Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion about whether the poet W. H. Auden’s departure from Britain for the United States in January marked the end of his career as a great poet Auden was a major poet – some would say the major poet – the late 20s and thirties but, after his move to America and his subsequent conversion to the Episcopal Church, both his poetry and standing as a poet went into irreversible decline.
Naïve though it may sound, for Auden this country really was a place to start over. And he came to believe that in shrugging off the expectations others had for him, he also had to shrug off his own self-understanding, his own formation as a person and a poet. Auden had always been a critic of Romanticism and an aficionado of earlier and less fashionable poetic movements: from the beginning he had drawn on medieval literature—which he had come to love after hearing some lectures at Oxford by an Anglo-Saxonist named Tolkien—and had celebrated Alexander Pope and Lord Byron—the one Romantic poet Auden admired, in part because everyone else treated him as a minor poet who had been over-celebrated in his lifetime. Auden despised Shelley especially, often singling out for scorn the notion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It was a model of poetic power that, he saw, many of the great modernists had accepted as well, for all their vocal anti-Romanticism.
But as he settled into life in America, and into Christian belief, he came to think that he had absorbed more of the Romantic model of the poet as isolated genius than he’d realized. Superficially his verse had not looked Romantic, but deep down, he had accepted distinctively Romantic ideas about the singular power and unique insight of the poet.
………………………………………………………………..Auden’s breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision—with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice—was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.…
……………….. the later poems can be hard to read. The earlier poems are often obscure, but after modernism we’re used to obscurity. (A friend once wrote to James Joyce, puzzled about some passages in what would become Finnegans Wake, to which Joyce gave an incomprehensible reply capped with a jaunty sign-off: “If I can throw any more obscurity on the subject, let me know.”) We know how to read obscurity. But Auden’s later poems, though grounded in public language and public concepts—Greek and Roman mythology, European history, Christian doctrine—are knotty and complex: they demand a distinctive kind of thinking from us. Auden wrote this way because he demanded difficult thought from himself; he resisted easy answers and comforting assurances. He explored forgotten resources from poetry’s past: the medieval love for allegories of the inner life, the essayistic or letter-like meditations of the great Roman poet Horace. But these are resources that readers must struggle to reclaim, and for many it’s not worth the effort.
Above all, and most unusually, Auden saw his poetry as a means of building community among his widely scattered friends. When, a decade ago, I first investigated the trove of Auden’s letters held by the New York Public Library, I was struck by how often Auden turned over a sheet of stationery and, on the back of a letter to a friend, typed out a draft of a poem. And in most cases the published version of that poem would be dedicated to that friend. How many of our great modern poets do such a thing? It is a touching gesture, but also—especially for those of us with an exalted view of poetry—a challenging one.
Let us pay tribute to this remarkable man. He was deeply, deeply flawed—though no more so than I—and his model of the Christian life is, generally speaking, not one I should choose to follow. But he paid (and still pays) a great price in reputation for his embrace of Christianity, as he does for his bold and fearless rethinking of what it means to be a poet. One of the wiser decisions of Auden’s later years was his selection of Edward Mendelson to be his literary executor: among many other activities on the poet’s behalf, Mendelson maintains the website of the Auden Society, where you may find biographical information and many links to the texts of poems and recordings of Auden reading them. Please, go there.