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F.CUDWORTH FLINT, review, 'New York Times', April 1945

F.CUDWORTH FLINT, review, 'New York Times', April 1945

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W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


their fellow-traveler in their pilgrimage away from


In 1930 appeared in England the ‘Poems’ of W.H.Auden,

and the answer had been found. Here was a mind energetic,

inquisitive, modern; a technique dexterous and Protean; an

interest in, if not exactly an espousal of, the Communist

principles, and an imagery and vocabulary so permeated by

the materials and terms of psychoanalysis as at times

almost to seem ‘clinical’—thereby realizing an announced

aim of the author. Perhaps this young poet, late of Oxford

and just returned from the spiritual Babel of Berlin,

would, as soon as his first enthusiasm for collecting

information and styles had sobered somewhat, achieve the

fusion of Marx and Freud, of the outer revolution and the

inner purge, which might be the religion of the era to


But Mr. Auden was not going that way. As book followed

book—the curious medley of verse, prose and diagrams

called ‘The Orators’; in a collaboration with Christopher

Isherwood, the satiric extravaganzas, ‘The Dog Beneath the

Skin’ and ‘The Ascent of F6’; in collaboration with the

poet Louis MacNeice, a medley in verse and prose of travel

and comment on civilization in general entitled ‘Letters

from Iceland,’ and a similar book (with Isherwood) about

China called ‘Journey to a War’; another collection of

poems, ‘On this Island’ (the English title is ‘Look,

Stranger!’); several anthologies, including the ‘Oxford

Book of Light Verse,’ and, after his coming to America in

1939 to live, further collections of poems—‘Another Time,’

‘The Double Man,’ and his recent brilliant ‘For the Time

Being’—from all these it became clear that even his style

had been wrongly perceived. Sheer variousness was not its

chief characteristic.

It is true that a line here, a phrase there, may record

some one or another of Auden’s numerous momentary

flirtations: with the style of T.S.Eliot, the later

Yeats, Emily Dickinson, A.E.Housman, Gerard Manley

Hopkins, and perhaps some of Auden’s more elaborate

stanza-patterns—molds into which the material is neatly

fitted rather than consummations of the rhythms of the

lines—derive from his early interest in Thomas Hardy. In

spite of all such surface influences, however, he has

developed a way with words which is recognizably and

emphatically his own.

This way is constituted by a vocabulary rather than a

single style. Auden dislikes what he called ‘damp’ poetry;

that is to say, romantic or emotionally resonant or ‘pure’

poetry. He even has recipes for avoiding it; he mostly

excludes colors and scents from his poems, and emphasizes

352 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

shapes. His vocabulary ranges from terms of abstract

analysis to homely epithets of contemporary realism, as in

Abruptly mounting her ramshackle wheel,

Fortune has pedaled furiously away

And Auden’s movements back and forth along this range are

managed with easy swiftness. One, for instance, might not

expect a poem entitled ‘Heavy Date’ and beginning in the

neutral center of the range

Sharp and silent in the

Clear October lighting

Of a Sunday morning

The great city lies,

to pass easily to

Love has no position,

Love’s a way of living,

One kind of relation

Possible between

Any things or persons

Given one condition,

The one sine qua non

Being mutual need.

But in some of the poems from his earliest book (which can

usually be spotted at a glance by their short lines and

lack of a stanza-pattern) a terseness of syntax, even

though the diction is simple, involves the reader in

puzzles. There are too many alternative meanings which

will account for all the words set down on the page. Auden

may have been emulating the riddling brevity of the

Icelandic sagas, which have impressed him—he is of

Icelandic descent; but, at least to the non-Icelander, an

Icelandic riddle is a riddle still. In his later books he

has relaxed this terseness, and none of his more recent

poems say too little to tell their tale. It is mostly

these earlier poems that gave given him the reputation of

being ‘difficult.’

Obviously, a vocubulary such as Auden’s is well adapted

to satire, and Auden at his best can be an excellent

satirist—when the demands of neatness imposed by satirical

point are not overcome by his tendency to slapdash

improvisation. He himself has recognized this tendency,

and some of the longer poems in the ‘Collected Poems’ have

been pruned of superfluous stanzas and merely personal


W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


Come to our bracing desert

Where eternity is eventful,

For the weather-glass

Is set at Alas,

The thermometer at Resentful.

Come to our well-run desert

Where anguish arrives by cable,

And the deadly sins

May be bought in tins

With instructions on the label

is pointedly satiric. But it will serve as a transition to

another of Auden’s main accomplishments, which might not

be expected from what I have said of his vocabulary.

