Auden and the Dream of Public Poetry

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Author: Alan Jacobs
Date: 2000
From: Literature and the Renewal of the Public Sphere
Publisher: Macmillan Press
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 92. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,615 words

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[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Jacobs uses a discussion of Auden's poem "Stop All the Clocks" as the starting point for an examination of the writer's ideas regarding the public role of literature in society.]

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
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.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.1

This poem, written by W. H. Auden in 1936 and never considered one of his major works, found new and unexpected life in 1994 when it was featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. A young man asked to speak at the funeral of his beloved finds that the words of 'another splendid bugger' speak for him, and reads the poem, in a cracking voice, to the assembled mourners.

Much of the credit for the strong response to this poem must go to John Hannah, the actor who plays the bereaved lover and whose recitation of the poem is indeed affecting. Moreover, one should not discount the appeal of the film's portrayal of a devoted gay couple whose relationship is the envy of all their straight friends, but clearly Auden's poem itself struck something of a chord in many viewers. Within months of the film's release one could purchase a recording of Hannah reading 'Funeral Blues'--as Auden called the poem in his 1940 collection Another Time--along with several other Auden poems. Within a year a chapbook of Auden's love poems as well as a substantial collection of his songs and occasional poems were released, both of which prominently featured 'Funeral Blues'.

Those of us who love and celebrate poetry, especially modern poetry, must of course be gratified by this unexpected burst of attention. But we may also ask ourselves why it happened to this particular poem, especially since it is not one of Auden's acknowledged masterpieces. I do not know of an anthology in which it appears, and Edward Mendelson did not include it among the hundred poems he chose for the second edition of Auden's Selected Poems (though Auden himself selected it for the first edition). And one does not have to read the poem very closely before noting that it is in some ways peculiar: for instance, the way it juxtaposes distinctive and even bizarre metaphors with shamelessly deployed clichés. The 'black cotton gloves' of the traffic policemen seem faintly comic for a funeral lament. Still more dubious is the skywritten news bulletin, 'He is dead', instead of, say, 'Eat at Joe's'. But even if the reader feels the dissonance in these metaphors, they are at least new, something which cannot be said for a line such as 'I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong'. The poem seems to hover uneasily among sentimentality, parody and (especially in the final stanza) deep pathos.

A New Critical reading of 'Funeral Blues' (the kind of reading I have just sketched) discovers features of the poem that by the criteria of that theory can only be called faults. Close readers tend to value irony and paradox, but not tonal inconsistency, and they cannot abide the use of cliché. But these 'faults' are identifiable as faults primarily because close reading is just that--a way of reading--and this poem was not, at least at first, made to be read. Auden makes it clear that 'Funeral Blues' is primarily a song, intended for public and aural, rather than private and visual, consumption. The first version of what was to become 'Funeral Blues' appeared in The Ascent of F6, a play that Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote for the Group Theatre in 1936. Sung by two characters named Lord Stagmantle and Lady Isabel Welwyn over the body of one James Ransom, the song included the first two stanzas we have now, along with three additional stanzas of virtually unrelieved irony. In 1938 a revised version that follows our current text was published in an anthology called Poems for To-day (Third Series) under the title 'Blues'. But Auden continued to think of the poem as a song. In the 1958 Selected Poems he calls it one of 'Two Songs for Hedli Anderson'; Anderson was an actress Auden met when they were both working with the Group Theatre in the thirties. And in the last edition of the Collected Poems that he oversaw, Auden placed the poem in a group of 'Twelve Songs'.2

In light of this complicated textual history one could argue that Four Weddings and a Funeral has rescued 'Funeral Blues' from a context--that of a private, solitary reading--essentially foreign to its purposes, and placed it within a more congenial environment, thereby releasing its power and making evident its virtues. The cinema is in no sense identical to the stage--as we will have cause to reflect--but approximates it more closely than does the printed word. When read aloud or sung, 'Funeral Blues' works in a way that it may not on the page. The human voice, as John Hannah has demonstrated, gives resonance to the assortment of strange tropes and flat clichés; the utterance of the poem knits up these heterogeneous linguistic threads into a tightly woven garment of grief. We understand, hearing the poem, that clichés and strained metaphors alike are resources called upon in the disarray of bereavement.

Or so I contend, by way of explaining the poem's sudden popularity. But why would Auden write such a song only to have it disappear into the great jumble of his Collected Poems? The immediate origins of this phenomenon lie, not in Auden's work, but in a brief and relatively little-known essay by T. S. Eliot. For the early Auden inherits from Eliot a great dream, one in which both poetry and English society are restored to some imagined earlier state of wholeness and integration. 'Stop all the clocks', in each of its forms, is a tentative but hopeful step toward the realisation of that dream, but the story I want to tell describes the dream's abandonment.

