ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 22

 - W. H. Auden


This lecture presents the early poetry of W.H. Auden. In “From the Very First Coming Down,” Auden’s relationship to the reader is considered, as well as the role of economy, truth, and morality in his poetics. The political Auden is examined in “Spain” and “September 1, 1939,” along with his later practice of revising controversial poems. Finally, his interest in traditional forms, his vision of love, and his characteristic perspectivism, are explored in “This Lunar Beauty” and “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 22 - W. H. Auden

Chapter 1. Introduction: Wystan Hugh Auden [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: W. H. Auden, Wystan Hugh Auden. There really is no more dramatic contrast in this course, I think, than to go from late Stevens to early Auden. Stevens is born twenty years before Auden. Auden goes on writing to his death in 1973, so his career is somewhat later than Stevens. But again, we’re doing something a little complicated; we’re moving from Stevens’s poems of the late 1940s, early 1950s, now to Auden and his early career, including poems written in the very late 1920s, in the 1930s, and we’ll get up to the start of World War Two by the end of class. So, in one sense, we’re going back in time, back in literary history, and back in cultural history, moving from the 1950s, from this post-war moment, in which Stevens is writing his late poems, to an earlier phase. At the same time we are also, however, moving forward, in a sense, in literary history; moving forward to a poetry that is distinctly and variously a poetry that comes after modernism, and to that extent that we could think of as post-modernist.

Well, what do we mean by that? What do I mean? With Stevens in mind, there are no giants in Auden. Everything is life-size. Poems don’t take the place of mountains. Rather, they, you could say, take place among them, and mountains figure interestingly in Auden’s poetry in a number of places. In Auden, there is no new knowledge of reality to be had. In fact, there’s only old wisdom that nobody wants to face. Modernism turns on a kind of axis, you could say; modernism as wasteland or as bridge, a state of cultural decay and crisis or of promise and celebration – Pound and Eliot on one side, maybe Crane and Stevens on the other. Well, Auden is beyond these debates. They don’t matter much to him. He is, in a sense, beyond the nostalgia of the one side, and he’s also quite self-consciously beyond the romantic exultation of the other.

Auden is a British poet. He writes out of a distinctly British tradition, a tradition in which, well, tradition itself is, in a sense, taken for granted. It’s something that’s there, accessible, part of the poet’s repertoire that needn’t be either struggled for or against. Industrial capitalism – Hart Crane is all excited about this stuff. It’s an old thing in the north of England, and Auden’s early poems take place in a landscape of now fading and century-old industry.

Chapter 2. The Early W. H. Auden [00:04:57]

Early Auden, later Auden: these are caricatures that are important to the history of Auden’s reception. There’s been a tendency to see his career as coming in two halves, divided by his immigration to the United States at the very end of 1938: a British Auden and then an American Auden. Both Audens, you could say, have distinct caricatures.

Early Auden. Early Auden: a poet born in the city of York, the son of a doctor, interested in natural science and in scientific ways of knowing; a poet for whom science was not an enemy but rather a kind of tool, a point of view or perspective, expressed importantly for early Auden in the work of Freud; the work of Freud but also the work of Marx. The early Auden is not an orthodox Marxist and certainly not a Communist Party member, but Marxism is important to him. It’s part of a worldview. It’s worked into his sense of the world as seen where social classes compete and struggle with each other and where the important choices to be made are moral ones, moral ones that enter into our political choices. It’s also the case in Auden’s early poetry that he tends to conceive of the world in a kind of “us and them” construction. There’s a sense in the early poems of extreme privacy in the privacy of address, the way in which the poet speaks to us, the way in which he conceives his point of view. These early poems conceive a kind of, you could say, coterie audience who are Auden’s intellectual, leftist, largely gay friends at Oxford, where he’s writing his earliest poems.

Homosexuality is an important context for this early Auden and his ways of imagining himself and talking to us. Auden comes with a kind of embattled, necessarily secretive and self-protective investment in intimate relationships. They’re something that has to be fought for. They are prized and they are something that must be protected from the intrusions of other hostile or disapproving eyes. Yes, let’s look at an early poem here. This is in your RIS packet. “From the Very First Coming Down,” it’s called.

