His gift survived it all
February 20, 2007 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Today is the centenary of W.H. Auden, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Why not commemorate it by attending one of the many events honoring the man and marking the day? Auden wrote about anything and everything; his poems addressed such topics as the advent of World War II ("September 1, 1939", which gained new resonance after 9/11), grief ("Funeral Blues", used to great effect in Four Weddings and a Funeral), physics ("After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics"), commencement addresses ("Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times") unrequited love ("The More Loving One"), and the way life goes on ("Musée des Beaux Arts"). [more inside]
posted by Vidiot (36 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
There's an abudance of Audeniana on the Web, including collections of his poems, audio files of Auden's readings, an interesting essay on the poet's public and private faces, a remarkable transcript of a freewheeling Q&A with Swarthmore College students, a chart explicating his symbology and beliefs, an essay on and list of his travels, his reviews of Tolkien in the New York Times (1, 2), and even a picture of his typewriter.

As his literary executor Edward Mendelson put in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Auden's poetry "has a 'visionary quality' that involves 'seeing the infinite value of what's right in front of you.'"
posted by Vidiot at 10:57 PM on February 20, 2007

Ah, good post. "Musée des Beaux Arts" is terrific (make sure to look at the picture), but I've always loved "Lay Your Sleeping Head, Love" with its great lines:

Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

posted by blahblahblah at 11:02 PM on February 20, 2007

Wow, that "Musée des Beaux Arts" poem is very sweet, and about one of my favorite paintings, too. Haven't gotten around to reading much by or about Auden before now, although I've always kinda figured I would eventually. This is a wonderful little introduction; thanks for putting it together, Vidiot.

It helped that I landed first in that Q&A on his comments about pot and LSD and such:

Would you say [using drugs] has nothing to contribute to poetry?

Nothing, as far as I know. The only exception I can think of is that Cocteau may have got something out of opium.

Or Coleridge?

Of course, they were all doped to the gills then.

posted by mediareport at 11:18 PM on February 20, 2007

I like Auden a lot. Two of my favorites are 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats' and 'In Praise of Limestone.'

Nice post. Thanks.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:45 PM on February 20, 2007

Does anyone know if either version of "Spain 1937" is available on the Net? Sure, I've googled and checked here and there but got nothing. Make me feel like a fool and find a link. Please.
posted by CCBC at 11:54 PM on February 20, 2007

...For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
posted by y2karl at 11:56 PM on February 20, 2007

Good to honor Auden's centenary. Thanks for the excellent, rich post Vidiot. Touching that you used Auden's words in his poem about WB Yeats:

"your gift survived it all"

I love his poetry, delight in his wit and humanity. One of the things I really regret is, when I had the chance, not seeing Auden give a live reading at the London Poetry Society in '72 and he died shortly after that.

His Epitaph On A Tyrant is short and penetrating.
posted by nickyskye at 12:06 AM on February 21, 2007

CCBC: I don't have a collected Auden to doublecheck against, is this text of "Spain 1937" complete?
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 12:56 AM on February 21, 2007

One of my favorite poets, thank you for the post.

Smilla beat me to the Spain 1937 link, but looking reminded me of Auden's Shield of Achilles

"The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died."

which came to mind after hurricane Katrina.

Another long-time fave, one of Auden's early poems, This Lunar Beauty.
posted by faineant at 1:22 AM on February 21, 2007

One of my favorites of his is a deceptive ballad, "As I Walked Out One Evening":

"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless."

"O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart."
posted by bardic at 1:43 AM on February 21, 2007

Wow. Auden's library requests. That's just too cool. Lots of Auden stuff on the BBC this week, too. Thanks, Vidiot!
posted by steef at 6:00 AM on February 21, 2007

Auden is today's Dictionary of National Biography free Life of the Day. (Article will be up for a week.)
posted by nev at 6:13 AM on February 21, 2007

Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on February 21, 2007

Thanks for the post!

John Betjeman remembers Auden at Oxford (scroll down).

Auden on drugs:

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a "labor-saving device" in the "mental kitchen," with the important proviso that "these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down."
posted by otio at 6:40 AM on February 21, 2007

My grandmother took me to see him in the sixties. I remember him as the wrinkliest looking old man I'd ever seen. Not a very profound, I know, but I was a high school student and didn't appreciate his poetry as I do now.
posted by kozad at 6:59 AM on February 21, 2007

Thanks for this post. I was going to do one myself, but yours is much better than I could have done.

Couple of extra links I had bookmarked:

Poet and journalist James Fenton writing about Auden in the Guardian.

The Exiles' John Dolan on "the worst famous poet of the 20th century."
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:14 AM on February 21, 2007

Night Mail on Youtube.

'To Auden on his Fiftieth' by Richard Eberhardt.

Frank Kermode on Auden's Shakespeare.
posted by Mocata at 7:42 AM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

And he wrote pornographic poetry (NSFW) as well, of course.

