The book which appeared under the plain title Poems from Faber and Faber in September, 1930, was not only W. H. Auden's first commercially published volume, but also the most significant collection, in terms of its immediate and its longer-term impact, of his entire career as a poet. This is not to propose a reading of that career as an abnormally drawn-out decline; quite apart from any of the later critical arguments on whether Auden got better or worse as a writer in the course of his life, the impact of Poems was such that no poet might wish for — even if he were to be capable of — more than one such success. It was Poems which established, with remarkable completeness, a whole style of writing that was recognizable as 'Audenesque', and that spread like a contagion through both the poetry and the prose of a generation in the literary Britain of the 1930s. It crept unhelpfully into some of the poetry of its own author at times in the 1930s, and he subsequently tried, through retrospective revision and deletion, to curtail the worst of its effects; this was a style which it became Auden's own creative task, and artistic challenge, to outgrow in the years and decades that followed. However, the artistic integrity and success of Poems itself should not be confused with the subsequent coarsenings of stylistic affectation: although the older Auden was notably severe in his dealings with his work from later in the 1930s, he retained much of Poems in subsequent collected editions. For generations after Auden's, too, Poems has remained a potent example of immediate and transforming poetic impact, to which many would-be successors have aspired but which none, in the event, has managed to equal.
The stylistic originality of Poems is, like any kind of artistic breakthrough, not without either its influences or parallels: at this stage of his career, Auden had already learned much by absorbing poets like Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins in his schoolboy and university writing; T. S. Eliot's work, and that of Laura Riding, are parts of the stylistic mix, which includes also elements of popular culture — the spy-story, the cinema, the language of headline-writers or the telegram office. But to list the ingredients is not to describe the dish. One of the thirty poems making up the book's second part begins like this:
From the very first coming down Into a new valley with a frown Because of the sun and a lost way, You certainly remain: to-day I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard Travel across a sudden bird, Cry out against the storm, and found The year's arc a completed round And love's worn circuit re-begun, Endless with no dissenting turn.
The landscape which this poem inhabits is something established before the syntactic contours of what is being said are allowed to become clear: it takes three lines for 'You' to emerge as the poem's addressee, and even then it is not clear whether 'You' or 'I' is the person who has come down into the valley. This valley is 'new', but its strangeness inheres largely in the slight strangeness of the language through which the poem occupies it: 'certainly', for instance, is more than a casual intensifier, and hints at some degree of certainty involved in the act of remaining; 'sudden' becomes an adjective for the bird rather than a 'suddenly' which would more conventionally be the adverb attached to the narrator's act of hearing; 'Travel' (not 'Travelling') stiffens the syntax into a slightly clipped formality, then makes this altogether more rigid by starting the next line with 'Cry out' (the bird again, with a word like 'then' suppressed), but immediately after this 'and found', where the verb now is in the first person (it is 'I', and not now the bird, doing the finding). The landscape's simplicity and definiteness — a valley, the sun, a sheep-pen, a bird — are countered by the ensuing metaphors: expressions like 'The year's arc' and 'love's worn circuit' are as bare in their outlines as anything that comes before, but this seems to make more apparent their air of abstraction. It is easy to read 'The year's arc' as a conventional expression of the passing of a year, but the development of this into the image of 'love's worn circuit', something now 're-begun / Endless with no dissenting turn' appears to take for granted comprehension which the reader will not, in fact, possess. A 'circuit' is not, or not necessarily, and not quite, the same thing as an arc, and a 'worn circuit' begins to sound more like a piece of equipment than an image of the seasons; 'dissenting', also, seems less to denote a pattern of motion than a tendency to disagreement: what, and how, is a reader to understand by such unforthcoming, and yet self-confident strangenesses in expression?
Uncertainties like these are not obstacles to the poem's progression, but rather its means. Like many other poems in the volume, this one makes uncertainty, unease and puzzlement the elements of a situation in which the poetry's meaning is carried in syntax that is itself both compressed and baffled. 'I' can speak to 'You', but the lines of that communication generally seem unclear to a reader who, as it were, eavesdrops on the exchange:
But now To interrupt the homely brow, Thought warmed to evening through and through Your letter comes, speaking as you, Speaking of much but not to come.