I’ll show you some photos first before getting to the poem. This is one I like of the Oxford Auden, a sensitive boy, with the interesting legend that he has applied to himself here, probably in retrospect. “The cerebral life would pay,” he says. He was going to make it work to be an intellectual. This is another one: Auden, the rakish young Auden; this one also with a kind of legend on top in Auden’s hand where he calls himself “utopian youth, grown old Italian,” as, in fact, this was a certain kind of trajectory he would live starting as a utopian youth and then later learning how to relax and have a good time in Italy.

Let’s see. I’m afraid I’ve got my slides somewhat backward. This is Auden’s Poems, his first book. I believe it’s 1930. They’re written while he’s a student at Oxford and it includes poems that are – this one that I’ll discuss in a moment but it’s worth seeing them on the page – they’re laid out without titles again, somewhat as Williams’s early poems are presented. They are set here almost sort of secretively, I’d like to say, without that public introduction of a title and, well, as I’m suggesting, some degree of self-protection and reticence are important qualities and in fact themes of this early poetry.

Chapter 3. W. H. Auden Poem: “From the Very First Coming Down” [00:12:08]

Let’s take a look at this poem that I’ve got up on the screen right now, which is called “From the Very First Coming Down.” That’s the first line of the poem and it’s generally known that way.

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown [already we’re listening to a poet who
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain [there’s a “you” here, there’s an “I.” The poem is a
kind of letter and, in fact, a kind of love letter]: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen [and this is that Northern landscape that
Auden comes from], heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn [and so on].

Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

The letter comes in a sense from an intimate, a friend, perhaps a lover, saying much and yet we’re given no content to it. It’s veiled in that sense. It’s speaking of much but much that is “not to come,” it seems; its very content and promises, it seems, are withheld. Then there’s this further stanza.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.

This early Auden has this highly compressed syntax that requires you to kind of put the sentences together and fill in parts that seem to have been occluded in the poet’s compressing of language; again, an almost veiled form of speech. Auden says:

I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love [there’s a sense that the love that
animates him is a different love, it sets him apart],
Nor [he doesn’t] question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

There’s an intimacy that the poem establishes here with the “you” and with us as readers that suggests a kind of implied, shared knowledge that the poem nonetheless does not openly declare and doesn’t specify but rather remains reticent about . And we’re invited into that reticence, as well as the poet’s scruple, expressed here as the wisdom of that country god, which – it’s hard to know exactly how we’re supposed to interpret that, whether that’s an actual figure or a kind of stone in the landscape that the poet is animating in this way: but in any case, seeing that figure, that country god as emblematic of a reticence that scruples not “to say more than it meant.” In other words, well, you could compare this to Marianne Moore’s investment in “restraint,” very closely related in its moral valences.

The idea here is one that’s crucial in Auden throughout his career: that is, the poet wishes to master his intentions as a speaker. He does not wish to say more than he means, and he means to say what he means and to insist on meaning what he says. This is a long way from – it’s very different from Wallace Stevens’s lavish forms of play, his interest in inexactness or poems that might “resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Auden wants very much to say what he means and he wants us to be able to grasp that. Auden conceives of poetry, and of language generally, as a sphere of moral action in which truth is always at stake, where the poet’s specific office is to control and use language in a kind of responsible and honest way. This is a poet who wants to be honest.

Poets have not always wished this. You can think about Hart Crane saying, “sleep, death, desire, hasten, while they are true”: in other words, Crane’s willing investment in what he recognizes as illusion or a kind of temporary truth. Auden is, rather, morally bound to, responsible for, what he says. He’s concerned in this sense with the limits of poetry, with saying only what’s meant. Again, a connection should be drawn to Marianne Moore who shares something with Auden in this way. You remember her long poem “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there must be something important beyond all this fiddle,” and yet after “reading it… with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers nonetheless a place for the genuine,” she says, or something very close to that. Well, that’s the beginning, in Moore’s case, of a very long and extravagant poem which over the course of her career, as she returned to it and sought to tell the truth in her poem and to insist on what was genuine, she eventually cut to only those lines. Moore was, as a poet, a rigorous self-reviser who cuts out pieces of her poems and who cuts out individual poems from her body of work. So was Auden.