Eliot's Dramatic Dream

Consider: Auden is known to students of literature almost exclusively through the poems he wrote for the page, while his dramatic poetry--though it fills approximately a thousand pages in the edition of his Complete Works which Mendelson is in the process of editing--remains almost completely unknown. The case of Eliot is quite similar in this respect: critics often speak of Four Quartets as Eliot's 'farewell to poetry' even though he wrote verse plays for another two decades, and the fame of The Waste Land could never console Eliot for his failure to complete what he often considered his most important project, Sweeney Agonistes.

What is particularly ironic about these case studies in poetic reputation is that for Auden and Eliot dramatic poetry was absolutely central to a vision they (with many other modern artists) shared: the vision of a culture of unified sensibility. That term, of course, derives from Eliot's famous historical thesis about a European 'dissociation of sensibility' that 'set in' in the seventeenth century, and 'from which we have never recovered'.3 As Eliot's thoughts on this subject developed, it became more and more clear to him that individual sensibilities could only be unified and integrated if civil society were reunified and reintegrated. In short, Eliot increasingly came to believe that only a fully functioning public sphere could rescue Western culture from its long agony, and to hope that a 'reconstruction' or 'restoration' of the English tradition of poetic drama could serve in the building of that public sphere.

Eliot's first significant, if tentative, move to articulate these hopes comes in an essay published in 1919 called 'The Possibility of a Poetic Drama'. He claims, 'The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own [i.e., the drama] which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison'.4 Eliot here attributes to Elizabethan society something very like what he attributes to certain individual writers in his articulation of the difference between a unified and dissociated sensibility: 'The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience'.5 But note that in the first passage social integration is the consequence of the dramatic poets' own integrated minds. Eliot admits that 'the drama is only one among several poetic forms', but contends that it 'is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other', and further claims that 'when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too'.6 And not just literary forms, but also, presumably, social forms of life were lost with the demise of poetic drama.

This social integration, according to Eliot, was not the achievement of heroic figures like Marlowe or Shakespeare: rather, such poets were the beneficiaries of a general development. When he makes this point Eliot fairly drools with envy: 'To have, given into one's hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities--Shakespeare was very fortunate. And it is perhaps the craving for some such donnée which draws us on to the present mirage of poetic drama'.7 If we were to understand just how much is given to the dramatic poet in such an age 'we should see then just how little each poet had to do; only so much as would make a play his, only what was really essential to make it different from anyone else's. When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted'.8

Eliot's account suggests that an age that lacks such a pre-existing dramatic form will be not just artistically but politically impoverished. But Eliot's cultural history offers no hope that a single poet, or even a collection of gifted poets, will be able simply to create the needful form if it is missing. So he looks again at his contemporary scene: is anything appropriate 'given' to us? In the last paragraph, as an apparent afterthought, Eliot tosses out a suggestion: 'The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make'.9 Then follow three ambiguous sentences that distinguish, in a vague way, treating art seriously, treating it solemnly and treating it as a joke. End of essay.

But, having fled unceremoniously from his own notion, Eliot found himself unable to ignore it, and when Marie Lloyd died in 1922 he discovered an occasion to return to the idea. Lloyd was, for Eliot as for many others, the greatest of the music-hall entertainers. And what made her great, says Eliot, was her ability to use her art to forge a temporary but powerful union with her audiences. While other performers could

amuse their audiences as much [as] and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art. ... The working man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the act; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art.10

Throughout this brief eulogy Eliot hints at, though he never specifically mentions, ancient Athenian drama. In the sentence just quoted one might think of the ending of Aeschylus' Eumenides, when the audience quite literally 'joins in the chorus' and marches with the actors out of the theatre of Dionysus to celebrate the past, present and future of Athens. And when Eliot says that Marie Lloyd's audiences were 'not so much hilarious as happy' he seems to be invoking that complex Greek word commonly if inadequately translated as 'happiness'--eudaimonia--which for the citizens of Athens was the ultimate goal of drama.

But if Marie Lloyd's music hall is the closest equivalent in post-war London to the theatre of Dionysus, the parallel is not after all as close as Eliot would like. For the music hall is a class-specific phenomenon--it is, in Habermasian terms, a 'partial' rather than a 'universal' public sphere. Marie Lloyd, says Eliot, is 'the expressive figure of the lower classes'. In her music and comedy, working people 'find the expression and dignity of their own lives'. Such a gift is not available either to the aristocracy, who 'are subordinate to the middle class, which is gradually absorbing and destroying them', or to the middle classes (Eliot shifts to the plural here) themselves, who 'have no such idol' as Marie Lloyd because they 'are morally corrupt'. And even the lower classes, who have tragically just lost their 'idol' and 'expressive figure', may not last much longer, since their representative dramatic form is being replaced by the 'cheap and rapid-breeding cinema' which threatens to reduce the lower classes to 'the same state of protoplasm as the bourgeoisie'.11

This is strong language for the Eliot of 1922, though it would become characteristic of him when another dozen years had passed. His frustration was no doubt intensified by the fact that he was not and could never be a member of the lower classes; Athenian drama was in its own way a class-specific phenomenon too, but it was at least the product of a class with whom Eliot could identify. What is needed, one may clearly infer from the essays I have been citing, is a modern form that in some way combines the energies and resources of the music hall with the energies and resources of Athenian drama. This combination is represented in the very title of Eliot's great theatrical project, which he started working on soon after the completion of The Waste Land and only a few months after the death of Marie Lloyd: Sweeney Agonistes. But he never finished the play. Perhaps his theory of the sociological origins and development of great dramatic traditions, or rather of their failure to originate and develop, found empirical confirmation in his own work.

