Auden's Apologies for Poetry
Lucy McDiarmid


Common wisdom has it that when Auden left England for New York in January 1939, he had already written his best poems. He left behind (most critics believe) all the idealisms of the 1930s and all serious concerns to become an unserious poet, a writer of ingenious, agreeable, minor lyrics. Lucy McDiarmid argues that such readers, spoiled by the simple intensities of apocalypse, distort and misjudge Auden's greatest work. She shows that once Auden was freed from the obligation to criticize and reform the society of his native country, he devoted his imaginative energies to commentary on art. And about art he was never complaisant: with greater passion than he had ever used to undermine "bourgeois" society, Auden undermined literature. Every major poem and every essay became a retractio, a statement of art's frivolity, vanity, and guilt. Auden's Apologies for Poetry, then, sets forth the unorthodox notion that the chief subject of later, "New Yorker" Auden is the insignificance of poetry. Commenting on all the major poems and essays from the 1930s through the 1960s, and analyzing manuscript revisions and unpublished works, it charts the changes in Auden's poetics in the light of his shift from an oral to a written model of poetry. In his earliest work Auden voices the tentative hope that poems can be like loving spoken words, transforming and redeeming, themselves carriers of value. After 1939 he takes for granted a written model. His later essays and poems deny art spiritual value, claiming that "love, or truth in any serious sense" is a "reticence," the unarticulated worth that exists--if at all--outside the words on the page. Later Auden creates a poetics of apology and self-deprecation, a radical undermining of poetry itself.

First published in 1990.

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