”Hart Crane’s poems are profound and deep-seeking.”
“Meades is a national treasure – original, quirky, fearless and often quite right.”
“Buarque’s the real deal, hilarious and innovative and deftly profound.”
“Aldous Huxley was uncannily prophetic, a more astute guide to the future than any other 20th- century novelist.”
“Auden’s range was astonishing.”
“Roth had reached a kind of terminus – the end of the beginning, as it were.”
“Amis does the reader a brilliant, generous (and cathartic) favour.”
“F.R. Leavis’ ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy.”
“I’d never heard of Ionesco until after I’d written the first few plays.”
“John Stuart Mill thought that lyric poetry is not heard, but overheard.”
“If I were to read, cold, something by Anaïs Nin, I would probably say that it was written by a man trying to write as a woman.”
“Spinoza’s ‘human bondage’ is the condition of one who identifies himself with his own desires, emotions and thought processes.”
“I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand.”
John le Carré
“I was being forced to read Henry James at school. I hated it. With the result that James became one of my favourite writers.”
“One Whitman is miracle enough, and when he comes again it will be the end of the world.”
“This general inspissation of the Sacks worldview can seem both stimulating and disturbing.”
“I have often thought Ian McEwan a writer as unlike me as it is possible to be.”
“If you’re trying to finish a book, steer clear of Nabokov—he’ll make you feel like a clodhopper.”
“Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money.”
“Larkin was a person who had profound and unforgettable things to say about common experience.”
In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.
Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”
The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”
As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.”
There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.” This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.
Publisher: Yale Books
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages
“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon.”
“I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”
“I think I have a more poetical mind than Butler’s.”
“As great a poet as Dante might have been, I wouldn’t have had the slightest wish to have known him personally.”
“After Proust there are certain things that simply cannot be done again.”
“Dumas: that extraordinary old gentleman, who sat down and thought nothing of writing six volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo in a few months.”
“De Sade is the one completely consistent and thoroughgoing revolutionary of history.”
“I think that Hemingway made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.”
“Old age realises the dreams of youth: look at Dean Swift; in his youth he built an asylum for the insane, in his old age he was himself an inmate.”
“It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.”
The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The end of toil is a bailiff’s order,
Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.
A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
Not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful,
Change your partner, dance while you can.
The greater the love, the more false to its object,
Not to be born is the best for man;
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
Break the embraces, dance while you can.
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.
Dance, dance for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.
Death’s Echo – W.H Auden
Alfred Lord Tennyson strikes an imposing figure. Ensconced in a loosely fitting morning coat, with a fluid raven mane, a pineal beard, an aquiline face and a nose that could plough icebergs, he had all the bearings of a Victorian bard. He also had all the credentials. Tennyson began writing poetry as a child. Aged 12 he penned a 6,000 line epic in the style of Sir Walter Scott, a few years later a precocious verse-drama, The Devil and the Lady. It fact, the writing never ceased even when he failed to publish anything for over a decade. Born on 6th August 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, Tennyson was the sixth of 12 siblings. His home-life was characterised by strife, family feuds, poverty and an iconoclastic, chronically-drunk and eventually-mad father. In 1827, Tennyson left for Trinity College, Cambridge, and a year later together with his brother Charles published a collection of juvenilia called Poems by Two Brothers. A couple years on another collection, Chiefly Lyrical, followed. Tennyson’s early forays into poetry attracted the attention of an undergraduate literary group, The Apostles, headed by Arthur Henry Hallam. The two formed a filial bond and later journeyed across Europe together in 1830 and again in 1832. Hallam’s sudden death in 1833 from a cerebral haemorrhage affected Tennyson so profoundly that “for the next 10 years he published no book, had no regular occupation, drank port, smoked strong tobacco and was poor and unhappy.” After this interlude, Tennyson began writing In Memoriam, his most distinguished work commemorating his friend. It took him nearly 20 years, earned him many accolades and made him a potentate of Victorian verse. Writing about Tennyson, in a critique entitled Essays Ancient and Modern T.S. Eliot said that Tennyson had “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence”. Samuel Coleridge Taylor praised Tennyson’s work for its “great deal of beauty”. While Thomas Carlyle speaking of him in a letter to Waldo Ralph Emerson said: “Alfred is one of the few British or Foreign Figures who are and remain beautiful to me; a true human soul, or some authentic approximation thereto, to whom your own soul can say, Brother! One of the finest looking men in the world. His voice is musical metallic – fit for loud laugher and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation, free and plenteous.” Others, however, have been less kind. W. H. Auden said that Tennyson “had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet” but “was also undoubtedly the stupidest,” while George Bernard Shaw quipped that Tennyson had the “brains of a third-rate policeman.” As with any writer Tennyson’s merits are debatable, but for me he has always been someone whom I admired.
