You Were Imperfect Like Us

You Were Imperfect Like Us

Later Auden
by Edward Mendelson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, 570 pp., $30

During the 1930s, W. H. Auden populated his poems and plays with heroes struggling to put their shoulders to the wheel of History, and his admirers anointed him a hero in return. Of Auden’s first two books, Poems and Paid on Both Sides, Randall Jarrell wrote, “when old men, dying in their beds, mumble something unintelligible to the nurse, it is some of those lines that they will be repeating.” When Auden left England for Valencia in January 1937 to aid the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, the London papers covered his departure in the news pages, not the gossip columns. Then there’s E.M. Forster, who confessed that because Auden wrote the line “We must love one another or die” in “September 1, 1939,” “he can command me to follow him.”

The Auden who emerges from Edward Mendelson’s Later Auden is no less commanding than the committed poet lauded during the thirties, but he’s of an entirely different cast of mind. Mendelson’s Auden is a poet who came to distrust the poem from which Forster plucked his moral talisman. He’s a poet who was deeply uncomfortable about using poetry to advocate a partisan cause; who tapped fully into his creative powers only when he stopped using a didactic tone to disguise the arguments he had with himself about social contradictions and personal problems; and whose understanding of responsibility became morally acute when he cast aside communist notions of Utopia for Christian notions of imperfection and original sin.

Critics have not been kind to Auden for turning away from politics in his verse. In “Outside the Whale,” the British historian E. P. Thompson claimed that Auden’s post-1930s writing signaled “an abdication of intellectual responsibility in the face of all social experience.” Auden had failed Thompson because the poet no longer believed that art is a weapon or nothing at all. Reading Later Auden, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Auden was right to give up politics to explore arguments with himself. Auden got involved in politics for the wrong reasons, and he was honest enough to admit it. An observation he made in 1939 about some fellow travelers applied to him as well: “There are many people, and they number some artists among them, who today seek in politics an escape from the unhappiness of their private lives, as once people sought refuge in the monastery and convent.” Auden left politics to immerse himself in social experience, not retreat from it; to accept intellectual responsibility, not abdicate it. Forster and Thompson expected Auden to cut a monumental figure, perhaps like “The leader looking over / Into the happy valley” in Auden’s early poem “From scars where kestrels hover.” Auden became something different: a poet who sang of human unsuccess ...

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