W. H. Auden: Tell Me the Truth About Love

W. H. Auden: Tell Me the Truth About Love

Biographic Notes

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was born in York, England. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood.

As a young man, he traveled through Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war and in 1939 moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Considered by some to be the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dark Night of the Soul

In 1952, Auden and his life-long companion moved to an apartment at 77 St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. It was, more or less, Auden’s permanent home for the rest of his life. During the initial years, Auden lived, however ambivalently, actively engaged in social and political interests, as well as enjoying his status as an internationally renowned poet. In his later years, Auden became increasingly withdrawn and lonely.

This was profoundly reflected in his writings, through which he deliberately attempted to discard much of his own public dignity, a significant sign that indicated the painful depth of his feelings of personal isolation. Many of his last poems spoke to, rather than about, silent objects and people who were either absent or dead. Ruminations about “night” (the darkness and ending of one’s day/life) dominated his writings in 1972, and particularly in his poem Lullaby that was addressed to himself. In that poem, writing about sleep was framed by the language of finality: “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” anticipating a time of final endings, completions and a state surpassing all feelings of resentment.

On another note, Auden’s life-long anxieties about his seemingly paradoxical wishes to maintain a clear sense of autonomy, versus his strong needs for attachment, were perhaps no more clearly presented than in his book of poems, About the House, inspired by various rooms in his home. Writing about groups of people visiting in the “living room”, Auden’s thoughts turned to the impact of the size of such rooms upon the internal experiences of psychological boundaries versus a lack of boundaries.

If the room was too small, he believed that, “…people can’t forget at will that they’re not alone.” In other words, they can’t remember that while together (or part of a “we”), they are also alone, instead drowning in a sense of enmeshment, lack of personal identity, autonomy and achievement.

At another extreme, if the room was too large, it would encourage people to engage in ever-more strong efforts to make contact with each other, with intensively forceful attempts to achieve a sense of attachment, along with heightened wishes and strivings for nurturing dependency.

Near the very end of his life, Auden’s poem entitled Loneliness purported to convey his prediction that his intense feelings of solitude would be relieved on the following day, when his companion, Chester Kallman, was to return. In fact, the poem only addresses in the first person his own terrifying image of Loneliness itself, the “Gate-crashing ghost, aggressive / invisible visitor.”

Concluding this brief commentary, we return to Auden’s feelings of the dark night of his soul as the end of life approached, best captured in his poem entitled Lullaby

Lullaby

First stanza
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Kenneth Granham Reads W. H. Auden’s Lullaby

W. H. Auden: Tell Me the Truth About Love

Tell Me the Truth About Love is a BBC documentary film looking at the poetry of W. H. Auden, revealing how it came not just from inspiration but from a rigorous personal analysis of love itself. When he died in 1973, he left behind some of the greatest love poems of the 20th century. Most of his unpublished material was destroyed, apart from two short journals and a series of jottings, containing diagrams and notes about the nature of love.

W. H. Auden: Tell Me the Truth About Love

Photo-Gallery: W. H. Auden Through the Years

(Please Click Image to View Gallery)

Please Share This:

Share

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

In June 1946, Harvard University observed its long-awaited Victory Commencement. For the first time since the end of WWII, alumni and graduates had a chance to gather in Harvard Yard. The ceremony was a time for the University to appraise all the changes the war had caused, and the even more profound changes that peace was about to bring. Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had died. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the very highest level. President James Bryant Conant had consulted with President Truman about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

As if to symbolize that intimacy, the 1946 Commencement awarded honorary degrees to the Chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. More questionable was the choice of that year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator: Byron Price, who had served as Director of the Federal Office of Censorship, in charge of monitoring press coverage of the war. Price used the occasion to deliver a rather ominous exhortation to “the man of letters,” whom he accused, 10 months after the war ended, of still not doing enough for national morale. “How often,” he asked, “shall the seeker find between these myriad covers an ounce of literary beauty, or a thimbleful of spiritual elevation? We are served a fare of dissoluteness and destruction. We are asked to sneer at man and regard him as no better than the worm. We are invited to improve our minds by studying the endless sagas of criminals and harlots, moving in sordid surroundings, and worshiping only the flesh.”

