In the foreword to The Poet’s Tongue (1935), an anthology compiled with John Garett, the little-known schoolmaster of Raynes Park, Surrey, W. H. Auden begins with a real doozy: “We do not want to read ‘great’ poetry all the time.” It’s a lesson, perhaps, for the more serious among us (Philip Larkin springs to mind, who in 1960 dubbed Auden’s “new dialect . . . a wilful jumble of Age-of-Plastic nursery rhyme, ballet folklore, and Hollywood Lemprière.”) Those, Auden goes on, “who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. Poetry is no better and no worse than human nature; it is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naive, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn.” Silliness was not beneath him—neither, for that matter, was lewdness—but these proclivities only seem to bolster his bonhomie, and in a special way, are what make his poetry so . . . well, great.
It’s tricky to see a title like What Ezra Pound Can Do For You sticking. Even William Carlos Williams, H. D., and T. S. Eliot might have trouble pulling it off. They do plenty for us, of course, but they are not our friends. (Still, I’ve always seen Auden as more of an uncle, like an agnate of Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty from the 1987 black comedy Withnail and I, whose stockpile of camp aphorisms—including “It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane’”—are about as Audenesque as you can get.)
What sets Auden apart from other poets of his generation is his congeniality—or rather his sympathy—boundless, catholic, and disinterested, not to mention his mastery of phrase. Such is the Auden of Alexander McCall Smith, author of the lauded No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, in his new book What Can W. H. Auden Do for You. (I half expected this book to sport the nom de plume “Isabel Dalhousie,” the mainstay of another great series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, who calls upon Auden, much like McCall Smith, to thin a stew of moral quagmires.) Reflecting on Auden’s private appeal, precipitated in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” of the 1970s, McCall Smith drafts a tender portrait of a poet with enough sympathy for us all.
“We think back to our youth,” McCall Smith writes, “and wish that we had had somebody who could have taught us not to worry, could have laid our anxieties to rest, could have relieved us of unnecessary unhappiness.” Comfort was Auden’s homemade special. “Funeral Blues,” after all, is a funerary staple (though there’s a chance this has more to do with the apotheosis of Four Weddings and a Funeral than anything else.) Still, it’s easy to see why:
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
Famously “September 1, 1939,” Auden’s pastiche of Yeats’ “Easter 1916” composed on the outbreak of World War II, found its way to the fax machines of a city in mourning in the wake of 9/11, broadcasting its assuagement via those august and rather extraordinary lines:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Later Auden called it “the most dishonest poem I’ve ever written” and a 1955 anthology was appeased by the fix “we must love one another and die” (emphasis added). In the end fastidiousness was Auden’s brand, meretriciousness his enemy. All his revisions (and in some cases, full blown abrogations) were all just stepping stones along the path to truth flanked by the strait gate. Auden, McCall Smith reminds us frequently, was never happy unless he was speaking the truth. He would not allow us to be consoled by lies.
It is somewhat ironic that so many Americans failed to see the other maxim at the poem’s core, that nursery rhyme which “all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return”—a rather un-American backing of soft determinism—but sometimes it is not easy to see through tears. What sticks for McCall Smith is Auden’s universality, the feeling that he is speaking to all of us at once, often during a time of crisis or upheaval.
This book shows us many Audens, not least the cantankerous, carpet-slippered panacea the bulk of us know and love. There’s the lover of “Lullaby,” who teaches us how to love; the dreamer of “A Summer Night,” who teaches us about agape; the pen pal of “New Year Letter,” who teaches us about forgiveness; and the activist of “Spain,” who teaches us about choice and responsibility (though the latter, a little comically, was self-impugned with as much acerbity as “September, 1939”). Auden, McCall Smith assures us, was on a journey, and we’re invited to share the cockpit.
This is not a work of criticism, but for a personal accolade it deftly resists hagiography. As an overture it’s rather beautifully put together. For those of us who have waded through a morass of arduous criticism on Auden, it is nice to be reminded why this poet means so much for so many. For those who have not, McCall Smith’s book is a great place to start.