What can WH Auden do for you?

Prospect Magazine

What can WH Auden do for you?


Forty years after his death, Auden is still considered an indispensable poet of the age

When Auden died in 1973, forty years ago last week, it would have been hard to imagine how popular he would become in the ensuing decades. Morose and solitary, he described himself, in a poem of the early 1960s, as a “sulky 56,” who had “grown far too crotchety” and found a “change of meal-time utter hell.” In those later years, Auden seemed a shadow of his former self: his reputation had been tainted by some rather unforgiving reviews. Philip Larkin, for one, had dismissed his “rambling intellectual stew;” Randall Jarrell painted a sorry picture of a man “turned into a rhetoric mill, grinding away at the bottom of Limbo.” Jilted by his handsome younger lover, Chester Kallman, Auden took leave of all worldly pleasures, living out his last few years in a small town near Vienna. The obituaries of the enfant terrible of poetry were detailed but rarely strayed from reflecting on his much-anthologised poems of the 1930s, “As I walked out one evening” and “Lullaby.”

Auden has always seemed ripe for quotation. One of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ads included the signature line “We must love one another or die” from Auden’s poem “September I, 1939.” Two decades later, Auden’s lyric “Stop all the clocks” became the signature elegy of the AIDS era, and later made a cameo appearance in the 1994 romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. Faber and Faber immediately cashed in with Tell me the truth about love, a pamphlet which sold a reputed 275,000 copies. Auden’s lines are quoted, misquoted, appropriated, parodied, often without any attribution to the poet himself. Our language is peppered with his neologisms, not least the “Age of Anxiety,” defined in the OED as “a catch-phrase of any period characterised by anxiety or danger.”

In 2001, on the cusp of another “low, dishonest decade,” to use one of Auden’s terms for the 1930s, Auden was seen again as an indispensable poet of the age. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, poetry—the most concentrated of verbal art forms—once again emerged as a vital, commemorative form. But none of the poems written in the ensuing decade caught the prevailing mood so much as the one Auden wrote six decades earlier in response to a different crisis—that of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse

The lines are eerily prophetic; but beyond the sense of history repeating itself, what distinguished Auden’s poem is its sheer virtuosity of registers and the poetic “I” sitting in exile in a bar in the midst of it all. There’s a kind of toughness to the first two lines, as if Auden were putting on his American leather jacket to blend in with the St. Marks crowd, that is candidly shrugged off in the third. The poem that is at once about imminent disaster is also about a poet trying to naturalise his identity. Civilisation might be on the brink of collapse, but, as Brodsky argued in his essay on Auden, the poem shows that the resourcefulness and adaptability of language can save a culture from the “unmentionable odour of death.”

Asked in 1972 which living writer he considered to be the “prime protector of the integrity of the English tongue,” Auden responded with characteristic quasi-flippancy: “Why, me, of course!” It is perhaps only fitting that Auden, whose poems often take the form of parables—a form that teaches us how to read, and whose meaning is different for each reader — has inspired such a wealth of personal tributes. What WH Auden Can Do For You, the latest offering, published last week to coincide with the 40th anniversary of his death, comes from Scottish novelist, Alexander McCall Smith. The heroine of his No. 1 Ladies Detective series frequently refers to “Audanesque” principles when facing a moral quandary. Now the author has written his own book—part memoir, part literary appreciation—on Auden, which takes the form of a kind of poetry user’s manual to life. There are plenty of things to admire in this pocket-sized volume. Its premise is a good one—that we should read poetry not for poetry’s sake (it will, as Auden says, survive of its own accord), but for our own. The book excels in its tentative ruminations and quiet suggestiveness. Though I do wonder what Auden himself would have made of a chapter entitled “Auden as a guide to living one’s life;” subtitle “He helps us have spiritual purpose.” “He who tries to interpret a parable,” to quote Auden, “will only reveal himself.”

One of the delights of reading Auden is that however much his language is recognisable, his tone is mercurial. Auden tried on styles like hats, finding only a couple too trivial to salvage. His poetic inventiveness and intellectual restlessness invites reels of criticism; though that is not to say that anything goes. The words of a poem are not the sum of its parts; and Auden’s poetry rarely yields its meaning quite as easily as its perfectly light verse would suggest. In fact, one of the masterful tricks of his poetry is that it’s quite often saying the opposite of what the reader has decided to hear. Ever alive to the limitations— and fundamental frivolity—of art, Auden’s greatness lies in believing at once in the power of art to enchant, while allowing irony to do its duty. This self-consciousness that “poetry makes nothing happen” doesn’t necessarily undercut the magic; in fact, he suggests, it may be one of magic’s expedients. Both “Stop all the clocks” and “September I, 1939,” are written in pastiche mode—the former to show precisely what happens when lines are taken out of context; the latter, far from the call to arms it is often taken for, salutes a rootless, ironic mode of being. As he writes of Yeats’ afterlife, Auden’s poetry is forever “Modified in the guts of the living;” its meaning distilled and rendered to fit the occasion. But poetry is mainly sound—the meanings will only take you so far; and to have sounded, in poetry, the tones of the age, is no small feat. To still sound them today, 40 years after his death, is surely a great one.

  1. October 14, 2013

    L. Legault

    A critic with any awareness of or sensitivity to poetry will understand that poetry conveys itself through sound, but to proclaim that it is “mostly sound” – especially in a piece about Auden, of all people – is so silly that I hardly know how to respond to it.

    The layering of complementary and/or contradictory images and ideas is so much a part of the reward of reading poetry that I suspect that anyone who doesn’t know it has perhaps read little poetry, or else doesn’t like it very much. I notice, too, that this writer doesn’t quote from any poem of Auden’s that is not well-known to pop culture.

    Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
    The Eighth was the Kingdom of Meaning in Art.

    • October 15, 2013


      “Authors can be stupid enough, God knows, but they are not quite so stupid as a certain kind of critic seems to think. The kind of critic, I mean, to whom, when he condemns a work or a passage, the possibility never occurs that its author may have foreseen exactly what he is going to say”

      —W. H. Auden

    • October 27, 2013


      “is so silly that I hardly know how to respond to it”

      Then don’t.

  2. October 14, 2013

    Wendy Orange

    Auden is one of my favorite poets, We here know how he struggled with September 1,1939. That last line “We must love each other, or die”

    Recently and I write fiction non-fiction but no poems it came to me that the last line might better be read. “We Must Love Another”

    Does anyone agree with this non-poet’s take?.

    • October 15, 2013


      I like it. Why not? He sensibly concluded that we were going to die anyway and so he abandoned the line. I claimed it under maritime salvage laws from the wreckage of the HMS Wystan and used it to end one of my own poems. Mine was a much more modest effort (befitting our comparative talents) about a marriage going to ruin and not the dying of empires. No dogs barked for us.

  3. October 15, 2013

    Martin Walker

    He not only abandoned the line, he dropped the whole poem from the Collected Poems published in 1966. It wasn’t until Edward Mendelson’s The English Auden that it was published again in a collection of his poetry (1977). Like other poems,
    “it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.”

  4. October 20, 2013

    Gene Reese

    Perhaps one an apply Auden’s Musee des beaux Arts to his critics and obviously jealous fellow poets. As they, like Icarus, fall unnoticed into the sea, Auden and the rest of the world scratch their rumps on a tree and go about their doggy business.

  5. December 29, 2013

    John Primitivo Orosco

    Auden endures because his words ring true to this day. A great poet is a spoken about to the end of the horizon.

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