The difficulties of interpretation are manifold, and build on the poem's initial oddness of expression without the least sign of self-consciousness. Auden generates, and maintains, a state of protracted and unresolved ambiguity by such methods, and the poetry's stylistic distinctiveness is its capacity to raise questions of interpretation relentlessly, without pausing to relish or explain them, and without allowing the poem's situation to either wallow in a mire of obscurity or fall into the bathos of over-obvious solutions. By this stage in the poem, in fact, the reader is aware that 'I' and 'You' are apart, are in written communication, and are not perhaps likely to be reunited; beyond that, reading is done mainly between the lines. Yet Auden's concluding lines take this situation somewhere else again:
Nor speech is close nor fingers numb, If love not seldom has received An unjust answer, was deceived. I, decent with the seasons, move Different or with a different love, Nor question overmuch the nod, The stone smile of this country god That never was more reticent, Always afraid to say more than it meant.
By now, the syntax is capable of moving entirely beyond anything speakable or writable in even the oddest contexts: 'If love not seldom has received / An unjust answer' reads like a literal translation from some heavily inflected foreign language, while 'decent with the seasons' seems to speak Latin as much as English ('decent' as fitting, or in keeping with something, rather than a generalized agreeableness). If the poem has been about the parting of ways between lovers, then the awkwardness of the situation has been transfused into its expression. The complicitous 'nod' of that garden-ornament deity becomes an image for the ease of exclusion which private communication must preserve: intimacies do not translate to public clarity, but just as they cut off the public realm from their shared meanings, they can also be themselves cut off just as abruptly: one party can suddenly be on the receiving end of a reticence that will not give ground.
Evidently, the poem's conclusion gives an account of its own workings, for questions of reticence, of how much, and how, things said are 'meant', are to the fore in this poem, as they are in Poems as a whole. There is a strapped formality about the writing, and an insistence about the rhymes, which presents itself as a form of reticence, and does not loosen its grip for a moment. For a poem which is finally a report from the wrong side of an emotional or communicative exclusion, this is itself a remarkably elliptical and tight-lipped piece of writing. Again, this is a paradox which emerges from many of the volume's individual pieces, where an urgency of communication is time and again at odds with an opacity of intent.
But much of the original impact of Poems, and much of the book's continuing interest, lies in the effectiveness of this very sense of opacity. It is important to distinguish Auden's characteristic mode in this writing from other kinds of apparent obscurity — from the slightly mandarin 'difficulty' of Eliot or Pound, for example, or from the elaborations of the hermetic in Yeats and other contemporary writers. In Auden, readers discovered a voice which sent out messages of urgent import: these were clear in their expression, though inscrutable in their intent, yet they established a register in which different kinds of anxiety (the political, the sexual, the psychological) could all seem to find persuasive expression. Auden's lyrics were hard to translate into clear statement; but they spoke to their earliest admirers with the force and the inevitability of a new language.
In poem XI ('Who stands, the crux left of the watershed'), Auden begins by presenting his characteristic Northern landscape complete with all the detritus of 'An industry already comatose': the inhabitants are shown in an heroic light, as figures from legend without names ('two there were / Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand' . . . one died / During a storm, the fells impassable'). After this grim chronicle, and the impressive sternness of its telling, the poet's voice addresses itself to the reader — someone who is emphatically a 'stranger' to the poem's world. In these lines, the urgency and opacity of Auden's new register work together, creating a kind of poetry in which a verbal world, and the world of its images, collaborate with both the voice's insistence and the reader's desire to understand the message. It reflects, perhaps, an aesthetic of estrangement:
Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock, Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed: This land, cut off, will not communicate, Be no accessory content to one Aimless for faces rather there than here. Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall, They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind Arriving driven from the ignorant sea To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm Where sap unbaffled rises, being spring; But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass, Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.
'This land, cut off, will not communicate': Auden's line is the opposite of Eliot's ventriloquised 'You! hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frere!' in The Waste Land, turning on the reader as it does with an equanimity of denial, not making a challenge, but delivering information. Even so, this is information with a particular poetic charge, for all its surface flatness. If the poem addresses a 'stranger' (the urban sophisticate, perhaps, 'frustrate and vexed' in trying to comprehend a world of heroic isolation and courage), it gives him images for his own estrangement, and provides images for the powers with which he remains out of touch: 'the wind / Arriving driven from the ignorant sea', 'bark of elm / Where sap unbaffled rises', the 'Ears' that 'poise before decision, scenting danger'. A great deal depends on what, or how sharply, the reader can hear, and the poem's last line presents, without any sign of strain, an image of hearing so acute it can smell things. Auden's style does not pause to let the reader decide whether this is a metaphorical 'scenting' or plain synaesthesia, any more than the pace of the lines lets up to explain 'But seldom this'. To ask 'seldom what?' is to fail to keep up with the alternative speed and order of perceptions which the poem sends its 'stranger' away from: 'this' is the 'poise', not only of the scenting ears, but of the poetry's entire pitch of acute perception and attentiveness, 'On the wet road between the chafing grass'.