Auden's Inheritance

For Auden and the other Left writers of the thirties--that is, almost every writer in England among that 'second generation', the younger siblings as it were of Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Yeats and Joyce--participation in the public and political was not laboriously pursued, it was simply given. From the start of Auden's career the drama offered itself as a genre in which public dreams could be realised: his first collection, Poems (1930), begins with his dramatic 'charade' Paid on Both Sides, and his criticism in the thirties frequently returns to the question of a meaningful public role for poetry. Thus the avowedly Leftist Auden, and the Eliot who deemed himself 'classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion', alike focused a remarkable amount of their time and energy in the thirties on the construction of a poetic drama and theory oriented toward the reconstitution of the public sphere. In one of the most interestingly condensed ironies of modern literary history, when the Group Theatre inaugurated its first public season in the autumn of 1935, it featured a double bill: Auden's medievalist masque The Dance of Death and Eliot's still fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes.

To understand how odd this juxtaposition is, one needs to compare, however briefly and inadequately, Eliot's argument about the European 'dissociation of sensibility' with Habermas' account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The two arguments have the same form, in that they describe how cultural and historical circumstances first enabled and then disabled a vibrant public sphere, but the differences are enormous. For Eliot, the European mind began to disintegrate in the seventeenth century, just about the time at which Habermas sees the 'bourgeois public sphere' beginning to assemble. Moreover, Eliot's understanding of 'unified sensibility' depends upon a certain valorisation of poetry, especially dramatic poetry, while for Habermas the literary genre that played the greatest role in establishing the 'literary public sphere' is the novel. Eliot has nothing to say about the novel, but one can readily infer that for him it is a debased genre. It is only a slight over-simplification to say that Habermas' understanding of a workable public sphere is social-democratic, Eliot's aristocratic. While Habermas thinks that 'a robust civil society can develop only in the context of a liberal political culture', Eliot would surely reply that in such a culture a robust civil society is impossible. (Indeed, he makes such a case explicitly in his suppressed 1934 volume After Strange Gods and, in a different way, in The Idea of a Christian Society.) This contrast is worth noting because Auden, whose politics were much closer to Habermas' than Eliot's, had only one strong model of literary 'publicness' available, which meant that he had to engage in a long process of revising Eliot's understanding of the potential public role of poetic drama.

Thus, as the young Auden worked through his understanding of what drama and poetry should be, Eliot could provide, if not a model for dramatic composition, a (contestable) model for dramatic theory; and indeed Auden often responds, usually covertly, to Eliot's pronouncements. In a 1934 review, for instance, though he never mentions Eliot's name he extends and meditates upon Eliot's suggestion about the music hall as a potential model for modern drama: 'If the would-be poetic dramatist demands extremely high-brow music and unfamiliar traditions of dancing, he will, of course, fail; but if he is willing to be humble and sympathetic, to accept what he finds to his hand and develop its latent possibilities, he may be agreeably surprised to find that after all the public will stand, nay even enjoy, a good deal of poetry'.12 A year later, in writing a kind of manifesto for the Group Theatre, Auden seems to adapt ideas from Eliot's essay on Marie Lloyd: 'Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally there would be no spectators. In practice every member of the audience should feel like an understudy' (p. 273).

Eliot seems to have provided Auden with certain co-ordinates to help him fix his proper artistic tasks. But in what may be an example of the anxiety of influence, Auden seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the literary models that Eliot tended to favour. If Auden was influenced by Athenian or Elizabethan tragedy, he preferred not to acknowledge it. In the thirties he was determined to find medieval models. He told a friend that for anyone wanting to understand Paid on Both Sides--the title of which is taken from a line in Beowulf--'literary knowledge of the Mummers' play with its Old-New year symbolism is necessary'.13 Similarly, his Dance of Death is an adaptation of both the medieval danse macabre and English mystery plays--one of which, The Deluge from the Chester cycle, was, at Auden's bidding, coupled with The Dance of Death in two private performances by the Group Theatre in 1934. If Eliot fixed on the last years of Elizabeth I as his Golden Age, Auden usually looked further back. And above all what he found in that earlier time was a significant public role for poets. It was largely in hopes of restoring or recovering such a role for poets that he wrote plays and served as 'secretary of ideas' for the Group Theatre.14

None the less, Auden was aware of the temptations of nostalgia and understood that it could quickly render inauthentic any would-be appropriation of the poetic or cultural past. From the start of his career he had been determined to write poetry of the world he actually lived in, and his propensity for including industrial equipment, power stations, aeroplanes and (especially) pylons in his verse was so immediately noticeable that it quickly became a focus for parody. All his plays have contemporary settings. For Auden, medieval drama exemplified a public poetry rooted in its lifeworld, but for that very reason its protocols and techniques could not simply be transferred to another, radically different time. The role of the medieval dramatists had to be followed, rather than their productions. And Auden devoted a great deal of his poetic energies in the thirties to following that example, especially in the plays he wrote with Isherwood.

