem, trying to see what Auden saw. In such a way do young teenage minds hone their analytical skills. I am grateful to Mrs. Stevenson, my Humanities teacher. Of course there’s way more to the poem than that (the first line spilling over into the second line? Perfection), and its observations about the meaningless of human suffering, and our indifference to one another (a topic Auden comes back to again and again.)

More after the jump.


I may have been introduced to Auden when I was in high school, but pretty sure his advice to other writers was not passed on to us at the time: “Never write from your head; write from your cock.” That’s lovely and everything but not particularly helpful to someone like myself. But never mind. Here’s some advice he gave that’s more universal, I really like it:

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

Auden comes up as a reference for me all the time. His words are there for me without having to strain to remember them them, they come rising up in certain situations. I know his work very well.

Auden did a lot of revising of his work over the years, and not just language, but thought and philosophy and – crucially – politics. His politics were fairly … stupid. He took these strong stances and then events shifted and he’d have to revise what he said – as opposed to just standing by it. If he outgrew a certain view, he would go back and tinker with the poems. The 1930s wreaked havoc with people’s politics. Almost no one was on the “right” side. Or, to put a better way: what was the “right” side fluctuated. And so you backed the Communists against the Nazis. But then that means many missed how totalitarian the Communists could be, particularly in the Stalin manifestation, and many refused to “get the memo,” even as Stalin killed millions and millions and millions. Much of this may seem clear now – and it was clear to people like George Orwell – but others – like Auden – got caught up in political fervors which they then felt the need to go back and “correct.” The Spanish Civil War may be one of the most important wars of the 20th century, seen through a certain lens. The repercussions of the whole debacle played lasted generations. If you like Auden, as I do, then you have to grapple with this part of him. And understand the context of the 1930s and for every Orwell there were thousands of well-meaning people being super wrong about everything. Also, going back and changing your poems, to erase what you wrote/thought since it is now out of fashion is … you CAN’T “correct” the past. You can only change your opinion as more information becomes available. Or not. You have to be honest with yourself, whatever you do. It’s okay to say “I believed this then, I no longer believe it.” Orwell was brave enough to do that. In some circles, rigid ideological circles, it is in no way OKAY to change your mind. So there’s something a little … squirrelly … about Auden’s compulsive “corrections” of his earlier work. He couldn’t stop doing it!

Here’s a fascinating example: In his chilling poem “September 1, 1939”, written about Germany’s invasion of Poland, there is a line “We must love one another or die”.

An extraordinary sentiment, especially in 1939.

Let’s post the whole poem and then discuss it afterwards.

September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

After the poem was published, Auden grew to hate the line: “We must love one another or die.” He wrote that he read the published poem and thought:

‘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.

In that one chilling substitution – “or” to “and” … is the entire era, the entire 20th century even, its despair, its darkness. “And” changes everything.

Over the space of years, “September 1, 1939” has regained currency, especially in times of war. I mean, “low dishonest decade” … I say THAT to myself all the time too. It’s PERFECT.

Christopher Hitchens – an enormous Auden fan – wrote about the poem’s rise in popularity following 9/11 (and I remember this as well) in his memoir Hitch-22: A Memoir.

In Manhattan, it was both upsetting, and yet confirming, to see my favorite poet becoming the unofficial laureate of the moment. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ had by some unspoken agreement been sent all around the Internet, and was to be found pasted or stapled to public surfaces in the city. Its early-warning couplet, ‘The unmentionable odor of death / Offends the September night’, began to materialize itself, especially as one worked one’s way south below Union Square and began to feel the nostrils actually dilate with the miasma. (Ever since, the lovely coincidence of the words ‘fall’ and ‘New York’ has always had a wretchedly double meaning for me.) … Even as the whining and the excuse making began, Auden’s lines were being reborn and recirculated, as if to emphasize that while the great edifices of New York may indeed be ‘capitalist’, they also represent a triumph of confidence and innovation and ingenuity on the part of the workers who so proudly strove to build them.


Auden has written two lines which – as difficult as it is – I actually try to live by.

If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.

I have had a long and tempestuous relationship with those two lines (and the poem from which it comes). I have literally wrestled with it.

Much of Auden’s work has complex messaging and intersecting pressures (religion, sexuality, politics, nationality). He attempts an integration of conflicting forces. Sometimes he fails, and the tension of that failure is what gives the poem its resonance. It’s very human. He doesn’t have it all worked out. Maybe this is why he comes up for me again and again. I, too, am un-integrated, albeit for different reasons. If I had to choose to read only one poem for the rest of my life, it would be “The More Loving One”. Well, okay, and Milton’s “Sonnet for his Blindness.” There’s enough in “The More Loving One” to contemplate for a lifetime. In the weeks following September 11th (speaking of which), I would recite it to myself in bed at night, as I tried to get to sleep, and I’d murmur “The More Loving One,” and the Hail Mary, two talismans against terror, all as the choking smoke billowed up from lower Manhattan, seen from my bedroom window.

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

My feelings about this poem are complex and fluctuating. I take issue with it. I talk back to it. I yell “Fuck YOU” at it sometimes. Maybe it is the “taking issue with” thing that makes it a great poem. Find the “total dark sublime“, Auden? Sublime?? NO. And by the way, fuck you. But then .. but then … comes the great last line of admission, and that line changes everything: “Though this might take me a little time.” Without the last line, I would not consider the poem to be profound at all. I would not gravitate towards it in times of stress. And Auden would be just another sentimental optimist, a New Age-y “Make lemonade out of lemons!” nonentity trying to spin catastrophe in a positive “helpful” way. This is the Oprah-fied pandemic we live in now, finding “lessons” in everything, everything is an opportunity for self-growth. It’s a privileged viewpoint. “The More Loving One” deals with some kind of apocalyptic catastrophe. The stars have disappeared from the sky. How to find the vanishing of the stars sublime? How on earth …? Auden knows finding the “total dark” sublime will “take a little time”. Give him a minute. Give us all a minute.

