Why W.H. Auden Hated His Most Famous Political Poems
The great poet chronicled the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Fascism but he later renounced his most radical and ardent political work.
“Depression, strikes, the hunger marchers … Spain and China,” Larkin rattled off as Auden’s true muses. He continued, “and above all … not only the age’s properties but its obsessions: feeling inferior to the working class, a sense that things needed a new impetus from somewhere, seeing out of the corner of an eye the rise of Fascism, the persecution of the Jews, the gathering dread of the next war that was half projected guilt about the last.”
This new impetus, at least as Auden saw it, was a combination of Marxist revolution and Freudian sexual emancipation. But once he abandoned his role as the Virgilian herald of these fashionable doctrines of the Thirties and retreated into a more insular literary intellectualism after the outbreak of the Second World War and his expatriation to America, Larkin concluded, Auden ceased to be a great poet.
That Larkin, was England’s most gifted—and most reactionary—postwar poet, should have praised Auden’s marriage of radical politics and art, and marked his decline at the very moment at which this marriage collapsed, is no less an irony than how such a critical judgment must have affected the subject himself. As Edward Mendelson, his finest biographer (and literary executor) has written, “Auden was never comfortable in his role as poetic prophet to the British Left, and he was often most divided when he sounded most committed.”
As early as 1941, the poet had come to renounce some of his most celebrated work from the Thirties, those he considered riddled with “devil of unauthenticity … false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities.” Auden had two examples in mind of such emotional fraudulence. Both, uncoincidentally, were urgent responses to the rise of Fascism, not glimpsed out of the corner of his eye but confronted head-on in a warzone and then as an exile woozily watching the clock tick toward the midnight of the century. Both poems were unmistakable exhortations to collective action, which is another way of saying they were propaganda. “Spain” and “September 1, 1939” would be variously revised and amended before Auden finally excised them altogether from his corpus, the first because he saw it as the endorsement of a wicked philosophy, the second because it saw it as sententious nonsense.
One can certainly argue for the virtues of “Later Auden”—and Mendelson has ably done so in his eponymous critical biography— while also appreciating the merit of Larkin’s tribute and judging Auden’s self-criticism as harsh and unfair. The man who proclaimed “poetry makes nothing happen” in fact made it do quite a lot. If Orwell’s ambition was to turn political writing into an art, then Auden’s singular achievement was to use one of the oldest art forms to lay bare the grotesquerie of modern politics. For this reason, and though he’d never have thought of himself in this way, he stands among great anatomists and critics of totalitarianism.
There is a reason, I think, so many Eastern bloc poets admired him, with the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky proclaiming Auden’s “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.” His sensitivity and acuity as a poet made him aware that the pathologies of ideology are first manifest in the pathologies of individuals, including and especially himself, a character he never shied from satirizing or indeed using as a template for the doomed romantic or cruel authoritarian he took as the protagonist of so many of his poems. “Do you know what the Devil looks like?” Auden asked a Sunday School class in 1942, not long after his return to the Anglican faith in which he’d been raised. “The Devil looks like me.”
To deal in Auden is to deal in contradictions. His engagement with politics began in June 1933, in a moment of spiritual transcendence. Auden was enjoying the after-dinner company of three fellow schoolteachers when he was struck by a “Vision of Agape.” Or, as he later defined it, “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being.”
It was a strange time to be experiencing the frisson of universal love, especially for a writer who would soon be celebrated as the secular voice of his generation. Auden had already spent nine months in Berlin with his sometime lover and frequent collaborator, Christopher Isherwood, although he had mostly shied away from radical politics, playing at a vogue fellow-travelerism but preferring to honor the German proletariat mainly by bedding its rougher masculine ornaments. The Great Depression had brought low both the United States and Europe, stoking the widespread belief, to which Auden was to give lyric expression like no other, that liberal democracy had failed and mankind’s salvation lay in the violent overthrow of the existing social and economic order.
By 1933, National Socialists were creating pyres of “un-German” literature, and the Soviets were winding down a Ukrainian terror-famine which had killed millions. Universal hatred, you might say, was the call of the hour, and Auden was well aware of the fact, alluding to it in “A Summer Night,” the poem he composed as a dedication to his vision:
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up, and with a sign endure
The tyrannies of love:
And gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her Eastern bow,
What violence is done;
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.
