Mar 22, 2007

Auden, Auden, and More Auden

The Wystan Hugh Auden centenary passed by recently and a number of articles and essay were written to mark the event. You can find many of them by searching on google. One of best recent overviews of Auden’s career was written by Roger Kimball in the New Criterion in 1999, entitled “The Permanent Auden.” I recommend the piece, not because it has any marks of the influence of Yvor Winters’s ideas, but because it is fair summary of Auden’s achievement, even if the impression is left that Auden was a great poet, which I do not believe he was. The essay can still be found on the web at:

I have already mentioned in a recent post that Yvor Winters had very little to say about Auden, though he said that he read his work. I take this as a probable indication that Winters did not find his work to be superior. His one published comment on Auden leaves the very faint impression that Winters considered him to be at least worth reading, but perhaps worth no more than that. The comment comes in Winters’s last book, Forms of Discovery, which many critics, including many sympathetic to Winters’s ideas and literary theory, find to have been much too disapproving, and harshly so, of too many good poems and poets. In the “Conclusion” to Forms, Winters named about ten very well-known modern poets, such as Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Lowell, whom he chose not to discuss in the book, his final testament on the history of English poetry, but wished to mention. Winters wrote, “I name them lest the reader think I do not know them. The learned scholar who wishes to devote a history to these poets has my blessing.” That first sentence seems to be intended to counter a charge sometimes made against Winters, that he didn’t cover enough of what other critics believe to be major poets in his criticism. The implication is unmistakable that Winters didn’t think it worth his time to do so concerning many modern poets held commonly in high esteem. The point seems even clearer earlier, when he wrote, “I have had neither the time not the inclination” to discuss poets of great reputation. These two stiff comments suggest to me, quite strongly, that Winters considered Auden’s work not to be close to the standards of the Winters Canon.

For his part, Donald Stanford, critic and editor of the Southern Review, which published a few essays on Auden over the years, also did not write about Auden in his major work of Wintersian criticism, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, even though that book was concerned with the use and disuse of traditional forms in modern poetry. All Stanford had to say about Auden can be found in a comment made while discussing Winters’s very fine poem “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills”: Stanford said that Auden’s work is characterized by “facile imitations of various conventional verse forms.” That’s the best Donald Stanford could say of Auden? I think we can safely assume that Stanford didn’t judge Auden to stand among the greats.

Yet John Fraser chose four Auden poems for his New Book of Verse, the quasi-Wintersian anthology which I have been discussing from time to time. (See the second post on this blog for a brief look at A New Book of Verse, which still awaits a more extended treatment from me.) I will give the poems Fraser chose some deeper thought before commenting on them.

I will say this much now: Overall, I find Auden to be far too chatty. His poems lack coherence and display the usual modern bent on rational disunity. His handling of meter and poetic form are far too loose as well, in my judgment. His poems are meandering affairs (following the associative method Winters disparaged over and again in his career) that search around for sparkling insights, but usually Auden expresses his floating ideas far too vaguely and loosely to make any strong, definite impression. Even Roger Kimball for all his praise of Auden could give no line or idea that really catches him or me, that makes me want to read Auden again -- makes me think that Auden has something important to tell us. I believe that his work is not close to the standards of the Winters Canon, but is worth reading for its minor virtues. He wrote a lot of loose and mediocre verse, but he strolled around till he happened upon some interesting ideas at times. There is hardly anything terribly significant in any of what he had to say, but I am open to the possibility that some critic or follower of Auden could lead me to something truly first-rate that I have overlooked.

Kimball comments briefly on Auden’s facility with verse forms. For Auden’s commitment to metrical composition we should be mildly grateful, I believe. Yet, I must admit that I have always found Auden’s skill in verse to be only second-or third-rate, at least compared to the masters of modern metrical composition: such as J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, Yvor Winters himself, and others. Also, perhaps more importantly, Auden’s images function too often as loose and weak ornament. His metrical schemes are too deliberately roughened (a word some critics like to use to describe weak adherence to a metrical norm). His diction is playful, often facile, and his poems can be verbose as well. Further, I find his metaphors and similes too often unmoored to theme and purpose.

I could go into detail concerning on the Kimball essay and lay out many of his comments out for reflection and response. But that will have to wait for later. I have many other matters coming along, and I do not think Auden’s poetry is worth the time it would take to review it closely right now, as more important than many other matters deserving of greater attention. Still, since John Fraser has included him in his anthology I think I must soon consider the poems Fraser selected.

1 comment:

James Matthew Wilson said...

I think you nicely highlight the potential problems with Auden's verse. I generally disagree with your conclusions, Ben, and yet could not agree more that you have set the main attributes of Auden's verse before us and that the merit of each of those attributes would have to be defended individually; such a defense I'm not prepared to make here. Rather, I would just conclude by saying that there is a floating, vague, chatty and arbitrary nature to Auden's verse that clearly sets it apart from the devotion to a restrained, intense (post-)symbolism that Winters recommends. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" confesses as much, announcing that the poet needs a form he "can swim in." Winters did not usually value such a use of form. On the other hand, it is the very flexibility of the heroic couplet that Winters recommends. I acknowledge Winters as a master of the heroic couplet, and yet I would also suggest he did not fully exploit this flexibility for its specifically "discursive" potential. Let me conclude with that word: "discursive." For it is the discursive quality in Auden that links him with the Augustan poets. And yet, whereas Pope and Dryden refused to allow the discursive to become the digressive, Auden takes great joy in slipping into the latter under the guise of the former. I rather enjoy this; it's a poetry of the raconteur. It is not, as your critique suggests, a poetry of taut and reticent modernism. In this respect, Winters is more of a modernist poet than Auden.