To go off on a Shakespeare tangent (of which Auden would probably approve), there are many lines of Shakespeare that, similar to the lines in “The More Loving One”, have been “candle beams” in the darkness for me, throwing beams bright and brave in a “naughty world”. (For example.) “The More Loving One” stands, for me, as one of the most profound poems of all time.

Auden straddles the 20th century. He read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and realized what he wanted to do, and, more importantly, what poetry COULD do. Yet at the same time, his great and well-known love for Thomas Hardy suggests Auden was also a traditionalist. There was always this tension in Auden, the tension between new and old, fad and tradition, theory and reality. Getting swept away in the politics of the 30s was not unusual: everyone got swept away, it was an extraordinary time. What makes him unique was how much he turned his back on his 1930s views, so much so that he refused to let many of his political poems be anthologized (“Spain 1937” was lost to us for decades because of this), and kept going back to re-write them. As he grew older, his views changed. This is seen as unforgivable by many. To me it just seems like … the way it should be? I don’t know. If you never change your views, you’re … slightly brainwashed in your doctrinaire-ness. However: when you’re talking about the 1930s…. I wasn’t alive then, so I don’t know, and I hesitate to judge those who got swept away in certain passions (although not the Nazi passion: if you got swept away in that then yes, I judge you). But you can see why people got all turned around in that “low dishonest decade.” Auden’s flip flops are interesting. You can’t rewrite your past, though. You just have to OWN your past. It’s yours. People remember what you wrote, even if you bring out a new and more “correct” version. That way madness lies. Stand by who you are now, stand by who you were then. There is no cancellation of the past. Not possible. Unless you want to be like Stalin, airbrushing people out of photographs. And I will never ever approve of anything even APPROACHING that mindset.

Let’s leave politics behind and talk about Shakespeare.

In 1946, Auden gave a series of famous lectures on Shakespeare at the New School for Social Research, and these lectures created a frenzy. They were not recorded, but a guy who was there took copious notes, writing down, in shorthand, everything Auden said. Those notes were compiled into a book). Anyone interested in Shakespeare MUST read Auden’s lectures. Indispensable.

Here is a fascinating excerpt from W.H. Auden’s lecture on Hamlet, given on February 12, 1947. As I said above, those lectures were collected in a fantastic book: Lectures on Shakespeare. If you read Hamlet aloud, start to finish, with no cuts, you would be reading for 4 hours straight. But what, ultimately, does the play say? The answer to that question shifts, depending on how you look at it, where you stand. It acts as an incredibly powerful prism. If you want to see it one way, then it IS that way. If you want to see it another way, then, lo and behold, the play cooperates. Hamlet is a shape-shifter.

Here’s part of Auden’s take on Hamlet. Grab a cup of coffee nearby and don’t plan on going anywhere:

If a work is quite perfect, it arouses less controversy and there is less to say about it. Curiously, everyone tries to identify with Hamlet, even actresses – and in fact Sarah Bernhardt did play Hamlet, and I am glad to say she broke her leg doing it. One says that one is like a character, but one does not say, “This is me.” One says, “I am more like Claudius, perhaps, than I am like Laertes,” o “I would rather be Benedick than Orsino.” But when a reader or spectator is inclined to say, “This is me,” it becomes slightly suspicious. It is suspicious when all sorts of actors say, “This is a part I would like to do,” not “This is a part I have a talent to do.” I would question whether anyone has succeeded in playing Hamlet without appearing ridiculous. Hamlet is a tragedy where there is a part left open, as a part is left open for an improvisational actor in farce. But here the part is left open for a tragedian.

Shakespeare took a great deal of time over this play. With a writer of Shakespeare’s certainty of execution, a delay of this kind is a sign of some dissatisfaction. He has not got the thing he wants. T.S. Eliot has called the play “an artistic failure”. Hamlet, the one inactive character, is not well integrated into the play and not adequately motivated, though the active characters are excellent. Polonious is a pseudo-practical dispenser of advice, who is a kind of voyeur where the sex life of his children is concerned. Laertes likes to be a dashing man-of-the-world who visits all houses – but don’t you touch my sister! And he is jealous of Hamlet’s intellect. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are yes men. Gertrude is portrayed as a woman who likes to be loved, who likes to have romance in her life. And Horatio is not too bright, though he has read a lot and can repeat it.

The plays of the period in which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet have great richness, but one is not sure that at this point he even wants to be a dramatist. Hamlet offers strong evidence of this indecision, becaue it indicates what Shakespeare might have done if he had had an absolutely free hand: he might well have confined himself to dramatic monologues. The soliloquies in Hamlet as well as other plays of this period are detachable both from the character and the plays. In earlier as well as later works they are more integrated. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet (III.i.56-90) is a clear example of a speech that can be separated from both the character and the play, as are the speeches of Ulysses on time in Troilus and Cressida (III.iii.145-80), the King on honor in All’s Well That Ends Well (II.iii.124-48), and the Duke on death in Measure for Measure (III.i.5-41).

Shakespeare, at this time, is interested in various technical problems. The first is the relation between prose and verse in the plays. In the early plays, the low or comic characters – Shylock as well as Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, for example – speak prose. An intellectual character like Falstaff speaks prose, in contrast to a passionate character like Hotspur, who speaks verse. In As You Like It, contrary to tradition, both the hero and heroine speak prose. In Twelfth Night, Viola speaks verse at court and prose to herself, and the characters in the play who are false or have no sense of humor speak verse. Those who are wiser and have some self-knowledge speak prose. In the tragedies Shakespeare develops an extremely fertile prose style for the tragic characters. Hamlet speaks both verse and prose. He speaks verse to himself, in his soliloquies, and in speeches of violent passion to others, as in the scene with his mother. He otherwise usually speaks prose to other people. There is a highly developed relation to prose and poetry in all the plays of this period. In the last plays Shakespeare exploits verse more exclusively, and tends to use prose when he is bored, or when he needs to fill in the gaps. In Antony and Cleopatra, the boring characters use prose, the rounded characters, verse.

