Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography

Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography

by Edward Mendelson


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Presented in one volume for the very first time, and updated with new archival discoveries, Early Auden, Later Auden reintroduces Edward Mendelson's acclaimed, two-part biography of W. H. Auden (1907–73), one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. This book offers a detailed history and interpretation of Auden’s oeuvre, spanning the duration of his career from juvenilia to his final works in poetry as well as theatre, film, radio, opera, essays, and lectures.

Early Auden, Later Auden follows the evolution of the poet’s thought, offering a comparison of Auden’s views at various junctures over a lifetime. With penetrating insight, Mendelson examines Auden’s early ideas, methods, and personal transitions as reflected in poems, manuscripts, and private papers. The book then links changes in Auden’s intellectual, emotional, and religious experience with his shifting public role—showing the depth of his personal struggles with self and with fame, and the means by which these internal conflicts were reflected in his art in later years.

Featuring a new preface by the author, Early Auden, Later Auden is an engaging and timeless work that demonstrates Auden’s remarkable range and complexity, paying homage to his enduring legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172491
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/25/2017
Pages: 912
Sales rank: 803,559
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of the Estate of W. H. Auden, and the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. His books include Moral Agents, The Things That Matter, and Lives of the New York Intellectuals.

Read an Excerpt

Early Auden, Later Auden

A Critical Biography

By Edward Mendelson


Copyright © 2017 Edward Mendelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8294-6


The Exiled Word

Auden begins alone. His first poems are laconic fragments, their meanings hidden. At twenty, as he finds his poetic voice, he feels little hope of communication or sympathy. A guarded border cuts across the landscape of his poetry, barring passage to refuge or escape. On one side of the frontier is a barren vacancy that permits no exit. On the other side is a vital fullness he cannot enter. Wherever he turns he finds a wall or gulf dividing the life he endures from the life he imagines. Keeping watch over "the divided face" of a wished-for lover are the eyes and mouth, "Sentries against inner and outer." Knowing all ports are watched, "frontier-conscious," he sees all roads blocked by chained-up gates, secured by mythical Lords of Limit who warn that the price of crossing them is death. As he watches immobilized, desperate heroes storm the border to win a brief and futile victory —"One sold all his manors to fight, broke through, and faltered."

Auden looks down from a superior height in these early poems, and abandons the traditional past as he abandons solid ground. "Consider this andin our time," begins a 1929 poem, "As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman." What we see is a divisive gap: "The clouds rift suddenly — look there / At cigarette-end smouldering on a border." This is a garden-border, a row of plants, but the name carries its burden of isolation even across our most familiar comforts, as a discarded cigarette intrudes its coarse modernity. Auden's tone is bravely defiant, but he knows the airman's freedom offers no escape, only a different form of isolation. He wrote an "Airman's Alphabet" in 1931, which ends on a note of sardonic despair and a quiet confession of the emptiness of the airman's love:

Youth — Daydream of devils and dear to the damned and always to us.

Zero — Love before leaving and touch of terror and time of attack.

The airman's earthbound counterpart is the spy. Divided from home, estranged from trust, confounded by the frontier, the secret agent in Auden's early poems enters into enemy territory, only to be forsaken by his allies. Hecan communicate with no one: "They ignored his wires." Any report of him must be drained of emotion; the proper tone is a thin-lipped fatalism, almost at the edge of casual amusement: "The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming. ... They would shoot, of course." The agent who dares the border, whose messages go unheard, joins all the futile heroes who "Did not believe in death," but "Whose voices in the rock / Are now perpetual." The nameless, faceless figures who inhabit these poems are too far off to be recognized, too isolated for speech. They are characterized at most by a function — airman, stranger, spy. Usually they are reduced to a pronoun or generalized as "man." Should they try to make their way back to community and purpose, they find the roads almost vanished, the rails blocked, and the bridges out. Barred from change and movement, each dreams of an impossible world of energy and joy:

he dreams of folk in dancing bunches,
Of tart wine spilt on home-made benches,
Where learns, one drawn apart, a secret will
Restore the dead;

but inevitably he "comes thence to a wall." The dream stops at the frontier.

