Rummaging through my modest library I was surprised to find a beautiful Faber and Faber edition of W.H. Auden’s works. It was given to me at Christmas last year and has remained untouched ever since. Spellbound by the magnificent hardback I sought to rectify this at once and turned the virginal pages to a poem called Musée des Beaux Arts which opens with the following lines: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The Old Masters were hardly ever wrong about anything, not least about the art of suffering.
I was quite young and still at school when I was introduced to Auden’s work. Funeral Blues was on the Curriculum and thus we were expected to learn it and fathom something that, at the time, was beyond us. It took me about a week to memorise it, and funnily enough I can still recite it to this day. I didn’t realise then and up to until quite recently that the poem was originally written as an ironic pastiche of an elegy to a fallen political figure, but even that does not detract from the fact that it must be one of the most eloquent exclamations of grief ever penned.
I have read Auden intermittently throughout my life, occasionally chancing upon his poems in a public library or more often a private one of some friend or acquaintance, and I have always admired his ability to mesh poetic vigour with intellectual gasconade and technical virtuosity. Above all I have always associated Auden with some of the most memorable and most quoted lines in the English language: “Stop all the clocks cut off the telephone/ Prevent a dog from barking with a juicy bone,” or “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet/And the river jumps over the mountain/And the salmon sing in the street” or “Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm”, or more controversially, the line from September 1, 1939, “We must love one another or die”—which Auden had removed from his own catalogue.
Flicking through the slender selection I was also reminded of his lesser known works such as If I Could Tell You (Time will say nothing but I told you so/Time only knows the price we have to pay/If I could tell you I would let you know), Walks (I choose the road from here to there/When I’ve a scandalous tale to bear/Tools to return and books to lend/To someone at the other end) and In Memory of W. B. Yeats (You were silly like us: your gift survived it all/The parish of rich women, physical decay/Yourself: Mad Ireland hurt you in to poetry) all of which display an overwhelming variety of subjects and ideas that pay homage to Auden’s questing intellect. It would be facetious to say that all the poems in the selection are good, because Auden, like any poet, fluctuated from the superb to the obtuse. But even “bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and what distinguished Auden from his contemporaries is the emotional tone; its resonance and potency.
Auden decided on a career as a poet in his early teens having abandoned hope of becoming a mining engineer. Speaking about his early years, he once confessed: “I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry—lead mining… Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No”—I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?”—and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.”
Poetry quickly became a vocation which Auden believed aligned itself with Freud’s philosophy that art often manifests out of one’s struggle with personal unhappiness. In Auden’s case this often sprung from feelings of guilt over his homosexuality, documented as early as his adolescent verse. Auden was always very prolific, never wrote when drunk, lived by his watch and travelled extensively throughout his life to Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Portugal, France, Spain and even Hong Kong, which for a while complied with his desire to “live deliberately without roots”. Eventually, though, he settled in New York where he did some of his best and worst work. He became more contrary, more philosophical, more formally traditionalist and more openly gay; transforming into a boozy, wizened, loquacious Auden who wrote more journalism and composed the four poems that remain at the heart of his canon: For the Time Being, New Year Letter, The Age of Anxiety and The Sea and the Mirror. Auden’s work has always been described as somewhat ambiguous; Edith Sitwell once noted that “the meaning of Mr Auden’s poetry is frequently so obscure, that it defies detection, and it is this obscurity, I imagine, which has frightened certain critics into this excessive admiration.” This lamentation was soon seconded by Philip Larkin who referred to Auden’s later poetry as “rambling intellectual stew”.
But even Auden’s own attitude to his craft, as to his sexuality, was often a mixture of high and low – which is precisely why his work is difficult to sum up – but, as he himself once noted, understanding poetry is “not a logical process” but rather a miraculous one. For me personally Auden will always remain a true contrarian whose demiurgic vision sidestepped the norm, and more importantly a poet who understood and made intelligible “every human love” to a girl who spent hours in the school library reading his work.