This is his success in creating a sense of the

ominous. Building in his earlier work on his researches

into the dreads of the neurotic—he is the son of a

physician—and in his later work on a realistically

religious estimate of the role of Possibility in man’s

fate, Auden has become almost a specialist in the

terror-to-come. Sometimes such warnings are expressed in

the language of psychoanalysis or abstract discussion,

but more often they are conveyed through scenes in

which, by a method akin to that of Chirico, the

portrayed detail becomes ominous because it is portrayed

in isolation from its expected accompaniments. In a

Chirico painting, what is that building which exists

only to block our view around a corner, whence not even

a shadow suggests what may lie beyond? Who is that

single figure running in the distance down the deserted

street? Similarly, in Auden

behind you without a sound

The woods have come up and are standing round

in deadly crescent.

The bolt is sliding in its groove,

Outside the window is the black remover’s van.

[The Witnesses, EA, 130]

These scenes implying peril are usually compounded of a

rugged countryside and ruined mines and factories

(reflecting Auden’s early acquaintance with Derbyshire and

Yorkshire) and with the distresses of industrialism in the

English Midland counties. It is noticeable that since he

has come to America this scenic element has faded from his


About the time Auden came to the United States it

became quite evident to any reader that he was not

354 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

traveling, as I have mentioned, toward any fusion of Marx

and Freud. In his ‘New Year Letter’ appears a passage

discriminatingly appreciative of Marx, but none of his

earlier ‘Communist’ poems—few at best—have been retained

in this latest collection. For Auden, economic distresses

have been rather symptoms than causes; or at least, he

had not thought of them as total or chief causes. He has

latterly passed on from psychology by the frontier away

from economics; the frontier bordering religion.

Isherwood was too hasty when he wrote in the ‘Auden

Number’ of ‘New Verse’ (November, 1937) that from Auden’s

High Anglican rearing the only remains were a tendency to

ritualism in constructing plays, and a good ear for

music. To be sure, it is not as a disciple of Anglican

theologians, nor as a proponent of that visible Catholic

Church, that Auden has come to reaffirm the Christian

position. Judging by references in his poetry and

criticism, I should say that the Danish theologian

Kierkegaard had been the strongest influence; and his

present position is not unlike the ‘Neo-orthodoxy’

connected in this country specially with the influence of

Reinhold Niebuhr.

In brief, in addition to the world as a spectacle

known to art, and the world as a terrain for improvement

by regulation known to ethics, Auden adds another

interpretation of life: the world as the perpetual

invitation and intention to choose love. The primacy and

validity of this ideal has been made known to mankind by

the transit of the Eternal into the temporal in the

Incarnation. But this choice will never—for the

individual—be completely successful, completely

realized. For it is carried out in the presence of

necessities which sometimes confuse and sometimes

preclude a proper choice. Again, this choice is carried

out within time, and we cannot be certain of all the

consequences in future time of our particular choices.

Finally, every successful choice has been achieved by

skirting at least two opposite errors, even when there

are no more. The most generalized forms of error Auden

finds to be dualism, which suggests that there is a

valid realm where Truth has no validity; the kind of

monism which insists that all manifestations in human

life of reality must follow a single pattern or kind—

esthetic or ethical—of pattern, and atomism: the idea

that each human being can create his own universe for

himself, and there’s an end on’t.

It is in ‘For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio’—one

of the two poems making up the book so titled—that this

religious position receives its fullest statement, in what

most critics agree is a brilliant poem. In it Auden does

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


not forget to present in a delightful prose address the

feelings of the outraged scientific liberal, Herod, to

whom the Incarnation is the lapse of enlightenment back

into superstitious barbarism. But Auden takes his stand

with Simeon, who in his meditation finds in the

Incarnation the interpretation and support of history,

art, science and the redemption of man.

In the just-published ‘Collected Poems’ Auden has

preserved most of what has appeared in the earlier books

of poems, except that very little of ‘The Orators’ has

been retained: some of the Six Odes and a few shorter

pieces, but of the prose in that book, only the Letter to

a Wound. Poems appearing first in the two books of travel

are reprinted here, and there are twenty-four poems

previously uncollected. This is a convenient edition of

Auden, and those previously unacquainted with him would do

well to begin with it. However, persons wishing to make a

thorough study of him must still obtain the earlier

separate volumes.

