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Seduced by the old tricks

November 23, 2013

Wystan Hughes Auden wrote poetry for forty-five years, 1927 til 1972. And yet, strangely, while I consider him one of my favorite poets, almost all his poems that I feel as if I “own” come from a single five year span, ’37-’41. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in this. Most people I’ve talked to find his later poetry for the most part unbearable; they differ only in whether or not they enjoy the cryptic first ten years.

Consider: “As I Walked Out One Evening”; “Lullaby”; “Musée des Beaux Arts”; “Elegy for W.B. Yeats”; “Elegy for Sigmund Freud”; “Law Like Love”; “At the Grave of Henry James”; that’s just a few of the ’37-’41 highlights. There’s a few wonderful later poems, e.g. “In Praise of Limestone” (’48), “The Shield of Achilles” (’52), “Vespers” (’54), “The More Loving One” (’57), but in comparison to ’37-’41, very few. As for the early Auden, well, there’s only a handful of poems I truly like, and none, perhaps, that I love, though many are undoubtedly clever. I do enjoy “The Secret Agent” (’28):

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I read through Auden’s poetry for class (I’m up to ’58). In a way it’s easily explicable. A story: Early Auden was tortured, brilliant, and arrogant, and took it out on his audience; he gave us cryptic formulae that resonate strongly with current intellectual trends (Marxist, Freudian) and surely mean something, but refuse to divulge what. Then he started putting his thoughts in order and seeking to be ethically serious; he began to use poetry not to confuse us, nor to enchant us, but to show us his (and our) confusions and hopes and fears; and, in ’41, he converted to Christianity. Then, all too quickly, he became courageous in his Christianity and complacent in his composition; theoretically, he made himself into a brilliant critic of the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical, but for that very reason, poetically, he reduced himself to a studious craftsman building crossword puzzles and jargon-filled sestinas. Though, still, with flashes of brilliance here and there.

There’s something unsatisfying about this. Perhaps it’s just that Auden is so obviously self-aware, and I struggle to believe that he couldn’t see what was happening to him. He may have convinced himself it was necessary for ethical reasons, but he surely knew that it made his poetry weaker, as poetry. Did his new view of poetry come upon him as liberation or as a trap?

The main character of “The Secret Agent” can be taken as the ego, negotiating the frontier between Id and World, failing until too late to recognize the importance of the unconscious; or the isolated individual, navigating a world fallen into political disarray; but first and foremost, I think, the poem is spiritual autobiography, and perhaps an attempt at prophecy. Does it succeed? Here’s the story it tells: From his youth Auden sought to open up a new kind of poetry and a new understanding of the human. He thought that by returning to the satiric tradition he’d found it, but then no one followed his lead. He pursued it until he found himself in a desert, parched for poetic inspiration. He longed for a poetry of love not just civility (cf. his “Dichtung und Wahrheit, an unwritten poem”), but convinced himself that it was impossible, and knew his successors would condemn him for his failure.

I dunno. Maybe.

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