Only Critics Can’t Play

JOHN BAYLEY

Even more than with most poets there is a gap between Auden and his critics, or rather between the way his poetry works and the things that we find to say about it. From its earliest beginnings the iconography of his poetry has always depended on a seeming system of correspondences—abounding intellect, theory and appetite for metaphysical and scientific systems transforming themselves in and through the poetic scene into fantasy and play, the fashionable and the sociable. But to get inside the poetry by winding it back, as it were, into this world of theory and abstraction, does not help.

For the fact is that Auden’s poetry can no more be “serious” than life can be, and thus it resembles life far more than its author thought it ought to, or could. There is no need to labour Auden’s almost obsessional preoccupation with the difference between art and life “we may write, we must live,” and his stress on the divided self of the artist, the man who must sit apart, wrestling with the glum realities of existence, while the poet can enjoy himself as he pleases, giving tight-lipped orders to imaginary underlings (his crafts and vocabularies), arranging sensational displays and explosions and “spending, what would otherwise be a very boring evening indeed, planning how to seize the post office on the other side of the river.” But in fact, just as the formidably “with it” iconography of his poetry melts into its social and performing being, so its “contraptive” aspect, its “halcyon structures,” bring us by the best route into the middle of the ordinary human scene, the lives that poets and ourselves have to lead. Yeats wrote, “in dreams begin responsibilities.” In spite of Auden’s specific denial that life is in any sense a game, there is no doubt that in his poetry morality begins in the games of fantasy.

This is as much as to say that Auden’s poetry, like that of other great poets, not only is a world but joins on at every point to the open world—the

From W. H. Auden: A Tribute. Copyright © 1974, 1975 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Ltd.

-63-

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W.H. Auden
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Modern Critical Views ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor’s Note vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Some Notes on the Early Poetry 7
  • Auden at Sixty 13
  • The Pattern of Personae 21
  • Auden after the Thirties 47
  • Auden, Hopkins, and the Poetry of Reticence 55
  • Only Critics Can’t Play 63
  • Artifice and Self-Consciousness in the Sea and the Mirror 69
  • An Oracle Turned Jester 91
  • The Rake’s Progress- An Operatic Version of Pastoral 101
  • Auden’s Revision of Modernism 111
  • The Orators- Portraits of the Artist in the Thirties 121
  • The Romantic Tradition in the Age of Anxiety 135
  • Disenchantment with Yeats- From Singing-Master to Ogre 161
  • Chronology 177
  • Contributors 181
  • Bibliography 183
  • Acknowledgments 185
  • Index 187
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