In 1850, at the age of 41, Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as the Poet Laureate. He held the tenure for over 50 years until his death – longer than any other Laureate before or after. Tennyson was a commanding figure with a calliopean voice which demanded attention when he spoke and captivated everyone when he did. Highly popular in his own lifetime, Tennyson was often referred to as “the Poet of the People,” celebrated for reflecting the mind of an entire nation. This has more recently counted against him but In Memoriam remains one of the most memorable elegies in the English language. So much so that one of the lines (“Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”) from the poem has become indelibly engrained in our collective consciousness and vernacular. Writing about In Memoriam Tennyson himself said: “It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage—begins with death and ends in promise of a new life—a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close.” Remarkably, In Memoriam does veer, as Tennyson says, between extremes giving the reader a chance to really contemplate a whole spectrum of emotional logic. But it also offers more than that, as W.B. Yeats once noted it is abundant with “scientific and moral discursiveness” corresponding exactly with Tennyson’s age, which the poet captures masterfully.
I was slowly making my way through In Memoriam when a friend bought me a copy of Tennyson: An Introduction and A Selection prefaced and chosen by Auden. Writing about his subject Auden is both praiseworthy and vituperative, fluctuating between the two without suspiring. His choice of Tennyson’s work is, however, very well considered and contains some of my favourite poems. At one point Auden suggests that “the feelings which his gift revealed to Tennyson were almost entirely those of lonely terror and desire for death.” He is indeed right as most of Tennyson’s verse revolves around those themes, for example in The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson says: “Heard a carol, mournful, holy/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly/Till her blood was frozen slowly/And her eyes were darkened wholly/Turn’d to tower’d Camelot/For ere she reach’d upon the tide/The first house by the water-side/Singing in her song she died/The Lady of Shalott.” In The Vision of Sin, he describes death as “King.” And although Tennyson most frequently refers to death in a grave and foreboding manner, he is also occasionally flippant. In the same poem speaking on the subject, he says: “Tell me tales of thy first love/April hopes, the fools of chance/Till the graves begin to move/And the dead begin to dance.” Death is omnipresent in most of Tennyson’s work, and one of my favourite poems in this vein is The Eagle, where Tennyson illustrates self-sacrifice with moving minimalism: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Tennyson had a vibrant imagination, a robust symbolic facility and a melodic grasp of metre. But he could also be somewhat slapdash due to his intense and lingering feelings of melancholia. Carlyle observed it best in his letter to Emerson, when he said that Tennyson was a “solitary and sad” man forever “dwelling in an element of gloom” and “carrying a bit of chaos about him”.
The remarks about Tennyson’s character reflect the overall nature of his work. And nowhere more so than in In Memoriam, which is characterised by simple meditations on simple themes or as Auden put it “human emotions in their most primitive states”. By and large, Auden thought that Tennyson’s poetry lacked sophistication, syntactical complexities and lexical intricacies, which to my mind does not detract from either the profundity or gravitas of his verse. Tennyson shows great technical ability in Morte d’Arthur by reconstructing chivalric themes while also developing his own epic repertory in all its varied moods and cadences, from ballad metre to blank verse, in lines such as: “To me, methought, who waited with a crowd/There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore/King Arthur, like a modern gentleman/Of stateliest port; and all the people cried/”Arthur is come again: he cannot die”/Then those that stood upon the hills behind/Repeated–“Come again, and thrice as fair”/And, further inland, voices echoed/”Come With all good things, and war shall be no more’.” He also demonstrates his lyrical proficiency in one of Hallam’s favourite poems, Recollections of the Arabian Nights, by unifying individuation with the imagination in a way that makes a significant statement about harmonising different experiences in art. He reveals himself to be wholly committed to the humanistic cause, rather than nature, which shows a departure from the Romantic tradition. The poem displays Tennyson at his consummate best, especially in the following stanza:“Dark-blue the deep sphere overhead/Distinct with vivid stars inlaid/Grew darker from that under-flame/So, leaping lightly from the boat/With silver anchor left afloat/In marvel whence that glory came/Upon me, as in sleep I sank/In cool soft turf upon the bank/Entranced with that place and time/So worthy of the golden prime/Of good Haroun Alraschid.”