Here we see for the first time Auden’s acknowledgement that middle-class English comforts were purchased with someone else’s misery, occurring somewhere offstage, or in another country. (Orwell’s Burmese Days, which was about unmasking the doubtful acts that allowed freedom in all English houses, was completed as a manuscript just a few months after this poem was published.) The lines that most easily committed themselves to memory in Auden’s earlier work—“It is time for the destruction of error”; “It is later than you think”—were always in the service of an approaching reckoning, usually a class revolt or a coming war. Yet the main action had tended to take place not at the assembly line, or at the barricade, or in the trench, but instead in a garden or sanatorium or university quadrangle.
Such provincialism can hardly be blamed on Auden, the son of a well-regarded physician in York. He’d spent his childhood dreaming of becoming an engineer and, in the Twenties, had imparted mystical, not to say fetishistic, qualities to the means of production and to his beloved North English landscape. Before he set out on his travels to Iceland, China, and Spain, this was all he really knew of the world. His first love affair as a boy, he recalled, was with images of obsolete 19th-century machines such as “water-turbines, winding-engines and rollercrushers.”
His eventual discovery of Marx gave him a corrective lens for seeing how the masses working those machines had been exploited, though for all his talk of making “action urgent and its nature clear,” he was never quite sure of what was to be done to rectify this injustice. He only knew that something must be and that it would take a violent albeit regenerative form. “The crumpling flood,” as he wrote in “A Summer Night,” his metaphor for impending revolution, would wash away and drown the previous generation, with all its vice and greed, and give rise to a better future in which the personal and public realms would at last be reconciled. (In theory, anyway.)
“Looking back,” Auden admitted later in life, “it seems to me that the interest in Marx taken by myself and my friends…was more psychological than political; we were interested in Marx in the same way that we were interested in Freud, as a technique of unmasking middle-class ideologies.” This retrospective appraisal applied more accurately to himself than to any of his friends, many of whom ended up joining the Communist Party and ignominiously defending the Soviet Union. Auden had done neither. As Mendelson points out, when Auden “praised Lenin it was either in the same breath with T.E. Lawrence, as a personal not a political example, or in a list of healers and truthtellers that also included such unlikely revolutionaries as Kafka and Proust. Of Lenin’s successors he said nothing at all.”
Much of this reticence, Mendelson notes, was owed to Auden’s belief that Russia was not the place for ushering in socialist utopia because such a feudal society had never fully absorbed the lessons of European civilization— a view Marx himself shared. However, the poet’s couch-trip explanation for why so many members of the bourgeois intelligentsia did become card-carrying members of the movement would never win the approval of any central committee. The lure of Communism, he wrote in 1932, “lies in its demand for self-surrender for those individuals who, isolated, feel themselves emotionally at sea.” Moreover, intellectual curiosity such as Auden’s was merely “neurotic, a compensation for those isolated from a social group, sexually starved, or physically weak.”
This suggests that Auden’s more enduring attachment was to Freud. The insights of psychoanalysis certainly matched his own sensibility of looking backward into history and ancient myths to make sense of the chaos of the here-and-now. Auden famously eulogized the Viennese doctor, who died in 1939, as having “merely told / The unhappy Present to recite the Past / Like a poetry lesson till sooner / Or later it faltered at the line where / Long ago the accusations had begun, / And suddenly knew by whom it had been judged.” For all that, Freud was a revolutionary figure:
No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
In his technique of unsettlement foresaw
The fall of princes, the collapse of
Their lucrative patterns of frustration.
If he succeeded, why, the Generalised Life
Would become impossible, the monolith
Of State be broken and prevented
The co-operation of avengers.
When it came time to offer up a panegyric to Marx, as Auden did a year later in “New Year Letter,” an epic romp through hundreds of years of intellectual history, he similarly praised a discoverer of hidden truths:
What if his hate distorted? Much
Was hateful that he had to touch.
What if he erred? He flashed a light
On facts where no one had been right…
But his analysis reveals
The other side to Him-who-steals
Since, to consume, man must produce;
By Man the Tough Devourer sets
The nature his despair forgets
Of Man Prolific since his birth,
A race creative on the earth,
Whose love of money only shows
That in his heart of heart he knows
His love is not determined by
A personal or tribal tie
Or color, neighbourhood, or creed,
But universal, mutual need;
Loosed from its shroud of temper, his
Determinism comes to this:
None shall receive unless they give;
All must cooperate to live.