"Outside on frozen soil lie armies killed / Who seem familiar but they are cold." Fatal immobilizing winter haunts these early poems: "winter for earthand us," "snow down to the tide-line," "this ... the Age of Ice." The "sound behind our back" we hear is more grotesquely terrifying even than time's wingèd chariot: the unimaginably monstrous sound "Of glaciers calving." In this warlike present of dead armies on frozen soil we lie at night in our barracks and tell ourselves "the peace-time stories" of a lost arcadia, of warmer days

Before the islands were submerged, when the weather was calm,
The maned lion common,
An open wishing-well in every garden;
When love came easy.

So intense is our wish for a different world that we insist these legends are true, "Perfectly certain, all of us, but not from the records." And the "records," the tangible traces left by the past, tell us otherwise: "The pillar dug from the desert recorded only / The sack of a city." There was never a time of peace unlike the time of war we suffer now.

Auden is edgy with antagonism in these early poems. He is beset by hostile armies, but he cannot learn precisely what he is fighting for, or whom against. The origins of the deadly feud chronicled in his 1928 charade "Paid on Both Sides" have long been forgotten, yet the feud's hatreds continue unabated. Whatever division exists is now cause enough for mutual destruction. The struggle Auden records in his early poems has nothing to do with classes or nations; to the extent he characterizes it at all, it is the battle of a dead past against an inaccessible future. The young hope for liberation from the old; the old wish for liberation from age. Confident in their powers, the young think themselves free from their elders' burdens. They "sheer off from old like gull from granite." But the past lies in wait for them, hidden like a saboteur in their psyche, even in their genes. While sons rebel, "Fathers in sons may track / Their voices' trick." These recurring parental voices signify a deeper persistence of hatred, its transmittal from an ancient past, binding the energies of the newly born to the will of the forgotten dead. Each family carries its "ancestral curse."

Genetically "jumbled perhaps and put away," ignored by the new generation, the curse inevitably attacks the young. "Escaping cannot try" to evade it; "Must wait though it destroy." But the triumph of the curse brings little satisfaction to the old. Fathers may succeed in putting down murmurs against what they call "Our old right to abuse," but they are doomed by their aging flesh, left only with "Our honour at least, / And a reasonable chance of retaining / Our faculties to the last." In this endless war both sides are defeated. The forces of the old diminish continually in death, while all the recruits to the army of the young must eventually defect to the other side.

Only the dead triumph. Ghosts walk through Auden's early poems, family ghosts who reach across time to hold us back from our lives. They haunt the private psyche and the public commonwealth. Their maternal jealousies impede our marriages, their fatherly patriotism sends us into battle. The daughter of one of the feuding families in "Paid on Both Sides" says hopefully of the dead, "They forget," they "shall not speak / Out of that grave stern on no capital fault." A hundred lines later the play proves her wrong. Hoping to triumph over enmity through love, she accepts an offer of marriage from the son of the opposing family. But he is killed on their wedding day in revenge for old killings, and victory is swallowed up by death.

If love could escape into the present, it might find the way to wholeness and peace, but impulsive Eros carries the dead weight of the past. Ghosts interrupt lovers, cough when they would kiss. A 1929 poem opens with this catalogue of the psychological dowry inherited by a lover:

Before this loved one
Was that one and that one
A family
And history
And ghost's adversity.

No loving wish can compensate for archaic resentments and the adversity of ghosts. "This gratitude for gifts is less / Than the old loss." Here as so often inAuden's early poems there can be "no new year." Even the act of love itself is reduced by the ancestral curse to a border-meeting on property held in mortmain by the dead:

Touching is shaking hands
On mortgaged lands;
And smiling of
This gracious greeting
"Good day. Good luck"
Is no real meeting
But instinctive look
A backward love.

The love made now, the greeting offered, can do no more than execute inherited or instinctual patterns. "The sexual act," Auden wrote in a journal he kept in 1929, "is only a symbol for intimacy." Bound to the instincts of its evolutionary past, the body's love looks "backward" to its archaic needs. It cannot look outward to the lover standing before it now.