Even as Auden worked so hard in and for the theatre (as theorist, as manifesto writer, as 'secretary of ideas', as solitary and collaborative playwright), he was simultaneously working at the development of another kind of public poetry--as though he were preparing for the possible failure of his dramatic projects. Throughout the thirties, Auden also sought to develop a public poetry that did not require the apparatus of the theatre. Almost from the beginning of his career, he understood that public poetry comes in more than one variety. In a journal entry from 1929, he asked: 'Do I want poetry in a play, or is Cocteau right: "There is a poetry of the theatre, but not in it"?' (p. 301). The different versions of 'Stop all the clocks' indicate that several years later Auden had not decided whether his poetry should live inside or outside the theatre, that he was seeking to maintain a double poetic presence, patrolling a boundary that demarcated genres and social institutions alike. 'Stop All the Clocks' stands at the juncture of these two related but different attempts to reassociate the poetic sensibility and reinvigorate the public sphere.

Creating Community

The Modernist emphasis on the dramatic as the impersonal--Pound's personae, Yeats' masks, Joyce's deus absconditus paring his fingernails--is well known. What is less well known is the history of the transformation of that emphasis in the next generation of British writers, especially in Auden. The dramatic is important to Auden not because it is impersonal and hence a repudiation of the Romantic cult of personality; instead, for Auden the drama represents the public and the communal. In this respect Eliot, as his comments on poetic drama and the music hall indicate, serves as a kind of bridge between the two generations, which, following the example of Paul Fussell, I will call the Modernists and the Moderns.15

Both generations wrote plays. But when they employed other poetic genres in which there is the possibility of retaining at least some of the characteristics of drama they made very different choices. As Carol Christ has so effectively argued, the Modernists prove themselves to be true heirs--not, after all, the enemies--of the Victorian poets by making the dramatic monologue their normative genre.16 This supports their anti-Romanticism, because it allows for the creation of a poetic persona clearly marked as different from that of the author. But Auden--who was followed in this practice by others--wrote almost no dramatic monologues: instead he wrote songs.

The speaker, or rather the singer, of a song is not necessarily, and in some cases demonstrably not, the poet. The singer-songwriter is a creation of the 1960s and as a cultural standard owes almost everything to Bob Dylan, who had inherited it from bluesmen like Robert Johnson and folk singers like Woody Guthrie. But the pre-1960s popular song invested very little energy in creating a distinctive personality for its singer: the character expressed in a song lyric is attenuated and stylised, typical rather than idiosyncratic. 'Stop All the Clocks' features a bereaved lover, not J. Alfred Prufrock or Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, thus showing its origins in the songs of the music hall or cabaret.

This heritage is nicely limned in Richard Hoggart's account of working-class life in early twentieth-century England, The Uses of Literacy. In the sections devoted to music, he describes the semi-professional singers who performed at working-men's clubs, clubs that retained the characteristics of an 'older environment', that of the music halls. Hoggart contrasts the singing style favoured in such clubs with the more idiosyncratic approach of American 'crooners':

The manner of singing is traditional and has fixed characteristics. It is meant to embody intense personal feeling, but is much less egocentrically personal and soft-in-the-middle than the crooning styles; it aims to suggest a deeply felt emotion (for the treachery of a loved one, for example), but the emotion has not the ingrown quality shown by the crooners. With the crooners, ... one is in the world of the private nightmare; here [in the clubs], it is still assumed that deep emotions about personal experiences are something all experience and in a certain sense share.17

Moreover, when Hoggart notes the unpopularity in England of certain well-known American songs, he attributes that failure to 'the lack of sufficiently generalised emotion': one might say too much like the dramatic monologue.18 Few of us are inclined to sing along with 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. But in 'Stop All the Clocks' the rich profusion of tropes makes the simply direct last line exceptionally potent. Calling attention to itself by the measured tread of its six stresses ('For nothing now can ever come to any good'), it can be readily echoed by bereaved lovers, or lovers who can imagine bereavement. Its emotion is 'sufficiently generalised'.

