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The Complete Works of W.H. Auden:
Prose: Volume II. 1939-1948
W. H. Auden
Edited by Edward Mendelson

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

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ESSAYS AND REVIEWS

1939--1948

The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats

THE PUBLIC PROSECUTOR.

Gentlemen of the Jury. Let us be quite clear in our minds as to the nature of this case. We are here to judge, not a man, but his work. Upon the character of the deceased, therefore, his affectations of dress and manner, his inordinate personal vanity, traits which caused a fellow countryman and former friend to refer to him as "the greatest literary fop in history", I do not intend to dwell. I must only remind you that there is usually a close connection between the personal character of a poet and his work, and that the deceased was no exception.

Again I must draw your attention to the exact nature of the charge. That the deceased had talent is not for a moment in dispute; so much is freely admitted by the prosecution. What the defence are asking you to believe, however, is that he was a great poet, the greatest of this century writing in English. That is their case, and it is that which the prosecution feels bound most emphatically to deny.

A great poet. To deserve such an epithet, a poet is commonly required to convince us of three things: firstly a gift of a very high order for memorable language, secondly a profound understanding of the age in which he lives, and thirdly a working knowledge of and sympathetic attitude towards the most progressive thought of his time.

Did the deceased possess these? I am afraid, gentlemen, that the answer is, no.

On the first point I shall be brief. My learned friend, the counsel for the defence, will, I have no doubt, do his best to convince you that I am wrong. And he has a case, gentlemen. O yes, a very fine case. I shall only ask you to apply to the work of the deceased a very simple test. How many of his lines can you remember?

Further, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a poet who has a gift for language will recognize that gift in others. I have here a copy of an anthology edited by the deceased entitled The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I challenge anyone in this court to deny that it is the most deplorable volume ever issued under the imprint of that highly respected firm which has done so much for the cause of poetry in this country, the Clarendon Press.

But in any case you and I are educated modern men. Our fathers imagined that poetry existed in some private garden of its own, totally unrelated to the workaday world, and to be judged by pure aesthetic standards alone. We know that now to be an illusion. Let me pass then, to my second point. Did the deceased understand his age?

What did he admire? What did he condemn? Well, he extolled the virtues of the peasant. Excellent. But should that peasant learn to read and write, should he save enough money to buy a shop, attempt by honest trading to raise himself above the level of the beasts, and O, what a sorry change is there. Now he is the enemy, the hateful huxter whose blood, according to the unseemly boast of the deceased, never flowed through his loins. Had the poet chosen to live in a mud cabin in Galway among swine and superstition, we might think him mistaken, but we should admire his integrity. But did he do this? O dear no. For there was another world which seemed to him not only equally admirable, but a deal more agreeable to live in, the world of noble houses, of large drawing rooms inhabited by the rich and the decorative, most of them of the female sex. We do not have to think very hard or very long, before we shall see a connection between these facts. The deceased had the feudal mentality. He was prepared to admire the poor just as long as they remained poor and deferential, accepting without protest the burden of maintaining a little athenian band of literary landowners, who without their toil could not exist for five minutes.

For the great struggle of our time to create a juster social order, he felt nothing but the hatred which is born of fear. It is true that he played a certain part in the movement for Irish Independence, but I hardly think my learned friend will draw your attention to that. Of all the modes of self-evasion open to the well-to-do, Nationalism is the easiest and most dishonest. It allows to the unjust all the luxury of righteous indignation against injustice. Still, it has often inspired men and women to acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. For the sake of a free Ireland the poet Pearse and the countess Markiewicz gave their all. But if the deceased did give himself to this movement, he did so with singular moderation. After the rebellion of Easter Sunday 1916, he wrote a poem on the subject which has been called a masterpiece. It is. To succeed at such a time in writing a poem which could offend neither the Irish Republican nor the British army was indeed a masterly achievement.

And so we come to our third and last point. The most superficial glance at the last fifty years is enough to tell us that the social struggle towards greater equality has been accompanied by a growing intellectual acceptance of the scientific method and the steady conquest of irrational superstition. What was the attitude of the deceased towards this? Gentlemen, words fail me. What are we to say of a man whose earliest writings attempted to revive a belief in fairies and whose favourite themes were legends of barbaric heroes with unpronounceable names, work which has been aptly and wittily described as Chaff about Bran?

