Academic journal article Style

The Caliban beneath the Skin: Abstract Drama in Auden's Favorite Poem

Academic journal article Style

The Caliban beneath the Skin: Abstract Drama in Auden's Favorite Poem

Article excerpt

Too many ideas in their heads! To them I'm an idea, you're an idea, everything's an idea. That's why we're here. Funny thing, Ticker, that we should both be in the same play. They can't do without us.

W. H. Auden, The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis?

[. . .] for, in default of the all-wise, all-explaining master you would speak to, who else at least can, who else indeed must respond to your bewildered cry, but its very echo, the begged question you would speak to him about.

W. H. Auden, "Caliban to the Audience"

Is there [. . .] any figure traditionally associated with the stage who could be made to stand for this imaginative faculty? Yes, there is: the actor. Keats' famous description of the poet applies even more accurately to the actor: 'As to the poetic character itself, it is not itself; it has no self - it is everything and nothing.'

W. H. Auden, "Genius & Apostle"

Edward Mendelson concludes the preface to W. H. Auden's Selected Poems (1979) by calling The Sea and The Mirror Auden's masterpiece and the "Caliban to the Audience" section within it as the piece that Auden "preferred to all his others": "It had been the most recalcitrant in conception - he was stalled six months before he could work out its form - and the most pleasurable in the writing; and it confronted most directly and comprehensively the limits and powers of his art, and its temptations and possibilities" (xx). A question arises: what form could possibly challenge Auden, let alone challenge him for six months? Auden was such a master of form, not only of forms such as sonnets and sestinas but of forms such as Englyns and Drott-Kvaetts, that Mendelson's label of Auden as the "most technically skilled" poet of the twentieth century seems an understatement (Early Auden xiii).(1)

The elaborate craftsmanship that generates the memorable quality of Caliban's address convinces us that Auden's genius in this area sets up a sufficient challenge and conquers it. Auden, in fact, emphasized the difficulty - and unusual nature - of the piece by saying, "The whole point about the verbal style is that, since Caliban is inarticulate, he has to borrow, from Ariel, the most artificial style possible, i.e., that of Henry James" (emphasis mine; Carpenter 328). Apart from what this remark seems to suggest, Auden greatly admired James' prefaces, yet he also felt that "there are times when their tone of hushed reverence before the artistic mystery becomes insufferable, and one would like to give them both a good shaking" (Davenport-Hines 225). Insisting on the piece as an homage to James, however, critics continue to ignore Auden's rather startling assertion that the verbal style of the address is spoken by an inarticulate actor (McDiarmid 35).(2) Looking at Caliban as a mere imitation of James has never helped critics to answer such questions as why Caliban speaks the "begged question," the "echo" of the audience's "bewildered cry"; how he, an inarticulate creature, speaks - acting on behalf of the "so great, so dead author"; how, in his "officially natural role," he delivers a message for the late author; and finally how he speaks on behalf of himself and Ariel (Collected Poems 422).(3) To approach the piece as a prose poem written during the time when Auden taught at Swarthmore does not explain how the poem might be related to any unresolved challenge, for as a poet, Auden was always interested in using drama just as a dramatist, he had always been interested in using poetry. Indeed, interested in future challenges, he hoped, in fact, to write in his old age "a great verse drama" (Miller 116).

As in writing poetry, Auden's experiences as a dramatist reveal that rather than allow his writing to be flattened by forms and conventions, he characteristically challenges himself by devising ways to make forms and conventions reflect his artistic goals. This is especially true of his interest in combining poetry and drama. …

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