A child may ask when our strange epoch passes
During a history lesson, 'Please, sir, what's
An intellectual of the middle classes?
Is he a maker of ceramic pots,
Or does he choose his king by drawing lots?'
What follows now may set him on the rail,
A plain, perhaps a cautionary, tale.
I’ve been interested in W. H. Auden’s works since I was a teenager, but my opinion of their worth has fluctuated considerably over that time. Sometimes I’ve thought that, if the 20th century were to be represented by just one writer, it should be him. At other times I’ve taken the more pessimistic view that his output was mainly a clever intellectual game, not particularly moving for the most part, and of little ultimate value to people at large. At yet other times I’ve felt that his real genius was for vivid phrases and one-liners, so that one way to make his works live would be to convert them into a multi-volume quotations book arranged under categorized subject headings. (Auden was interested in practically every subject going, from science to arts to philosophy to theology.)
The obstacles to developing a balanced view of Auden are considerable. He was a prolific writer all his life, not only of individual poems but also of large-scale dramatic and semi-dramatic works, not to mention prose criticism. His tone of voice can vary from comic to preachy to lyrical to totally obscure, sometimes within the same poem. Where does one start? In practice, are most people just going to know him by a handful of individual poems that happen to become well known, such as ‘Stop all the clocks’ (not actually one of his more interesting poems in my opinion, although brilliantly deployed in Four Wedding and a Funeral)?
A relatively straightforward route into Auden that I've come to favour recently is via his long comic poem ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, from which the stanza above is quoted. Written in 1936 when Auden was in Iceland for the summer, it’s one of the most accessible of his works. It is a long poem, 159 stanzas in its shorter final version, written in the style of Byron’s sprawling satiric masterpiece Don Juan. (See the Endnote to this post for further details.)
‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not given a great deal of critical attention in the works on Auden I’ve perused, perhaps because it’s thought too straightforward and obvious compared with his more ‘obscure’ or ‘serious’ works. (It does contain a number of topical allusions to people and places of the 1930s, but in this day of the Internet these can easily be tracked down.)
One way in which 'Letter to Lord Byron' is highly typical of Auden generally is in its imitation of the style of another writer. As Katherine Bucknell’s 1994 edition of Auden’s Juvenilia demonstrates, Auden became a poet – from an almost instantaneous start at age 15 – by imitating the styles of other writers, starting with Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy and progressing to a whole host of others. He ultimately achieved an astonishing technical fluency in practically every verse form in the English language. Although one would never mistake an Auden poem for a poem by one of his models (he says things in a way that the original would never say) it does explain why it seems impossible to write a general parody of Auden’s style – all one can do is pick one of his many styles and parody that.
‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not an exact technical imitation of Don Juan: Auden uses the seven-line 'rhyme royal' stanza, whereas Byron uses ottava rima which has one more line. But both stanzas lend themselves to comic observation rounded off by a punchy couplet (such as Byron’s famous ‘But - oh ye lords of ladies intellectual!/ Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?’).
The four sections of Auden’s poem are: an introduction explaining why he’s chosen to write it; a topical update for Byron’s benefit about 1930s Britain, complete with Surrealist Exhibitions, chromium-plated furniture, Sir Oswald Mosley and much else; a section on the arts, especially Auden’s reservations about the Romantic movement; and finally a mainly autobiographical section, including the stanza quoted above.
There’s one attractive way in which ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not typical of Auden’s poetry. Auden often writes in a preachy, impersonal manner (‘the preacher’s loose immodest tone’, as he called it), but in this poem he adopts an engaging, self-deprecating persona which he rarely uses elsewhere except in the lesser-known poems of his last years. Of course preachers can have interesting things to say, but one trouble with Auden’s preaching is that he was always changing his views, sometimes even by the time a particular ‘preachy’ poem was published.
Which takes us on to the subject matters of Auden’s poetry, and their relative importance to him. Psychology and psychoanalysis were major areas of interest permeating his early verse, not only Freudian but the views of a whole range of lesser figures. By 1936, when he was 29, he’d already passed through his most intense period of interest in such subjects, and was able to joke about it in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ as a largely a phase in which a friend had ‘fed/ New doctrines into my receptive head’.
Auden was also thought of as a political writer in the 1930s, but while the era virtually forced writers to take some interest in politics, and while Auden’s technical flair allowed him to write memorable political poems, he was not in my opinion really a political animal, being much more interested in the ‘human condition’ in the abstract. In particular, despite hints that he was drifting towards communism in the earlier 1930s, he makes fun of this in the original version of ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, by claiming that his left-wing friends predicted he would remain ‘a selfish pink old Liberal to the last’.
It would be wrong to claim that ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ covers all of Auden’s preoccupations. Not much is said about personal love, for example, while the poem was written before his later return to the High Anglican religion of his childhood.
Nonetheless, the poem does cover what I’ve come to regard as perhaps the centre of Auden’s being, his intense emotional bond to certain places and landscapes. This seems to have come before all his other interests – before sex, psychology, poetry and history, for example. He constantly reuses favourite landscapes throughout his writing career, sometimes disguised or employed as psychological allegories, but always with a real personal feeling for them.
As a child, and perhaps afterwards too, Auden seems to have been some way along the Asperger’s spectrum; he later wrote that in childhood ‘people seemed rather profane’, in comparison with places and things. Unlike Wordsworth’s landscapes, Auden’s do not involve untouched wildernesses, but have to be marked by a human element, preferably industrial, to give them meaning (although the people themselves are usually absent). These landscapes include the bleak lead-mining areas of the Durham moors, visited in childhood holidays, with their flues and chimneys and engine houses, and also the urban industrial landscape of Birmingham’s black country, near where Auden grew up, with its tramlines and slagheaps. ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ again:
On economic, health, or moral grounds
It hasn’t got the least excuse to show;
No more than chamber pots or otter hounds:
But let me say before it has to go,
It’s the most lovely country that I know;
Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has stamped on
The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
In a later poem about love, Auden similarly wrote:
Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.
Among all his massive oeuvre, that is one of the few passages that can still bring tears to my eyes.
NOTE: This post obviously will make more sense after actually reading ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. In its final revised form, the poem can be found in Auden’s Collected Poems and also his Collected Longer Poems. It was originally published as a longer five-section poem in Letters from Iceland (1937), a book written jointly with Louis MacNeice. This original version was reprinted in The English Auden (1977). Auden’s revisions to his poems are often controversial, but in this case it was mainly a question of cutting weaker stanzas. So I would recommend starting with the more concise revised version, and then exploring the original version later if desired.