Shakespeare is also developing a more flexible verse. He started off with the end-stopped Marlovian and lyric lines that were suitable to high passion. In Hamlet he experiments with the caesura, the stop in the middle of the line, to develop a middle voice, a voice neither passionate nor prosaic. Hamlet also shows a development in Shakespeare’s use of the double adjective. From such a phrase as “sweet and honey’d sentences” in Henry V (I.i.50), which is tautological, he moves to pairs of adjectives in Hamlet that combine the abstract and the concrete: Laertes’ “And keep you in the rear of your affection / Out of the shot and danger of desire” (I.iii.34-35), for example, Horatio’s “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord” (I.v.133), and Hamlet’s “Led by a delicate and tender prince” (IV.iv.48). George Ryland’s book, Words and Poetry, is very good on Shakespeare’s language and style.

In this period, also, Shakespeare appears to be tired of writing comedy, which he could do almost too well – he was probably bored because of his facility in the genre. Comedy is limited in the violence of language and emotion it can present, although Shakespeare can include a remarkable amount of both in his comedies. But though he wants to get away from comedy, he doesn’t want to go back to the crude rhetoric of King John and Richard III or to the lyric and romantic rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. He doesn’t want a childish character, who doesn’t know what is going on, like Romeo and Richard II, nor a crude character like Brutus, who is a puppet in a plot of historical significance, where the incidents are more important than the characters. Finally, he doesn’t want a character of fat humour that the situation must be constructed to reveal. And having done Falstaff, he doesn’t want to go back to the crude character.

Shakespeare’s very success as a dramatic poet may have led him to a kind of dissatisfaction with his life that is reflected in Hamlet. A dramatic poet is the kind of person who can imagine what anyone can feel, and he begins to wonder, “What am I?” “What do I feel?” “Can I feel?” Artists are inclined to suffer not from too much emotion but rather from too little. This business of being a mirror – you begin to question the reality of the mirror itself.

Shakespeare develops Hamlet from a number of earlier characters who are in differing ways proto-Hamlets. Richard II is a child, full of self-pity, who acts theatrically but who is not, like Hamlet, conscious of acting. Falstaff is like Hamlet, an intellectual character and the work of an artist who is becoming aware of his full powers, but he is not conscious of himself in the way Hamlet is. When Falstaff does become conscious of himself, he dies, almost suicidally. Brutus anticipates Hamlet by being, in a sense, his opposite. Hamlet is destroyed by his imagination. Brutus is destroyed by repressing his imagination, like the Stoic he is. He tries to exclude possibility. The nearest to Hamlet is Jaques, who remains unexplained and can take no part in the action.


I’ll close with something fun.

Here is Auden’s original New York Times review of “The Return of the King” in 1954.

A notable excerpt:

Mr. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader’s sense of the credible is never violated.

Even the One Ring, the absolute physical and psychological weapon which must corrupt any who dares to use it, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis from which the political duty to destroy it which motivates Frodo’s quest logically follows.

And this:

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one – it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil – hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom.


W.H. Auden:

One Sunday afternoon in March 1922, a friend suggested that I should [write poetry]: the thought had never occurred to me.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Auden took a stand against writers such as W.B. Yeats who, he thought, preened themselves too much on being poets and who touted poetry as revelation. He presented himself less ambitiously and said, in the prefatory poem to Nones, that he would have preferred to write “in the old grand manner / Out of a resonant heart,” but that the age forced him to write in a subdued, ironic voice. Some of the poems he write in the later 1930s, such as “Spain” and “September 1, 1939” attempt to integrate the old and the new registers.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

Auden’s poetry possessed the quality which Pasternak so admired in Pushkin–it was full of things. And yet in an epoch when homosexuality was still a crime, this talent was the very one which could not be used unguarded to speak of love. For that, he was forced from the concrete to the abstract, and so moved from the easy (for him) to the difficult…The need to find an acceptable expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility.

Dylan Thomas:

“I think of Mr. Auden’s poetry as a hygiene, a knowledge and practice, based on a brilliantly prejudiced analysis of contemporary disorders, relating to the preservation and promotion of health, a sanitary science and a flusher of melancholia. I sometimes think of his poetry as a great war, admire intensely the mature, religious, and logical fighter, and deprecate the boy bushranger.”

Edgell Rickword, “Auden and Politics”:

The subject of his poetry is the struggle; but the struggle seen, as it were, by someone who whilst living in one camp, sympathises with the other; a struggle in fact which while existing externally is also taking place within the mind of the poet himself, who remains a bourgeois.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

Auden made a point of choosing titles that would radiate art deco glamour even as they lay sideways on the thin spines of his early collections: the flamboyant side of his gift came in handy. Look, Stranger! is one of the best book titles in any genre. He took the title from one of his own lines: “Look, stranger, on this island now.” His American publisher–at Auden’s suggestion, strangely enough–pointlessly dissipated the effect by favoring the excerpt On This Island…Another bank-raid title by Auden came straight out of the American colloquial language, in the same way that the Broadway lyricists picked up temptingly ambiguous phrases from conversations overheard in the street: Another Time. It means better luck next time, it means a different era, and it means regret. It also means that any reader who picks up the book can already feel his skin prickling before he opens it.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

[Unlike Eliot], Auden abjures any relation of poetry and religion, insisting that the one praises the physical universe and the other the metaphysical universe, but his work nevertheless refurbishes drab or anguishing data by spiritual nourishment and aesthetic delight.

Michael Schmidt:

His generation was disillusioned because it had had illusions. A Marxizing generation in its youth, in love with the Soviet experiment, championing from its point of privilege the English proletariat, supporting the Republican cause in Spain, believing in the possibility of social transformation: many were members of the Communist party and partook like believers of its dialectical sacraments. The pact between Stalin and Hitler was their road to Damascus, if the Communist subversion of the Republican cause in Spain had not been. They had to take measure of error, their intellectual error, or (a few of them) to think themselves into a deeper Stalinism. In Auden’s case penance went to extraordinary lengths. He rewrote poems and then discarded them and refused to let them be reproduced. His sense of truth was stronger – as far as the 1930s poems are concerned – than his sense of poetry.