Chapter 4. W. H. Auden Poem: “Spain” [00:20:39]

Auden, importantly, revised his own poems, sometimes on multiple occasions, always as he collected them and returned to them in later volumes. There are a couple important examples of this, including the poem “Spain” on page 791, a poem that Auden wrote in response to the anti-Fascist struggle in the Spanish Civil War, which he participated in. And it is a poem that complexly and yet nonetheless strongly comes to affirm the priority of making political commitments over and above, it appears, individual, moral discriminations and other forms of individual commitment. And there are ideas expressed in this poem that became an anthem in one of Auden’s most famous poems of the thirties. Well, let me give you just a few lines from it, on page 793. Stirring us to march, Auden says, “To-morrow, perhaps the future… / To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love…” and so on. But:

To-day [on line 93] the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
[even] The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

He’s calling us to do the work of revolution and postpone as a goal the rediscovery of romantic love and other utopian projects. Auden would come to find the morality of this poem objectionable and to repudiate the notion that we should ever accept guilt in “the necessary murder,” that rather, any murder would be necessary in order to advance a cause. And expressing his own self-censure, he cut the poem out of his work. If you buy Auden’s Collected Poems, edited by his executor, Edward Mendelson, you will find that this poem is not in there.

Chapter 5. W. H. Auden Poem: “September 1, 1939” [00:24:09]

There are other examples of dramatic self-revision. Let me just point to one more that is famous in the poem “September 1, 1939,” again, one of Auden’s most celebrated and circulated poems. He has in the next-to-last stanza these assertions, on page 803, “All I have…” This is a poem occasioned by the beginning of the Second World War. It positions the poet in a dive in Manhattan, drinking with others. He’s reflecting on the European catastrophe now underway. He says:

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.

As your note below registers, “Auden later attempted to revise this line,” which struck him as – in fact, he called it “incurably dishonest,” and he revised it first with what seemed to him a more truthful claim: “We must love one another and die” because we’re going to have to die, in any case. And eventually he gave up on it altogether and cut the entire stanza. These are examples of Auden applying a kind of stringent moral self-examination to the language that he uses, and it’s a crucial part not only of the history of his work – in other words, what he did with it – but what, of course, he was doing in it; which was attempting to speak in a truthful way that he could take responsibility for, and yet which led him repeatedly to forms of rhetoric that he would mistrust and later abandon.

All of this is consistent with the ways in which Auden reconceived the modern poet’s role. Auden writes against vatic, romantic inspiration. He sees the modern poet as a kind of rationalist, a rationalist especially skilled in the techniques of poetry and of language use, as expressed specifically in technical mastery of verse form and genre. Auden reclaims, following Pound, Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. He writes in popular ballad forms, all kinds of song forms, and many kinds of rhyme and meter. He takes over, you could say, song forms from the British music hall, which is something like vaudeville. He produces intricate, stanzaic patterns that we might find in metaphysical poetry. He produces ornate, syllabic poems, not unlike Marianne Moore sometimes. He influentially revives the Provençal forms of the sestina and the canzone and other troubadour forms. If your poetry writing teachers have made you write sestinas, you have Auden to thank for this, as well as much else.

There is, in these various acts of appropriation and reclaiming of verse forms, a kind of – no nostalgia. Rather, there’s a sense that all these forms are simply available. They should be part of a poet’s toolkit. And this is also part of what is, well, Auden’s presentation of himself as a kind of expert, as a poet with expertise: with expertise in language. And all of this is part of, in his early poetry, what you would have to call his precocious adultness, his knowingness which is, again, connected to his will to tell the truth, to tell the truth unclouded by sentiment. The early Auden, the Auden that we see in those photographs, he’s remarkably cool, in all senses. This is a cool poet. James Merrill, a poet who was a friend of Auden’s and influenced by him in many ways, once remarked that all of Auden’s poems were written on paper on which the tears had dried. And that’s an evocative idea. It’s important first of all that yes, those tears have dried. But it’s also important that there were tears. And both of these are properties of the poems and they make Auden a special kind of love poet.

Chapter 6. W. H. Auden Poems: “This Lunar Beauty” and “Lullaby” [00:30:58]

Let’s look at the early poem, “This Lunar Beauty,” which is on page 787.

