Feb 21, 2007

Happy birthday, WH Auden

Adam Kirsch pays tribute to the poet on his centenary. Auden, who labeled the 1930s "a low, dishonest decade," wrote about the politics of his time in the early part of his career but turned away from politics as he grew older.
[W]hen Auden emigrated from England to America, just before the outbreak of World War II, he turned his back on much of what was best in his early poetry. And he did it deliberately, having come to believe that the very strengths of his work contained the seeds of error.

By 1939, Auden had grown tired of being the most contemporary of poets, an antenna for his generation. He began to feel that this role required him to remain in thrall to the actual and the immediate, to be in some way a slave of History. But as he got older, and began to return to the Anglican faith in which he was raised, History no longer seemed like a benevolent master. The liberal, humanitarian, individualistic virtues of the English bourgeoisie — the very virtues Auden had condemned as moribund in his early verse — came to seem indispensable, especially as the Cold War world grew more inhumanly threatening.

Starting in the early 1940s, then, Auden developed a very different conception of poetry and its purpose. He began to write about the personal, instead of the public; the spiritual, instead of the political. In style, too, he changed drastically. In place of the elliptical shocks of the early poems, he cultivated a new style, one that combined the hyper-articulate and the campily laid-back.


So great were these changes that it became necessary to talk about Auden as though he were two poets. (Mr. Mendelson, the dean of Auden scholars, divided his study of the poet into two volumes, "Early Auden" and "Later Auden.") Such striking changes led many of Auden's early admirers to see the evolution of his work as a mere decline. Philip Larkin, reviewing "Homage to Clio" in 1960, regretted that "Auden, never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one."

If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken. It is still tempting, reading Auden's work chronologically, to regret some of the changes that came in the train of his emigration, and to wonder what poems he might have written if he had stayed in England during World War II. The later Auden will never be as mesmerizing as the early Auden. But it is now clear that he was not, like Wordsworth, a poet who wrote himself out early but still kept on publishing.

Here's Auden's "Funeral Blues," which was featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Here's Auden reading "On the Circuit."

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