Christopher Hitchens, introduction to One Man in Havana, by Graham Greene:

“A stanza of that witty and beautiful poem ‘On the Circuit’, written in 1963, registers W.H. Auden’s dread at the thought of lecturing on a booze-free American campus and asks, anxiously and in italics:

Is this my milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

Philip Larkin:

I didn’t know [Auden] either. I met Auden once at Stephen Spender’s house, which was very kind of Spender, and in a sense he was more frightening than Eliot. I remember he said, Do you like living in Hull? and I said, I don’t suppose I’m unhappier there than I should be anywhere else. To which he replied, Naughty, naughty. I thought that was very funny.

W.H. Auden on Tennyson:

He had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.

British Leftist Poetry, 1930-40
By a bitter Hugh MacDiarmid

Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis, I have read them all,
Hoping against hope to hear the authentic call.
“A tragical disappointment. There was I
Hoping to hear old Aeschylus, when the Herald
Called out, “Theognis, bring your chorus forward.’
Imagine what my feelings must have been!
But then Dexitheus pleased me coming forward
And singing his Boeotian melody:
But next came Chaeris with his music truly,
That turned me sick and killed me very nearly.
And never in my lifetime, man nor boy,
Was I so vexed as at the present moment;
To see the Pnyx, at this time of the morning,
Quite empty, when the Assembly should be full:
And know the explanation I must pass is this:
–You cannot light a match on a crumbling wall.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, September 8th, 1948

What I really object to in Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” isn’t the attitude about suffering–you’re probably right about that. It’s that I think it’s just plain inaccurate in the last part. The ploughman & the people on the boat will rush to see the falling boy any minute, they always do, though maybe not to help. But then he’s describing a painting, so I guess it’s all right to use it that way.

Clive James, Cultural Cohesion

A critic who is finished with Auden is finished with criticism. He might have attained a dignified indifference, but he has forgotten the essential sobriety of his job, which is to restore poetry to those readers capable of being astonished. The sobriety means nothing without the initial capacity to get drunk.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Hopkins’s attention to sonorities, Hardy’s experiments in stanzaic patterns, Yeats’s civic poetry of psychic ambivalence, Eliot’s satiric treatment of a mechanized, urbanized world, and Owen’s slant-rhymed poems of pity influenced Auden and the other poets in his circle. But the new generation needed to distinguish itself, particularly from the towering presences of Yeats and Eliot, both of whom continued to write important poems through the 1930s.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity…Auden blurred the genders in major poems to conceal their homosexual inspiration; his private verse is maliciously bawdy.

Clive James:

The need to find an expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life – a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.

Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets:

He overshadows the poets of his generation.

W.H. Auden on Thomas Hardy

“For more than a year I read no one else.”

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, February 14, 1948:

I am reading Poets at Work which just arrived–Auden says some rather good things, I think, having nothing whatever to do with the rest of the book–the introduction is sad & inadvertently terribly funny–but the general idea seems to be that poets often revise & usually improve their poems…

W.H. Auden, 1963:

From the beginning [Oscar] Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

W.H. Auden, whose obvious brilliance daunted his contemporaries, was the central figure in this group At various times during his time at Oxford, he befriended fellow students Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, and made the acquaintance of Louis MacNeice. These poets were given a collective identity when Michael Toberts published them together in an anthology, New Signatures (1932). They prided themselves on understatement and “social concern.” Since the early part of their careers coincided with the Great Depression across the industrialized world and the rise of fascism in Europe, they were eager to express radical political attitudes, but then often did so through older verse techniques. Except for their preference for inherited poetic forms, they were strenuously ahead of their time, not least in their use of the specialized vocabularies of politics, psychiatry, and the social sciences. After World War II led to the cold war, they became more centrist in their political views.

Harold Bloom:

Auden I knew pretty well, mostly through John Hollander. Eliot I never met. Stevens I met just oncce. I was still a Cornell undergraduate. I came up to Yale to hear him read the shorter version of “Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” It was the first time I was ever in New Haven, or Yale for that matter. I got to talk to him afterward. It was a formidable experience meeting him. We talked about Shelley, and he quoted a stanza of the “Witch of Atlas” to me, which impressed me. “Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is,” it starts. It’s a chilly, rather beautiful poem. Robert Penn Warren and I were close friends. Miss Bishop was of that younger generation also.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

When young he could invent phrases like “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold” and string them together in a headlong rush, thus producing his trademark early tension, between the location begging to be pondered and the impetus declining to be stopped. In his later, austere manner, he invented less, but cold hear just as well. What he wanted to hear was the plain statement with a wealth of implication behind it–well behind it, so that you had to dig. The idea that his American exile was poetically barren would be sufficiently rebutted by attention to one little poem: “The Fall of Rome.” In my own mind, that title is etched as one of his richest, although there is almost nothing actually in it: everything is to come. The whole poem leads you back to it, and almost everything you read about in the daily news or hear about in your daily life will lead you back to the poem. The poem’s “unimportant clerk” is you, here, today. Elsewhere in the world, the mutiny of “the muscle-bound marines” will affect you tomorrow.

Harold Nicolson after a reading by Auden:

I go to bed feeling terribly Edwardian and back-number, and yet, thank God, delighted that people like Wystan Auden should actually exist.

Michael Schmidt:

He became his own case study; he resists affirmation because he will not accept the moral rightness of what he is. He accepts that he is but will not say it is right. This might steer us to the center of his work, his chief instrument of withholding and disclosure, that great English tool of obliquity: irony.

