Magazine article The Spectator

Bells to St Wystan

Magazine article The Spectator

Bells to St Wystan

Article excerpt

This week sees the centenary of the birth in York of W. H. Auden.

All over the world this season, Audenites should at 1755 hours precisely prepare a very cold, very dry Martini and at 1800 hours, six o'clock, again precisely, down it in praise and memory of a giant of English letters. Vital to be meticulous about the hour. As he said of himself in an autobiographical sketch:

So obsessive a ritualist a pleasant surprise makes him cross.

Without a watch he would never know when to feel hungry or horny.

Like many Oxford undergraduates of my generation (he was Professor of Poetry when I went up), I knew Auden slightly and dined with him a few times. He had aged prematurely, become repetitive and, away from the page, fairly boring. Like his friend and contemporary, John Betjeman, he had long invented a persona -- dotty vicar in his case -- but Auden got trapped by it. Prone to chant curious mantra -- 'Yeats was not my idea of a gentleman' or 'Peeing in the washbasin is a male privilege' -- he smelt like a forgotten cheese. Yet it was impossible to doubt his genius for a moment. The word may have dwindled into hyperbole. It can nevertheless be defined, and when Auden died in 1973 it was defined by his friend V. S.

Yanofsky: 'There was in him some communion with the great human reality, as there was in Tolstoy -- a trait characteristic of all geniuses, despite their fantasies.' In conversation another friend of Auden, Isaiah Berlin, assented. Berlin thought there were two 20th-century Englishmen of genius, the other being Churchill.

An American scholar, Samuel Hines, called the 1930s the Age of Auden. It is important, three-quarters of a century later, to be aware how celebrated Auden became as a young man -- more so than any poet since Byron. Allowing for immense differences in the means of communication and what was then a smaller, though more expert, educational base, you have to think of someone like John Lennon to get the feel of Auden's fame in his twenties. Like others, he had fallen for T. S. Eliot's vivid depiction of a civilisation breaking up: the fragments 'shored against my ruin' in The Waste Land. But as a disciple of poets older than Eliot like Hardy, Frost and Edward Thomas, Auden translated the modern movement into the language of ordinary educated men and thereby democratised it. Patriotic, about the English industrial landscape in particular, Auden became an exemplar of Ezra Pound's dictum (though he never much cared for Pound) that poets are the antennae of the race. His rhythms and imagery orchestrated an appropriate foreboding for what in a great, later repudiated, poem about the outbreak of the second world war, he called a low, dishonest decade.

Like Churchill, Auden read the writing on the wall long before the full text was revealed in all its horror. He immersed himself in psychology, for he believed that holding a mirror up to the wasteland was not enough. You had to examine the behavioural pathways out.

Auden domesticated the modern movement for the English, therefore, rather in the way Elvis Presley domesticated black rhythm-and-blues for white Americans or the Beatles (whom Auden admired) anglicised rock-and-roll in their early years.

He was a hit. His versatility -- plays, verse dramas, prose poems, songs and musical pieces, verbal charades, versified essays, doggerel, 'straight' poems in the great pentametrical tradition -- served only to draw attention to his antennae, the early warning system he contrived by taking familiar toys out of the English middleclass cupboard and arranging them in ominous patterns to fit his unique, authoritative tone.

It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are being brought in from the garden ... And in the same poem:

It is later than you think; nearer that day Far other than that distant afternoon Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet They gave the prizes to the ruined boys. …

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