Hoggart's description of the musical preferences of the working-class English is relevant to Auden's songs in another way. Earlier I mentioned how 'Stop All the Clocks' seems to hover between pathos and parody, as do many of Auden's songs. In the 1958 Selected Poems, for instance, the second of the 'Two Songs for Hedli Anderson' also combines the banal and the innovative in a way that can almost make a reader queasy:

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

That's the familiar first stanza; by the last, the effect is surreal:

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But frowned like thunder and you went away.19

Hoggart makes it clear that the working-class people who listened raptly to sentimental songs knew perfectly well that the songs were sentimental, and that some kind of corrective was occasionally called for, perhaps in the form of parody. 'But', he goes on, 'the limits of this are intuitively defined: I once heard a young man deliver his own mocking version of a popular sentimental song, and not only fail to make the company laugh, but raise in them the strong, though unexpressed, sense that he had been guilty of a lapse of taste. He ... had not so much laughed affectionately at the emotions as destroyed them'.20 What is remarkable and disorienting about Auden's practice is that he combines the direct expression of emotion and its parody in a single song in such a way that it becomes hard to distinguish affectionate laughter from destructive contempt.

This technique places a great responsibility on readers, who must find their way through this maze of passions or accept being lost in it. For the actual listener of the song the problem can be (though it is not always) simplified by the music written for the poet's words. In the case of 'Stop All the Clocks', Benjamin Britten decided to play it straight in the tune he wrote for its Ascent of F6 version, for, though those lyrics are still stranger and apparently more parodic than the ones that appear in Auden's collections, listeners seem to have been deeply moved by the song: Isherwood refers to it as an 'overwhelming funeral dirge' while Sidnell calls it a 'magnificent blues number'.21

Without the music, judgements about Auden's songs can be diverse indeed. For instance, 'Miss Gee', one of the ballads Auden was so fond of writing in this period, describes the illness and death, from cancer, of a repressed spinster. To me, and to a number of other critics, this is a sober and sobering poem; but Valentine Cunningham refers to it as one of Auden's 'savagely jaunty sick-joke lyrics', and when Isherwood found out that Auden wanted to write a ballad about Isherwood and his boyfriend Heinz, he 'objected absolutely' to having his experiences depicted in the 'heartless comic style' of 'Miss Gee'.22

One can imagine several motives for this ambiguous kind of song. For Sidnell--describing similar tendencies in Auden's plays--'in such verse Auden seems to be working both sides of the stylistic street. If it was taken at face value as the language of poetic tragedy (as it often was), well and good; if not, the bolt hole of burlesque had been prepared'.23 There is probably something to this view; Auden was not above playing games with his audience (especially in political matters, about which, throughout the thirties, he was more ambivalent than he felt he could acknowledge). But whatever he was up to in his plays, it may well be that in his songs Auden was taking the public and dialogical dimensions of such verse seriously--seriously enough to encourage the reader/listener to become a co-maker with him, a participant in the establishment and elaboration of poetic meaning. In the absence of the complex context of the theatre, Auden in poems like 'Stop All the Clocks' may have been violating the singularity typically associated with the lyric voice in order to build a kind of community of voices: song becomes the means by which a partial and quite temporary public sphere is established.

In 'Stop All the Clocks' a number of voices may be discerned. We have, of course, the modern inventive poet with his original tropes (e.g. the white public doves whose necks bear funereal bows); but there is also, especially in the third stanza, the exaggeration conventional to popular love poems and poetic elegies alike; and the methodical deconstruction of the cosmos depicted in the final stanza reads like a parodic inversion of creation myths or nursery rhymes. Are these competing or complementary ways of representing loss? If one understands the lyric voice to be essentially singular, the song stands guilty of vocal incoherence. But this is to neglect an ancient tradition of lyric poetry, one that despite its great lineage is so little understood that it has no agreed-upon name. Nietzsche, who is responsible more than anyone else for calling this tradition to the modern attention (in The Birth of Tragedy), uses its old Greek name and names it the 'dithyrambic'; W. R. Johnson in his admirable The Idea of Lyric seeks a somewhat broader designation and calls it the 'choral'.

Johnson, who mentions Auden but rarely, seems to be invoking the Auden we have been investigating when he writes that 'if the name of choral has almost disappeared from our literary vocabulary, the choral imagination and the choral act have, so far from disappearing, made an extraordinary comeback in modern times'. The choral lyric is necessary, contends Johnson, because 'Humans beings have, after all, not only private emotions and selves but also public emotions and selves'. The role of the 'solo lyric' may be, in part, to 'clarify the limits and the nature of the private self'; but

[the] choral poet imagines those emotions which lead us to want to understand both the possibility of our communion with each other and the possibility of our communion with the world. ... [T]he modern choralists, in their different ways, attempt to countervail [the characteristically modern] process of alienation by reaffirming our kinship with each other and with the world that begets us and nourishes us.24

This is the specifically literary tradition on which Auden draws as he writes his songs and ballads of the Thirties. It dovetails neatly, I think, with the popular music tradition discussed earlier, especially in its need for a properly typical and stylised representation of emotion: the energies of 'Stop all the clocks' derive from Pindar and Marie Lloyd alike. Such emotive representation draws explicitly on readily identifiable artistic models in order to emphasise its continuity with other utterances, other people, a continuity which yields at least a momentary sense of community.