Auden on poets:

… the builder who renews the ruined walls o the city.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 12, 1958:

Then downtown to the borders of Italian Manhattan to see Auden. Two messy rooms, expensive Oxford Press books heaped on plainness, Chester silently in another room. Then with Chester listening to records of the Brecht-Weill Seven Deadly Sins sung in German with the Auden-Kallman translation as a trot. Auden and Mary [McCarthy] don’t agree at all on Italy–A is about to be crossed off their list for his departure poem [“Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno”]. However, he really knows worlds more about Italy in a personal non-Madison Avenue way. Ah, the British beefy, slow, eccentric normality, against our own high-strung intensity.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

…He spent the 1930s experiencing communism as sensual and sex as political…The armies and the political parties of the 1930s were the thrillingly robust continuation of school rugger and cricket teams, being likewise composed of stubborn athletes and prize competitors. Bands apart, they were all-male and Hellenic–and the neo-Hellenism of the 1930s was all Teutonic. Auden’s political and intellectual spectrum in the 1930s is mainly German, and it’s harder than the gullible might think to pick his emotional allegiance between the two sets of muscle-packed shorts, Communist or Nazi.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, February 2nd, 1959:

I asked Lota to read the Auden poem about Italy, and she concentrated for a while and then said, “But it’s so ugly!” And don’t you think she’s right?

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood left England for the United States. That year, Auden fell in love with the young American writer Chester Kallman, his companion for the rest of his life. Also that year, Auden wrote some of his greatest poems, including his elegies for Yeats and Freud and “September 1, 1939” (another poem he later struck from his canon, having come to see as false its claim that “We must love one another or die.”) He became an American citizen in 1946, and for the rest of his life he was dogged with charges of having abandoned his country.

Philip Larkin:

Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t STUDY poets! You READ them and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like a scaffolding that’s been taken down. Thomas was a dead end. What effects? Yeats and Auden, the management of lines, the formal distancing of emotion. Hardy, well … not to be afraid of the obvious. All those wonderful dicta about poetry – “the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own,” “the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel,” “the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own” – Hardy knew what it was all about.

Christopher Hitchens, “The Essential Auden”, for The Los Angeles Times:

“Another celebrated Auden line — ‘We must love one another or die’ — was annexed without his permission and used in Lyndon Johnson’s notorious attack ad on Barry Goldwater in 1964, showing a little girl counting petals as she mutates into a thermonuclear countdown. The hideous scene closes with Auden’s words. He was so furious at this that he removed the poem from his canon. He was prone to excise things that had been exploited or distorted, which is why ‘1 September 1939’ — the poem from which the line is taken — can still be hard to get hold of. The same is alas true of ‘Spain 1937’ and of his verse obituary for W.B. Yeats in 1939 — three utterly magnificent works in the space of three years.”

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

Everybody sensitive to poetry, I think, has known the feeling that Auden’s early work, with its unmatched technical brilliance, is an enchanted playground. The clear proof of his moral stature, however, is the way he left the playground behind when all were agreed that he had only to keep on adding to it and immortality would be his.

Auden joking about the poets of his generation being lumped into a collective entity:


W.H. Auden:

“[Thomas Hardy had a] hawk’s vision, [a] way of looking at life from a very great height…”

Michael Schmidt:

Among friends he retained the schoolboy/undergraduate patois, the pranksterishness of it all; world events seemed in exaggerated form continuous with the struggles of the factional schoolboy; secret romances, plotting, scoring points, delicious conspiracy.

Martin Amis:

When things are going well, you do have the sense that what you’re writing is being fed to you in some way. Auden compared writing a poem to cleaning an old piece of slate until the letters appear.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Auden projects sheer mastery, though he masters paradoxically, through witty self-deprecation and ironic deflation, ambivalent praise and ethical self-questioning. In a reversal of Eliot’s emigration, he left England for the United States just before World War II and wrote sharply and sympathetically about the problems of community in a divided world–where “the living nations wait, / Each sequestered in its hate” (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”). His early verse had been unrhymed and knotted with modernist difficulty, but as the social crisis of the 1930s worsened, he wrote less cryptic, more direct poems in a prodigious variety of rhymed, metered, and syllabic forms. He successfully met a challenge that has baffled many other modern and contemporary poets–how to write about intimate experience without betraying public responsibility, how to write about political exigencies, without subsuming the complexities of personal feeling. In his later years, he became more religious in his Christian beliefs, and more tender, friendly, and conversational in his verse. He wittily hails even the microorganisms that make their homes on his body’s surface. Living largely in New York and presiding from 1947 to 1959 over the Yale Series of Younger Poets, he became a primary influence on the next generation of American poets, whether they wrote in free verse or intricate forms.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

It is a common opinion among the English literati that Auden’s later work is a collapse. I am so far from taking this view that I think an appreciation of Auden’s later work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Auden, just as an appreciation of Yeats’s earlier work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Yeats. You must know and admire the austerity which Auden achieved before you can take the full force of his early longing for that austerity–before you can measure the portent of his early brilliance.

W.H. Auden, 1969:

As I get older, and things get gloomier and more difficult, it is to poets like Horace and Pope that I find myself more and more turning for the kind of refreshment I require.

Christopher Hitchens, review of Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, by Ian Kershaw:

“Chroniclers of Hitlerism have tended to divide between those who stress the ‘subjective’ personality, the man’s ravings and delusions and sexual inversions, and those who emphasize the ‘objective’ conditions, the resentment of millions of Germans at national humiliation and general penury. Some other scholars have simply pointed out, as if on a blackboard, that Hitler loudly proposed to ‘cure’ the second condition by railing at an ‘enemy within’, the Jews, and ‘an enemy without’, the Bolsheviks, with their Jewish characteristics. But that’s only to state the same problem in a different way. Obviously, there would have been nationalistic and anti-Semitic reaction to defeat on the battlefield, to the Communist threat, and to the Treaty of Versailles. W.H. Auden grasped this pathology, with a poet’s insight, in his ‘September 1, 1939’:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god…

George Orwell, on Auden’s “Spain 1937”

Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation,’ ‘elimination,’ or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

In all of literary history as we know it, perhaps the most outstanding slob was W.H. Auden. The man whose lyrics were showpieces of carpentry–try to imagine a poem more accurately built than “The Fall of Rome”–kept a kitchen that could have doubled as a research facility for biological warfare. Worse, he treated other people’s houses the same way. Mary McCarthy, when a guest, earned a bad reputation by taking a long shower with the curtain outside the bath instead of inside: the host would receive no apology for the subsequent inundation. From Auden, a mere flood would have counted as a thank-you note: he left his benefactors under the impression that they had been visited by the Golden Horde. Auden lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock until I realized it was a plain tie plus food. It put the relationship of writer to the written in a new light. How could his poems be so neat and clean, and he so otherwise?

