The Sage of Anxiety:
HIS FACE WAS AS WORN as the limestone landscape that he loved and praised, massive, brown, seamed like a walnut.
It might have belonged to a ravaged cigar-store Indian who lived too long and felt too deeply the weight of human weakness. His voice, lifting as it often did over lecture audiences in places like Fond du Lac, Wis., Ames, Iowa, or Cambridge, Mass., was high, flat and to some American ears, unnervingly British. His two grandfathers were Anglican clergymen. He studied biology at Oxford and at the end of his life held a chair there at Christ College. He could (and did) recently write, "Our earth in 1969 Is not the planet I call mine/ ... My Eden landscapes and their climes/ Are constructs from Edwardian times." Early in his career, he could (and did) produce one of the most beautiful love lyrics ever written: "Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm ..."
Despite his ultra-British manner, he was an American poet through earnestly adopted nationality and 30 years' residence. Until Wystan Hugh Auden died in Vienna last week at 66, no contemporary writer struck so well or held so long and so humanely the characteristic poetic note of the age.
Ezra Pound changed English poetry by badgering it to speak in sharp images, in direct familiar tones. T.S. Eliot challenged it by showing that verse might use myth and nightmare to say something complex about 20th century society. Auden was a brilliant colonizer of lands they discovered; less remote but also less magical than Eliot; wiser and clearer-sighted than Pound; younger and metrically more inventive, with more humor too. He was first heard in the 1930s, sharpening his satiric clauses on the foibles of pre-Munich England.
Those who fancy themselves as foxes
Or desire a special setting for spooning
Erect their villas at the right places,
Airtight, lighted, elaborately warmed.
And nervous people who will never marry
Live upon dividends in the old world cottages
With an animal for a friend and a volume of memoirs.
Man is changed by his living: but not fast enough.
Forty years on, his verses were full of more benign reflections upon all sorts of things, including his own youthful works: "The class whose vices/ he pilloried was his own,/ now extinct, except/ for long survivors like him/ who remember its virtues."
Slums and slag heaps, Freudian phrases and Marxian metaphors, the fall of prices and the Fall of Man—all found a place in Wystan Auden's writing. No poet more constantly and conscientiously tried to extend the domain of things poetical.
"Rummaging into his living," he once said of his profession, "the poet fetches out the images that hurt and connect." Yet he came to regard poetry as a kind of graceful, skillful game (which sometimes required the spectator's use of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, not to mention the King James Version of the Bible, to enjoy fully).
The later Auden, in fact, swam in light verse like a seal in surf: "Paul Valéry/ Earned a meager salary/ Walking through the Bois/ Observing his Moi." When people called him frivolous, Auden replied, "When you are labeled 'serious' in the U.S., you are expected to wear a long face all the time. I don't agree." He was fond of adding in defense of craftsmanship, "Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are irresponsible puppets of fate and charm."
In 1939, in one of his most famous poems, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Auden wrote: "For poetry makes nothing happen: 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 ...
This absolute standard, both passive and timeless, is correct enough for describing the handful of poems created by any poet that finally come to rest in the collective mind, heart and memory as the permanent possession of an age. Auden has written his share. But his work is also fascinating because it traces the course of a notably determined and characteristically 20th century quest.
That quest began for Auden with the belief that through science and poetry, man and society could be known and shown for what they are—and both vastly improved. When this happened, what he called "the just city" might be established. The hope was hopelessly ambiguous from the start. Auden was born in 1907 in Yorkshire and grew up near Birmingham. His father, who served as Birmingham's school medical officer, used to stud his lectures on such public-health needs as flush toilets with quotations from Vergil, a blending of the classical and clinical that often marked Auden's verse. But the elder Auden used to confide in his son that doctors never know why their patients get well. At Oxford, from which he graduated in the late '20s, already a poet, Auden studied Freud and preached that poets must be "clinically minded." He liked to explain his own nail biting and chain smoking as "insufficient weaning." Later, he traveled in Germany during the rise of Nazism. "For the first time," he later recalled, "I felt the earth move." He went home to find Britain ("This country of ours where nobody is well") full of the Depression and indifference.
As an arch poetic rebel and social critic, Auden was all bang and no whimper. The infected society "needs death, death of the grain . . . Death of the old gang." Nobody was better than he at describing a private attack of the hoo-has, personal angst, and a public sense of doom wrapped up in one:
Oh 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 teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
He never actually joined the Communists but in 1937 went to Spain, like a whole generation of leftist young Englishmen, to be profoundly disillusioned.
As the war that everyone knew was coming approached, Auden visited China with Christopher Isherwood and finally, in 1939, migrated to New York.
Of China, Auden recalled: "You could have no moral reactions. You just had to be numb and step over the bodies."
His political quest for the just city began to take a decisive turn—back from politics to what had always been its central problems, guilt, anxiety and individual man. A poetic drama, "The Ascent of F6," written with Isherwood, was crucial. It began as a political satire and ended up as a sort of medieval mystery play. "One saw oneself in the presence of evil—from the beginning," Auden would later explain, "and one realized how difficult it would be to change."
In the U.S., Auden soon found the crisis theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. It was a grim neo-Calvinism in which God is Wholly Other and man's individual guilt and anxiety can be submerged (if not assuaged) by a crushing awareness of general human depravity and the resultant difficulty in finding grace. In his most famous single work, "The Age of Anxiety" (for which, in 1948, he became the first foreign-born poet ever to win the Pulitzer Prize), he offered a repetitive, four-character charade running through all the ages and spiritual stages of modern man. Few are charming, none are fruitful, all are lonely and stiff with daily dread. And at each turning, each character is unable to feel the flash of faith, or even the modest touch of terrestrial love:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Liberals, humanists, materialists, which is to say nearly everyone who writes literary criticism in English, were shocked at the young rebel's defection.
"From saying 'We must do something about Hitler,'" observed Randall Jarrell, "Auden has begun to say 'We must realize that we are Hitler.' " Though Auden published his finest single poem in 1962 (In Praise of Limestone) and for the past twenty years poured out accomplished verse, as well as streams of essays, prefaces, and translations and libretti, the easy generalization has been largely accepted that later Auden is a poor, doddering shadow of early Auden. History may reverse the judgment.
For the late Auden, who spent his summers in Austria and his winters in a cluttered Greenwich Village apartment, was a graceful poet full of wisdom and knowledge, an awareness of human frailty, a persistent but not shrill hope, if not of heaven, at least of Judgment Day. He was also civilized, witty and endlessly inventive. He could write of himself without being a bore, recording "Thoughts of his own death/ like the distant roll/ of thunder at a picnic," wryly admitting that "Gluttony and Sloth have often protected him from Lust and Anger," and boasting gently that he was not vain "except about his knowledge of metre and his friends."
In 1966, long before his death, Auden's best epitaph was written by British Critic Cyril Connolly: "Auden was for many of us the last poet we learnt by heart."