"'Good day. Good luck' / Is no real meeting." Words are no better at communicating than flesh is. In another 1929 poem neither the physical nor verbal gestures of "cheek to cheek / And dear to dear" are adequate for love. As the body repeats its instinctual couplings, the mind stays absolutely alone. Auden saw the work of the mind as analytic, differentiating, abstracting, dividing. When lovers talk of love, speaking in "ambition / Of definition," love does not become recognizable and whole, but divides again —"Suffers partition." In the new atmosphere of sexual freedom in the 1920s one could hear everywhere "Voices explain / Love's pleasure and love's pain." But love itself stayed away from the conversation. "Love is not there / Love has moved to another chair." And because love is divided against itself it can do nothing to escape the division inflicted on it. Love "would not gather / Another to another" to end their otherness. It "designs" its "own unhappiness ... and is faithless."

Auden's intractable problem in these poems is finally neither erotic nor social nor linguistic, but the irreducible fact of division itself. In 1931, when a young French poet, Edouard Roditi, sent him a draft translation of "Before this loved one," with the phrase "no real meeting" rendered as "pas une rencontre," Auden wrote in the margin: "Can you get the sense of the real in. It is important. The sense is the philosophical one as in the real wholes in Gestalt psychology." Reviewing a new edition of John Skelton at about the same time, Auden again managed to bring in "the problem of real wholes." His airman's perspective, far from setting him free, left him in an extreme state of modernist isolation, capable of finding wholeness neither in himself nor in the world outside. He was psychologically too distant from his own body to be satisfied by its acts, and too distant from the rest of the world to be affected by it or to change it. The question he asked in his first poems was not What should I do now? but Of what whole can I be part?

Yet the isolation that makes him ask this question also makes it impossible for him to answer it. In the romantic psychology he accepted as true in his early twenties, Creation is Fall, and any consciousness is by necessity an isolated consciousness. Birth initiates an absolute separation of self and world, and the unattainable goal of the fragmented life is recovered unity of being. Auden's 1929 account of the birth trauma emphasizes the original maternal unity and its chilling loss:

Is first baby, warm in mother,
Before born and is still mother,
Time passes and now is other,
Is knowledge in him now of other,
Cries in cold air, himself no friend ...

The newborn infant simply "is other," defined by his separation, as in Rousseau's grammatically parallel romantic credo "je suis autre." Can this otherness end? Can love, Auden asks in a 1930 poem, "For love recover / What has been dark and rich and warm all over?" His constant answer, in these early years, is that love cannot do this; it is baffled by the dead. And since the dead block us from any plausible future, he adopts the extreme romantic belief that the only escape from their power is through our own death. The goal of our divided self is love, but love "Needs more than the admiring excitement of union." It needs an absolute union which, unlike the sexual act and the language of endearment, can never be broken or changed. Love, in fact,

Needs death, death of the grain, our death,
Death of the old gang.

If, since the romantic era, young poets have been half in love with easeful death, that is partly because it is the one subject about which they can be confident their elders know no more than they do. A youthful poet, especially if he feels the absence of a living tradition, may have no useful vocation, no marriage, no citizenship to write about, may find no coherence in the relation between an observing self and an observed object, between language and truth. But he can look forward to a death which may at last dissolve all distinctions. In Auden's earliest adult poems, any successful transformation will occur only through death and submergence in the undifferentiated sea. The "new conditions" of unity he longs for may be apprehended only by dissolving the fragments of the self. "Prolonged drowning shall develop gills," he hopes — the grim anti-evolutionary wit casting doubt on his hope even as he expresses it. To learn unity we must endure death in "Winter for earth and us," for winter is

A forethought of death that we may find ourselves at death
Not helplessly strange to the new conditions

— those new conditions of wholeness and love from which we have been estranged in life. Nothing except death offers hope, and so it is the very impracticality of death as a program for achieving wholeness that becomes its strongest recommendation. Credit quia impossibile.

