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AudenVanVechten1939The last, chronologically speaking, of the poets I shall discuss – and the only one I actually met – is W H Auden. His was the generation that grew up just after the First World War, so they were without the intensity of subject matter that Wilfred Owen and his contemporaries displayed. But they had to deal with a new world order, and their poetry is replete with efforts to develop a system of values to help face the changing political and social circumstances.

In the end this involved, in the case of Auden and one of the contemporaries closely associated with him, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, a rejection of the world they grew up in, and both escaped to America during the Second World War. The third of the group, Stephen Spender, stayed on in England, though as a conscientious objector.

Auden’s attitude to the different world that was emerging can be seen in one of his more light-hearted poems, the letter to Lord Byron that he wrote from Iceland. The objects of his satire and the preposterous juxtapositions he engages in are multifarious: Carnegie one of the first rags to riches millionaires who devoted the latter part of his life to philanthropy; the highly conservative Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, listening to jazz; Oswald Mosley, who led the Black Shirts, the British political grouping that supported Hitler (the Teutonic Fuhrer-Prinzip), persuading Lord Byron to lead his storm troopers; the Pope joining the Moral Rearmament group; and what he thinks incredible, Lord Nuffield who built up the Morris motor business being poor, or anyone thinking British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to be honest.

We’ve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,

And Fortune’s ladder is for all to climb;

Carnegie on this point was most 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…..



Byron, thou should’st be living at this hour!

    What would you do, I wonder, if you were?

Britannia’s lost prestige and cash and power,

    Her middle classes show some wear and tear,

    We’ve learned to bomb each other from the air;

I can’t imagine what the Duke of Wellington

Would say about the music of Duke Ellington.



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



‘Lord Byron at the head of his storm—troopers!’

    Nothing, says science, is impossible:

The Pope may quit to join the Oxford Groupers,

    Nuffield may leave one farthing in his Will,

    There may be someone who trusts Baldwin still,

Someone may think that Empire wines are nice,

There may be people who hear Tauber twice…..



I like your muse because she’s gay and witty,

    Because she’s neither prostitute nor frump,

The daughter of a European City,

    And country houses long before the slump;  

    I like her voice that does not make me jump:

And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,

Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.



The poem, from which I have cited just a few extracts, is an insider job as it were, difficult for anyone not sharing its cultural background to understand. And that perhaps is the point Auden makes in the last verse above, when he places Byron as an urbane product of a civilization shared by only an elite. The sentiments then may not appeal to a democratic age, but Auden had also his own view of where democracy was taking everyone, in The Unknown Citizen with its vision of a society in which individuality does not count

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)


He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a


For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his


And our teachers report that he never interfered with their


Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Also in lighter vein, but entertaining in its descriptions rather than a vehicle for social criticism, is The Night Mail. This was written for one of the earliest and best of film documentaries, by the legendary John Grierson, and it followed the night train that carried the mail, a fantastic communication service before the days of e-mails

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door…..

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?


But he could also write in serious vein, as in Lullaby, one of the most moving love poems of modern times

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful….


Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless,

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness find you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love

It is a bit of a shock, in reading about this poem, to learn that it was written after an encounter with a male prostitute, but I think that serves to increase one’s appreciation of how art can enhance life by adding unexpected value to the most mundane of transactions. At the same time it makes one realize that, more precisely, this is not a poem about love, but rather about tenderness, the tenderness awoken by satisfied sexuality.

But even tenderness could give way to other emotions roused by casual sex. In looking for different examples of Auden’s skill, I came across what was described as the ‘Auden Poem That as Too Dirty for the ‘Times Book Review’? Entitled ‘The Platonic Blow’, though with a use of the adjective in a diametrically opposed meaning to what is normally associated with Platonic Love, it does indeed have passages that I suspect would be too strong for a newspaper, but its governing motif is exultation in beauty, and in physical contact – though I will stop before the contact gets too intimate.

It was a spring day, a day for a lay, when the air
Smelled like a locker-room, a day to blow or get blown;
Returning from lunch I turned my corner and there
On a near-by stoop I saw him standing alone.


I glanced as I advanced. The clean white T-shirt outlined
A forceful torso, the light-blue denims divulged
Much. I observed the snug curves where they hugged the behind,
I watched the crotch where the cloth intriguingly bulged.


Our eyes met. I felt sick. My knees turned weak.
I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to say.
In a blur I heard words, myself like a stranger speak
“Will you come to my room?” Then a husky voice, “O.K.”


I produced some beer and we talked. Like a little boy
He told me his story. Present address: next door.
Half Polish, half Irish. The youngest. From Illinois.
Profession: mechanic. Name: Bud. Age: twenty-four.


He put down his glass and stretched his bare arms along
The back of my sofa. The afternoon sunlight struck
The blond hairs on the wrist near my head. His chin was strong.
His mouth sucky. I could hardly believe my luck.



Particularly skilful in advancing the story while keeping us aware of its controlling consciousness are the plethora of internal rhymes and half rhymes (though I must refrain from citing the verse in which a triumphant excess of this occurs – He responded to my fondling in a charming, disarming way. Auden was indeed an exception to a tendency I noted earlier, after Eliot, to refrain from rhymes as seeming artificial. Auden on the contrary went back to an older tradition, almost Augustan, of making verbal dexterity an essential component of art’s shaping of worldly reality.

And though he had a strong streak of self indulgence, his moral perspectives on the changing world are still valid. In 1939  he wrote September 1, 1939 on the outbreak of the Second World War

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.



Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.



Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.



Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

Each language pours its vain

Competitive excuse:

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism’s face

And the international wrong.



Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.



The windiest militant trash

Important Persons shout

Is not so crude as our wish:

What mad Nijinsky wrote

About Diaghilev

Is true of the normal heart;

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.



From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

“I will be true to the wife,

I’ll concentrate more on my work,”

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the deaf,

Who can speak for the dumb?



All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.



Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

I felt I had to quote this in full, because it is full of ideas that are of continuing relevance. Lyndon B Johnson quoted (or rather, typically, misquoted) the most famous line here, the last one of the penultimate verse, during his 1984 election campaign, when he was attacking the militaristic aggression of Barry Goldwater – and then proceeded to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, in a manner eerily prescient of President Obama’s transformation into George Bush (though one continues to hope that this is only in limited areas and that what I still like to think of as his essential decency will overcome the pressures of the Military Industrial Complex.

Ironic too was the fact that the poem was resuscitated after the 9/11 attacks though, according to Wikipedia, ‘with many lines omitted’. Doubtless amongst the lines left out were his answer to the theoretical analyses about what was touted as the historical German tendency to aggression


I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

And forgotten too I think, in a world obsessed by not just pair bonding but possessive bonding, is his contrast between universal love and the individual’s need for security based on exclusion



For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

Ceylon Today 10 August 2014  – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-70005-news-detail-w-h-auden.html