Auden saw Marx’s moral wisdom, in other words, in his profane insight that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a matter of sheer survival. And yet this insight sketched a coastline of utopia which came within sight but was unreachable:
We hoped; we waited for the day
The State would with clean away,
That theory promised us would come:
What is most revealing about “New Year Letter” is that Marx is not only celebrated in opposition to the Soviet experiment waged in his name, but his method—the dialectic—is an allegory for Satan himself. The Devil, Auden writes, makes us lust after “[d]iversity in unity,” which causes us to mistake the satisfaction of one impulse with the satisfaction of them all. This may be taken as Auden’s own internal dilemma of reconciling his desire to be truthful with doing what is good by one’s community. Or, as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez might put it, reconciling the desire to get one’s facts straight versus the desire to propound a higher moral truth. A favored epithet of his was “vague” and he believed that poetry ought to serve similar function as journalism – showing the world as it is rather than as it should be. Vagueness leads to unintelligibility and that, as Orwell knew too well, is the helpmate of tyranny.
“All vague idealistic art / That coddles the uneasy heart / Is up [the Devil’s] alley” and “he’s lost if someone ask him / To come the hell in off the links / And say exactly what he thinks.” Moreover, the Devil’s way is especially tempting because he invites us to prove him wrong and, in so doing, allows us to take syllogistic comfort in deluding ourselves anew:
The False Association is
A favourite strategy of his:
Induce men to associate
Truth with a lie, then demonstrate
The lie and they will, in Truth’s name,
Treat babe and bath-water the same.
Written in 1940, at the dawn of a new world war, these lines from “New Year Letter”—a poem Larkin thought was a sign of Auden’s diminishing talent—almost perfectly prefigure what Czeslaw Milosz, another Nobel Laureate, would write six years later in “Child of Europe,” his own ten-thousand-foot survey of European intellectual history, which satirized the Marxist dialectic as well as the Big Lie of Stalinism which it yielded. The future Polish poet laureate, and sometime translator of Auden into Polish, was still technically a cultural attaché of a Warsaw Pact nation, if no longer a true-believing Communist, when he composed these lines, possibly with Auden’s in mind:
Grow your tree of falsehood from a single grain of truth.
Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality.
Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself
So the weary travelers may find repose in the lie.
If Auden subtly skewered Marxism-Leninism without precisely naming it in his poems, then his treatment of Fascism, and what he elsewhere called “Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses,” was a somewhat messier affair.
In “The Orators: An English Study,” a lengthy, obscure, and over-complicated poem combining verse and prose, he set out to mock the romantic “hero” as a huckster as well the kind of group or society that fell for his tricks. Instead, as with Arthur Koestler’s short novel Darkness at Noon, the poem had the unintended consequence of making a compelling case for the very orthodoxy it meant to debunk.
Auden had intended to counterpose the received wisdom about a mythologized past with its grim reality. As opposed to the stories of “tall white gods who landed from their open boat,” and a time “when love came easy,” the evidence pointed to something decided less august and more bloody: “The pillar dug from the desert recorded only / The sack of a city.”
But the mythology couldn’t help but be a stronger lure to the man-in-the-street than the more prosaic historical record. And herein lay the danger. “I am very dissatisfied with this book,” Auden informed a reader after “The Orators” was published in volume form in 1932. “The conception was alright (sic) but I didn’t take enough trouble over it, and the result is far too obscure and equivocal. It is meant to be a critique of the fascist outlook, but from its reception among some of my contemporaries, and on rereading it myself, I see that it can, most of it, be interpreted as a favourable exposition.” Aiming for the mordant satire of a Chaplin, he accidentally struck the notes of a self-reproaching Riefenstahl.
Nor did it help matters that the romantic “hero” of the poem, the Airman, implausibly modeled on Hermann Göring, bore more than a passing resemblance to his creator. In a 1966 preface to “The Orators,” Auden wrote that the name on the title page of this work seemed to him now “a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi.” He conceded that the poem was a work of self-therapy in which he tried “to exorcise certain tendencies in myself by allowing them to run riot in phantasy.” What tendencies were those? Well, the slightly paternalistic or autocratic style in matters of sex.