Michael Schmidt:

He masked the origins of his verse, his different desire, his libidinal priorities. He refused i later years to let his poems appear in gay anthologies. Thus to his main audience he remained a high priest, to his friends an impossible and wonderful queen. He needed Freud; but so too did his poetry.

Friend Christopher Isherwood

“He was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of much of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.”

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

For Auden, as for such poets as Hart Crane and Louis Kukofsky, the experience of reading T.S. Eliot was definitive. Auden said that when, at nineteen, he read The Waste Land, he discovered how he wanted to write and threw out his Wordsworthian verses. He was attracted to Eliot’s conversational but ironically detached tone and his acute inspection of cultural decay. Auden, like Eliot, critiques the atomization and dehumanization of modern middle-class life, though seeing it from the opposite end of the political spectrum from Eliot.

W.H. Auden:

It is not an accident that many homosexuals should show a special preference for sailors, for the sailor on shore is symbolically the innocent god from the sea who is not bound by the law of the land and can therefore do anything without guilt.”

Philip Larkin, imagining a conversation between two readers, one who only knew the English Auden, the other who only knew the American Auden:

After an initial agreement by adjective–‘Versatile,’ ‘Fluent,’ ‘Too smart sometimes’–a mystifying gap would open between them, as one spoke of a tremendously exciting English social poet full of energetic unliterary knock-about and unique lucidity of phrase, and the other of an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 1, 1964

I’ve seen Marianne Moore a couple of times, once introducing Auden very wittily calling him a “fantasist who was also a sage,” and ending with a humorous quote from Auden that all ills of the body were ills of the soul, and “I give you Mr. Auden.”

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

In our time, Philip Larkin warned against the consequences of trying to make art out of art. Larkin thought the later Auden had done that, and there is evidence that Larkin was right. But Auden, both the earlier and the later, always presented his artistic enthusiasms as if they had forced their way into his busy head: he wrote as if learning had pursued him, not he it. In his critical compendia, even the most abstruse speculations are given as the workshop knowhow of a master carpenter. If he wrote a poem about a painting, it was because the painting had hit him like a force of nature, as an everyday event.

W.H. Auden:

What is a highbrow? Someone who is not passive to his experience but who tries to organize, explain and alter it, someone in fact, who tries to influence his history: a man struggling for life in the water is for the time being a highbrow. The decisive factor is a conflict between the person and his environment; most of the people who are usually called highbrows had either an unhappy childhood and adolescence or suffer from physical defects.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, August 2, 1964:

And Auden seems to be enjoying a sort of premature old age a little too much…There are a couple of good ones, though. I like the one to MacNeice–most of it–

Michael Schmidt:

Oxford Marxism giving way to Freudian concerns; attention to the collective becoming a concern with the individual. He could not connect Marx and Freud. They represented alternatives, and he plumped in the end for Freud.

Ted Hughes:

I met Auden for more than a hello only twice. It was at a poetry festival in 1966. Our conversation was very breif. He said, What do you make of David Jones’s Anathemata? I replied, A work of genius, a masterpiece. Correct, he said. That was it. The other occasion was after one of the 1966 International Poetry Festival evenings on the South Bank in London when he was fuming against Neruda. I listened to his diatribe. We’d asked Neruda to read for twelve minutes, maybe fifteen. He’d read for over half an hour, longer – apparently from a piece of paper about four inches square. Auden always timed his readings to the minute. Neruda and Auden died almost on the same day; The New Statesman gave Neruda the front page and tucked Auden inside. I felt pained by that, though I have no doubt that Neruda is in a different class, a world class, as a poet. I sort of swallowed Auden whole sometime in my early twenties – or tried to. He was so much part of the atmosphere. Some of his work I have always admired a lot. And I admire him – the Goethean side, the dazzle of natural brilliance in all his remarks. But I never felt any real poetic affinity with him. I suppose he is not a poet who taps the sort of things I am trying to tap in myself. Eliot was.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

It was marvellous, and continues to be marvellous, that the Scrutiny critics never detected in Auden his unwearying preoccupation with the morality of his art, nor realized that a talent of such magnitude–the magnitude of genius–matures in a way that criticism can hope to understand but not prescribe.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Auden turned out, as if effortlessly, poems in all manner of verse forms, including sestinas, sonnets, ballads, canzones, haiku, the blues, even limericks. On the other hand, Auden insisted on rigorous honesty, on a preference for sense over sound.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, August 16, 1965:

The new Auden was somehow better read one by one, the long series on his house is a little ingenious, difficult and dry in bulk. I liked the MacNeice too. He had a still better poem, I think, a really marvelous one in the spring Encounter, about a flashback to an old love-affair.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

Talent usually earns forgiveness, but there are good reasons that linguistic talent earns it least. Auden was right to pardon Kipling and Claudel (as his rhyme had it, he pardoned them “for writing well”) and eventually Orwell would have pardoned Auden for so glibly sanctioning “the necessary murder”) but nobody would have forgotten what anybody said.

Marianne Moore:

[He is] circumspectly audacious.

I love her.

Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Atlantic’, March 2003

“The public, or ‘political’, poems of W.H. Auden, which stretch from his beautiful elegy for Spain and his imperishable reflections on September 1939 and conclude with a magnificent eight-line snarl about the Soviet assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968, are usually considered with only scant reference to his verses about the shameful end of empire in 1947. Edward Mendelson’s otherwise meticulous and sensitive biography allots one sentence to Auden’s ‘Partition’.”