Hallam, who wrote about Tennyson before his death, is now considered one of Tennyson’s best critics. In his account Hallam, outlined “five distinctive excellences” in Tennyson’s work: the control of a fertile imagination, an equilibrium in “moods of character” so that the narration and feeling correlate, skill in fusing a vivid portrayal of objects, modulation of verbal harmony and a melancholy “soberness of tone”. In a letter to William Gladstone, Hallam consolidated his opinion about the budding poet by saying: “I consider Tennyson to be as promising fair the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century.” Tennyson saw in Hallam what he thought he himself lacked, a seemingly superlative man of worldliness, ideas and concupiscent yearnings. But in fact Hallam’s physical and mental travails were the elements that fortified the relationship between the two men. Bound by their respective solemnity and pyrrhonism, they felt reassured by one another in their mutuality. In a poem called Merlin and the Gleam Tennyson describes Hallam as “The friend who loved me/And heard my counsel.” But the most heartfelt descriptions are In Memoriam where Tennyson refers to Hallam as a kindred spirit and asseverates: “My Arthur, whom I shall not see/Till all my widow’d race be run/Dear as the mother to the son/More than my brothers are to me.” And a few lines later forswears that his love for his friend will not diminish: “Still onward winds the dreary way/I with it; for I long to prove/No lapse of moons can canker Love/Whatever fickle tongues may say.”
It is impossible to overlook Tennyson’s posthumous royal shadow or his influence on poetry. To this day, he remains one of few English poets who could sustain a Hellenic style in both the pastoral and the elegiac. Tennyson was an astonishingly complicated man, admired and liked by a wide group of acquaintances, eclectic in artistic endeavours and intense in his passions. In Memoriam reflects much of this, and is yet both grand and accessible, two qualities which are rarely found in one work. The opening two stanzas of In Memoriam reveal a more cynical side to Tennyson’s pious Victorian persona. His tone in speaking about religion seems questioning and somehow almost laodicean when he says: “Strong Son of God, immortal Love/Whom we, that have not seen thy face/By faith, and faith alone, embrace/Believing where we cannot prove.” A couple of lines down, he depicts the cruelty of the Almighty in the closing lines: Thine are these orbs of light and shade/Thou madest Life in man and brute/Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot/Is on the skull which thou hast made.” The poem showcases Tennyson’s ability to embody himself in moods of character, with great accuracy of adjustment so that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling. It also demonstrates his picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused in a medium of strong impression. In Memoriam contains a variety of his lyrical measures, and exquisite modulation of harmonious words and rhythms to the swell and fall of the feelings expressed in lines such as: “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d/Let darkness keep her raven gloss/Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss/To dance with death, to beat the ground,” and “I sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within,” or “My own dim life should teach me this/That life shall live for evermore/Else earth is darkness at the core/And dust and ashes all that is.”
In Memoriam offers a maudlin soberness replete with grief, love, beauty. The elegiac leitmotif is encapsulated lucidly if somewhat reticently in the following lines, when thinking of Hallam Tennyson says: “Dark house, by which once more I stand/Here in the long unlovely street/Doors, where my heart was used to beat/So quickly, waiting for a hand/A hand that can be clasp’d no more—/Behold me, for I cannot sleep/And like a guilty thing I creep/At earliest morning to the door/He is not here; but far away/The noise of life begins again/And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain/On the bald street breaks the blank day.” One of Auden’s key grumbles about Tennyson’s poetry is the fact that “there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else he did.” Thus Auden concludes that Tennyson’s single minded preoccupation is one of the reasons his poetry is “bad” to the point of obscurantism. But I daresay that range does not qualify the poet’s abilities. Auden of all people should have known that having had an immense range and a lot of dross to show for it. Perhaps mine is an overly simple view but I think that a poet’s puissance is measured by the emotion his work solicits from the reader since poetry is as Lawrence Durrell once said the “science of the heart’s affections” and going by that definition Tennyson is a master of that science who miraculously turned “twilight into flakes of fire” without burning the parchment.
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.
