FOR A CERTAIN KIND OF PERSON WHO CAME OF age in the 1930s, the English poet W.H. Auden played a role similar to the one Bob Dylan would play in the 1960s, if for a far smaller audience. Which is to say, he was not just “the voice of a generation,” he was someone whose words lodged themselves in the heads of his contemporaries like shrapnel and remained there for decades afterward.
The parallels are striking. Each man enjoyed a period of furious creativity in his 20s, only to be dismissed by many as a has-been by the time he was 35. Each began by espousing a leftist political line, and infuriated his fans when he abandoned it for a more religious one. Each had an ability to sum up a generation's mood, and each suffered critically once his generation's moment had passed. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but when Auden finally left New York in 1972 (he would die a year later, aged 66, in Austria), the first thing his apartment's new occupant did was put up a giant poster of Bob Dylan.
In most ways, though, the comparison falls flat. Dylan is the bard of an oral culture, rough-hewn and instinctive, whereas Auden was a hyperliterate poet whose command of the language, not to mention breadth of knowledge, far exceeded Dylan's or just about anyone else's. (According to one Weekly staffer, who claims to have heard him speak the words, the poet considered Dylan “a dreadful fraud.”) Auden is, surely, the most quotable English-language poet of the century, and probably the most intelligent. I first started reading him when working as a foot messenger in New York. I'd borrowed a Selected Poems from a friend and carried it around with me as I traipsed through midtown Manhattan in melting summer heat, not reading the poems so much as memorizing them so I wouldn't crash into people. “Yes, these are the dog-days, Fortunatus . . . ,” I'd recite to myself:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar's brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.
I got hooked on the voice, basically, a combination of lyricism and almost omniscient intelligence. It was pure pleasure, an unexpected discovery far from the classroom and in the midst of life — just where a poet should be.
Something similar must have happened to Edward Mendelson in the mid-'60s, when he was still in his teens. In 1972, Auden, then 65, named Mendelson as his literary executor. (“He knows more about me than I do,” Auden explained to a friend.) In the years since, Mendelson has edited various editions of Auden's work in exemplary fashion and written two major critical studies. Early Auden, published in 1981, covers the 1930s, when Auden was the leading voice of a group of British writers that included Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice. Later Auden, which has just been published, covers the years 19391973, after Auden moved to the U.S. and became an American citizen. Mendelson, who is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, believes that Auden did much of his greatest work after he left England. He spoke to the Weekly by phone from New York.
What attracted you most in Auden's poetry when you first read it?
My first impression was of an extraordinary evocative rhythmical power that seemed to promise deep meanings that I didn't fully understand, but which seemed worth pursuing. Then, as I began to understand him better, I was struck by a number of things. One was that he seemed to be describing reality better than any other 20th-century writer. Another was that I had been taught by the culture that cynicism was an essential part of intelligence, and here was someone who was infinitely more intelligent than I was, who had no conventional illusions, but who was not cynical in the least.
How did you meet him?
I had heard that you could look him up in the Manhattan phone book and invite yourself over to talk to him at his apartment on St. Mark's Place. And at the age of 19, I did exactly that. He had a kind of office hour from 5 to 6, and so I went and nervously tried to make conversation with the great man. Auden told me anecdotes, and I realized I'd heard some of them before, but he was very generous about putting the visitor at ease. And at precisely 6, I was politely ushered out.
One always thinks of Auden as a “spokesperson for his generation” in the '30s, something we can hardly imagine a poet as now. Was he really that influential?
In terms of the larger population, no one had heard of him. But in literary circles, in that small group of a few thousand people who were reading poetry and plays, he was regarded as the most impressive new voice in decades, someone with a political edge, a sense of sheer pleasure and audacity, unlike anything else.
He isn't being taught a great deal in college, is he?
Auden gets only a brief glimpse, at most, in the standard courses in literary history. I know of only one person in the U.S. who teaches a course devoted entirely to Auden — perhaps two. Some academics are, I think, less comfortable with moral intelligence than with a value-free play of ideas, an aesthetic point of view, as in the case of Wallace Stevens. No one was ever made uncomfortable about their moral life after reading Wallace Stevens, but you can feel very uncomfortable after reading Auden. And the kind of academic who enjoys finding hidden political agendas in literature finds Auden hard to deal with, because Auden pointed to all the ambiguities in his own work and leaves the academic with nothing to do.
A lot of people these days have a hard time believing that any rational, intelligent person could be a practicing Christian and go to church. But shortly after moving to America in 1939 — when he was still in his early 30s and about as hip as you can get — Auden started doing so. What led him back to religion?
Auden was very emphatic that his religion was not a supernatural religion of miracles. It was a way of taking things seriously, a matter of intelligence, not credulity. Most of all, religion was one of the ways he understood the unique value of individual human beings and individual human suffering. When I talk about this aspect of his work to undergraduates, I'm always struck by their combination of overt cynicism and covert idealism. In class, they talk as if they would rather be caught wearing plaid than think about moral or religious issues. Then they come to the office and say shyly that they're very grateful that someone like Auden took these things seriously.
At one point in Later Auden you write that the central subject of Auden's poetry is “the whole question of voluntary choice and first-person language.”
Auden was very intent on the sense of first-person responsibility, which is denied or refused in so much 20th-century thought, with its emphasis on historical forces, unconscious motives, or the controlling powers of the mass media. He wanted to write poetry as a means of communication, and he saw a very close link between first-person speech and taking moral responsibility for one's own acts. The poetry, in its formal and artificial way, was a representation of one person speaking to another. Some academics have the idea that it's especially cool to talk about the arts as “cultural production,” which means something that has nothing to do with the personality of the artist, but for Auden, art-as-production was a characteristically 20th-century myth that had a lot in common with murderous and totalitarian ideologies.
You've now been Auden's literary executor for over a quarter of a century, have edited several volumes of his poetry, plays and essays, and have written two critical studies of his work. Is there more to come?
The complete edition of his work has three, maybe four, volumes of his prose to go, followed by two volumes of poems.
The book I want to write next will be about marriage, sex and children in novels by Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf — all women, because male novelists seem to have written in a less adult and intelligent way about these matters. It's not a book about Auden, but about things that Auden helped me to think about. In his essays in the 1950s, he developed something that would now be called a feminist theory of literature, although no one would have called it that at the time. One of the reasons his poetry — and Woolf's novels — have such staying power is that they're not about strength or power, but about relations, which are always more interesting.
Brendan Bernhard's 1997 article on Auden and Christopher Isherwood, “Coming to America,” is available in the Weekly's archives at www.laweekly.com/ink/97/13/books-bernhard.shtml.
LATER AUDEN | By EDWARD MENDELSON
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 592 pages | $30 hardcover