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C.DAY-LEWIS, review, 'Listener', May 1937

C.DAY-LEWIS, review, 'Listener', May 1937

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W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary


To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Mr. Auden’s method here is that of a news-reel

contrasting dark motive and brilliant event: image and

commentary are blended with that skill, vividness and

unfailing interest which we have come to expect from

this poet. At times the cataloguing in detail becomes a

little monotonous, and occasionally he comes near to

guying his own idiom—as in ‘Today the makeshift

consolations: the shared cigarette, The cards in the

candlelit barn, and the scraping concert’. But the poem

moves with vivacity and the impersonal tenderness which

is so much more effective than any heroics towards its

final admonition:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look,

We are left alone with our day, and the time is short,


History to the defeated

May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.



2 June 1937, 7

Poet and Communist, Goodman (1911–66) contributed to

‘New Country’ (1933), and published ‘Poems’ (1931), ‘A

Footnote to Lawrence’ (1932), and ‘Britain’s Best

Ally’ (an appeal for alliance with the Soviet Union,


‘Spain’—the best poem that Auden has yet written and, with

Spender’s ‘Vienna,’ the only poem by an Englishman

anywhere near being a real revolutionary poem still deals

with Auden’s own personal reactions and personal

interpretation of—the Spanish struggle, although it is

very near realising the fusion of this personal

interpretation with the objective interpretation, which is

essential for the realisation of true revolutionary


238 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

How near this poem is to bringing about this fusion will

be appreciated:[Quotes lines 45–6, and 56–68, of ‘Spain’, EA, 211–12.]

Perhaps almost the fusion is complete. At moments

throughout the poem I am inclined to believe that it is….

That the progress made by Auden—and the much smaller

progress made by Spender in ‘Vienna’—is due almost

entirely to the fact that they have been in contact with a

mass struggle, confirms the impression that only when the

British Labour movement has developed a really fighting

unity and so a really mass movement in this country will

it be possible for really revolutionary poetry to be


That Auden—and to a less extent Spender—are by now more

or less technically equipped for immediately seizing upon

such a movement when it comes is obvious, at least in

Auden’s case, from ‘Spain.’

It is to him, perhaps more than to any other British

writer, that one must look as the first revolutionary

British poet, once the objective conditions are realised

which will make revolutionary poetry possible in Britain.



xiii, 5 June 1937, 926, 928

‘Spain’ is a hundred-line poem by Auden; it is good

medium Auden in a good cause—the Spanish Medical Aid.

The Marxian theory of history does not go very happily

into verse, but the conclusion is very fine….

Literature is something which is just as good in ten

years’ time, propaganda is not, and the contrast is

acute for many.

To-day the struggle,

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary


To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

So writes Auden in ‘Spain’ and Milton, Marvell and Shelley

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


all wrote pamphlets. But Auden’s non-pamphleteering love

lyric [‘Lay your sleeping head my love/Human on my

failthless arm’] is by far the best thing in [‘New

Writing’, 3, Spring 1937] and utterly without political


‘Letters from Iceland’

(with Louis MacNeice)

London, August 1937; New York, November 1937

Auden recorded in August 1937 that he had written twothirds of the book; all the photographs were his.

According to Auden’s New York agent, the Faber edition, of

which 10,240 copies were printed, had an advance order of

8,000 copies.



xiv, 7 August 1937, 226

Edward Sackville-West (1901–65) was 5th Baron Sackville.

His publications include ‘Piano Quintet’ (1925), ‘The Sun

in Capricorn’ (1934), ‘Inclinations’ (1949), and ‘The

Record Guide’ (with Desmond Shawe-Taylor, 1951).

This review is entitled Public and Private Schools.

In a letter to ‘E.M.A.,’ in the middle of the book, Mr.

Auden describes his and his collaborator’s intention

thus: ‘This letter…will be a description of an effect

of travelling in distant places which is to make one

reflect on one’s past and one’s culture from the

outside. But will form a central thread on which I shall

hang other letters to different people more directly

about Iceland.’ Accordingly, the authors have thrown

loosely together everything that happened to occur to

them in the course of their desultory journey, from

serious poems to menus. The method undoubtedly has itsvirtues, and the resulting extravaganza makes very easy

reading: one is no longer surprised that the Book

Society should have selected this book when one

discovers that it contains nothing obscure or


W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


‘profound’; no message, though the point of view is

naturally leftish (poor Jane Austen is made to

exemplify the economic basis of society), and no really

virulent satire. The authors are out to amuse and (very

mildly) instruct; they succeed in the main very well.