I once did a brief stint at a publishing house concerned primarily with the cookery, beauty and gardening type of paper-wasting exercises. I used to get dizzy just looking at the mercantile florescent sleeves and cover-jackets, and often found myself in the backroom sorting through old, discarded and out of print copies where I chanced upon a number of poetry collections published in the 1990s. One of them, now sitting beside me as I write this, was that of W.B. Yeats. I learned a lot about Yeats while reading other poets, who always and unanimously hailed him as the laureate of modern romance. In turn, I felt I couldn’t read him for fear of being disappointed, but when I chanced upon his selected poems in an Oxfam in Islington my curiosity got the better of me.
I remember starting out with the Second Coming and being struck by the gnosis of the following lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. By the time Second Coming was penned, in 1919, Yeats was no longer the perfervid young man who would intractably recite aloud, without suspiring, his favourite verses in public places and gormandize on the romantics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Yeats had, by then, discarded the beautifully rarefied evocative tone of his earlier works for an obdurate sonority confronting reality and its imperfections. This was an altogether different Yeats from the one I would learn about later when reading his early works. William Butler Yeats was not a poet by nature – acutely short-sighted, purportedly dyslexic and severely tone-deaf, he showed a propensity for science rather than language, leaving school with “small Latin and less Greek”. He was, however, “egregiously the poet,” in temperament and in appearance, muttering “ends of verse to himself with a wild eye” sporting “seedy black clothes” and “a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat”. It is now almost impossible, for me at least, to think of Yeats in any other element, but his work remains the biggest testament to his role as one of the greatest arch-bards of the 20th century. Revered by everyone from W.H. Auden to Ezra Pound, Yeats began his craft with light but deeply heartfelt odes to Maud Gonne – a distant cousin he had fallen in love with – likening her to a “rose in the deeps of his heart” and later celebrating her beauty on a Homeric scale. Much of his early work is characterised by the paludal lows of unrequited love resonating in lines such as, “Pale brows, still hands and dim hair/I had a beautiful friend/And dreamed that the old despair/Would end in love in the end”.
Yeats’ despair, however, did not end in love in the end but was intensified by its “bitter mystery” and later Gonne’s marriage. Yeats continued composing poetry in Gonne’s honour despite her feelings which she made clear in a letter, dated February 1989, by saying that if the idea of an absolutely platonic friendship “which is all I can, or ever will be able to give, unsettles you and spoils your work, then you must have the strength and courage at once to give up meeting me”. Unnerved by the realisation that he may never be united in marriage with Gonne, Yeats immersed himself in his work, much of which lamented his predicament: The Sorrow of Love, A Dream of Death, The Wind Among the Reeds, He Wished for The Cloths of Heaven, in which he implores his beloved to tread softly on his dreams, and The White Birds, prompted by a thought of escaping with her to “numberless islands” where neither time nor the world would be of essence or import.
Gonne remained a constant factor in his imaginative and emotional existence and subsequently much of Yeats’ poetry during this time was populated by figures of woman as enchantress and agent of necromancy in the context of quest and death. His poetry had developed a nascent sense of disillusionment, grief and wariness which reached its peak after the news of Gonne’s marriage. He felt “deaf and dumb and blind with love” and recorded his sorrow in Four Unpublished Lines (My dear is angry that of late/I cry all base blood dawn/As if she had not taught me hate/By kisses by a clown) and further in Never Give All the Heart (Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seems/Certain, and they never dream/That it fades out from kiss to kiss/For everything that’s lovely is/But a brief, dreamy, kind delight/O never give the heart outright).
One is led to believe that Yeats never quite got over his first love despite numerous affairs, nuptials and attempts to extricate himself from the continuum of those unrequited feelings. In time, his poetry began to reflect the seismic shifts in his personal as well as his political life. Much of his later work adopted a bleaker, more disillusioned voice lamenting the state of Ireland’s cultural landscape and the emergence of the Irish Free State. Paradoxically, this antiquarian bard with a love of esoteric mysteries was the most contemporary of his peers and the one who still resonates most profoundly with our present anxieties and disillusionments. Yeats’ new take on things is most clearly encapsulated in September 1913, with the resounding refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” Later still, Yeats’ work once again took on a more personal vein; his subjects began to include his children and the onslaught of senescence. In the poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion, published in his last collection, Yeats describes the inspiration for these works by saying: “Now that my ladder’s gone, /I must lie down where all the ladders start /In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” All in all, Yeats was an incredible poet with an incredibly interesting but torturous life, which makes me think that John Berryman’s desire to be Yeats rather than be like him was somewhat misplaced, because I get the distinct impression that oftentimes even Yeats didn’t want to be Yeats.