Michael Schmidt:

Eliot speaks of “impersonality,” but Auden, informal and at your elbow, discloses less in his most seemingly candid poem than Eliot does in The Waste Land, in which he makes no bones about desire.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

One of our major links with the best traditions of the Enlightenment, he offers the reassurance that cultural disarray may not extinguish the Enlightenment spirit.

W.H. Auden:

“The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.”

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

Robert Graves went through an embarrassing phase of being hopping mad about how W.H. Auden had helped himself to the cadences of Laura Riding. Graves, who had the misfortune to be Riding’s husband, was thought to be slightly potty on the subject, but it is quite possible that Auden had seen her verses, absorbed some of her rhythmic quirks, and incorporated them into his upcoming work.

Michael Schmidt:

Auden: great poet or great representative poet? A poet or a ‘classic of our prose’? He overhsadows the poets of his generation. He is Chaucer to the Gower of Betjeman and the Langland of MacNeice.

Geoffrey Grigson on what he called Auden’s “Englishness”:

“In the [unpublished] poem, he [Auden] saw the blood trail which had dripped from Grendel after his arm and shoulder had been ripped off by Beowulf. The blood shone, was phosphorescen on the grass … It was as if Auden … had given imaginative place and ‘reality’ to something exploited for the Examination Schools, yet rooted in English origins.”

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22:

“Yet when I had been to hear W.H. Auden recite his poems at Great St. Mary’s Church in 1966, I had noticed that he closed with the words ‘God bless the USA, so large, so friendly, and so rich.’ (I now believe that that evening I was privileged to hear the first public rendering of ‘On the Circuit”, of which that is the last line. It’s a poem I have come to adore as I go around the United States as an itinerant lecturer.)”

W.H. Auden:

“A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E.M. Forster – ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’ It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.”

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

Famed stranger and exalted outcast, Auden served a society larger than the one in which he hid. In his later work we see not so much the ebbing of desire as its transference to the created world, until plains and hills begin explaining the men who live on them. Auden’s unrecriminating generosity towards a world which had served him ill was a moral triumph. Those who try to understand it too quickly ought not to be trusted with grown-up books.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Throughout Auden’s career, Yeats and Eliot persisted as shaping figures of attraction and repulsion. Despite political differences, Auden was closely associated with Eliot, who, as director of a publishing firm, accepted Auden’s first regularly published books and warmly encouraged him. They were both active members of the Church of England, though Auden’s piety was in comparison much more earthy and unmystical. In pursuit of order and tradition, Eliot left America for England, and Auden, in pursuit of variegation and diffuseness, crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction. As for Yeats, Auden admired his ability to write “serious reflective” poems that were of both “personal and public interest” (“Yeats as an Example”). His elegy for Yeats, modeled on the personally ambivalent yet public style of poems such as “Easter, 1916”, rescues the dead man’s linguistic power from his right-wing politics and occult beliefs. But Auden became increasingly disenchanted with Yeats’s “false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities” (1964 letter quoted in Edward Mendelson, Early Auden).

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22:

“It was indeed Auden – who had been a master at such a school as well as having been a pupil at one – who had said that the experience [of British boarding school] had given him an instinctive understanding of what it would be like to live under fascism. (He had also said, when told by the headmaster that only “the cream” attended the school: “yes, I know what you mean – thick and rich.”)

Michael Schmidt:

Oxford Marxism giving way to Freudian concerns; attention to the collective becoming a concern with the individual. He could not connect Marx and Freud. They represented alternatives, and he plumped in the end for Freud.

Poet, friend, and foe of Auden, Edward Upward, who fell out with Auden over ‘September 1, 1939’:

“I ought to have recognized that my indignation was less against the injuriousness of his opinions than against him for holding them. I could not dissociate him from himself as the young poet who for me and for other poets of his generation had been the only potential giant among us.”

Seamus Heaney, “Sounding Auden”:

“Long before the parable poetry of postwar Europe, Auden arrived at a mode that was stricken with premonitions of an awful thing and was adequate to give expression to those premonitions by strictly poetic means. But this unified sensibility fissured when Auden was inevitably driven to extend himself beyond the transmission of intuited knowledge, beyond poetic indirection and implication, and began spelling out those intuitions in a more explicit, analytic and morally ratified rhetoric. In writing a poem like ‘Spain’, no matter how breathtaking its condensation of vistas or how decent its purpose, or a poem like ‘A Summer Night,’ no matter how Mozartian its verbal equivalent of agape, Auden broke with his solitude and his oddity. His responsibility towards the human family became intensely and commendably strong and the magnificently sane, meditative, judicial poems of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were the result. We might say that this bonus, which includes such an early masterpiece as ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and such a later one as ‘In Praise of Limestone,’ represents an answer to the question posed in ‘Orpheus’. That answer inclines to say that ‘song’ hopes most of all for ‘the knowledge of life’ and inclines away from the ‘bewildered’ quotient in the proferred alternative ‘to be bewildered and happy’. To put it another way. Auden finally preferred life to be concentrated into something ‘rich’ rather than something ‘strange’, a preference which is understandable if we consider poetry’s constant impulse to be all Prospero, harnessed to the rational project of settling mankind into a cosmic security. Yet the doom and omen which characterized the ‘strange’ poetry of the early 1950s, its bewildered and unsettling visions, brought native English poetry as near as it has ever been to the imaginative verge of the dreadful and offered an example of how insular experience and the universal shock suffered by mankind in the twentieth century could be sounded forth in the English language.”

W.H. Auden:

Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

In Look, Stranger!, the wonder book of Auden’s poetry, the lyricism was carried to its height…For his compactness, for his mastery of lyricism as a driving force rather than a decoration, for his unstrained majesty of movement, Auden in this phase of his writing is without an equal. The poetry happens like an event in nature, beautiful because it can’t help it.

Philip Larkin:

He had become a reader rather than a writer; literature was replacing experience as material for his verse.

Michael Schmidt:

Until 1939 he was one of the guiding lights of British poetry; until his death in 1973 he was one of the guiding lights of American metropolitan poetry, one of the pricks against which the rural, provincial and radically experimental writers were content to kick.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

He was a beacon light in the darkness he sometimes saw spreading, whether its source was dullness or something worse.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

I can still remember those unlucky hands, one of them holding a cigarette, the other holding a brimming glass, and both trembling. The mind boggles at some of the things they had been up to. But one of them had refurbished the language.