Nobody has any business to presume to sum up a poet

until the poet is dead. In fact, a complete summing up

might be achievable only as the terminus of a complete

losing of interest. In one passage of the ‘New Year

Letter’ Auden, speaking of Art, says of its manifestations

Now large, magnificent, and calm,

Your changeless presences disarm

The sullen generations, still

The fright and fidget of the will,

And to the growing and the weak

Your final transformations speak,

Saying to dreaming ‘I am deed.’

To striving, ‘Courage. I succeed.’

To mourning, ‘I remain. Forgive.’

And to becoming ‘I am. Live.’

This is not a complete theory of all Art; indeed, Auden

has elsewhere, through the person of Caliban, who is using

the idiom of Henry James, gone into the matter more fully,

more delightfully, and with needed extensions of doctrine.

Still, the quoted lines express what is true of much art.

But not, I think, quite of Auden’s. It is not full of

presences that are magnificent and calm. On the contrary,

most of it is full of the fright and fidget, the striving

and the weak. These, however, are fixed by the poet’s

scrutiny, immobilized for our inspection by the novel

tactic of the really just phrase.

Hence, we grow familiar with our fright and fidget; we

see just what these are; we come to the realization that

356 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

we are not, we cannot continue to be, like that; and so,

in its own way, Auden’s poetry carries out its admirable

therapy. Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to

concentrate solemnly on the therapy. For though we now see

that Auden is one of the most seriously intelligent minds

of his generation, he remains deft, agile, dexterous. And

joy in dexterity is a right kind of morality also. So let

us be joyful in it.


xxi, 14 April 1945, 78, 81

Auden prefigured his efforts to revise early poems in this

letter of 18 May 1942 to Louise Bogan:

Now and then I look through my books and is my face red.

One of the troubles of our time is that we are all, I

think, precocious as personalities and backward as

characters. Looking at old work I keep finding ideas

which one had no business to see already at that age,

and a style of treatment which one ought to have

outgrown years before.

I sometimes toy with re-writing the whole lot when

I’m senile, like George Moore. (Amherst College

Library; a shorter extract figures in Carpenter, op.

cit., p. 330)

He responded to this review on 13 April 1945, ‘What a

swell write up you gave me in the New Yorker this week.

Thanks a lot. The only thing that makes me feel

uncomfortable are the references to the Master of Russell

Square. I shall never be as great and good a man if I live

to be a hundred’ (Amherst College Library). See also

Introduction and No. 41 above.

A moment occurs (or should occur) when the growing artist

is able to bequeath his tricks to his imitators. The

mature writer rejects the treasured ‘originality’ and the

darling virtuosities of his apprenticeship in art, as well

as the showy sorrows and joys of his apprenticeship life,

often just in time. ‘How they live at home in their cozy

poems amd make long stays in narrow comparisons!’ Rilke

once said, speaking of the run of versifiers, who never

change or grow. Once youth’s embroidered coat is cast

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


aside, what is left? Only imagination, ripened insight,

experience, and the trained sense of language, which are

usually enough.

‘The Collected Poetry of W.H.Auden’ is a sizable

volume for a poet born in 1907 to have credited to him in

1945. Auden, it has for some time been apparent, has

succeeded Eliot as the strongest influence in American

and British poetry. And he has managed, in this

collection, by skillful arrangement and deletion, to

present himself to the reader as he exists at this

moment. He does not draw attention to his growing pains

or take us step by step through stage after stage of his

development. He begins the book with one of those poems

(‘Musée des Beaux Arts’) which announced, a few years

ago, the beginnings of his maturity—a poem that seems as

simply composed as a passage in conversation. It is not

filled with Anglo-Saxon compression, or clogged with

modern apparatuses and machines, or trimmed with offrhymes. Earlier poems on his favourite subjects and in

the special manner of his youth are included in the book.

But they never leap out at us. The general tone is one of

composure and simplicity, of that ease wherein, for a

time, a young master can rest.

The collection gathers up, fortunately, poems that have

so far been scattered in plays or books of prose. The fine

sonnet to E.M.Forster once served as the dedication for

‘Journey to a War,’ which was written in collaboration

with Christopher Isherwood. Other sonnets and a verse

commentary come from the same volume. The fine ‘Journey to

Iceland’ is out of ‘Letters from Iceland.’ written in

collaboration with Louis MacNeice. Some choruses from

plays turn up as separate poems, now with titles. The

volume also contains two prose passages—the early Letter

to a Wound and a new ‘sermon’ entitled ‘Depravity.’ Last

autumn’s ‘For the Time Being’ is reprinted complete, and

there are several new poems.