But is this sense of community in any way authentic? Can the solitary reader of a poem ever experience what Hoggart's (perhaps idealised) participants in the culture of the working-men's clubs knew? Can the reader ever feel what the audience at The Ascent of F6 felt? These are questions that take on ever greater significance as the music halls, and the working-class culture described by Hoggart, retire further into the recesses of the past; and as Faber allows The Ascent of F6 to go out of print while collections and selections of Auden's poems succeed one another with impressive regularity. The community in the reader's mind may be the only one that poets today can hope to cultivate.

A Loss of Faith

I have said that Auden resisted nostalgia. But as the thirties drew to a close, along with his theatrical partnership with Isherwood, and as the doubts I have enumerated grew stronger in his mind, the nostalgic note began to creep into his critical writings. As it did, the Eliotic influence that Auden had earlier tried to suppress found its outlet.

The great project of the Group Theatre was failing. Its hope to become a place of meeting and reconciliation for the classes of Britain was never realised. Though it repeatedly announced its solidarity with working people, the reality was rather different, as Cunningham explains (citing a 1935 article in the New Statesman):

Group's handful of Sunday nighters were scarcely the masses: 'small Sabbatical assemblies' of bourgeois Lefties in 'juvenile beards, dark-blue shirts, and horn-rimmed spectacles, which are not the representative insignia of the working class,' was how Ivor Brown saw them. ... Brown couldn't 'see much point' in audiences who 'either see the point of the propaganda already or see the point of nothing but their own importance.' The amateurism of the Group's acting was often criticised; more damagingly, [Stephen] Spender found Auden and Isherwood's plays 'undergraduate smoker' (he meant Oxford and Cambridge) stuff. Group was run, in fact, very like an undergraduate society, with its programme cards, bottle parties, and its intimate revues before invited audiences. A comparison Auden cannot have found welcome.25

The comparison would certainly have been unwelcome: Auden had hoped that the Group Theatre, and English poetic drama more generally, would bring him and people like him out of the narrow intellectual world and into the society from which they had been exiled not only by the persistence of the British class system but also by the advent of Romantic aesthetic isolationism. Auden had no interest in a very partial public sphere that deceived itself into believing that it was universal. As it became clear that his theatrical work was not succeeding in its integrating mission, Auden turned more and more to the choral or dithyrambic traditions, but he could not see these traditions as offering the social salvation that he had earlier hoped to find in the theatre.

In 1938 Auden edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse and his editorial comments illuminate the questions with which this essay is occupied. In Auden's utterly idiosyncratic definition, light verse is written 'when the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one'. In such a case the poet 'will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech' (p. 363). Auden is at pains to insist that 'light verse can be serious', and that it is only because we still live 'under the social conditions which produced' Romanticism that we fail to understand this. Since the Romantics, 'it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes' (p. 364). Auden then explicitly invokes what Raymond Williams calls the myth of the 'organic community of Old England': 'As the old social community broke up, artists were driven to the examination of their own feelings and to the company of other artists. They became introspective, obscure, and highbrow' (p. 365). The 'interests and perceptions' of the post-Romantic poet 'are not readily acceptable to his society'; he is, therefore, 'acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language' (p. 363). As it happens, this is a pretty good description of Auden's early lyric poetry, so famous for its obscurity, but it is just what he sought to avoid in his plays.

One might infer from these statements that Auden, like Eliot, longs for an unselfconscious absorption in the rituals and practices of an organic community, but this is not quite so. Auden continues, 'The more homogeneous a society, the closer the artist is to the everyday life of his time, the easier it is for him to communicate what he perceives, but the harder for him to see honestly and truthfully, unbiased by the conventional responses of his time. The more unstable a society, and the more detached from it the artist, the clearer he can see, but the harder it is for him to convey it to others' (p. 364). Either extreme, absorption or detachment, disables the artist from productive engagement with society. What is called for, Auden posits, is a productive tension, in which the poet is 'still sufficiently rooted in the life of his age to feel in common with his audience', but the society as a whole is 'in a sufficient state of flux for the age-long beliefs and attitudes to be no longer compulsive on the artist's vision' (p. 364). Was there a time in the history of English literature when this balance was best achieved, when the tension was most productive? Yes: it was the Elizabethan age.

Here the young lion of English poetry unexpectedly rejoins Old Possum; the hero of the intellectual Left meets the voice of classicism, royalism, Anglo-Catholicism. But let us also note that Auden's picture of Elizabethan society requires less unanimity than Eliot's; it is actually closer to the Habermasian claim that 'a lifeworld in which cultural traditions are open to criticism' is the medium in which civil society can best flourish. Moreover, at the end of this odd introduction Auden seeks once more to keep Eliot at arm's length. He does so by reminding himself of the larger socio-political context in which nostalgia is unacceptable:

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.(p. 368)

Or, as Eliot had written twenty years earlier, 'Tradition ... cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour'.26 Auden, however, is arguing for neither royalism nor aristocracy, but 'a democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few'. Only 'in such a society will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity', to write what Auden calls light verse: 'For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free' (p. 368).

