ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 23

 - W. H. Auden (cont.)


In this second lecture on W.H. Auden, the relationship between art and suffering is considered in Auden’s treatment of Brueghel’s “Fall of Icarus” in the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Auden’s reflections on the place of art in society are explored in the elegies “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” where Freud’s “talking cure” is recast as a model for poetry-making. Finally, “In Praise of Limestone” is considered as a late allegorical vision of a secular, non-transcendental earthly paradise.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 23 - W. H. Auden (cont.)

Chapter 1. W. H. Auden: “Another Time” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Second Auden lecture. I was reading last time from poems from the ’30s, those love poems: “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” and “This Lunar Beauty.” The ballad that I read for you, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” also a poem about love, also comes from the later ’30s. It is collected though in this book called Another Time, a book Auden published in 1940. And I wanted to, well, let’s see, I’m afraid I’ve got my order all mixed up here. I wanted to show you just the table of contents of this book because it has a number of masterpieces in it that you are reading.

It’s also significant that it’s organized in the way that it is. The first section is called, humbly I guess or practically, “People and Places” and it includes in it the poem I’ll be discussing shortly, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” There’re another couple of sections, a section called “Lighter Poems” that includes all kinds of song forms: “Refugee Blues,” different kinds of blues, and some kind of Gothic, satirical ballads – “Miss Gee,” “James Honeyman” – poems that are antecedents for a song like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” This is the kind of thing Auden was writing. And then there’s also something else called “Occasional Poems,” and in this box Auden has put “Spain 1937,” that great political poem from the Civil War, and these poems that I’ll be discussing today: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.”

I wanted to call attention to this book, first of all because it shows us these poems embedded in the actual context in which they first appeared, but also to point out the way in which Auden has organized his book. That is to say, he has thought of his poems as belonging to specific categories and placed them accordingly. And they have different genres, different forms suitable to different purposes and occasions. And this is very much the way in which Auden imagines himself as a poet, I think, that is, someone writing with a kind of technical mastery with access to a whole repertoire of traditional forms which are suitable to different purposes and different occasions.

This general perspective on his work is related to the topic that I introduced in discussing “As I Walked Out One Evening,” and that is the whole question of perspective in Auden. You remember I talked about how that poem seems to include, well, at least three different perspectives: that is, the quoted song of the lover who tells his beloved that he will love her until the end of time; then, there’s the voice of the clocks who speak from the point of view of time and correct his claims; and then finally there’s a kind of narrative voice that seems to frame the whole thing with that image of the river running on.

As in that poem, Auden seems to be able to incorporate in his poetry multiple perspectives, each of which comment on or are framed or conditioned by the others, but each of which has its independent truth, you could say. This is a topic that we’ll explore more today looking at other poems.

I wanted to show you some photographs. In the 1930s during the Japanese-Chinese War, a prelude to the Second World War, Auden went with his friend Christopher Isherwood to China and they created a book together called Journey to a War which includes Isherwood’s prose and Auden’s poetry. It’s quite a remarkable book. It also includes photographs which are presented in an interesting way. We have here two different photographs of boys, boys who are classified here as “soldiers” and “civilians” and then grimly are identified as “with legs” and “without.” There’s a kind of interest in these photographs and in their presentation of how – in the ways in which in war who we are is a matter of perspective and point of view. The war gave Auden and Isherwood an opportunity to experience what it was like to be on the ground when planes are overhead bombing you, and here’s one photograph of that condition. And here is another illustration of this general point I wanted to make. There are unidentified corpses under blankets there. There are then scattered human remains and debris. And the one photograph is identified as “The Innocent” and the other as “The Guilty.”

