AS A SMALL BOY before the first World War in England, one of W.H. Auden's great treats was a visit to the local gasworks with his nurse. Later, such things as tin mines and bridge engineering and mathematics turned him on. In fact, until Auden was halfway through Oxford, science remained his central interest.
But ambiguous feelings about it set in early. The poet's physician father, a Birmingham medical officer who used to stud his lectures on such public health innovations as the flush toilet with quotations from Virgil, unsettled his son by confiding that doctors never really know why their patients get well. The enormities of the age of anxiety have since produced an increasing conviction that measurable knowledge does not adequately account for, or much ease, the pain and confusion of modern life. The poet, like many another brilliant soul, has concluded that we are in God's hand or nowhere. Yet the blend of the clinical and the classical has never left his verse. It is particularly notable in this, the first book of poems issued since Auden returned to Oxford and England for good last May after 33 years in the U.S.
He had come here originally in part because he believed a poet could not develop in the stiflingly cozy cultural world of Britain. He was going back, he recently explained, because "Growing older changes one's life. Suppose I had a coronary? Here [his Lower East Side apartment in Manhattan] I could lie helpless for days. In Oxford I shall be part of a community." Appropriately, much of Epistle to a Godson is devoted to growing old. One poem is called "Old People's Home." Two are written to doctors, dead or retiring, both part of the vanishing breed who know their patients personally and realize that medicine is an art, not a science:
. . . The specialist has his function,
but, to him, we are merely banal examples of
what he knows all about.
There is comfort in the fact that even in age the individual cannot be reduced to mere cardiographic blips and statistical abstracts. There is also a certain ease in nostalgia for times when the "old could still be helpful," when they could envisage the future
as a named and settled landscape their children
would make the same sense of as they did,
laughing and weeping at the same stories.
But as always, Auden reveals sentiment only after a display of armed irony, often recognizing how little the wisdom of the past may be able to say to the present. In the good old simple-minded days, he admits, "good meant Giles the shoemaker/ taking care of the village ninny" while evil was "Count Foulkes who in his tall donjon/ indulged in sinister eccentricities."
Auden feels less need to qualify in attacking the present, its verbose pretensions, the decline of learning and language. Freud, up-to-date behavioral anthropology, as well as a gift for sardonic aphorism unmatched in poetry are all lightly trained on one of our much-vaunted achievements when the poet describes the moon landing as a "huge phallic triumph . . . made possible only/ because we like huddling in gangs and knowing/ the exact time." The poem "Circe" has hard words for the lady's most notably unwitting seductees, the dreamy denizens of the counterculture:
She does not brutalize her victims (beasts could
bite or bolt), She simplifies them to flowers,
sessile fatalists who don't mind and only can talk to themselves.
The book's perfect emblem is "A New Year Greeting." "I should like to think that I make/ a not impossible world," one stanza begins, "but an Eden it cannot be." Auden is addressing the invisible, microscopic creatures who inhabit his body ("Yeasts, Bacteria, Viruses, Aerobic and Anaerobics") as men inhabit the world. Clinical knowledge of their doings helps him spin out a metaphysical conceit that manages to spoof mildly the anthropocentric folly of men in assuming that God thinks in human imagery, and at the same time modestly asserts that God exists:
By what myths would your priests account for the hurricanes that come
twice every twenty-four hours, each time I dress or undress,
when, clinging to keratin rafts, whole cities are swept away
to perish in space, or the Flood that scalds to death when I bathe?
Then, sooner or later, will dawn A Day of Apocalypse,
when my mantle suddenly turns too cold, too rancid for you,
appetizing to predators of a fiercer sort, and I
am stripped of excuse and nimbus, a Past, subject to Judgment.