What is the particular thread that runs through this

collection, the clue to Auden’s importance and power? In

what way is his great gift different from Eliot’s, and

in what way is it of importance to Auden’s

contemporaries? Auden shares with Eliot a sense of his

time. He is, however, much more exuberant, restless,

sanguine, and unself-conscious than the older poet. And

he is a natural dramatist in a degree surpassing Eliot.

Eliot can dramatize his lyrics but cannot project real

dramatic action with force. Auden dramatizes everything

he touches. He is wonderfully effective with that most

dramatic of lyric forms, the ballad. At the same time,

his purely lyrical endowment is so deep and so natural

that many of his songs sound as though they had been

358 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

worked up at a moment’s notice as improvisations. He can

sing about as many things as the Elizabethans, and with

the same disregard for the demands of the high literary

line and the ‘refined’ literary tone. Eliot’s importance

is based on the fact that he had the sensitiveness and

the melancholy foreboding to sense the general tragedy

of his period when that tragedy had not yet impressed

other observers. Auden, nearly twenty years Eliot’s

junior, stands farther from the shadow of the nineteenth

and early twentieth centuries; he is more able,

therefore, to deal with particulars. He is conscious of

his physical surroundings down to the last contraption

of ‘light alloys and glass;’ conscious of his spiritual

scene down to the last sob of modern self-pity, down to

modern brutality’s last threat. He has smashed the ‘tabu

against tenderness,’ as someone has said, he is not

afraid or ashamed either to laugh or weep. (How gloomy

everyone was, after Eliot!) He knows what Rilke felt and

foresaw, what Kierkegaard rebelled against, what modern

psychiatry has plumbed. He is not ignorant of facts or

clumsy in dealing with them. He is able to absorb and

speak of any item in the extraordinary crowd of objects

and techniques he finds on all sides. He is able to

define and present a range of ideas, passions,

compulsions, manias, anxieties, fears, and intuitions

that at present float about, only half-perceived by many

people and most poets, in our intellectual and emotional

climate. He is at once able to act and to imagine, to

formulate and interpret.

Behind him stand exemplars he acknowledges—Rilke and

Henry James, Freud, the Symbolists and post-Symbolists,

and Surrealism at its most effective. Part of the

excitement in reading the volume through derives from the

fact that we are dealing with a poet one of whose inner

urges will always be to transcend himself, that we are

reading the work of one who is still a young man, and that

there will be more to come.



vii, Summer 1945, 507–11

Born in England, Van Druten (1901–57) wrote numerous

plays, among them ‘I Am a Camera’ (adapted from

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories), the basis for the

musical ‘Cabaret’.

The publishers’ jacket tells us he is 37. It is a figure

which lies transparently coded in every line he has

written, not only as the product, but also as the

mouthpiece, the oracle and the prophet of his

generation, to whom the world before or immediately

after the last war—the background of security, real or

imagined, to the Georgian poets, for example, exists

only as the memory of a childhood that betrayed its

promises and now excites mistrust rather than nostalgia.

Auden’s sympathetic understanding, expressed through his

poems, operates almost exclusively on the certainties of

the classics or the doubtings of the world in which,

since, 1918, he grew up, the storm clouds darkening the

sky with each year of advancing awareness. The war that

broke out in 1914 took its poets by surprise, if one is

to judge from their poems; the war of 1939 is

foreshadowed in almost every line that Auden wrote

before it cracked his world open.

Now in 1945, gathering ‘all that he wishes to preserve’

of his poetry, he sits in judgment on his own

achievement, and passes what must seem to his admirers a

harsh sentence. The bulk of this book, if one is to

believe his brief preface, consists of pieces ‘which he

has nothing against except their lack of importance.’

That is an utterance which would seem to indicate an

excess of sensibility, but if it tempts one to the

question: ‘Why reproduce them, then?’ the poet has his

answer ready. ‘Because,’ he says, ‘were he to limit his

book to those poems for which he is honestly grateful,

his volume would be too depressingly slim.’ One wonders

faintly about this preface, matching the word

‘importance,’ used when he denies it to his work, against

its evasion in the second half of the sentence when logic

would seem to demand it. Modesty can lead one onto

equivocal ground.