Chapter 2. W. H. Auden Poem: “Musée des Beaux Arts” [00:07:17]

Well, the great poem on this general theme in Auden’s work is “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It is a poem that Auden wrote after returning from China in December, I believe, 1938, contemplating a return to the United States where he had visited a short time before, contemplating, in fact, expatriation; also, contemplating an imminent war, a world war that would extend the horror that he had witnessed in China to all of Europe and beyond. Suffering, in other words, was on his mind, and it’s the subject, or rather, art’s relation to suffering is the subject of this poem. The poem has as its occasion a visit to the Musée des Beaux Art in Brussels where Auden saw among other works this painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” that is painted by Pieter Brueghel. This and other Brueghels are referred to in the course of the poem which proceeds almost as a kind of imaginary gallery tour or walk in which Auden as our companion takes us to different works and contemplates their commentary on the general issue that he is raising here: what is art’s relation to suffering?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position [he’s concerned with how you position suffering in
human life, and he’s taking Brueghel as a model]; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
along [as this line of poetry itself seems to];
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth [now he’s contemplating a Nativity scene], there
must always be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot [the old masters]
That even the dreadful martyrdom [and now he’s looking at Brueghel’s
painting “The Massacre of the Innocents”] 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 [no
more innocent or guilty than those boys, I suppose]
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The Old Masters know the human position of suffering, its position in human life. “Position” is important; it’s an important word for Auden here. He’s concerned with how experience is placed. Sometimes he calls this geography. It is a topos, a motif, and an idea in his poetry that Elizabeth Bishop will take over quite directly from him and develop and make central to her poetry. The idea is that things have meaning in relation to, in their connection with, but also their separation from each other. Suffering is part, but only a part and not the center of human life, a repertoire of actions and conditions and states of being that is much larger. In Brueghel, in his “Massacre of the Innocents” – I won’t try to find it now among my slides for you – Auden focuses on the “torturer’s horse,” the animal that is part of the scene and that motivated by an itch, scratches its behind while the dreadful martyrdom runs its course.

In this poem, as in other Auden poems, note the prose rhythms. The poem does seem to at times walk dully along. Auden, like Moore, is writing in an expository manner, I guess an essayistic manner. This is part of the tone of the poem. Auden is getting into his poetry a kind of neo-classical, eighteenth-century aesthetic, an ability to talk about ideas in poetry in, again, a discursive, expository manner that includes humor and that is matter-of-fact, is observant. Pain, like the tears that I talked about last time that had dried on Auden’s pages, pain is part of the picture, but it is just a part. It’s, in a sense, been put aside.

All of this is a function of what I’m calling Auden’s perspectivism. Any scene borders on other scenes where other people are positioned looking at the same thing differently or not looking at it at all. And this is one of the themes of the second section of the poem where Auden specifically describes this painting. He says:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance….

And this is a poetry in which the poet says “for instance,” just as Moore might have said “however.”

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster….

And he’s talking about the shepherd who’s looking up to the sky, he’s talking about the ploughman who has his back turned to the fall; and where is it? It’s hard probably for you to see, but it’s hard to find in any case because this dramatic event that is the center of Brueghel’s pictures – in fact, these bare legs disappearing into the sea as the overreaching son of Daedalus plunges into the water – is not at all in the center of the picture.

how everything turns away [Auden observes]
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.…

He’s not concerned with flying to or beyond the sun. For him the sun merely shines, it helps him cultivate the land.

the sun shone [of necessity]
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water [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.

Well, here Auden wasn’t thinking about Hart Crane, but he might have been. It’s almost as if this figure has leaped off the back of the boat, as Crane did. He is, however, thinking, I suppose, about romanticism in general and its ambitions. Here, the sun shines as it had to. What it illuminates are white legs. There’s a kind of objectivity in that, there’s a kind of naturalism. It shines on green water. It’s as if from a certain perspective, from the perspective of aesthetic form, these elements of the picture are merely elements of the picture – colors, which have meaning as they are placed in a system of relationships and a system of perspectives.

Well, there’s a great deal more to be said about this painting. I think one idea that is worth emphasizing is the way in which the ploughman, in Auden’s account as in Brueghel’s painting, has prominence, has a greater prominence than the heroic, romantic figure plunging into the sea. The ploughman is going about his ordinary daily work, and as he turns these furrows, we are reminded, as Auden surely was reminded, of the ancient classical connection between verse – meaning the turning, in Latin, from one line to another – and the shaping action of the plough that creates these furrows in the earth, committing the poet, as he identifies with the ploughman, to a kind of poetry of craft and of the earth that involves, in a sense, turning away from disaster.

