Monday, March 6, 2017
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LETTER TO LORD BYRON” by W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden (first published in the co-authored collection Letters from Iceland in 1937; revised by Auden, with some stanzas omitted, in the 1960s)
I had meant to do this for some time, but only recently did I find a spare couple of hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon to do it. I had meant to re-read W. H. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron”, one of those things I first read while doing an MA in English forty-plus years back. Was it as much fun as I thought it was all those years ago?
W. H. Auden (1907-73) has always puzzled me. I have read most of his poems with pleasure. I find him urbane and witty and level-headed. The man who emerges in his poems is a very sensible man, not given to extremes, not given to fierce hatreds. I feel I have been chatted to by his poems – but chatted to by someone who has a real grasp of form and style. A technical virtuoso. BUT (ah! you knew that word was coming) these very virtues are also Auden’s defects. Auden never hits the depths, but he rarely hits the heights either. Much as I love “As I walked out one evening” (I have been known to do it as a party piece when slightly pissed), much as I love “The Shield of Achilles” and many of the later, longer and more meditative poems (“New Year Letter”, “For the Time Being,” etc.), I am not intellectually challenged or moved by Auden as much as I am by Eliot or even crazed Yeats – to limit myself to the triad of early-20th-century English-language poets whom critics often toss about while trying to decide which is Top Poet. Auden is a companionable man – a man who can hold your attention as if he were confiding in you over a drink in a pub. T.S. and W.B. make you fly.
On top of this, there’s the Big Issue about the whole Auden canon, which still has academics and contributors to publish-or-perish literary reviews bursting their boilers. The “English” Auden of the 1930s was apparently a very left-wing chap – or at least a fellow traveller. But after, in the 1940s, he became the “American” Auden, he returned overtly to Christianity (in private he had been moving in that direction for some years) and no longer had the same political stance. When his earlier poems were republished he (to the outrage of some of his earlier admirers) often re-edited them, to remove political views, which he now regarded as either fatuous or immature. To read his collected poems now is to read both the poems and the poet’s second thoughts. I remember the outrage of one Eng Lit lecturer over this. For myself, the issue doesn’t bother me… but I did have to take it into account as I sat on a bench under a tree in my back yard on a clear, blue-skied and sunny Saturday afternoon and re-read “Letter to Lord Byron”.
Background – “Letter to Lord Byron” first appeared in Letters from Iceland in 1937. This was a book, mingling poetry with prose letters, co-written by Auden and Louis MacNeice to celebrate a summer holiday the two of them had taken in Iceland. They were an odd couple. Auden was English and homosexual. MacNeice was (Northern) Irish and a very active heterosexual. But they were good friends and both very good poets (MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music” is at once one of the funniest and one of the grimmest poems of the 1930s). Earnest scholars have attempted to find a thematic structure to Letters from Iceland. They are wasting their time. It is a grab-bag in which the two poets clown around, write light verse, write earnest verse, go topical, go autobiographical, describe the scenery or write letters as they will.
“Letter to Lord Byron”, probably the best-known piece in the book, was originally divided into five sections. But when Auden revised it in the 1960s, he reduced it four parts, cutting out what one commentator calls “literary satire, Marxist historical prophecy, and gossipy nether-worldly chat” and making it “an odd and frothy predecessor” to other long poems, which he produced in later years. I know “Letter to Lord Byron” only in its revised version, where its 158 stanzas cover 38 pages in the Penguin Longer Contemporary Poems edited by David Wright in 1965.
In the opening stanzas, young Auden apologises to Lord Byron for addressing him and explains the circumstances in which he is writing.
So if ostensibly I write to you
To chat about your poetry or mine,
There’s many other reasons: though it’s true
That I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick. (Part One, Stanza 5)
I find something a little odd about this. “Letter to Lord Byron” is written throughout in rime royal – that is, as you can see, 7-line stanzas in iambic pentameters rhyming a-b-a-b-b-c-c. The oddity is that Auden, who says he has just read and enjoyed Don Juan, did not write it in the stanza form that Byron used (the eight-line a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c). But no matter. On we plunge with what is deliberately chatty light verse. And – even in the revised form – a work filled with specifically 1930s topical references, which some readers might not get. The opening stanza references “Gary Cooper, Coughlin or Dick Sheppard”, while a few stanzas later Auden references current literary preoccupations by asking Lord Byron:
Do the celestial highbrows only care
For works on Clydeside, Fascists, or Mayfair? (Part One, Stanza 10)
Let me now do one of my notorious illustrated synopses. As far as I can discern their thematic structure, the four parts of (the revised) “Letter to Lord Byron” go thus:
In Part One, Auden apostrophises Lord Byron, explaining why he is writing to him rather than to some other canonical literary figure. Playfully he suggests that the only other figure he considered writing to was Jane Austen, but then, he claims, he finds Jane Austen a more daunting figure than Lord Byron. After all, she cut down to the essential fact of marriage being connected with economics, and thus showed the acuteness of her mind. Furthermore she was a novelist and, says Auden, writing novels is a far more demanding thing than writing poetry:
Then she's a novelist. I don't know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties
Perhaps that's why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear. (Part One, Stanza 13)
The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.