This is indeed a compelling vision, as far as it goes. But on the obvious question of how such a society may be achieved, Auden is silent. There is no hint from him that the drama, or any other form of art, could contribute to the formation of a genuine public sphere. In this sense he repudiates Eliot's dream and seems covertly to employ the Marxist distinction between base and superstructure: the whole introduction implies that art, as a superstructural phenomenon, is utterly dependent for its health and its character on the health and character of the economic base. Socio-political conditions determine poetry, not the other way round; and the social conditions which produced Romanticism may not be reversible. By the end of the thirties Auden was wondering if anyone could write truly choral or dithyrambic poetry, and, if so, whether it would make any difference. Less than a year after writing the introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse, Auden sounded a note for which he would later become notorious. This is from the defence counsel's speech in 'The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats':

Art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.(p. 393)

Many experiences led Auden to this disillusionment about the public role of art--not least the history of the Group Theatre--but one, perhaps, was crucial. Like many European and American artists he had gone to Spain during the Civil War and tried to serve the Republican side, but he was frustrated not only by his own inability to make a difference but also by his discovery that the Spanish war was not as morally unambiguous as the artistic partisans of the Republicans were leading everyone to think. Among the many atrocities committed by Republican supporters, one in particular stood out for Auden in a way that, at the time, he could not understand:

On arriving in Barcelona [in January 1937], I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed. The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then?27

Thus, even as Auden was writing what many thought the great poetic anthem of the Spanish Civil War, 'Spain', he knew he was telling only a small portion of what he knew to be true and was therefore for all practical purposes lying. This explains why 'Spain' and political poems like it--most notably the famous 'September 1, 1939'--were later renounced by Auden and excluded from his Collected Poems.

When Auden came to America, he retained his interest in and commitment to poetic drama, but he had shed the political imperatives that had shaped his earlier projects. His first poetic drama in America was a collaboration with Benjamin Britten on the operetta Paul Bunyan--a distinctively American subject to match Auden's new country, a subject indebted to the folk sources of American culture, but a work with no pretence whatever to political relevance or social leadership. Auden then went on, with Chester Kallmann, to the rarefied air of opera proper. It is not likely that the masses would have much interest in a libretto about the hubris of a modern artist (Elegy for Young Lovers) or an adaptation of a play by Euripides (The Bassarids), especially when the words are accompanied by the dissonant tonalities and strange orchestrations of Hans Werner Henze. Just as Auden's quest for a theatre of social integration metamorphosed into a desire to write words in service of music, his dithyrambic or choral songs were replaced by a fascination with occasional poetry and a virtual compulsion to dedicate poems to friends. Auden became a proponent of local culture--the chief locality being the page on which a poem is printed. The poet as liberator became the poet as servant, the poet as friend. As Lucy McDiarmid has argued, much of Auden's later poetry takes the form of an oft-repeated act of penitence for his former and long-standing poetic arrogance.28 Auden's loss of faith not just in the politically transformative power of art but in any social role for art had led him to search for another faith--the one represented by the closed and shuttered churches of Barcelona.

Because he had become a Christian, Auden was free to pursue more private and local projects. One of his closest friends and deepest influences in his first years in America was Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian of the public realm, who never for a moment would have taken seriously any claims by poetry to orient and give structure to society. That is theology's job. If God had saved the world, the artist didn't have to. Poetry (whether private or public, dramatic or lyric) is utterly irrelevant to the reconstitution of the public sphere, which is why Auden makes this request in one of his greatest poems, 'At the Grave of Henry James':

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
          Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
          For the treason of all clerks.29

In Auden's Christian understanding such a restriction of ambition represents moral and spiritual progress, but those with a higher view of the potential social value of art have not always been so complimentary.30

In some respects it is clear why things fell out this way for Auden. He, like Eliot, did not have a particular gift for dramatic composition. Auden never admitted this limitation directly, but acknowledged it by recruiting collaborators--Isherwood in the thirties and Kallmann after his move to America--who could provide him with narrational and structural forms upon which he could poetically elaborate. The critical consensus is that neither Auden nor Eliot ever wrote a wholly successful play. It is conceivable that larger cultural forces are at work here, that, for instance, as literacy and the habit of literary reading increased, people became less comfortable with, or felt less need for, the public experience of going to the theatre; or (more likely) that they ceased to think of the theatre as a place where their more refined tastes could find satisfaction. Middlebrow drama--from J. M. Barrie and Arthur Pinero to J. B. Priestly and Terence Rattigan--dominated the London stage in the first half century, but surely this is the usual state of affairs wherever the drama flourishes. Even acknowledged masters of their craft like Brecht, Pirandello and Beckett are perennially unlikely candidates for boffo box-office; what then can the less practised and accomplished highbrow dramatist hope for?