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23 Responses to Happy Birthday, Wystan Hugh Auden: “The enlightenment driven away / The habit-forming pain”

  1. george says:


    I loved this post (and many others like it) and though I’ve expressed the pleasure I’ve had in your insights on movies I’ve been remiss in not noting the great pleasure I get from such posts. It’s like a continuing education, not of hard knocks by which we all continue to learn, but by a deep and profound look at things, in this case the great progenitor, Auden, the different but kindred points of view from others, and your own take with asides to religion, history, and personal experiences. You are a master guide.

    “It was a great class [humanities class], I got a lot out of it.”
    It was a great post. I got a lot out of it.

  2. Thanks so much for this.

    I’ve always wanted to own a pub somewhere in England and call it The Torturer’s Horse. I wish somebody would do this.

  3. Paul H. says:

    A favourite Auden poem, which ties in well to your current series on Orwell and his views on the misuse of language for political ends:

    The Ogre does what ogres can,
    Deeds quite impossible for Man,
    But one prize is beyond his reach,
    The Ogre cannot master Speech.
    About a subjugated plain,
    Among its desperate and slain,
    The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
    While drivel gushes from his lips.

    • sheila says:

      Paul!! Fantastic dovetail with Orwell and thanks so much for the stanza.

      // About a subjugated plain,
      Among its desperate and slain,
      The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
      While drivel gushes from his lips. //

      God, he’s so good. The “subjugated plain”.

      • Paul H says:

        It’s great, isn’t it? A perfect concision of anti-totalitarianism. In that ‘subjugated plain’ I can’t help but hear echoes of Yeats’s “a waste of desert sand”, and even Ozymandias.

        • sheila says:

          Yes – and Tolkien comes to mind too – if I’m not mistaken, Auden wrote a rather famous review of Lord of the Rings. I think I linked to it once, let me check.

  4. ted says:

    The More Loving One – a poem with such strong tone – a real attitude poem. I love the reach of this post: Hitchens, Orwell, Auden. So much in it, I’m going to have to come back when I’m not mid-chapter!

    • sheila says:

      Ted – I always think of that piece you directed at Juilliard on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 that used that poem. So so moving.

  5. Desirae says:

    What a great painting. I love how the farmer closest to the water is looking up at the sky, like he heard something or maybe felt a breeze, but can’t tell where it came from. It reminds me of the story you’ve written about here – Marlon Brando in acting class, being a hen that was unconcerned with nuclear warfare.

    To segue awkwardly, have you read Hilary Mantel’s article Royal bodies yet? It’s here, if you haven’t:


    I will forever think of the reign of Henry VIII as gynaecological now.

  6. sheila says:

    Desirae – I haven’t read it, but I have to – I am dying to read the next book in the trilogy – God, she’s so good!!

  7. Fiddlin Bill says:

    “Hamlet is a tragedy where there is a part left open, as a part is left open for an improvisational actor in farce. But here the part is left open for a tragedian.”

    Too bad Brando didn’t get a crack at the role, perhaps right after he’d accomplished Reflections in a Golden Eye, that is, after he’d become a mature artist. Although, come to think of it, the Brando of the mid-’50s is the right age and has all that explosive passion.

    • sheila says:

      Fiddlin’ Bill – you picked out my favorite line from Auden’s lecture.

      I agree in re: Brando – and not sure if you’re aware of the telegram that Tennessee Williams sent to Brando on the opening night of STREETCAR on Broadway:


  8. Gus says:

    I came here from a tweet. I love Auden, but I have not been a frequent reader of poetry for some years. I found I read poetry in my 20s, novels in my 30s, and I’m reading history in my 40s-50s. I feel like poetry is a young person’s art, which is may be why I prefer the early Auden to the revisions and the early Wordsworth to the later. Of course Hardy’s poetry makes me rethink that. I must get back to poetry! Auden would be a good place to start! Thank you for this.

    • sheila says:

      Gus – thanks so much for stopping by!

      Poetry is a wonderful meditative thing for me – I don’t know, it requires a different kind of attention, and sometimes it’s challenging – the world moves so fast – but that makes it worth the time and effort.

      Enjoy re-acquainting yourself with Auden!!

  9. Howard White says:

    For someone young and literary, Auden’s essays on various poets and books are a second college education. As a teenager I was browsing in the stacks at the University of Utah library, and I came across a volume of poetry he edited. I still can see his definition of poetry in it: “Memorable speech.” You can go a LONG way with that one. But continuing Paul H.’s remarks, and the theme of Auden’s links to Orwell, Hitchens, politics, and so on, I thought I’d type out his “Epitaph on a Tyrant.” It’s famous, but it’s also timely, and no one has alluded to it here:

    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
    He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
    And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
    When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
    And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.

  10. Dan Coffey says:

    I never read Auden in high school, but more than made up for it in college — I actually did an independent study! One of two things that struck me, and still gives me chills, from his poems, is the “We must love one another…” line variants in 1 Sept 1939. It’s a little hazy now (like everything that happened in the early 90s), but I seem to remember reading the first variation well before discovering the second, and being vaguely bothered by it, but not being able to articulate why. It was the “or”. I never knew about the LBJ butchering of the poem!

    The other Auden quote that can still put me up a tree? Well, the whole poem, really: “As I Walked Out One Evening”. Suffice to say, I didn’t really get what he was getting at in my early 20s. Now I think I do, but the imagery is still devastating. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/i-walked-out-one-evening

    • sheila says:

      Dan – thanks for this. Wow – independent study!! How great!

      // and being vaguely bothered by it, but not being able to articulate why. It was the “or”.//

      I relate to this! For me, it’s like one version makes me feel good and hopeful about our chances – i.e. the human race’s chances – and then the revision is like: Nope.

      I love As I Walked Out One Evening – such a great poem.

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