And they are funny, whether they are quoting from other

books on Iceland or describing their own experiences;

and Mr. Auden’s Byronic stanzas are brilliant light

verse. The same cannot be said for Mr. MacNeice’s

heroic couplets, which are exceedingly slovenly: this

is not a form which is tolerable except when highly

polished. When I was at Oxford, we used to play a game—a

form of Consequences—called Communal Verses, in which

each player wrote two lines ‘blind.’ The result was

very like Mr, MacNeice’s; but such things are scarcely

worth publishing. On the other hand, Mr. Auden

contributes three serious poems which are of real

beauty, though I doubt if Book Society members will

make much of them.

I found the long satire on the schoolgirl style

overdone to the point of dullness; but some of the

straight description is very good indeed:

Mysterious violent figures rise out of the background

slashing at prisoners without looking at them.

Impassive horses survey another world than theirs. One

of the thieves has his head thrown right back and on his

forehead dances a bear holding a child. Serried

figures, the Queen of Heaven with a tower, St. Peter

with no back to his head, etc., rise like a Greek

Chorus, right and left of the main panel.

Then there is a collection of proverbs à la Blake, of

which I select the following: ‘Gifts should be handed, not

hurled’; ‘Men fight by day, devils by night’; ‘The meanest

guest has the keenest eye.’

The authors have found a certain difficulty in making

Iceland itself seem interesting. In this they suffer from

the same trouble which besets all modern explorers: that

of finding little-visited spots of the earth to write

about, the trouble which drove Mr. Peter Fleming to the

most meaningless part of Central Asia. Perhaps this is

why they found it necessary to eke out their book with

such a very large quantity of private jokes and

references to undescribed friends of whom the ordinary

reader will have no knowledge whatever. Thus, the. Last

Will and Testament, with which the book ends, is a

veritable orgy of this kind of game, no doubt extremely

amusing to the other, members of the Upper Fifth, but

scarcely to anyone else.

242 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

The photographs are sometimes beautiful and invariably




7 August 1937, 572

This review is subtitled A Byronic Interlude in Iceland.

Mr. Auden is at the stage when one wonders with a

lively expectation whether the next fork in his road

will take him towards poetry or the drama, or whether

he will now go ahead in his own right, rediscovering a

track which makes the best of both these worlds. But he

is full of surprises; and this time he disappears, with

a new companion, round a bend which seems at first to

be hairpin but turns out to have the virtue of an S.

His new book begins with the first canto of a letter to

Byron written in a form and spirit with which his

correspondent would be dangerously familiar; it

contains an extraordinary Last Will and Testament

which may amuse everybody but its innumerable

legatees; and it ends with statistical graphs showing

the distribution of population, industry and foreign

trade of Iceland.

No one will be more suprised at this than Mr. Auden

was. He went to Iceland with a contract to write a travel

book and with no idea how this should be done.

(Authorship as an exacting affair of dates and delivery

is a modern development about which Byron might have been

glad to receive a stanza or two.) However, he read ‘Don

Juan’ on the way out, and received a challenge of

virtuosity. To accept was a different matter, but Housman

is not the only poet who has been spurred up Parnassus by

a minor ailment:

Indeed one hardly goes too far in stating

That many a flawless lyric may be due,

Not to a lover’s broken heart, but ‘flu.

Mr. Auden, gloomily nursing a cold in an Icelandic bus,

suddenly saw, streaming before him, Byron as his way out.

He would chat to Byron about cabbages and kings, and to

other more accessible correspondents about Iceland. Light

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


verse, poor girl, practised as she is only by ‘Milne and

persons of that kind’ and confined ‘to the more bourgeois

periodicals,’ is in a poor way: she will be all the better

for some fresh air:

And since she’s on a holiday, my Muse

Is out to please, find everything delightful

And only now and then be mildly spiteful.