Two classes of poem he tells us he has omitted

altogether; those which he frankly regrets as pure

rubbish; and those in which the vision outran performance,

and so disappointed him. Curious always as to the man

behind the writer, one turns, detective-like, to see what

he has left out, gasps at the amount, and then begins to

speculate on why, trying to assign each missing poem to

one or other of the classes. The cabaret song ‘Tell Me the

Truth About Love’ belongs, one supposes, to the first

class, though why it, more than some of the other lighter

360 W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage

pieces, is hard to know. The more serious discarded poems

one must believe to have been disappointments to the

author, but their rejection seems in many cases something

of a rebuke to one’s own taste for having admired them. I

have looked for what I have always thought an exquisite

poem, beginning: ‘Here on the cropped grass of the narrow

ridge I stand,’ and failed to find it; although, as there

is lamentably no index of first lines, as chronology has

been disregarded and half the poems have new titles

assigned to them, it is possible that I have overlooked

it. If it is not there, it seems a pity; more than a pity;

its absence damages the book like a torn-out page.

The poem on A.E.Housman, with its bitter, brilliant


Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,

Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer

—that is omitted, too. Again one must suppose it to come

into the second category, unless some scruples of taste

have provided a third. Why is the ballad of James Honeyman

not here, when its companion ballads of Victor and Miss

Gee are included? Can it have something to do with the use

or non-use of poison gas in this war? That makes a fourth

reason for omissions. One wishes he had not done this, had

not paid court to the moving finger, luring it back to

cancel whole poems, and in other cases literally washing

out one word of them. In ‘A Bride of the Thirties,’ the

phrase: ‘The new pansy railway’ has been changed to ‘the

strategic railway.’ Still, the new way is the better, and

perhaps it is only envy that wonders about an author’s

right to the esprit de l’escalier.

And the bulk of the poems are here untouched, together

with a handful of new ones. They remain brilliant,

provocative, often—to use his own phrase—‘amazing as

thunderstorms’—and often more than a little obscure. The

obscurity would seem to spring from two causes, one

legitimate, the other perhaps more questionable. The

omitted thought-links, that ask the reader to make great

chamois-leaps of association; the transferred metaphors

that demand of him an alertness and ingenuity equal to the

poet’s own—these are the idiom and the privilege not only

of Auden, but of all his generation who have discarded the

direct statement and the frank simile. But there are

times, too, when one senses some family joke, some

personal allusion to an incident or occasion known only to

the person for or about whom the poem is written, and one

longs for footnotes to explain them.

But he is a magnificent poet, earning both our

gratitude and our pride that these years of dreadfulness

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage


should have produced a figure so likely, as far as one can

read the signs for his contemporaries, to rank with those

who speak truth for all times as well as for their own.

Technically, he is amazing, both in his facility and

fertility which seems so inexhaustible that one can relax

to them as to some kind of natural bounty, and in his

colossal range that covers and is at home in half a dozen

different styles. He has an electrifying gift of phrase,

of which some of the most beautiful and dazzling examples

occur in: ‘Dover 1937,’ and in the really lovely poem

called ‘A Commentary.’ In other places, it occasionally

produces lines like this:

O little restaurant where the lovers eat each other,

[EA, 235]

which, though it will recur to the mind for quotation in

every bistro in the world, yet has a little more the ring

of prose than poetry.

But beyond that and infinitely more important than

either his technical virtuosity or his genius for phrasemaking is the emotional content of his work, his complete

self-identification with every human need or perplexity,

willing to trace back in himself the whole chain of

causation to its obscurist roots in the sub-conscious. In

his later poems, the note has changed and deepened; the

faculties of sympathy, reason and analysis fuse into a

spiritual seeking and awareness, colored with mysticism.

The ‘Christmas Oratorio’ with which this book ends has all

the brilliance of his earlier verse (and some magnificent

prose as well), but also a humility of spirit, never so

clearly seen in him before, that causes a new radiance to

arise from off the printed page.

Reading as much of any poet at one time as a collected

volume necessitates is never quite fair to the subject.

Echoes begin to sound in the ear, suggesting habits; and

the mind inclines itself mechanically to parody or

imitation. There is in Auden a note of awful warning, a

series of symbols of doom and disaster hidden in the

innocent and humdrum trappings of material living, which

are so recurrent that one finds oneself automatically

improvising more:

And Hell is under the Hydro,

And the Front where the Nannies sit,

And the dropped stitch in the knitting,

Looks straight into the pit.

It would not seem too hard to go on.

This sinister motif is, to me, the most insistent sound

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F.CUDWORTH FLINT, review, 'New York Times', April 1945

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