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 [this love that I experienced and write of and out of]
Keeps other time [it’s lunar]
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 endeavour
Nor, finished this,
Was ghost at ease;
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.

Contrast this poem to a closely related poem, Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” a poem of extravagant rhetoric. Here, Auden is not writing iambic pentameter, he’s writing – what is the meter here? Dimeter: there are two beats per line. You can’t have a line that’s much shorter and have it be a line or a meter. It’s really, in a sense, the smallest measure meter can sustain. There is in the poem a kind of formal reticence, and what is proclaimed as endless here is not love but sorrow, or sorrow’s look. And sorrow is personified there in the position of the poet, looking at the beloved, already in a sense looking back at him – a lunar beauty.

Let’s turn a few pages forward to page 790 and read another of Auden’s love poems, closely related.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful. … Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass [they always do, they are bound to]
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost. [You’re going to have to pay for it. But here it is, and it
is now and to be celebrated.]
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Here again, love is seen in the secularizing light of certain future betrayal and loss. To be living here is to be mortal and guilty. To love is to be sure that you will be faithless, that is, to love fully; and so to know love and beauty entirely and in their entirety is to know them in the knowledge of time, to know precisely that love’s passing. Time here is not so much a kind of emblem of human inconstancy, but rather of something like natural law, to which everyone is subject.

Chapter 7. W. H. Auden Poem: “As I Walked Out One Evening” [00:36:31]

This is the theme of the very great poem, written in popular ballad form, with this title in Auden’s Collected Poems: “As I Walked Out One Evening,” on page 793.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat. And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway [and here is his song]:
“Love has no ending. “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street. “I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky. “The years shall run like rabbits
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
And the first love of the world.” [Have you ever said that? Has someone
said that to you?] But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime [and they say]:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time. “In the buroughs of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss. “In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day. “Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow. “O plunge your hands in water
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead. “Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer
And Jill goes down on her back. “O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless. “O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.” It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

This is a ballad. Auden’s choice of it suggests that the song form is conveying popular common wisdom, something we all know. It’s expressing truth as a kind of commonplace that is shared, like the tune itself. Truth is not an elite knowledge. It’s something that’s out there in the street, and it touches all of us in common.

There are here in the poem two distinct voices in quotation marks: first the lover’s and then the voice of time, of the clocks. The lover, when he speaks, well, the poem seems to say or seems to acknowledge he’s lying, even if he doesn’t know it or mean to. And yet the poem still allows him his truth, his say. What it does really is it frames his truth with this other, larger truth, which is time’s truth uttered by the clocks. And the clocks speak from the point of view of disenchantment. The lover cannot wash his hands. The poem gives us a kind of image of primary sinfulness; again, how different from Stevens! Ordinary life here is haunted by, disrupted by elemental forces; “the glacier knocks in the cupboard.” The domestic includes tragic and uncanny dimensions. They return like repressed parts of the psyche in the poem.

And still there is a kind of consolation in view in that ambiguous promise or command that you and I will love each other; our “crooked” hearts will meet. There’s a sense in which people are bound to each other precisely by the circumstances that the poem describes and by the crookedness of their hearts. At the end then the lovers and the clocks are all gone, both, and the river runs on. There’s that last stanza.

Poetry in Auden speaks on behalf of necessity, necessity that frames what we do and think; necessity that determines the circumstances within which we make our moral choices. In this way Auden, like Bishop whom we’ll read next week, is a poet constantly drawing our attention to matters of perspective: how things are seen, how things are framed, what the context of any given point of view or utterance or action is. What is true and what is right from one point of view may not be from another. And this is part of the principle by which Auden comes to, in fact, revise and make decisions about his own work that involve censoring his own language. The great poem about this theme, that is, the way in which our knowledge and action is determined and bounded by the perspectives in which it is viewed, in which it takes place; the great poem on this theme is “Musée des Beaux Arts” and is also a poem that we’ll have to wait to talk about until Monday when we will talk about it in connection with the almost contemporaneous poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”

[end of transcript]


W. H. Auden, “This Lunar Beauty,” 1930; “Lullaby,” 1937 and “As I Walked Out One Evening,” 1940. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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