I’ve never been a devotee of W.H. Auden–not because I don’t respect the poetry. Other voices have simply been nearer and dearer to my heart. Maybe, too, that ethereally magisterial (dare I say upper-class) demeanor makes me feel distanced from the heart of the work. But I was dazzled, as I often am by Auden when he comes into my view, by insights both subtle and expansive in a selection featured in the most recent Harper’s. These selections come from an article originally published in France in 1952 but that will be included in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume III, 1949-1955 (forthcoming from Princeton University Press. In just this brief segment, Auden ranges from the role of the critic to the benefits of form. This is Auden on the latter:
“The poet who writes ‘free verse’ is like Robinson Crusoe on his island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, darning, etc. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor: empty bottles on the unswept floor, dirty sheets on the unmade bed.”
I admit, at first, to finding this comparison fascinating, perhaps even persuasive given the sharpness of the analogy. But what of that analogy? One can’t help but notice the way that the masculine force of ingenuity is opposed to those (dare we say) feminine household tasks outsourced to domestics. This is not, of course, Auden’s point. Indeed, the history of form–in a male-dominated tradition becomes that repository of domesticity: the homeliness, one might say, of formal tradition. Elsewhere, Auden claims “Rhymes, meters, stanzas, etc., are like servants.” While the success of such service depends on the justness of the master, one wonders what to do, caught between the Scylla of a masculinist, free verse Crusoe and the Charybdis of a upper-crust service-oriented model of form. Moreover, what kind of poetry is there when there is no room for squalor? Empty bottles, unswept floors, the unmade bed: sounds like the stuff of a poem to me.
Auden is quite emphatic about a certain continuity of writing challenges over the centuries of the literary tradition. Auden isn’t, in fact, talking about the changes in writing technology that might more immediately come to mind. Rather, he has in mind “labor-saving ideas [that] have been introduced into the mental kitchen–alcohol, coffee, tobacco, Benzedrine, etc.” These, however, are crude and don’t distract from the fact that “Artistic composition in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much the same as it was in the twentieth century B.C.: nearly everything has still to be done by hand.” The question of technological change and writerly process is interesting but perhaps not as interesting than the “mental kitchen” Auden refers to. As the unfortunate heirs of Romanticism’s zeal of opium-induced art, do we too easily to assume that the alteration of the mind will necessarily enhance it? Arguably no, if we trust Auden in this.
Perhaps Auden, most of all, has a gift for authoritative pronouncements. If some of those assertions we’d do better to question, it’s hard to ignore the gleam of truth in others, so let’s let Auden have the last word:
“When a reviewer declares a book to be ‘sincere’ we know immediately: A. that it is not sincere, and B. that it is badly written.”
“A new convention is a revolution in sensibility.”
“Propaganda is the use of magic by those who no longer believe in it against those who still do.”