But you may say, he was young; youth is always romantic; its silliness is part of its charm. Perhaps it is. Let us forgive the youth, then, and consider the mature man, from whom we have a right to expect wisdom and common sense. Gentlemen, it is hard to be charitable when we find that the deceased, far from outgrowing his folly, has plunged even deeper. In 1900 he believed in fairies; that was bad enough; but in 1930 we are confronted with the pitiful, the deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India. Whether he seriously believed such stuff to be true, or merely thought it pretty, or imagined it would impress the public, is immaterial. The plain fact remains that he made it the centre of his work. Gentlemen, I need say no more. In the last poem he wrote, the deceased rejects social justice and reason, and prays for war. Am I mistaken in imagining that somewhat similar sentiments are expressed by a certain foreign political movement which every lover of literature and liberty acknowledges to be the enemy of mankind?

THE COUNSEL FOR THE DEFENCE.

Gentlemen of the Jury. I am sure you have listened with as much enjoyment as I to the eloquence of the prosecution. I say enjoyment because the spectacle of anything well-done, whether it be a feat of engineering, a poem, or even an outburst of impassioned oratory, must always give pleasure.

We have been treated to an analysis of the character of the deceased which, for all I know, may be as true as it is destructive. Whether it proves anything about the value of his poetry is another matter. If I may be allowed to quote my learned friend: "We are here to judge, not a man, but his work." We have been told that the deceased was conceited, that he was a snob, that he was a physical coward, that his taste in contemporary poetry was uncertain, that he could not understand physics and chemistry. If this is not an invitation to judge the man, I do not know what is. Does it not bear an extraordinary resemblance to the belief of an earlier age that a great artist must be chaste? Take away the frills, and the argument of the prosecution is reduced to this: "A great poet must give the right answers to the problems which perplex his generation. The deceased gave the wrong answers. Therefore the deceased was not a great poet." Poetry in such a view is the filling up of a social quiz; to pass with honours the poet must score not less than 75%. With all due respect to my learned friend, this is nonsense. We are tempted so to judge contemporary poets because we really do have problems which we really do want solved, so that we are inclined to expect everyone, politicians, scientists, poets, clergymen, to give us the answers, and to blame them indiscriminately when they do not. But who reads the poetry of the past in this way? In an age of rising nationalism, Dante looked back with envy to the Roman Empire. Was this socially progressive? Will only a Catholic admit that Dryden's "The Hind and the Panther" is a good poem? Do we condemn Blake because he rejected Newton's Theory of Light, or rank Wordsworth lower than Baker, because the latter had a deeper appreciation of the steam engine?

Can such a viewpoint explain why

Mock Emmet, Mock Parnell
All the renown that fell

is good; and bad, such a line as

Somehow I think that you are rather like a tree.

In pointing out that this is absurd, I am not trying to suggest that art exists independently of society. The relation between the two is just as intimate and important as the prosecution asserts.

Every individual is from time to time excited emotionally and intellectually by his social and material environment. In certain individuals this excitement produces verbal structures which we call poems; if such a verbal structure creates an excitement in the reader, we call it a good poem; poetic talent, in fact, is the power to make personal excitement socially available. Poets, i.e. persons with poetic talent, stop writing good poetry when they stop reacting to the world they live in. The nature of that reaction, whether it be positive or negative, morally admirable or morally disgraceful, matters very little; what is essential is that the reaction should genuinely exist. The later Wordsworth is not inferior to the earlier because the poet had altered his political opinions, but because he had ceased to feel and think so strongly, a change which happens, alas, to most of us as we grow older. Now, when we turn to the deceased, we are confronted by the amazing spectacle of a man of great poetic talent, whose capacity for excitement not only remained with him to the end, but actually increased. In two hundred years when our children have made a different and, I hope, better social order, and when our science has developed out of all recognition, who but a historian will care a button whether the deceased was right about the Irish Question or wrong about the transmigration of souls? But because the excitement out of which his poems arose was genuine, they will still, unless I am very much mistaken, be capable of exciting others, different though their circumstances and beliefs may be from his.

However since we are not living two hundred years hence, let us play the schoolteacher a moment, and examine the poetry of the deceased with reference to the history of our time.

The most obvious social fact of the last forty years is the failure of liberal capitalist democracy, based on the premises that every individual is born free and equal, each an absolute entity independent of all others; and that a formal political equality, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right of free speech, is enough to guarantee his freedom of action in his relations with his fellow men. The results are only too familiar to us all. By denying the social nature of personality, and by ignoring the social power of money, it has created the most impersonal, the most mechanical and the most unequal civilisation the world has ever seen, a civilisation in which the only emotion common to all classes is a feeling of individual isolation from everyone else, a civilisation torn apart by the opposing emotions born of economic injustice, the just envy of the poor and the selfish terror of the rich.