Chapter 3. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” [00:18:44]

Well, this poem was written in Europe. It is a poem that Auden – let me find this picture here – with which Auden, in a sense, turns his back on Europe and, for the moment at least, the imminent world war. He comes to the United States; he immigrates to the United States in January 1939. This personal turning point in a poetic career comes at a moment when the world is about to be split in war. It also comes at a significant moment in literary history when Yeats dies, and Auden recognizes this occasion as a moment to celebrate the poet, contemplate the achievement in modern poetry that he represents Yeats and, in a sense, provide a kind of epitaph for a poetry now in the past and behind us that positions Auden in the present.

Let’s look at the view of Yeats and of Yeats’s poetry that emerges here. The poem extends the questions of “Musée des Beaux Arts” by asking not so much what is art’s relation to suffering as what is the place of art in society generally, or poetry in particular? Auden begins:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the air-ports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
Oh, all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

There’s a sense, as Auden elaborates these ideas, that natural science is here mocking the pathetic fallacy that all nature should mourn when the poet dies and reflect the grief of this event. He’s saying, Auden is, it was a cold day and we had instruments to measure it and that that’s what it was, in a kind of factual way. He continues, Auden does:

Now he [Yeats] is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections….

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Yeats is passed on to us. And yet to whom has he passed on? What difference does he make? Auden doesn’t want us to make the mistake of thinking that Yeats is too central a figure, that he matters too much.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow [he continues]
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

This is an attempt to, in some sense, place poetry realistically in culture. It doesn’t matter to the brokers “roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse.” It doesn’t matter to the poor who have their suffering “to which they are fairly accustomed.” It matters, well, perhaps to “a few thousand” people, not a negligible number but not a large one either. There’s a kind of modesty in Auden’s claims for Yeats, for poetry. You could contrast Pound at the same time as this poem is being written, broadcasting his ideas on Fascist radio, or you could think about Stevens at the same time dreaming up a poem he will call “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” This is a rather different claim for what poetry might do. It returns to a theme of The Waste Land. Somehow, the world that Auden is describing is one in which we are each imprisoned in the cell of ourselves, recalling the locked chambers of Eliot’s poem.

In the second section, Auden moves to address Yeats directly. Now Yeats has, in a sense, claimed for us his difference, the vatic powers of language, the visionary ambition, and the occult learning. All of that that would distinguish and separate him from us is put aside, and what he shares with us is emphasized:

You were silly like us [silly]: your gift survived it all; [it had to survive a lot,
it had to survive]
The parish of rich women, [who doted on him, his own] physical decay,
Yourself [himself; Auden says]; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still [you did not affect it,
you did not affect it because you are a man and only a man. In fact],
For poetry makes nothing happen.…

This is one of the most quoted sentences in modern poetry: “poetry makes nothing happen.” It is almost always quoted, however, out of context. It is part of a long sentence. It comes first as a qualification on what Yeats, on the difference Yeats has made in the world. Auden’s saying in a sense, no, you haven’t made a difference, for poetry makes nothing happen. But the poem continues then, the sentence continues. Auden says, (colon): “it survives.” “…Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” Where? It survives:

In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper, it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry doesn’t make things happen. It has a different kind of action. It survives; it lasts. How does it last, where does it last? It lasts “in the valley of its saying,” a kind of imaginary landscape or a kind of world that is created through speech here. “The valley of its saying”: perhaps a rich place to live but also a space that evokes a kind of absence or hollow, right? Or a kind of opening perhaps, or a gap. As Auden develops this idea the poetry becomes what he calls “a way of happening, a mouth.” And then that valley is refigured as a mouth – an open mouth, I’m sure, a mouth open where words are coming out, where more words will follow and flow like a kind of river.

Poetry, in that sense, doesn’t make anything happen. It is rather a way of happening, that is, a kind of method or model, a path or discipline: a way. Not a deed, but something more like the symbol of a deed or the figure of a kind of potential action, a nothing that is somehow something, too, again, I think, an image implying an open mouth; that is, the mouth of a river or the mouth of a poet, through which language flows.

Then the poem moves into, I think, a kind of illustration of the kind of action that poetry engages in, and that comes with the movement into these ceremonial quatrains in iambic tetrameter, essentially. Is that what it is? Well, it’s definitely a tetrameter. The rhyme enters. The prose rhythms of the poem up to now give way to a kind of ceremonial lyric language. Here poetry is identified with praise and with prayer. The poem gives us a kind of performative language of human ceremony that honors Yeats, that lays him to rest and yet also absorbs and affirms the power of poetry that was in him.

Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Auden goes on to describe the way that time will honor poetry and will honor Yeats; that time will even, he says – Auden does – forgive Yeats for the right-wing politics that Yeats’s later career is marked by and that Auden separates himself from and needs to come to terms with in this poem. He says:

Time with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel [Kipling, for his imperial jingoism, Claudel
for his proto-Fascist ideas],
Pardons him [Yeats also] for writing well.

Auden, looking back on this poem, would ask himself, how could I possibly presume to judge Yeats and forgive him morally for his politics? And he struck these condescending lines from his poem. So, you won’t find them in The Collected Poems but you will find the powerful lines that proceed from them.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

What does the poet do in this condition?

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night….

The poet descends and descends into night, a night that is this nightmare in which Europe barks, ready to attack itself.

With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice; With the farming of a verse [and remember the ploughman now, as a
figure for the poet]
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

This is what poetry can offer. It can offer a lesson in how to praise. This is not making something happen politically in the world, perhaps, but it’s making something happen in the heart and perhaps within the eye of each of us who look locked and staring with our pity, frozen there. Poetry would be a kind of farming in the desert of the heart that would break open that which is locked there and free feeling. It’s a powerful and very traditional claim for what poems can do. And in talking about The Waste Land, I stressed the ways in which Eliot sought language of public ritual that might join people separated in the cells of themselves. Here, Auden is working through the same ideas and providing a kind of model for how that might work.

Chapter 4. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” [00:35:12]

Let me turn ahead with you to another great poem from this period, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” Freud is a kind of ploughman. He is another model for the poet, for Auden. And this poem proposes still other ways to understand poetry’s relation to suffering, represented here by Freud’s humanistic, therapeutic technique. What sort of hero is Freud? Auden calls him “an important Jew who died in exile.” It’s significant that he is called that by Auden at this moment. If you look for the figure of the Jew in “Gerontion,” Eliot’s early poem, you’ll see that the figure is not dignified with a capital J. Anti-Semitism is a crisis in Europe and it’s certainly a pervasive current in modern poetry. Whether it is actually a theme or a motif, as it appears in Eliot or Pound, or simply a kind of voluble prejudice as you would find it in Williams’s letters, anti-Semitism is powerful. And here, Auden is identifying himself with Freud as a Jew and as a Jew in exile. And it seems as though Freud in this way represents a figure for people who are in some sense extracted from the nation and who are international in their perspective. And Auden himself is writing in America from a similar point of view.

As in the Yeats elegy, Auden is reluctant to single Freud out when, as he says, death is so common and suffering is so common. But Freud’s point of view for Auden is powerful and valuable precisely because it emphasizes the commonplaceness of human suffering, its ubiquity. He’s praised – Freud is – as the poem unfolds, specifically for the ways in which he responds to suffering. How does he do it? Well, around line 28 or so, on page 804, Auden says:

All that he did was to remember
Like the old and be honest like children. He wasn’t clever at all [he was silly like us]: he merely told
The unhappy Present to recite the Past
Like a poetry lesson till sooner
Or later it faltered at the line where Long ago the accusations had begun,
And suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
How rich life had been and how silly [there’s that word again],
And was life-forgiven and more humble, … No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
In his technique of unsettlement [that’s what he (Auden) calls Freud’s
therapeutic technique, the talking cure: it’s a technique of unsettlement]
The fall of princes, the collapse of
Their lucrative patterns of frustration. If he had succeeded [Freud], why, the Generalised Life
Would become impossible, the monolith
Of State be broken and prevented
The co-operation of avengers. Of course they called on God [his (Freud’s) detractors]: but he went his
way [like the poet who follows right to the bottom of the night],
Down among the Lost People like Dante, down
To the stinking fosse where the injured Lead the ugly life of the rejected. And showed us what evil is: not as we thought
Deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
Our dishonest mood of denial,
The concupiscence of the oppressor.