So he takes her, keeping his promise fairly well, for

five longish cantos. These have no relevance to Iceland

except in so far as the poet, with glacier on one hand

and a geyser on the other, has put so much cooling water

between him and England—and even between himself and his

habitual life—that he can laugh at her absurdities (and

his) and grumble at her plight (and his) with as much wit

as he can muster, and without the anger of close-quarter


This stylish display of marksmanship is equally good

for England and for Mr. Auden. He accepts the discipline

of the Byronic stanza (less, it is true, one line) with

fine and gleeful virtuosity, and has some glorious

adventures in rhyme. ‘My trouble is that the excitement of

doing a kind of thing I’ve never tried to do before keeps

making me think it’s better and funnier than it is.’

Precisely; Mr. Auden tries for a bull of autobiographical,

social or aesthetic criticism in every stanza, and often

scores at least an inner, as in this preliminary to a

description of the change from John Bull to ‘the little

Mickey with the hidden grudge’:We’ve still, it’s true, the same shape and appearance,

We haven’t changed the way that kissing’s done;

The average man still hates all interference,

Is just as proud still of his new-born son:

Still, like a hen, he likes his private run,

Scratches for self-esteem, and slyly pecks

A good deal in the neighbourhood of sex.

Mr. MacNeice is a more morose rebel. His contributions

stand beside Mr. Auden’s intermittent instruction of Byron

like desolate pools unmoved beside a volcano five times in

eruption. Both authors are rather sheepish about their

presence in Iceland when Europe wants such careful

attention. Mr. MacNeice in a rhymed letter to N.W.8

describes with desperate wit ‘the obscure but powerful

ethics of Going North.’ Is it possible, horrid thought,

that these poets are becoming escapists? No, answers Mr.

Auden categorically, when Mr. Isherwood asks him about

life on small islands:-

244 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able,

or even wish, to escape. Though I am sure you would

enjoy a visit as much as I did, I think that, in the

long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for

you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only

really happy living among lunatics.

The cat in the last sentence comes out of Mr. MacNeice’s

bag as well, except perhaps for the world ‘happy.’ He

faces the question in a powerful Eclogue from Iceland in

which two tourists, hoping for solitude on an Icelandic

heath, are lectured by the ghost of Grettir,

The last of the saga heroes

Who had not the wisdom of Njal or the beauty of Gunnar,

I was the doomed tough, disaster kept me witty;

Being born the surly jack, the ne’er-do-well, the


Hard blows exalted me.

A voice from the macabre dancing floor of Europe is enough

to keep the travellers where they are, but Grettir sends

them back:

Minute your gesture but it must be made—

Your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of hate,

Hatred of hatred, assertion of human values,

Which is now your only duty.

One must correct the impression that in this book Iceland

is only the point of departure for gunman journeys of the

spirit. Mr. Auden’s photographs are usually good and

always intelligent. He is knowledgeable, concentrated,

exact and pungent on cost, transport, food and clothes,

and has a humility and brevity unusual in a three months’

visitor when he tells an Icelander what he thinks of his

country. Perhaps this was written after compiling

‘Sheaves from Sagaland,’ in which he gathers a pretty

harvest from the writings of a long line of

distinguished—or at the least eccentric—predecessors in

plodding across Iceland.

Finally there is ‘Hetty to Nancy,’ the only letter

whose author and recipient are not clearly indicated. It

is apparently the diary of a lady who travelled painfully,

on horseback, round Langjokull, in the company of a

schoolmistress and four schoolgirls. This joyous document

is what the good travel book is like when it is not

written by Mr. Auden. There are unfortunately only forty

pages of it, for Mr. Auden thinks that such humours grow

monotonous. It might, indeed, have been written by Hetty,

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


but her sex is strongly suspected to be male, her surname




xxxvi, September 1937, 483–4

Mr. Auden and Mr. MacNeice are turning an honest penny in

an honest way:

In the ‘bus to-day I had a bright idea about this travel

book. I brought a Byron with me to Iceland, and I

suddenly thought I might write him a chatty letter in

light verse about anything I could think of, Europe,

literature, myself. He’s the right person, I think,

because he was a townee, a European, and disliked

Wordsworth and that kind of approach to nature, and I

find that very sympathetic.

