Mouth of the Dying Day

Mouth of the Dying Day

W.H. Auden observed that biographies “are always superfluous and usually in bad taste,” but Edward Mendelson’s book on him, Later Auden, is neither.


W.H. Auden observed that biographies “are always superfluous and usually in bad taste,” but Edward Mendelson’s book on him, Later Auden, is neither. In fact, he calls the work not a biography but “a history and an interpretation of W.H. Auden’s work.” In it he presents the poet’s life and art so vividly as to illuminate the major works and bring out neglected ones.

Auden, who was born in York in 1907, stands highest in the group of British literary figures of the thirties that includes the poets Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice and the dramatist Christopher Isherwood, all of whom hoped socialism would end the prevailing political despair. Born two decades after the great American poets T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, Auden renewed Eliot’s vision of cultural ruin and, by his own account, studied Moore’s syllabic verse to structure his homely and elegant, irreverent, conversational art.

Mendelson contends that the most dramatic changes in Auden’s life occurred between 1936 and 1947, years that enclose the stirrings of Nazism in Europe and the aftermath of World War II. Here, Mendelson emphasizes poems written during and just after the war, and, more boldly, celebrates work done during the last fifteen years of the poet’s life. The book follows Mendelson’s Early Auden, in which the poems he considers include “Paysage Moralisé,” “As I Walked Out One Evening” and “Musée des Beaux Arts.” From the earlier work, the new volume rises in intensity.

Later Auden begins in 1939, the year of the poet’s great elegies to Yeats, Toller and Freud; “At the Grave of Henry James”; “The Unknown Citizen”; and the classic that Auden later renounced, “September 1, 1939.” On January 26, eight months before Britain and France declared war on Germany, Auden came from England to what he called “an absolutely free America.” (He was to establish citizenship here in 1946.) Mendelson uses the language of Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” to describe his arrival with Isherwood “in the dead of winter, while a light snow disfigured the public statues.”

At this time, Auden was torn between conflicting creeds. He believed simultaneously that the artist could not redeem an unjust world and that art could not serve public causes, such as suppressing fascism or achieving a humane social democracy. Mendelson maintains: “Almost everything he wrote in 1939 was an attempt to clarify his mixed feelings about the rival claims of private gift and public good.” That tension heightens the Yeats elegy: The famous line “Poetry makes nothing happen,” referring to the artist’s effect on society, is answered by the closing quatrains, which celebrate poetry’s triumph over time and death. In an earlier poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Auden had invented fictional lovers and warned them, “You cannot conquer time.” Two years later, in the Yeats elegy, he affirmed that the artist’s gift alone defeats time and renews life: “Your gift survived it all.” The poem ends with a prayer for miracles only the poet can perform:

In the deserts of the heart,
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Concurrent with the world’s crisis was Auden’s personal drama. At Easter1939, he met Chester Kallman, with whom–despite the younger man’s promiscuously “roving eyes and hands”–Auden was to live intermittently for the rest of his life. For Auden, that first meeting was “a Vision of Eros…a revelation of creaturely glory.” Mendelson asserts: “This was more than the ordinary upheaval of falling in love. It was the same tumult of voices and visions that Dante experienced when he first saw Beatrice.” His love for others became love for another. Lonely much of his life, scorning his homosexuality as isolating and even criminal, Auden suddenly broke free:

For love’s more important and powerful than
Even a priest or a politician.

Mendelson’s frank yet delicate treatment of Auden’s sexuality affirms, for me, the passion in beautiful lines such as “Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm.” Also, it elucidates the language of the poems. Auden, aware of his homosexuality since adolescence, hoped briefly in 1928 to be made straight through psychoanalysis. In his poems and letters he used the word “crooked” to mean homosexual (as in “the crooked that dreads to be straight”). Later, Mendelson tells us, the words “crooked” and “straight” served him differently: “When have we not preferred some going round/To going straight where we are?” Auden writes, and Mendelson construes: “By learning to love someone rather like himself, Auden had gone straight to where he was, and…by accepting his sexuality he had discovered it to be in the deepest sense not crooked but straight.”

Striking details characterize a man who defied the rigid gender definitions of his time. Auden wore a wedding ring and wrote to his brother, John: “This time, my dear, I really believe it’s marriage.” He contended that marriage (Rimbaud and Verlaine, for example) was any sexual relation governed by vows, indifferent to gender. And for a time Auden lost his solitariness to marriage.

Apparently love generated hope, though some aspirations were denied later. “September 1, 1939,” whose date refers to the Nazi invasion of Poland and the advent of European war, begins in gloom and ends in faith:

Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In later years, Auden renounced that hope. Mendelson tells us that in 1944 he abandoned the famous stanza ending “We must love one another or die,” and in 1957 he confided to a critic that he loathed the poem. That curious dismissal of what is, after all, a great poem, is at least placed into perspective by Mendelson, who says Auden had regretted the poem for years. Before the outbreak of World War II, the poet had believed passionately that history moves inevitably toward a just future, as differentiated from a Marxian view of necessary violence. He was troubled in August 1939 when he heard radio reports of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Germany’s seizure of Danzig and Britain’s alliance with Poland. Events were caused not by universal love but, as Auden had feared, by politicians: “helpless governors wake/to resume their compulsory game.” He was horrified when, in 1939, he went to a German-language cinema and the audience applauded a newsreel about the conquest of Poland. Mendelson relates: “Auden’s beliefs had been unsettled by the outbreak of war, but he had not understood how deeply they had been shaken until he witnessed national and racial hatred at first hand.”

Indeed, the remarkable impact ofLater Auden is of a man who shifts from one stance to another, continually correcting his moral position. Disillusioned with Soviet Russia after the Moscow trials of 1936, Auden discovered in Spain, where he volunteered to drive an ambulance for the socialist government, that Franco’s enemies found themselves implicated with Stalinist agents. Later, at 33, he returned to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned at 16. In his Christianity he was inspired notably by Paul Tillich, the theologian who, while looking heavenward, worked actively to attain justice on earth. Then, during the later years of World War II, Auden read widely in Judaism, attempting to find his way from a personal religion to a communal one.

As his views changed, so did his forms. He wrote in Horatian stanzas, sonnets, villanelles, the syllabic verse he came to value in later life. Often his formal practices were emblematic, as in the wide array of conventional forms used in The Sea and the Mirror–canzone, sestina, prose–for voices that are characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I marvel at his daring mixture of elegant and demotic diction in set forms, which is followed today by poets such as Tony Harrison and Marilyn Hacker.

Mendelson, in discussing the verse, concentrates not only on major works such as “For the Time Being” and The Age of Anxiety but praises lesser-known, very late poems that include “River Profile,” “First Things First” and three sonnets, “Objects,” “Words” and “The Song.” This is a major study of a poet whose cries against social injustice resound far beyond his time and place: In Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” Hephaestus forges not a fair scene but “a weed-choked field,” where

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

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