For most writers, their 100th anniversary looms like a final exam proctored by posterity. A writer who is still being read 100 years after he was born, which usually means at least 50 years after he wrote his major works, will probably keep being read into the future. But for W.H. Auden, who was born 100 years ago today, the century mark feels less like a trial than a celebration. (In fact, it is being celebrated with readings around the country, including one at the 92nd Street Y on March 5.) For when Auden died, in 1973, his immortality was already secure.
Maybe even his friends at Oxford, reading the manuscripts of his very first poems in the late 1920s, guessed that the world would not, could not, forget Auden's voice:
Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here
In these lines written in August 1927, when the poet was just 20 years old we can already hear the tones and strategies of Auden's first major poems. Here are the confidently mysterious addresses; the anxiety of a generation grown up between two wars; the circumambient blight that seems to attack society, industry, and the soil; even the knotted grammar, which seems to withhold its meanings like a message in a dream, or a secret code. No poet ever sounded like the early Auden, though he spawned a school of imitators. The mere fact that Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis knew Auden, and presumably were in on the secret of his sibylline verse, helped to cement their places in literary history.
The extraordinary public interest in Auden that marked his career from the beginning, and helped make him an icon of the 1930s, was more than simply admiration for a greatly talented poet. Rather, there was a general impression, in England and then in America, that Auden had been chosen by History to receive its secret messages. If his verse was obscure, with its bent grammar and dropped pronouns and private allegories, that very obscurity made it sound exceptionally urgent. He was a radio playing bulletins from the future, and if the language of those bulletins was foreign, their accent was unmistakably dire. Most of his unforgettable lines, in the first six or seven years of his career, take the form of threats and rumors: "It is time for the destruction of error"; "Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys"; "The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming."
All of these lines were written before the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism. But they show that the 1930s which Auden was later to name "a low, dishonest decade" had already found their best interpreter. In a way, the match between Auden's gifts and the necessities of the age were even too perfect. Like the rest of his educated, guilty generation, Auden was prey to the utopian allure of communism, of Freudianism, even of fascism. As Europe slid into World War II, he was always dreaming of a purgative revolution that would do away with selfishness and neurosis, and create a new race of strong, fraternal, adventurous spirits.
In the Spanish Civil War, Auden like so many others, thought he saw this great future approaching, and he responded with one of his best, most troubling poems, "Spain." In the republican struggle against fascism, he wrote, "Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever / Are precise and alive." The temptation of political violence was too virtuously seductive to resist, and Auden succumbed, in lines that were controversial at the time and remain darkly thrilling today:
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
You will find this poem in the new edition of Auden's "Selected Poems" (Vintage, 344 pages, $14.95), edited by Edward Mendelson, that has been published for the centenary. But you would not have found it in the later editions of his work that Auden himself prepared. The poet censored it, and revised even more famous poems, such as "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" and "September 1, 1939," in accordance with his newfound ethical and poetic convictions. For when Auden emigrated from England to America, just before the outbreak of World War II, he turned his back on much of what was best in his early poetry. And he did it deliberately, having come to believe that the very strengths of his work contained the seeds of error.
By 1939, Auden had grown tired of being the most contemporary of poets, an antenna for his generation. He began to feel that this role required him to remain in thrall to the actual and the immediate, to be in some way a slave of History. But as he got older, and began to return to the Anglican faith in which he was raised, History no longer seemed like a benevolent master. The liberal, humanitarian, individualistic virtues of the English bourgeoisie the very virtues Auden had condemned as moribund in his early verse came to seem indispensable, especially as the Cold War world grew more inhumanly threatening.
Starting in the early 1940s, then, Auden developed a very different conception of poetry and its purpose. He began to write about the personal, instead of the public; the spiritual, instead of the political. In style, too, he changed drastically. In place of the elliptical shocks of the early poems, he cultivated a new style, one that combined the hyper-articulate and the campily laid-back. This is the style, fluent yet often grating, of the early 1950s sequence "Bucolics":
Romance? Not in this weather. Ovid's charmer
Who leads the quadrilles in Arcady, boy-lord
Of hearts who can call their Yes and No their own,
Would, mad-cap that he is, soon die of cold or sunstroke....
In place of the private mythos of the early work, Auden now turns to the well-worn figures of Greek and Roman myth. And his tone of voice, even when he is not half-joking as he is here, often comes across as not quite serious, as though all his eloquence were just an ultracivilized game.
So great were these changes that it became necessary to talk about Auden as though he were two poets. (Mr. Mendelson, the dean of Auden scholars, divided his study of the poet into two volumes, "Early Auden" and "Later Auden.") Such striking changes led many of Auden's early admirers to see the evolution of his work as a mere decline. Philip Larkin, reviewing "Homage to Clio" in 1960, regretted that "Auden, never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one."
If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken. It is still tempting, reading Auden's work chronologically, to regret some of the changes that came in the train of his emigration, and to wonder what poems he might have written if he had stayed in England during World War II. The later Auden will never be as mesmerizing as the early Auden. But it is now clear that he was not, like Wordsworth, a poet who wrote himself out early but still kept on publishing.
Rather, Auden's breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.
This is the burden of "Homage to Clio," which, despite Larkin's scorn, remains an important document of Auden's disillusion with History as a monolithic force. Instead, he now envisions Clio as
Muse of the unique
Historical fact, defending with silence
Some world of your beholding, a silence
No explosion can conquer but a lover's Yes
Has been known to fill. So few of the Big
Ever listen: that is why you have a great host
Of superfluous screams to care for....
Few poets before Auden cared to listen to those "superfluous screams." No major poet after him from Milosz to Brodsky to Heaney could ignore them. For the part he played in this humanizing of poetry, Auden remains, 100 years after his birth, one of the most justly beloved of modern poets.