Mr. Auden and Mr. MacNeice are both honest townees: they

do not profess to use landscapes as symbols for a state of

mind, as Wordsworth did, but that does not prevent them

from writing good descriptive verse that makes a scene the

starting-point of meditation about the world in general.

They profess to dislike hardship, but they deliberately

land themselves in situations where some hardship is


Wystan has butted in again

To say we must go out in the frightful rain

To see a man about a horse and so

I shall have to stop. For we soon intend to


Around the Langjökull, a ten day’s ride,

Gumboots and stockfish. Probably you’ll


This sissy onslaught on the open spaces.

I can see the joke myself….

There appears to be a fair amount of mud and corrugated

iron in Iceland, but the chief hardships are

gastronomical: ‘Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland.

This should be shredded with the fingers and èaten with

butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes

like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the

246 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

soles of one’s feet.’ By the way of delicacy there is

‘Hakarl, which is half-dry, half-rotten shark. This is

white inside with a prickly horn rind outside, as tough as

an old boot. Owing to the smell it has to be eaten out of

doors. It is shaved off with a knife and eaten with

brandy. It tastes more like bootpolish than anything else

I can think of.’

Practical advice to travellers is not perhaps the main

intention of this collection of letters, but a good deal

of it creeps in, and there is a useful bibliography, as

well as an entertaining anthology of the observations and

inanities of previous travellers. Mr. Auden’s Letter to

Byron is divided into five parts: it forms the recurrent

theme of the book, and in between there are prose

narratives (including some Cambridge-and-Gordon-Squareish

‘letters from Hetty to Nancy,’ whose authorship the reader

can, from internal evidence, guess), and a number of


Every exciting letter has enclosures,

And so shall this—a bunch of photographs,

Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,

Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;

I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.

I’m going to be very up-to-date indeed.

It is a collage that you’re going to read.

Towards the end of the book the authors set out their

‘Last Will and Testament’ in loose terza rima: if

everybody mentioned in it buys a copy, the book ought to

do well, and if they ever receive their legacies the world

will be considerably livened up.

The whole book is entertaining, useful, and lighthearted. It expresses a great number of Mr. Auden’s

private judgments and some of Mr. MacNeice’s; the reader

will probably applaud most of them all the more

heartedly because they are not disguised as moral

principles. It contains some of the liveliest light

verse that Mr. Auden has yet written, and two of his

best and most characteristic poems. Since the early work

of Chesterton, light verse has mostly been limited to

inoffensive exercises: there is no venom in the present

book (after all, the authors were on holiday), but there

is enough tune and jingle to please the ear and help the

memory, and enough punch to cause a few sore heads and

bloody noses.

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage



xvii, Ixvi, October 1937, 154

Scottish poet, critic, translator, and novelist, Muir

(1887–1959) was born and spent his early years in rural

communities in the Orkneys. After a period as A.R.Orage’s

assistant on the ‘New Age’, he devoted his life to poetry

and translation, and to prolific articles which contained,

according to T.S.Eliot, ‘the best criticism of our time’.

With his accomplished wife, Willa, he translated into

English numerous works including those of Kafka and of

Hermann Broch. His poems (collected in 1960) grew steadily

in maturity, and express a humane vision of life which is

underlined by his celebrated autobiography (1954).

‘Letters from Iceland’ is mainly entertainment, and mainly

good entertainment. Mr. MacNeice seems to have liked the

island better than Mr. Auden, and also to have taken it

more seriously. The best single items in the book are, I

think, an account of an eruption in 1727 by the Minister

of Sandfell, and a fairy tale, Gellivör, retold by Mr.

Auden. After that comes the long ‘Letter to Lord Byron’,

written in instalments by Mr. Auden, in which he catches

with astonishing skill the mood and style of ‘Don Juan’.

This poem is vigorous, careless, amusing, altogether

enjoyable, and considerably more than an exercise. The one

disappointing feature in the book is Auden and MacNeice’s

Last Will and Testament at the end, which is dull and

laboured. Altogether it is a pleasantly formless book.

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C.DAY-LEWIS, review, 'Listener', May 1937

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