It is not without importance that the stranger/reader is told to 'Go home'. One of the most pervasive and unnerving elements in the thematic content of Poems is the focus on what 'home' might be, as a site on which are concentrated intense (and sometimes malign) energies of love, anger, fear and possessiveness. As against a conventional understanding of 'home' as the scene of belonging and security, and as a place in which emotions may be experienced or celebrated in a comparatively unquestioned way, the 'home' of Poems is an arena of psychological, and perhaps literal carnage.
The first part of Poems is taken up entirely by 'Paid on Both Sides: A Charade', a strange, quasi-surrealistic verse play in which the landscape of the shorter poems is inhabited by characters from two families locked in generations of violence and attrition. The Nowers of Lintzgarth, and the Shaws of Nattrass, like some bizarrely transplanted Montagues and Capulets, are the parties to an immemorial feud, which the Charade arms with modern weaponry, but which is played out in the stark, uncommunicative world of Auden's Northern landscapes, permanently 'cut off' from the layers of civilization which might obscure the contours of atavistic hatred and violence. John Nower, whose father is murdered at the beginning, grows into his inheritance, under the tuition of his unforgiving mother, and avenges his father's death by killing a Shaw; his eventual realization of the futility of the age-old quarrel, and his attempts to end it through marriage with Anne Shaw, are ultimately in vain, for he is assassinated at his wedding-party by another son of the Shaw family, himself spurred on by his own mother. At the close, it is clear that the feud will continue.
Reduced to the outline of its plot, then, 'Paid on Both Sides' seems grim enough; in fact, Auden brings to this scenario elements of broad humour and farce, along with an insistence on psychological investigation and exposure, which make the charade into a kind of intensified exposition of the symbolic world of Poems as a whole. The story itself veers between the tight-lipped, matter-of-fact presentation of violence of the Icelandic Sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, to the hectic action of a gangster movie; in addition, the meaning of the events is investigated both by the high seriousness of the choric verse, and the high unseriousness of Father Christmas, who arrives as a psychological master of ceremonies half-way through, to conduct a mock-trial. The effort which all this seeks to articulate (or at least, to present) is that of the break with the past, the leaving of 'home'. It is an effort which, like so much else in the book, is doomed to be 'frustrate and vexed', but the poetry's task is in part to help imagine the condition of newness or freedom which might be implicit in the dangers and uncertainties of a situation which is now subject to an unnerving acuteness of observation. This seems, at any rate, to be the function of some of the choric writing, and the act of imagination in such passages provides an initiation into the kinds of reading which the shorter lyrics in Poems will require:
But there are still to tempt; areas not seen Because of blizzards or an erring sign Whose guessed at wonders would be worth alleging, And lies about the cost of a night's lodging. Travellers may sleep at inns but not attach, They sleep one night together, not asked to touch; Receive no normal welcome, not the pressed lip, Children to lift, nor the assuaging lap. Crossing the pass descend the growing stream Too tired to hear except the pulses' strum, Reach villages to ask for a bed in Rock shutting out the sky, the old life done.
The plot of 'Paid on Both Sides' suggests that an abandonment of the old life is doomed to be, from one point of view, an escapist fantasy; from another perspective, however, this determination 'To throw away the key and walk away' is something which the poetry's acts of imagination can themselves figure, and which an aesthetic of estrangement can enact. The half-rhymes of the lines above (indebted, not by accident, to Wilfred Owen's example in poems like 'Strange Meeting') establish the cautious contact, implicitly sexual contact, which leads away from 'the old life': 'attach', 'touch', 'lip', 'lap'.
However, the conditions for the imagining of intimacy are not those which the dramatic world of the charade will long permit, and it is the mothers, above all, who in this play make sure that their sons will die rather than be party to a communicative erosion of 'the old life'. The final chorus takes on the tones of Greek tragedy in its summary:
Though he believe it, no man is strong. He thinks to be called the fortunate, To bring home a wife, to live long.
But he is defeated; let the son Sell the farm lest the mountain fall; His mother and her mother won.
His fields are used up where the moles visit, The contours worn flat; if there show Passage for water he will miss it:
Give up his breath, his woman, his team; No life to touch, though later there be Big fruit, eagles above the stream.
The victory of the mothers is acknowledged in this compelling hymn of defeat; but the means of its imaginative subversion are here too, in the poetry's mole-like undermining of the certain signs of home. The hope of 'touch', and in what will come 'later', provides the poetry with its horizon of expectation.
