Academic journal article Text Matters

The Double Man: W. H. Auden's Transatlantic Transformation

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Double Man: W. H. Auden's Transatlantic Transformation

Article excerpt

When in January 1939 W. H. Auden arrived in the USA to settle down there, he faced the uphill task of launching a virtually new literary career. As his biographer Edward Mendelson points out, the expatriate poet "began to explore once again the same thematic and formal territory he covered in his English years, but with a maturer vision, and no longer distracted by the claims of a public" (Preface xiv). Auden's concern with a variety of old and new problems following his move across the Atlantic and return to the Anglican Church was notably reflected in four longer "American" poems: "New Year Letter," "The Sea and the Mirror," "For the Time Being," and The Age of Anxiety.1 His poetry composed in a new homeland2 defied a rigid, definite national or cultural classification; instead, it proposed "the new kind of hybrid 'mid-Atlantic' style . . . an in-between of voices and forms" (Jenkins 43). In the midst of a global conflict, Auden's American adventure began with fundamental and, given the circumstances, surprising questions on the relation between art and life, the real and the represented. The marine symbolism that surfaced in his poetic and academic discourse at the time was, as it seems now, of utmost importance: both in his oeuvre and his life. In one of the lectures delivered at the University of Virginia he said:

The sea or the great waters . . . are the symbols for the primordial undifferentiated flux, the substance which became created nature only by having form imposed upon or wedded to it. The sea, in fact, is the state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse. (Enchafèd 6)

The seemingly trifling recognition that art, while holding up a mirror to nature, imposes a certain-distorting, yet necessary-order on this "flux" is the springboard for one of the most extraordinary poems of the previous century, "The Sea and the Mirror. A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest" (1944), American Auden's Ars Poetica as well as an "absurd" project that by means of elaborate, often unrivalled artistic forms consistently showed the limitations, if not futility, of art. By revaluing art, it revalued the artist and, most meaningfully, the author himself. Assuming the context of the poet's transatlantic journey as one of the most decisive moments in his career, the present paper examines the validity of the division into the socalled English and American Auden, paying special attention to his alleged, and often mythologized, political engagements in the late 1930s.

Considered as a whole, Auden's literary career provides an apt illustration of two ways of thinking about the nature and obligations of poetry. As he claimed in his late essay "Robert Frost," poetry is a constant battleground for the contention between Prospero and Ariel-i.e., every poet is to decide whether his or her writing should consist in providing the reader with significant messages, thus being predominantly aimed at moral or intellectual instruction, or in grouping words in such a way that they constitute an incantation, which necessitates ceaseless experimentation with language and is, in fact, an aesthetic game (The Dyer's 337-38). On a deeper level, this binary division exemplifies two human desires: for truth and for beauty. Poetry is expected to disintoxicate us from delusions and deceptions so as to increase our understanding of what life is really like, but it is also the domain of aesthetics, which offers an often-required escapist counterpoint to the shoddy, painful, quotidian existence. The recognition of the two different obligations of poetry is strongly connected with yet another problem-its communicability. While Prospero-dominated verse is always "reader-oriented" and achieves its purpose only as long as it can be instrumental in establishing a rapport of mutual understanding between the one who writes and the one who reads, an Ariel-dominated poem-being, in its extreme form, purely self-referential-ostensibly defies such a requirement. …

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