If these latter emotions meant little to the deceased, it was partly because Ireland, compared with the rest of western Europe, was economically backward, and the class struggle was less conscious there. My learned friend has sneered at Irish Nationalism, but he knows as well as I that Nationalism is a necessary stage towards Socialism. He has sneered at the deceased for not taking arms, as if shooting were the only honourable and useful form of social action. Has the Abbey Theatre done nothing for Ireland?

But to return to the poems. From first to last they express a sustained protest against the social atomisation caused by industrialism, and both in their ideas and their language a constant struggle to overcome it. The fairies and heroes of the early work were an attempt to find through folk tradition a binding force for society; and the doctrine of Anima Mundi found in the later poems is the same thing in a more developed form, which has left purely local peculiarities behind, in favour of something that the deceased hoped was universal; in other words, he was looking for a world religion. A purely religious solution may be unworkable, but the search for it is, at least, the result of a true perception of a social evil. Again, the virtues that the deceased praised in the peasantry and aristocracy, and the vices he blamed in the commercial classes, were real virtues and vices. To create a united and just society where the former are fostered and the latter cured is the task of the politician, not the poet.

For 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, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.

But there is one field in which the poet is a man of action, the field of language, and it is precisely in this that the greatness of the deceased is most obviously shown. However false or undemocratic his ideas, his diction shows a continuous evolution towards what one might call the true democratic style. The social virtues of a real democracy are brotherhood and intelligence, and the parallel linguistic virtues are strength and clarity, virtues which appear ever more clearly through successive volumes by the deceased.

The diction of The Winding Stair is the diction of a just man, and it is for this reason that just men will always recognize its author as a master.

Partisan Review, Spring 1939

A Great Democrat

The Spirit of Voltaire. Norman L. Torrey.
Columbia University Press. $3.
Voltaire. Alfred Noyes. Sheed and Ward. $3.50.

Voltaire was not only one of the greatest Europeans of all time but, though he might be surprised to hear it, one of the greatest fighters for democracy, and one who should be as much a hero to us as Socrates or Jefferson. As Professor Torrey says: "Voltaire has an important message for the present age. His readers in the period preceding the World War were mildly amused or mildly shocked but not deeply moved Today our hopes are not so sanguine It is in such periods of increasing fanaticism that generations will turn again to the spirit of Voltaire." Professor Torrey has certainly done his best to insure that they shall. Voltaire has suffered the greatest misfortune that can befall a writer; he has become a legend, which insures that he will not be read until someone destroys the legend. This Professor Torrey has done with scholarship and perfect taste. If these admirable books of Professor Torrey and Mr Noyes are as widely read as they ought to be, it will be an encouraging sign. For democracy is not a political system or party but an attitude of mind. There is no such thing as the perfect Democratic state, good for all time. What political form is most democratic at any given period depends on geography, economic development, educational level, and the like. But in any particular issue it is always possible to say where a democrat should stand, and to recognize one, whatever party label he may bear.

It is a pity that the most widely known of Voltaire's works should be Candide, for the facile optimism of Leibnitz, which it attacks, the view that "everything that is, is right," is a side issue. Such a view bears only a superficial resemblance to the profound intuitions of Spinoza or to Rilke's "dennoch preisen," which are the basis for all reverence for life and belief in the future. It is too patently contradicted by daily experience to be held for long, even by the rich.

Democracy has three great enemies: the mystic pessimism of the unhappy, who believe that man has no free will, the mystic optimism of the romantic, who believes that the individual has absolute free will, and the mystic certainty of the perfectionist, who believes that an individual or a group can know the final truth and the absolutely good. For Voltaire these beliefs were embodied, the first in Pascal, the second in Rousseau, and the last in the Catholic Church.

Pascal's extreme view about Original Sin, by denying to fallen man any free will, makes the intellect useless, all human relations a hindrance, and all social forms meaningless. We feel, he says, that we must have absolute certainty; therefore absolute certainty must exist. Only the Catholic religion professes to offer certainty. Therefore we should accept it. Rousseau, starting from the other extreme of asserting the absolute free will of the natural individual, came to similar conclusions. Man is good and corrupted by society; therefore all social forms are bad. If every individual will were allowed to operate freely, there would emerge a general social will. Like Pascal he felt that certainty should exist, and since the intellect could not give it, one should trust to feeling. In the end, since it was impossible for him to become a savage, and no absolute political creed had been invented, he accepted Pascal's wager and died a Catholic.