Auden emphasizes Freud’s literary dimensions. The talking cure is like a poetry lesson. It puts faith in speech, in the powers of true speech, to correct and reshape and heal human life. It is a technique of unsettlement that is a threat to princes, all worldly authority, because it questions authority and empowers the individual speaker to take life into his hands. Like Dante or like Pound’s Ulysses in Canto I, like the poet at the end of the Yeats elegy, Freud, in Auden’s poem, goes down among the lost people and goes into “the stinking fosse,” which is a powerful word. It’s a word that appears in Canto I where Ulysses, Pound’s Ulysses, goes to seek Tiresias. “Fosse,” it’s an Anglo-Saxon word. It reaches back, in that sense, in cultural history to suggest that our present misery is one with, continuous with, that of the past.

And yet history is something here that can be intervened in, in an individual way through the kind of true speech that Auden celebrates in Freud and that he aspires to in poetry. As the elegy builds towards its conclusion, on page 806, again the night appears. Freud:

… would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night [and its lost people, ourselves]
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer [night, the unconscious], but also
Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
Us dumbly to ask them to follow….

That is, all the properties here of the unconscious that are identified at the same time with all those who are lost in society and need to be represented and claimed. They are, like Freud:

…exiles who long for the future
That lies in our power. [Again a power of speech.] They too would rejoice
If allowed to serve enlightenment like him [like Freud],
Even to bear our cry of “Judas,”
As he did and all must bear who serve it.

Freud here is in exile, and he brings insight but he also brings love. Auden is imagining a kind of general state of homelessness, which Freud’s technique of unsettlement isn’t meant to redress but rather to recognize and accept and help us adjust to and live in. Auden’s own technique here is – well, his verse form is a simple syllable count: 11 syllables, 11 syllables, 9 syllables, 10. The normative ten-syllable line comes last and fourth and gives a kind of resolution to each quatrain. This simple pattern, again, accommodates and promotes a kind of prose speech, a kind of ordinariness that identifies Freud’s work and the poet’s work with a kind of ordinary, ongoing work and that accommodates rationality in a rational voice, as Auden will describe Freud’s as being, and yet also accommodates feeling at the same time and accommodates love.

One rational voice is dumb [Freud’s, he’s silent]: over a grave [his grave]
The household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved [because he
understood how to love our impulses].
Sad is Eros, builder of cities,
And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

It’s eventually a powerful, moving conclusion. Eros and Aphrodite have lost their champion.

Chapter 5. W. H. Auden Poem: “In Praise of Limestone” [00:46:08]

I’m going to conclude by commenting very quickly, since we’re almost out of time, on one last poem, arguably Auden’s greatest, “In Praise of Limestone,” a poem written from the perspective of the post-war in the United States, but about a kind of imaginary landscape that combines elements of his childhood – a landscape in northern England – and the Italian landscape where he returned in the post-War period and became increasingly attached to. It is a kind of allegorical space and it represents a home, I suppose, for the homeless, for we, “the inconstant ones,” as he describes us. It is, this limestone landscape, something to be praised, and it is a poem of praise.

It is an image of the world without another transcendental world beyond or behind it. To be in the world, as described in this poem, is to be in an entirely earthly realm. And again, you might think of the ploughman turning away from the over-reacher who tried to fly to the sky and turns rather to the earth. It is a landscape like that of Stevens in “Sunday Morning.” It is a landscape that Auden can only describe as a kind of imaginary place through counter-factual statements. It is porous. It’s rich, it’s fertile, and it’s moderate. It is not a place of extremes; and hermits and Caesars; they don’t belong here. They go elsewhere. It’s rather a place in which ordinary life and ordinary people might live.

The very end of the poem is extremely powerful because it looks towards a kind of redeemed human life, sees it in this landscape, and yet represents it in the conditional. Auden says – this is on page 808:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact [something he will never let us forget], no doubt we
are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead [and you note the
conditional in both phrases],
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes [the people that he peoples this landscape with] and
gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear [and now he speaks to a beloved], I know
nothing of
Either [that is, what it would mean to be blessed or to have nothing to
hide: I know nothing of either of those things], but when I try to imagine a
faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

A landscape that is Auden’s version of an earthly paradise and our only image of these ultimate promises. Auden manages somehow here to make us see and feel what the life to come might be like, what it might be like to be blessed, while still acknowledging that we can only live in and be in and speak in the world before us, which is the one that Auden remains, throughout his poetry, dedicated to.

Well, we’ll go on to a poet closely identified with Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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