You must admit, when all is said and done,
His sense of other people’s very hazy,
His moral judgements are too often crazy,
A slick and easy generalization
Appeal too well to his imagination. (Part One, Stanza 14)
On top of this, Auden wishes to ramble idly ramble around a topic, switching from one thing to another, and he is looking for a poetic form that will allow him to do this. After all, his letter to Lord Byron really is a letter, and a good letter wanders all over the place:
Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this—a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.
I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,
And talk on any subject that I choose, (Part One, Stanzas 20-21)
This leads Auden to what I see as the main train of thought in the first section of the poem as it now exists – his praise for light and whimsical verse. Light verse, says Auden, is currently under-esteemed and undervalued:
Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather;
Except by Milne and persons of that kind
She’s treated as démodé altogether.
It’s strange and very unjust to my mind
Her brief appearances should be confined,
Apart from Belloc’s Cautionary Tales,
To the more bourgeois periodicals. (Part One, Stanza 23)
Yet light verse provides the opportunity for poetry to be what it should most often be – fun. Auden says he is not aiming for the grand and serious style, and seeks only to be on the more modest and lowlier slopes of Parnassus.
Part One, therefore, functions chiefly as a defence of the type of verse “Letter to Lord Byron” is itself offering.
True to this prospectus, Part Two jumps into another subject altogether. Claiming to be dashing off his verses by writing on his knee while in the midst of a journey, Auden sets about commenting on the current political state of Britain and the inadequacy of its leaders. [It is at this point that I suspect much topical political comment was excised when Auden revised the poem]. Auden is upset by what he calls “the Dragon” – the type of messianic, world-changing rhetoric into which the politicians of his day too readily jump, ignoring the long-established traditions and mores of the country. In effect, although he does not use the term, Auden, in the late 1930s, is ironically condemning the totalitarian impulse. Those modes of thought he specifically condemns are fascist ones, but it is clear that he is not enamoured of the Hard Left either.
There is a long section in which he ridicules attempts to create Utopias. Reading the key stanzas on this topic now, I remember that he is writing three or four years after Huxley wrote his Brave New World, which seems referenced in the opening line of Stanza 11. I am also aware that readers in the early 21st century are less likely than Auden was in the 1930s to see such things as “electric stoves”, “bus-stops” and “aerodromes” as the harbingers of something sinister. Indeed, these terms now sound vaguely quaint. I would further suggest that his dismissal of an antiseptic “Shape of Things to Be” in Stanza 12 may have been fired by the fact that Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, his film version of H.G.Wells’ Utopian The Shape of Things to Come, was released just the year before “Letter to Lord Byron” was written:
Hail to the New World! Hail to those who’ll love
Its antiseptic objects, feel at home.
Lovers will gaze at an electric stove,
Another poésie de départ come
Centred round bus-stops or the aerodrome.
But give me still, to stir imagination
The chiaroscuro of the railway station, (Part Two, Stanza 11)
Preserve me from the Shape of Things to Be;
The high-grade posters at the public meeting,
The influence of Art on Industry,
The cinemas with perfect taste in seating;
Preserve me, above all, from central heating. (Part Two, Stanza 12)
Auden wonders how Don Juan would have got on in such an over-planned, over-regulated world. But in doing so he also takes swipes at current, messy democracy, which too often simply means the freedom for capitalist exploiters to rise to the top:
We’ve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,
And Fortune’s ladder is for all to climb;
Carnegie on this point was must emphatic.
A humble grandfather is not a crime,
At least, if father made enough in time!
Today, thank God, we’ve got no snobbish feeling
Against the more efficient modes of stealing. (Part Two, Stanza 18)
The old squirearchy may have been killed off in the Great War:
Where is the John Bull of the good old days,
The swaggering bully with the clumsy jest?
His meaty neck has long been laid to rest,
His acres of self-confidence for sale;
He passed away at Ypres and Passchendaele. (Part Two, Stanza 29)
Even so, plodding democracy is preferable to curently-proferred alternatives.
Which, of course, raises the awkward question of how much the addressee of the letter was himself a despiser of the crowd, an enemy of democracy, a potential Nietzshean Superman. Would Lord Byron be the type of muscular adventurer who would fall for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists?
Suggestions have been made that the Teutonic
Führer-Prinzip would have appealed to you
As being the true heir to the Byronic—
In keeping with your social status too
(It has its English converts, fit and few),
That you would, hearing honest Oswald’s call,
Be gleichgeschaltet in the Albert Hall. (Part Two, Stanza 37)
So much for the political scene.