Voltaire's reply to them both was, in essence, very simple. Examine all the evidence and don't try to go beyond it.

Pascal says that all men are wicked and unhappy. They are, but not all the time. People are often happy and do good acts. Pascal says that the human passions are the cause of all evil. They are, but also they are the cause of all good. They are an integral part of the creation.

The miseries of life no more prove the fall of man than the misery of a hackney coach-horse proves that, once upon a time, all horses were fat and sleek, and were never beaten, and that since one of them ate forbidden hay all its descendants have been condemned to draw hackney coaches.

Rousseau says that civilization is horrible. Much of it is, but not all. We neither can nor want to become savages or babies again.

Never has anyone employed so much wit in trying to make us witless; the reading of your book makes us want to creep on all fours. However, since it is now more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel unfortunately that it is impossible for me to take it up again, and I leave that natural attitude to those who are more worthy of it than you or I.
   Neither can I embark to go and live with the savages of Canada The ailments with which I am afflicted retain me by the side of the greatest doctor of Europe, and I could not find the same attentions among the Missouri Indians.

   Voltaire saw that those who say that they cannot live without absolute certainty end by accepting some person or institution that offers it. In his day there was only one such offer, that of the Catholic Church.
   Mr Noyes disposes once for all of the popular conception of Voltaire as a shallow cynic who felt and believed in nothing. The man was not lacking in reverence who wrote:
 
I was meditating last night, I was absorbed in the contemplation of nature; I admired the immensity, the course, the harmony of those infinite globes One must be blind not to be dazzled by this spectacle, one must be stupid not to recognize the author of it; one must be mad not to worship him.

When he wrote, "Ecrasez l'infame," he had in mind the assumption, under whatever disguise, religious, philosophical, political, that the final absolute truth has been revealed.

Allow that assumption, and tyranny and cruelty are not only inevitable but just and necessary. For if I know the Good, then it is my moral duty to persecute all who disagree with me. That is why the Catholic Church can never compromise with liberalism or democracy, and why it must prefer even Fascism to socialism. Fascism may persecute Catholicism, but as a competitor; it is based on the same premise of being in possession of the final truth, and if it persecutes, in the end it can only strengthen its persecuted rivals. The first principle of democracy, on the other hand, is that no one knows the final truth about anything, and that the most one can say is: "At this particular moment, and in this particular instance, the nearest approximation we can get to the truth seems to be this. We do not know what absolute goodness is, but this man seems to be better than that man." In such an atmosphere Catholicism withers. There are many liberal Catholics, like Noyes and Maritain, some of them the salt of the earth, but they will always see their hopes defeated. They will deplore the politics of their church without realising their necessity, for a revealed religion must be centralised and authoritarian, and must oppose any political system which encourages the freedom of the individual conscience.

At the time when Voltaire wrote, social change seemed impossible, and supernatural security was the only refuge for the unhappy; Catholicism, as in any backward country today, had no rival. But as soon as misery is seen to have natural causes which might be removed by political action, absolutist political creeds appear.

Pascal and Rousseau illustrate like parables how people come to prefer certainty to freedom. Both were sick men, and sickness is one cause of unhappiness. Poverty and feelings of social inferiority or insecurity are others. Like Rousseau, liberal capitalism began in the belief that all individuals are equally free to will, and just as Rousseau died a Catholic, so the masses, disillusioned, are beginning to welcome the barrack life of Fascism, which at least offers security and certainty.

Voltaire was no social revolutionary, but within the economic and social conditions of his time he attempted on his estate at Ferney to create a community of which the members would feel happy enough to allow the spirit of democracy to flower. For one of the symptoms of happiness is a lively curiosity that finds others as interesting and worth knowing as oneself, and it is only by removing the obvious causes of misery, poverty and social injustice, that a democracy like the United States can protect itself against the specious appeals of the enemies of freedom.

The Nation, 25 March 1939

Whitman and Arnold

Matthew Arnold. Lionel Trilling. W. W. Norton. $3.50.

America has good reason to be proud of her literary criticism. The essays of T. S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson, Professor Van Doren's book on Dryden, and now Mr Trilling's Matthew Arnold have set a standard of seriousness and taste, higher, perhaps, than that of any English critics since W. P. Ker.

Mr Trilling has, I think, said the full and final word on Arnold for our generation; there is no aspect of his life or poetry or thought which is not considered or illuminated, so that a reviewer is left with little to say.

What emerges most strongly from this book is the continuity of the Victorian Age with our own. The problems that worried Arnold are the same as those that worry us, for they are the problems of an industrial society in which there has been no radical break, only an increase in tension.