Until winter or drowning can restore unity, all Auden can admire in others is a comparable wholeness they have already achieved. He praises the"complete" beauty of a child, an adult's "Completeness of gesture or unclouded eye." But this unity proves partial after all, limited to the unconsciousness of childhood or to a physical gesture or feature. So, as the converse of his own division, Auden tries to imagine instead an undivided hero with a unity of flesh and will, a "tall unwounded leader," a "truly strong man." Like Yeats writing about the noble rich, or D. H. Lawrence about himself, Auden briefly projects a fantasy of personal wholeness and authority out of his own sense of divided isolation. Yet he knows from the start that no such leader exists. "Neither in the bed nor on the arête was there shown me / One with power." What he seeks is an answer to the romantic wish for self-sufficient unity —"One with power" inherent in the self, not power diffused into action, as in power to do something or power over someone. This is an instinctive erotic force, good because amoral: "on the arm" in spring, "A fresh hand with fresh power." Auden arrives at this special usage of words like power partly by the romantic technique that transfers to man the inherent attributes of the divine ("the Son of God with power" in Romans i.4), partly by the modernist technique that takes words whose familiar senses are transitive and uses them in an intransitive way — as Yeats uses labour to refer, not to anything productive, but to blossoming or dancing where the body is not bruised to pleasure soul. What Auden seeks in such words as power and luck and in some senses of love is a coherence that has nothing to do with purposive action, but brings an "absolute unity" of perception that will make it possible "to love my life."

Auden criticized his fantasies of wholeness even as he was writing them, but he did so mostly on the grounds that they failed. The fate of all his heroes, the Airman in The Orators or, later, Michael Ransom in The Ascent of F6, proves that they were not undivided at all, but only kept their inner disorder well hidden from their admirers. Auden at first makes no moral criticism of his disastrous heroes, because his world is too incoherent to sustain any ethical system: there action is divorced from consequence. One may try to act on one's own, but the family ghosts or impersonal evolution determines the result. And ethics will have no place either in the unified world Auden hopes to recover, a world whose wholeness will end the need for conscious action and render all standards of judgment obsolete. Even now, the disorder he experiences is, he thinks, subject to no judgment by moralists, no cure by physicians, no overthrow by revolutionaries. Efforts like theirs may alter the symptoms of a deeper and more pervasive division, the breakup of the real whole, but the universal and unspecific quality of this division makes it impossible to repair.

* * *

As the problem Auden faced in his first poems is abstract and difficult to define, so, notoriously, are the poems. Readers who try to resolve the difficulties by finding allegories of Freud and Marx, or who devise a unified narrative myth as a context for individual incidents, or who hunt out clues in the mythical landscapes of the writings of Auden's friends, largely miss the point of the early work, although they are responding to a quality that pervades it. The poems suggest that they are fragments of a larger whole but do not provide enough data to identify that whole. The reader is made to feel that some vital clue is lacking which, if one had it, could make sense of everything. But Auden hid nothing. The absence of a clue is the clue itself. The poems' central subject is their own failure to be part of any larger interpretive frame. Their metaphors refer to their own state of division and estrangement. As soon as one stops looking for the key to a set of symbols, and recognizes that the poems focus on the self-enclosing patterns that bar their way to a subject in the world outside, their notorious obscurity begins to vanish.


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Table of Contents

Preface to the One-Volume Edition ix

Early Auden

Introduction to Early Auden 3

Part One: The Border And The Group (August 1927–May 1933)
I The Exiled Word 15

II The Watershed 36

III Family Ghosts 53

IV The Evolutionary Defile 69

V Trickster and Tribe 86

VI Private Places 115

VII Looking for Land 132

Part Two: The Two Worlds (June 1933–January 1939)

VIII Lucky This Point 151

IX The Great Divide 167

X The Insufficient Touch 196

XI Their Indifferent Redeemer 220

XII Parables of Action: 1 236

XIII Parables of Action: 2 257

XIV History to the Defeated 277

XV From This Island 297

Epilogue 325

Later Auden

Introduction to Later Auden 329

Part One: Vision And After (1939–1947)

I Demon or Gift 339

II The Vision Enters 363

III Against the Devourer 389

IV Investigating the Crime 418

V It without Image 448

VI Imaginary Saints 471

VII The Absconded Vision 495

VIII The Murderous Birth 522

IX Asking for Neighborhood 557

Part Two: The Flesh We Are (1948–1957)

X The Murmurs of the Body 589

XI Waiting for a City 615

XII The Great Quell 638

XIII Number or Face 664

XIV The Altering Storm 690

Part Three: Territorial (1958–1973)

XV Poet of the Encirclement 715

XVI The Air Changes 735

XVII This Time Final 755

XVIII The Concluding Carnival 783


His Secret Life 809

Notes and Index

Reference Notes 821

Index 877

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