To take a still longer and broader perspective, we have Sidnell's sobering contention, in his excellent history of the Group Theatre, that attempts to reclaim legitimate public space by means of the theatre will inevitably fail:

The attempt to create a theatre in which actors, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, poets, and a 'participating audience' would engage in collaborative creation informed the European theatre at its very beginnings and has eluded it ever since. If such a 'total theatre' is impossible to achieve it may be because--as theorists from Aristotle to Brecht have explained--the consuming reality of ritual actions is incompatible with a thoroughly self-conscious art.31

If, as some of the Romantics dreamed, the fall into self-consciousness can be reversed, this incompatibility is not eternal; there is hope for reconciliation of dramatic art and the community. But in any case the 'total theatre' must happen, it cannot be willed into existence; a viable public culture will create the 'total theatre', not the other way round.

This seems to be, as I have argued, the conclusion reached not just by Auden but also by Eliot; and it is hard not to think that Christianity had a great deal to do with their reaching this conclusion. In Eliot's case the conversion to Christianity came first, and scepticism about the cultural power of art developed gradually. But Auden's experience was differently ordered: because he lacked religious faith he struggled mightily for several years to maintain faith in art. When his experiments in poetic drama failed and his choral songs were absorbed by the silent world of printed verse, he left his native England for an America where he hoped to start from zero. It didn't work out that way: the Old World followed him to the New. But the nightmarish persistence of the Old World that he fled was, ironically, instrumental in his reclamation of Christian faith and practice and in the solidification of his conviction that 'poetry makes nothing happen'.

In November of 1939, less than two months after the Nazis completed their staggeringly rapid conquest of Poland, their own cinematic record of the victory (called Sieg im Polen) was being shown in a theatre in Yorkville, a neighbourhood in Manhattan then predominantly German. Not surprisingly, especially since the United States was not yet involved in the war, the movie-goers were quite sympathetic to the Nazi cause; they knew what Hitler had done to restore German pride and economic and cultural stability; many of them had come to the US during the economic crises that debilitated Germany in the 1920s.

But Auden, when he saw Sieg im Polen, was not prepared for the extremity of the viewers' reactions to this film. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen--always as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht--the audience would shout, 'Kill them! Kill them!' Auden was stunned. 'There was no hypocrisy', he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no 'civilized' face upon them. 'I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value'.32 On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more humane response? The kind of culture that supports poetry was not even able to sustain or defend itself before those who preferred evil and brutality, much less shape the public sphere. Late in his life Auden often said, as he did in this interview, that his inability to account for, much less justify, his own horror 'brought [him] back to the Church'.


1. W. H. Auden, The English Auden, E. Mendelson (ed.) (London: Faber, 1977) p. 163. Subsequent references to this collection will be cited parenthetically in the text.

2. The different versions of 'Funeral Blues' can be found in Auden, Collected Poems, rev. ed., E. Mendelson (ed.) (London: Faber, 1991) pp. 116-21; Auden, Selected Poems (New York: Random, 1958) pp. 31-3; Auden, Complete Works, Volume I: Plays and Other Dramatic Writings, 1928-1938, ed. E. Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988) pp. 350-1.

3. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1951) p. 247.

4. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928) p. 62.

5. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 247.

6. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 61.

7. Ibid., p. 63.

8. Ibid., p. 64.

9. Ibid., p. 70.

10. Eliot, Selected Essays, pp. 406, 407.

11. Ibid., p. 407. The easy and potentially infinite reproducibility of a film is for Eliot part of the problem. This line of thinking resembles the common contrast in modern British thought described by Raymond Williams between the 'organic' and the 'mechanical' in a given culture. The music hall represents the former, the cinema the latter. See Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983) p. 138.

12. Auden, Complete Works, Volume I, p. xxii.

13. Ibid., p. xvi.

14. So Rupert Doone, the artistic director of the Group, called him. See M. Sidnell, Dances of Death: the Group Theatre of London in the Thirties (London: Faber, 1984) p. 24.

15. P. Fussell, 'Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden', in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Ballantine, 1988) p. 211.

16. C. T. Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984).

17. R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992) p. 113.

18. Ibid., p. 118.

19. Auden, Selected Poems, p. 32.

20. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 123.

21. C. Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (New York: Farrar, 1976) p. 268; Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 197.

22. V. Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989) p. 97; Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, p. 288.

23. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 204.

24. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982) p. 177.

25. Cunningham, British Writers, p. 323.

26. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 4.

27. J. A. Pike (ed.), Modern Canterbury Pilgrims (London: Mowbray, 1956) p. 41.

28. L. McDiarmid, Auden's Apologies for Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990) passim.

29. Auden, Collected Poems, p. 312.

30. I have discussed some of these issues at length in Chapter 4 of my book, What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden's Poetry (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1998).

31. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 257.

32. A. Levy, 'On Audenstrasse: In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety', The New York Times Magazine, 8 August 1971, pp. 10-12, 42.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420087359