It's not a very good poem, but in retrospect the way it was banned and treated as being radioactive in the UK when I was growing up and studying Auden at school gives an indication of how dangerous his unashamed homosexuality was regarded.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2007

Check out the stunning combination of photo and September 1, 1939 from anotherpanacea: A picture. An epitaph.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:57 AM on February 21, 2007

I really like In Memory of W. B. Yeats.
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
And on the speed: I wouldn't be at all surprised if Auden had ADHD -- speed is quite a benefit for such people. Sounds like Auden had a much healthier attitude about drugs than most people, acknowledging not only the dangers, but also the benefits.
posted by teece at 7:59 AM on February 21, 2007

Check out Tell Me The Truth About Love, from the same series as Funeral Blues: light and sweet and clever and just deep enough. I love me some of his heavy stuff, but it's nice to have something refreshing now and then.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:18 AM on February 21, 2007

I think that John Dolan link is this; perhaps it's the defensiveness of my affection for Auden talking but I feel I needn't take seriously a piece that thinks Edmund White wrote Memoirs of Hecate County.
posted by felix grundy at 8:28 AM on February 21, 2007

Evelyn Waugh caricatured him and Christopher Isherwood in Put Out More Flags, naming them Parsnip and Pimpernel.

Enjoying the book need not preclude enjoying the poetry.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:32 AM on February 21, 2007

Something that most people don't know: Auden was also a friend and mentor to the brilliant neurologist and medical writer Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and other marvelous books.
posted by digaman at 8:32 AM on February 21, 2007

He used to live in my neighborhood -- in fact there's a plaque to him, if memory serves, a few blocks from here. I'll have to give it a pass later today.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:33 AM on February 21, 2007

Caliban to his Audience is wonderful; I think his works
are still under copyright. I found his collected poems
well worth the price of a drink or a taxi ride.
posted by lw at 8:47 AM on February 21, 2007

One of the things I love about Auden is his fascination with landscape and his use of landscape as a metaphor - as quoted by y2karl ("...For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making"), and teece ("Now he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, / To find his happiness in another kind of wood") and as seen in poems like "In Praise of Limestone" and in one of my favorites, "Who stands, the crux left of the watershed..."

Watershed is one of his most intricate poems and is full of word games (if Cashwell's "latter office" is to "raise[] water," what was its former office?) and is great fodder for the OED.
posted by taliaferro at 9:16 AM on February 21, 2007

Caliban to his Audience is wonderful—so is the whole of The Sea and the Mirror. There's an essay on it here; I can't find but fragments of it online, though. I've always liked the Master and Boatswain's part of it, which is all my faulty memory can locate by specific lines right now.
posted by felix grundy at 9:28 AM on February 21, 2007

And he wrote pornographic poetry (NSFW) as well, of course.

My goodness. I'd never read that before. It made me terrifically happy, actually, to think that he experienced such raptorous sex and celebrated it in such a way.
posted by jokeefe at 10:09 AM on February 21, 2007

Of course, it's a mark of our appreciation of Auden that his very name is now used to describe a particular style of poetry.

Whenever I hear of a minor writer's hackneyed rhyming described as "truly Audenary", I can't help but be thankful to W.H. for leaving us this wonderful legacy.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2007

Really brilliant post.

I have to confess that when I tried to work my way through Auden about 5 years ago, I never really got him. Certain poems, like September 1, 1939 left an impression, obviously. But my tastes were running toward Roethke and Hass, and I remember thinking that here was a poet I was going to need to grow up to appreciate properly. Now might be a good time for another try.

Thanks Vidiot. There's a lot here to get me started.
posted by felix betachat at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2007

James Fenton writes about Auden today in The Guardian's Book Blog. Earlier this month, Guy Dammann complained about the lack of events to mark his centenary. Finally, in the Guardian's blog I found a link to an mp3 of Ralph Fiennes reciting As I Walked Out One Evening.

I heartily recommend Britten's and Auden's Night Mail, linked by Mocata, above. The first time I saw it, at the impressionable age of 18, I remember thinking it sounded like rap. And you know, it still does, specifically old-school rap in tetrameter.

It was interesting to read his thoughts on The Lord of the Rings. I once wrote a paper arguing that Frodo and Sam symbolically fulfill the sacraments of marriage on their journey (except, crucially, the consummation). I wonder what Auden would have thought of that.
posted by Kattullus at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2007

Thanks, Smilla. Good find.
posted by CCBC at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2007

truly Audenary

Fnar, fnar.
posted by Sparx at 4:49 PM on February 21, 2007

I totally forget to mention one of my favorites of Auden Paysage Moralis, one of the few good sestinas in English (he wrote 7):

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,
Round corners coming suddenly on water,
Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
We honour founders of these starving cities
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,

Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow
That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;
Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities
They reined their violent horses on the mountains,
Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,
Visions of green to them who craved for water.

...and so on, of course.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:12 PM on February 21, 2007

I wrote the following comment for this now deleted thread about an article linked above by felix grundy calling Auden an overrated poet. I just want to get this out of my system.


Why do people have to do this? By 'this' I mean critical takedowns of artists otherwise dearly loved. I can't see it changing anyone's opinion. It's taking the discourse of the academy into the arts. Attacking, say, Harold Bloom and calling his theories bunk, is something that can be backed up with citations, a list of errors, logic, reason, the whole shebang. Doing the same with a poet is terribly misguided. He quotes these lines:

Poetry makes nothing happen; it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches and isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

expecting anyone who reads them to go "yeah... these are terrible!" but that's not necessarily going to happen. The reader might instead think "hey! Those are pretty sweet lines!" You can't build an edifice of logic on a foundation of aesthetics.

For some people the poetry/lie "rhyme" matters, for others it doesn't. Personally it just reminds me of another, more famous poem, that rhymes symmetry and eye.

For the record, I'm ambivalent about Auden, he's not the kind of poet that excites me, but I don't hold that against him. It's my problem, not his.
posted by Kattullus at 10:42 AM on March 4, 2007

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