Saturday, 31 July 2010

Habitually Brilliant: The Later Poetry of W.H. Auden

In May, I saw Richard Griffiths as W.H. Auden in Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art. I don't intend to review that play now except to say that I enjoyed it immensely and was impressed by Bennett's wit, versatility and stage craft and Griffiths's acting. I hope the play goes on to establish Auden as a great character as well as a great poet.

However, its underlying premise about Auden's later poetry annoyed me: in the programme, Bennett claimed that in his later years Auden stopped being a poet and just wrote bits of his witty conversation down in verse. Images replaced by references. Visions by chat. That sort of thing. This is a softer version of the view famously expressed by Larkin in his essay 'What's become of Wystan?'. Subsequently, I suspect Larkin revised this view a little because he included Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno (writeen in 1958, only 15 years before Auden's death) in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse.

I certainly do not share either Bennett's or Larkin's views on the later Auden. Instead I think Auden wrote some of his best work - indeed arguably his most valuable and enduringly relevant - in the last 20 years of his life. His work has a particular resonance for our post-modern times - its reflective intimacy, irony and humility mirrors the increasing diversity of modern society and the decline of grand narrative ideologies by positioning the subject in his own private idiosyncratic sphere.

What Auden most values in his later verse is the space to be himself. He seems to have believed that he was becoming more reactionary with age (in fact his 1946 poem Under Which Lyre was subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times). In fact, his abandonment of the politics of the Old Left in favour of a richer and more nuanced liberalism can be seen as avant garde. As a gay man, his search for privacy is closely related to the equality and human rights agenda which is now the terrain (albeit a contested one) of social democrats, liberals and, in the UK, progressive Conservatives alike. What his later poetry lacks is the unconvincing concern for the working class which invades some of his earlier work (he never engaged with actual working class people and his poetry always hits a false note when he tries to show concern for the poor or financial inequality and powerlessness). Instead, his later poetry pits the individual voice against its historical context. Arguably the later Auden explores more convincingly the earlier Auden's concerns about time and politics versus human relationships:

It's natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worthwhile, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time..................................

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
(Moon Landing)

His refusal to indulge in America's Cold War populist celebration of technical superiority and his contemptuous reference to apparatniks (applied to both sides) places him in a very dissident position. He even draws on radical feminism whilst referencing more old-fashioned gendered notions about the proclivities of men and women by saying that men are 'more facile/ at courage than kindness'. (Facile as in facility and as in superficial and easily achieved, clever stuff!)

Of course, all this is very well and good but the question remains: is this sort of stuff vivid and does it have a life of its own - the inner animation of all good poetry? I do acknowledge that some of the later verse is ramshackle and has a tendency to ramble but the best verse is fluid in thought and prosodic movement. Unfortunately, this fluidity makes it difficult to quote, particularly as Auden developed a taste for litotes in later life:

Our hill has made its submission and the green
swept on into the north: around me,
from morning to night, flowers dual incessantly,
colour against colour, in combats

which they all win, and at any hour from some point else
may come another tribal outcry
of a new generation of birds who chirp,
not for effect but because chirping

is the thing to do...........

The poem goes on to contrast the natural world with the human, to place the new testament doctrine of forgiveness as concomitant on our mortality and the occasional truth of gossip (still thinking about that one) before describing the goddess Clio. His lightness of tone in the later passages in the poem are touched by melancholy wisdom (to throw away/ the tiniest fault of someone we love/ is out of the question) and yet this big baggy creation somehow makes sense encompassing as it does such a huge variety of reflections upon both collective and individual experience.

His interests are biological, anthropological, geographical and historical. Ideas are animated and landscapes personalised. Inevitably, there are more and more poems about bodily decline:

For many years you envied
the hisute, the he-man type.
No longer: no you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction,
imagining that you are
sinless and all-sufficient,
snug in the den of yourself.
(Lullaby)

Like all decent poets, he makes the general specific. In one of his last poems, Talking to Myself, he compares the body politic to his actual body and concludes

All states we've lived in, or historians tell of,
have had shocking health, psychoso matic cases,
physicked by scientists or glozing expensive quacks.
When I read the papers, You seem an Adonis.

The later Auden is funny, wise, humane, infuriating and colourful. His latter work includes successes and failures, but it is the culmination of his career, and not a reflection of failing powers. Read it, without prejudice.