Part Three reverts to the matter of poetry itself, with Auden first defending Byron’s reputation from his critics:
You’ve had your packet from the critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A ‘vulgar genius’ so George Eliot said,
Which doesn’t matter as George Eliot’s dead,
But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: ‘an uninteresting mind’. (Part Three, Stanza 6)
In doing so, he rejects the high and solemn style of poetry, and takes a few kicks at revered canonical figures:
I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore, (Part Three, Stanza 10)
He also rejects the post-Romantic habit of despising the clear, classical style of verse (Pope, Dryden) by pretending that it isn’t really poetry at all:
Milton may thank his stars that he is dead,
Although he’s learnt by heart in public schools,
Along with Wordsworth and the list of rules;
For many a don while looking down his nose
Calls Pope and Dryden classics of our prose. (Part Three, Stanza 11)
Auden’s great idea is that poetry should somehow connect with common human experience – that poets should not be snobs floating above the crowd and addressing themselves only to a small coterie:
I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:
To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier. (Part Three, Stanza 20)
Paradoxically, this means that poets functioned better in society in the days when they were beholden to a patron, knew for whom they were writing, and were not indulging their personal passions and neuroses. They were then, in effect, public and not private voices. The real rot set in with Romanticism, which canonised the detached individual:
The important point to notice, though, is this:
Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
As long as art remains a parasite
On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent. (Part Three, Stanza 25)
It will be noted that in this, probably the most controversial section of “Letter to Lord Byron”, Auden is slyly offering an apologia for the type of verse he himself is writing – an ostensibly “private” letter, but in fact a work of self-deprecating wit in which the poet is always aware that he is addressing the broad public; and the concerns of the broad public are more important than those of the individual poet. In short, a poem of accessible public statement.
And yet – o further paradox! – Part Four is heavily autobiographical and personal. As he travels back from Iceland to England; as he prepares to re-embrace the country of his birth; Auden takes it upon himself to account for who and what exactly he is. Hence to stanzas about his childhood, family, schooling and upbringing. Is this the very same individual-centred Romanticism, which he had criticised in Part Three? I think not. Auden is simply establishing who he is and what is voice is, in order to “place” himself in society at large and continue with the poetry of direct statement. To address public concerns does not, however, mean to abandon individuality. There are some stanzas excoriating the tendency to be too solicitous in childcare and to use psychological theories, or psychoanalysis, to impose some sort of norm:
I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
Our hatred for all weeds of any kind.
Slogans are bad: the best that I can find
Is this: ‘Let each child have that’s in our care
As much neurosis as the child can bear.’ (Part Four, Stanza 19)
This tendency again leads back to totalitarianism:
Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!
What murders are committed in thy name!
Totalitarian is thy state Reality,
Reeking of antiseptics and the shame
Of faces that all look and feel the same.
Thy Muse is one unknown to classic histories,
The topping figure of the hockey mistress. (Part Four, Stanza 21)
I’ll leave it to some more qualified person to say how much these concerns might relate to Auden’s homosexuality, covert, shameful and not “normal” in the 1930s.
Cutting a few corners, this is how “Letter to Lord Byron” plays out, leaving me once again with the question at the head of this notice: Did a re-reading of it give me as much pleasure as my first reading of it forty-plus years ago?
Yes and no.
The commonsense Auden appeals to me still. Though I have never written a novel, I too think that novel-writing is a far more exacting art than the writing of poetry, and a far more daunting task. I, too, think that poetry should not be written in a closed code and should not over-emphasise the personal circumstances of the poet. If a statement of relevance to a wide readership can be found in the personal analysis, fine. But at all times poetry should be addressed to, and accessible to, the public at large. Pursuant to this, I too find tiresome attempts to dismiss the “public” poetry of Pope, Dryden and others as not being poetry at all. As for Auden’s comments on the contemporaneous political and social scene – who would not agree with his caveats?
BUT (that word again!) no matter how one tries to yoke it all thematically together, this poem is (like the book it came from) a grab-bag. It wanders all over the place. You will enjoy it in bits and pieces, but to read it straight through is to weary of it. The rime royal is witty in small doses – we say how clever young Auden is to be able to joke in such an exacting metric form. We note that he often strikes a tone of dandyish world-weariness, just as his addressee often did. Then we tire of it. Wit becomes facetiousness.
Who would not enjoy all the boyish and practical-joking fun of it? Who would not laugh at his nose-thumbing at some pieties? And who would not set it down saying “Enough! Enough!”?
I am reminded of the piece I did on this blog, four-and-a-bit years back, concerning Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. Very witty. Very poised. But (in Pope’s case) dulled by its end-stopped certainties and the insistent tocsin of its iambic rhyming couplets.