It is this which helps to establish the feeling of urgency in the style of Poems, and which certainly enabled early readers to interpret Auden's tone as in some sense a prophetic one. In the final section of poem XVI ('It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens') this air of diagnostic observation seems to mark for destruction the larger bourgeois society which grows out of the tensions and repressions of the kind of 'home' from which so much of the poetry is determined to walk away. To read such lines with a political slant was not difficult, and it remains tempting:
It is time for the destruction of error. The chairs are being brought in from the garden, The summer talk stopped on that savage coast Before the storms, after the guests and birds: In sanatoriums they laugh less and less, Less certain of cure; and the loud madman Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The note of clinical authority suggests that some clear social analysis is about to form; many early readers were to find such an analysis in communism, and it is possible that Auden himself, for a very brief period in the later 1930s, entertained this as a clue to his own interpretative puzzles. But such solutions were not solutions for long, and in fact they oversimplify the complexity of the different problems and competing analyses which go into Poems. More productive than an explicitly political line of interpretation, and closer indeed to the kinds of interest which Auden himself cultivated while the poems were being written, is the concern with the meanings, for both the individual and society, of psychological analysis. The poems return again and again to problems of strength and weakness, independence and attachment and, above all perhaps, sexual repression and desire.
In poem III ('Since you are going to begin to-day') a voice which may be that of Nature speaks of a grimly deterministic state of things; anxiety in the face of crisis or disaster is here not unique to the individual who experiences it ('Nor even is despair your own, when swiftly / Comes general assault on your ideas of safety'):
Your shutting up the house and taking prow
To go into the wilderness to pray,
Means that I wish to leave and to pass on,
Select another form, perhaps your son;
Though he reject you, join opposing team
Be late or early at another time,
My treatment will not differ — he will be tipped,
Found weeping, signed for, made to answer, topped.
The cycle which this poem proposes is similar to that explored dramatically in 'Paid on Both Sides', and its victim is depicted as a brilliant son, stricken with incommunicable sorrow or guilt, and subjected to an obscure, and probably sexual, sense of shame. It is important to the effect that the final violent end ('topped', to mean hanged) is reported so briskly and coldly, since the chill here is that of a whole analysis of a sick society:
Do not imagine you can abdicate; Before you reach the frontier you are caught; Others have tried it and will try again To finish that which they did not begin: Their fate must always be the same as yours, To suffer the loss they were afraid of, yes, Holders of one position, wrong for years.
This 'frontier' (which occurs often in Auden's poetry of the period) is primarily a frontier in the mind, although the poems give it some sharply realized physical locations; crossing is possible only at cost, a cost for which death is, at least sometimes, Auden's metaphor ('death, death of the grain, our death, / Death of the old gang'). This identification of what has been 'wrong for years' is, however, less a call to revolutionary violence than it is the experiencing of a thrill: the need for 'destruction of error' carries, in this poetry, the charged excitement of being in on a scandalous secret.
The extent to which Poems relies on secrets of various kinds is an essential element in the poetic style which the book so successfully establishes. Auden's writing is full of private references and intimate jokes, but these are made parts of poems that are finally impersonal in their effects, where the reader's role as interpreter is partly that of collaborator in an undercover investigation of the psyche, and the society, in a distorted, and possibly a doomed, world. At one extreme, this issues in the cod-
Tennyson sound of 'Get there if you can . . .' (Poem XXII), with its exhortations to 'Drop those priggish ways for ever, stop behaving like a stone: / Throw the bath-chairs right away, and learn to leave ourselves alone', and its conclusion that 'If we really want to live, we'd better start at once to try; / If we don't, it doesn't matter, but we'd better start to die'. At another extreme of Poems, the need to leave behind the old life is imagined in terms of an acceptance of estrangement and alienation, a process which is inseparable from the new and estranging sounds made in the verse itself. In one of the seven poems added by Auden for the second edition in 1933 (where seven poems from the first edition were withdrawn), 'Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle', the voice inhabits beautifully the register of Anglo-Saxon elegiac verse, to see its hero as 'A stranger to strangers over undried sea' who, though he 'dreams of home', must go on to encounter 'Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices / Of new men making another love'. The prayer with which this poem ends, to 'Protect his house / . . . From gradual ruin spreading like a stain', and its final image of a man 'Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn', might also, perhaps, serve to describe the secret hope with which Poems counterbalances its secret fears.
The adventurousness and originality of Poems are bound up with the book's stylistic capacities; Auden's distinctiveness was established immediately by the book, and it remained for many readers one of his most important achievements. While Auden himself developed in some respects away from the voice of Poems, that voice became for a generation in the 1930s the sound of an inevitable poetic authority. Subsequently, and perhaps just as remarkably, the voice of this poetry has retained its power to dazzle and convince.
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