Before Arnold, literary critics had been primarily concerned either, like Dryden with technical questions, or, like Coleridge, with psychological ones. Arnold was the first English critic to see that the personal fate of the artist and the nature of his work is intimately bound up with the fate and nature of society as a whole, and however much we may disagree with some of his conclusions, we must acknowledge him as a great pioneer. Most of what is valuable in modern criticism is derived from him and the questions which he was the first to ask.

He saw clearly that there was something about modern communities which made modern poetry unbalanced, short-winded, gloomy and immature, and this perception itself stifled him as a poet. Lacking it, Tennyson could remain in the ivory tower of technique and private grief, Browning exploit his eccentric personality, but Arnold disapproved of the only kind of poetry which it was possible for him as an upper class Victorian Englishman to write. His natural poetic taste was for the romantic, mysteriously evocative poetry which is the product of precisely that anarchical industrial society which he condemned, as against the poetry of order: Pope and Racine.

Perhaps, unconsciously, he realised that the latter was the poetry of a class within the state. He wanted the poetry of a united state. Hence his admiration of the Greeks.

But no one can escape his age. A poet in an industrialised class-divided society can only write either the poetry of isolation like Rilke, or the poetry of a class like Kipling. Arnold attempted the impossible task of writing as if Victorian London were Fifth Century Athens, and in consequence his inspiration ran dry.

The same fallacy appears in his critical writing whenever he speaks of the State. In common with Burke, Hegel, and that great but bad man his father, he thought of the state as a real entity, an organic growth, embracing and consummating all the individuals within it, a conception that may describe fairly well a tribal community with an undifferentiated economy, is less than half true of a feudal social system based on agriculture, and in a centralised and industrial society has no meaning whatever. Arnold did not mean to support reaction--like many other liberals, he supported revolutionary movements in other countries, even the Paris Commune--but his idealist theory of the State led him inevitably into a reactionary position, for it assumed a unity of feeling and interest in the community which no longer existed in fact. Indeed, today, even the picture of the State as a strata of ruled and ruling classes is ceasing to be altogether adequate; it is becoming more and more, the united individual professional politicians and bureaucrats versus the disunited rest.

Itis not surprising that Walt Whitman and Arnold detested each other, for they represent approaches to life which are eternally hostile, but both necessary, the way of the particularising senses as against the way of the generalising intellect. Whitman, with his endless lists and formless originality, stood up for the particular physical fact against Arnold's disciplined and fastidious abstractions. If Whitman was the greater poet, it does not necessarily mean that he had a greater natural talent, nor does it mean that particular poetry is superior to abstract poetry. It means that Whitman was the more at home in his country and his age. Arnold's poems are literary in a bad sense, because the abstractions with which they were concerned no longer corresponded to the facts; they were derived from the experiences of an earlier and more primitive form of society than that in which Arnold was living. What he said of the Romantics, "They did not know enough," was no less true of himself. But this lack of knowledge was not, as he imagined, lack of classical and scientific book-learning, it was social isolation from "the dirt." "Everything comes out of the dirt, everything--everything comes from the people, the everyday people," wrote Whitman, and he was right. But so was Arnold when he attacked Whitman's lack of discrimination. Flowers grow out of dunghills, certainly, but the flower and the dunghill are not the same thing. Whitman was so busy accepting everything, that he forgot to notice that one thing differs from another. A doctor and a disease, a gangster and a gasman, are all brute facts that have to be accepted as facts, but they differ in significance, and it is the business of the generalising intellect to fit them into an intelligible order. If the professor is not the greatest kind of artist, neither is the reporter. The affectation of being a-theoretical and practical, the homespun wit of Whitman or Will Rogers, and the fastidious highbrow aloofness of Arnold or Woodrow Wilson, are both forms of conceit, which is another word for cowardice.

If today we feel more sympathetic towards the former than the latter, it is only because at the moment the generalisers in art and in politics are the more powerful and the more dangerous. Yet the nations are listening to their siren voices precisely because the anarchist-capitalist liberal democracy of which Whitman was the spokesman, which accepted everyone and everything as perfectly free and perfectly equal and perfectly good, failed to realise concretely the abstract virtues of Truth, Freedom and Justice. The dirt is getting tired of being just dirt.

Matthew Arnold may have been a prig, but he knew that there is a difference between right and wrong, and if democracy is not to be overwhelmed by an authoritarianism under which poetry will be impossible, it must listen not only to Whitman's congratulations but also to Arnold's cold accusing voice.

Common Sense, April 1939

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