Auden was the best poet of the twentieth century
"My dear, if you want romance fuck a journalist."
Today marks fifty years since W.H. Auden died. This is a sightly edited re-post of an essay I wrote last year when his Complete Poems were published.
W.H. Auden was the greatest British poet of the twentieth century. Eliot had intellectual range. Yeats had a finely-wrought style. But neither of them has anything close to the extent of Auden’s capability. Few poets have written in so many modes and styles, been so readable and so obscure, so popular and so elite. Capable of writing everything from epic to limerick, for children and professors, Auden is truly everybody’s poet.
Auden is the business because Auden has range. Auden brought back the sung lyric. He reinvigorated the Elizabeth love poem for the machine age. He wrote travel poetry. He wrote advertising poetry. One of his poems was famously used in Four Weddings and a Funeral. His lyrics can be about philosophy, the ancient world, left wing politics, or limestone; he memorialised great figures of his time like Sigmund Freud; he is witty, naughty, and writes in complicated rhyme schemes. He was competing with Milton, Byron, Campion, Keats, and Shakespeare, not to mention the minor poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Some poets of his time were conspicuously learned and their poetry has been forgotten under the weight of it; others were so absorbed in the predilections of modernism they are read by the specialist interest only; Auden has it all. Was there a verse structure he didn’t write in or a mode he didn’t attempt?
Auden was described by Richard Crossman as the last poet many people of his generation memorised. That might make him a candidate for one of the last poets, along with Betjeman and Larkin, that any generation memorised. Although the Insta poets are bringing the practice back. After Auden, poetry becomes a decidedly more elite affair. Auden made a happy marriage of high modernism and popular appeal. He has flow and rhythm and humour and elegance. And yet he is often thought of as a “difficult” poet. Imagine a poet who wrote for television today being thought of admiringly on all sides.
All of this is as nothing to the way he makes his lines move. When it comes down to brass tacks there really is only one requirement of a poet. Be good. You can spend your life arguing about what good means, but we all know it when we see it. Or so often in Auden’s case, when we hear it. Think about the poem, Musee des Beaux Arts. Every line a gem. Most especially at the end…
and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
That was published in Another Time, the 1940 volume that stands with Milton’s 1645 collection or Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798 or Keats in 1816 or Heaney in 1991. Some people won’t have it so, because Wystan included light verse. Well sucks to them. Milton told rude jokes after dinner at Cambridge. Keats got rough and tumble with the lads. Shakespeare is a fine master of the bawdy arts. Like them, Auden was clever enough to write the sort of light verse that can sit alongside his poem about the start of the Second World War.
And he was witty. Here he is talking about Jane Austen.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’
He could be poignant while he was being funny without being slushy or sentimental. That’s not the sort of circus trick any amateur acrobat can pull off. Try it at home and you’ll see. This is from O tell me the truth about love.
When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
What Auden knew was that you had to tell the truth. He wasn’t writing just for the sake of the writing. He wanted to get it right. Auden could write with specificity because he was a serious person. You might not always want to know such a person by the way. He picked his nose openly and admitted to pissing in the sink. He had full-volume, stand-up, debates with his lover on the tube about the correct Freudian interpretation of their relationship. One of his lovers said that he was remarkably unromantic, for a poet. “My dear,” Auden replied, “if you want romance fuck a journalist.”
Most of all, he worked. He took benzedrine every day to make him more productive. He was ambitious in a way most people cannot be comfortable with. Here’s the conversation he had with his tutor when he left Oxford:
Tutor: ‘And what are you going to do, Mr. Auden, when you leave the university?’
Auden: ‘I am going to be a poet.’
Tutor: ‘Well—in that case you should find it very useful to have read English.’
Auden: ‘You don’t understand. I am going to be a great poet.’
In later life, when he was a great poet, he was a terrible, terrible house guest. Clive James described it in What happened to Auden?
By all accounts he sparingly displayed
When kind acquaintances appeared upset,
Their guest rooms wrecked as if by an air raid.
He would forgive himself and soon forget.
Pig-like he revelled in the mess he made,
A friend once left Auden in his flat for the day: “If it hadn’t been for the pictures on the walls I wouldn’t have known where I was. Frustrated burglars could not have created greater chaos.” Nor was he a forgiving host. He went to bed irrespective of who was over for dinner. The Paris Review reports that he once left his guests to have a bath, “making a spectacular appearance shortly afterward covered only in bubbles: he strode purposefully across the apartment casting a disapproving look at the nightbirds”.
Auden believed that poets’ biographies were not relevant to understanding their work. A ridiculous claim coming from one of the great love poets of all time whose own Freudian and Christian beliefs contradicted (and condemned) his own homosexuality. He said poetry makes nothing happen. Political poetry doesn’t. But he knew damn well that his sort of poetry makes all sorts of things happen to people’s lives. Why else did he write it? Why else did he care so much about telling the truth about love? He was so concerned with being specific that he insisted the line in September 1, 1939 “we must love one another or die” be changed to “we must love one another and die”, sometimes refusing to allow the poem to be reprinted.
Are you telling me that these verses have never jolted anyone to live even a little bit differently?
In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
Perhaps the real comparison ought to be with Larkin, one of his successors and competitors. Auden achieved everything Larkin did. Popular appeal. Rhymes and meter in the age of free verse. Complexity that doesn’t exclude the common reader. But he achieved so much more. He wrote for everything from the bordello to the opera house (and both together in the case of The Rakes Progress). His complete works are vast where Larkin’s are slim. He saw so much of life, where Larkin often saw so little. They are both great. But Auden is the bigger, more catholic poet, who revived and reinterpreted everything from limericks to madrigals. Larkin wanted to get away from tradition: Auden reinvented it.