Under Which Lyre

It was against this backdrop of war and peace, and a university caught between them, that W.H. Auden, that year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, got up to deliver his own contribution to the festivities. If Auden was listening when Price issued his “commissar-like” advice to writers, he would have been revolted, but not surprised. In fact, his poem, Under Which Lyre, impishly subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, was intended to be a retaliation against Price’s brand of official uplift. In 174 witty, neatly rhymed lines, Auden set out his prophetic vision of the challenges facing postwar America in general, and the postwar university in particular. Occasional poems usually fade pretty quickly, but even in 2007, the year of Auden’s centenary, Under Which Lyre remains one of his most charming and perceptive works.

Under Which Lyre begins by setting the scene, in language that is by by turns colloquial and quaintly literary. “Ares at last has quit the field,” Auden proclaims, invoking the Greek god of war. Drawing upon his memories of a bombed-out Germany, which he had visited in 1945 as an analyst for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he writes, “in their convalescent state/The fractured towns associate/With summer flowers.” He then turns to a less somber kind of postwar scene, one that his listeners at Harvard would have recognized with a laugh:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Yet even as Harvard returned to its civilian pursuits and petty vanities, with students struggling with the poems of Donne, and “professors back from secret missions” bragging about their adventures, Auden saw another kind of conflict beginning to take shape. This was the war between two opposing sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden named Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, became for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden set Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious and undisciplined.” Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand.

The comedy of the poem lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the ruling spirit of what he called “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, Auden suggested, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts, of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport“; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man“; even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden was already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life during the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

Auden’s Commandments for Free Spirits

But if it’s impossible to dislodge Apollo from his throne, Auden suggested thay you can still follow Hermes in private. That is why the last stanzas of Under Which Lyre offer a set of commandments for free spirits who refuse to fall into line:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

His advice was half-joking, but only half. Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

Auden knew that a society run by Hermes would be a disaster; but a society without any followers of Hermes in it would be a true nightmare. That message makes Under Which Lyre a truly American poem, a defense of the individual against the masses. The continued life of Auden’s Phi Beta Kappa poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.

h/t to Adam Kirsch at The Harvard Magazine.

TechnoratiTechnorati: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Please Share This:

Share

W. H. Auden: St. Marks Place Apartment


W. H. Auden in His Cluttered Kitchen

In 1952, Auden and his life-long companion moved to an apartment at 77 St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. It was, more or less, Auden’s permanent home for the rest of his life.

During the initial years, Auden lived, however ambivalently, actively engaged in social and political interests, as well as enjoying his status as an internationally renowned poet. In his later years, Auden became increasingly withdrawn and lonely.

This was profoundly reflected in his writings, through which he deliberately attempted to discard much of his own public dignity, a significant sign that indicated the painful depth of his feelings of personal isolation. Many of his last poems spoke to, rather than about, silent objects and people who were either absent or dead. Runinations about “night” (the darkness and ending of one’s day/life) dominated his writings in 1972, and particularly in his poem “Lullaby” that was addressed to himself. In that poem, writing about sleep was framed by the language of finality: “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” anticipating a time of final endings, completions and a state surpassing all feelings of resentment.

On another note, Auden’s life-long anxieties about his seemingly paradoxical wishes to maintain a clear sense of autonomy, versus his strong needs for attachment, were perhaps no more clearly presented than in his book of poems, About the House, inspired by various rooms in his home. Writing about groups of people visiting in the “living room”, Auden’s thoughts turned to the impact of the size of such rooms upon the internal experiences of psychological boundaries versus a lack of boundaries.

If the room was too small, he believed that, “...people can’t forget at will that they’re not alone.” In other words, they can’t remember that while together (or part of a “we”), they are also alone, instead drowning in a sense of enmeshment, lack of personal identity, autonomy and achievement.

At another extreme, if the room was too large, it would encourage people to engage in ever-more strong efforts to make contact with each other, with intensively forceful attempts to achieve a sense of attachment, along with heightened wishes and strivings for nurturant dependency.

Near the very end of his life, Auden’s poem entitled “Loneliness” purported to convey his prediction that his intense feelings of solitude would be relieved on the following day, when his companion, Chester Kallum, was to return. In fact, the poem only addresses in the first person his own terrifying image of Loneliness itself, the “Gate-crashing ghost, aggressive / invisible visitor.”

Concluding this brief commentary, we return to Auden’s feelings of the dark night of his soul as the end of life approached, best captured in his poem entitled Lullaby:

LULLABY

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

W. H. Auden

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,458 other followers

%d bloggers like this: