"A WRITER GIVES HIMSELF away all the time anyway," W.H. Auden once pointed out. "He has no important secrets.'' Certainly the secrets in this poet's heart were well known by the time he died two falls ago. Auden's evolution from anger to acceptance, from wrathful condemnation of prewar society ("that confabulation of weasels at the next table") to rueful contemplation of self, was one of the best articulated literary odysseys ever taken.
If there are no secrets in this volume, there are no surprises either. How could there be? These are the handful of poems that Auden wrote between the time he went back to England after 31 years in the New World and the time of his death. It is the familiar, autumnal Auden speaking: student of fleshly decay, writer of thank-you notes, urbane scold, expert at anamnesis, a celebrator of the numinous past that raises nostalgia almost to the level of ritual.
Retransplanted to Britain, the poet praises animals at the expense of men ("you have never felt the need to become literate ... never kill for applause"). He is pleased to encounter again on his native turf that "unsullied sister of Smog," good old English Fog. In a miniautobiography he offers thanks to helpful friends and models (among them: Hardy, Edward Thomas, Frost, Yeats, Brecht, Kierkegaard, Goethe and Horace). Plato, however, rates a putdown ("I can't imagine anything/ that I would less like to be/ than a disincarnate Spirit"). So do the "nimble technicians" of Detroit ("Dark was the day when Diesel/ conceived his grim engine"), partly because they cannot be bothered to build "what sanity knows we need,/ an odorless and noiseless/ staid little electric brougham."
Auden liked to quote Paul Valéry to the effect that poems are never completed, only abandoned. Some of these have been abandoned too soon. Even so, the old master has his moments of magic, turning his nouns into verbs and moving more often than not in a seven-syllable line that sounds like simple conversation but conceals much art. In "Nocturne," though most of the world is asleep, "someone in the small hours,/ for the money or love, is/ always awake and at work./ Here young radicals plotting/ to blow up a building, there/ a frowning poet rifling/ his memory's printer's-pie/ to form some placent sentence." Then:
Over oceans, landmasses and treetops the Moon now takes her dander through the darkness, to lenses a ruined world lying in its own rubbish, but still to the naked eye the Icon of all mothers, for never shall second thoughts succumb our first-hand feelings, our only redeeming charm, our childish drive to wonder: spaced about the firmament, planets and constellations still officiously declare the glory of God, though known to be uninfluential.
Auden assimilated Marx and Freud, yet eventually became the kind of arch-poetic witness to a disarming, irony proof piety that a secular age requires. The fact that a cursory reader may feel he has been here before is not a problem. It is the whole point. Before abandoning his verses to history, Auden liked to be sure that, whatever their message, each one sounded as if it could only have been written by W.H. Auden. Everything in THANK YOU, FOG qualifies. As with saved letters from lost sons or fathers, so with the last words of this dead poet. They stir the heart not because of what they say but because they sound like the man himself.