One of Auden’s later observations—as true in the era of #MeToo as in the Age of Ideology—was that many an anti-fascist conducts his love life as if he were invading Poland. He had himself in mind here, too, as he did when he wrote “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” one of his most famous poems from the Thirties, which is addressed to an unconscious and therefore unequal partner and so if “Certainty, fidelity” are given to expire on the stroke of midnight, it will be the wakeful author of those lines, not the dreaming object of his fleeting affection, who will do the betraying.
“The Orators” was about a world-historical celebrity figure. That, too, was quite familiar to Auden. Hailed a genius and a voice of his generation, he was anointed the leader of the so-called Oxford Group of Thirties poets consisting also of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis, who were compressed into the derisive portmanteau “MacSpaunday” by their contemporary and rival (and thoroughly Stalinist) poet Roy Campbell. Though even here, mythology got the better of mundane reality. This fraternity did not meet or really exist except in the popular imagination.
“The Orators” ends with the death of its protagonist and the rise of a new tyrant, a Führerprinzip, who takes the seemingly innocuous form of a newborn child. (Auden’s symbol for revolution later took the form of the “naked anonymous baby and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”) Dystopia arrives all the same:
The few shall be taught who want to understand,
Most of the rest shall live upon the land;
Living in one place with a satisfied face,
All of the women and most of the men
Shall work with their hands and not think again.
A future in which an individual’s critical faculties must be subsumed by absolute uniformity is a future applicable to both Fascism and Communism. Communism simply had the better marketing plan in the Thirties.
This dramatic tension—between what is or will be versus what should be —would become a dominant trope throughout the remainder of Auden’s days as a political activist. His ambivalence that joining with what he saw to be the winning side of history was also right thing to do proved useful for parodying both himself and others who held, with arrogant certainty, that it was.
The problem was that as the fashionable madmen raised their pedantic, boring cries, what else could a poet do but become engagé—or at least try to? Auden believed that he had a duty “to work in a large body of men, to submerge myself in that mass, seeking neither distinction nor preferment, and in this way to achieve self-discipline, patience and unselfishness.” The problem was that such a commitment to ego-less collective action always met with the same comic result: “I lost what little discipline, patience and unselfishness I possessed.” Donning the wardrobe of Mass Man only made him more unloving of his neighbor.
In 1932, he joined Rupert Doone’s Group Theatre, which wasn’t expressly socialist in outlook (Eliot and Yeats, after all, were part of it), but the experience proved underwhelming. He had a bit more luck in John Grierson’s General Post Office Film Unit, where his first job was to write a poem for Coal Face, a short documentary about the British coal industry, scored by Benjamin Britten. There, Auden put his boyhood infatuation with mining to good use.
The Film Unit had originated with the Empire Marketing Board, a British government agency intended, as its name suggests, to promote the Crown’s imperial commerce. And yet, in marked contrast to most state-funded depictions of the British working class, Grierson’s films never talked down to their subject and were quite moving. What’s more, Auden got his hands dirty in the job, not simply rhapsodizing about manual labor but toting film stock and cables around on set. What he could not stand, ultimately, was the stultifying bureaucracy of the institution. The atmosphere of the Unit, he told his brother, “is exactly like a public school”—forever his and so many other middle-class Englishmen’s symbol for hated authority.
“I so dislike everyday political activities that I won’t do them,” he wrote to family friend E.R. Dodds at this time, “but here is something I can do as a citizen and not as a writer, and as I have no dependents, I feel I ought to go.” He meant to Spain, to join the International Brigades and fight Fascism at first hand.
Yet Auden’s motive in this wasn’t exclusively that of the man of action. He intended to experience devastating civil war and the collapse of European democracy as a reporter whose medium was verse rather than prose. He wanted hard facts and “news,” not impressionistic accounts. “All Cézanne’s apples I would give away, / “For one small Goya or a Daumier,” he’d written in his “Letter to Lord Byron,” recalling Engels’s famous adage about one Balzac being worth a thousand Zolas. And if Auden didn’t have much expectation for himself as a gun-toting slayer of Francoists, the least he could do was serve as an informed tribune of republican Spain’s defenders. “I feel I can speak with authority about la Condition Humaine of only a small class of English intellectuals and professional people and that the time has come to gamble on something bigger,” he wrote to Dodds again, days after his first dispatch announcing his intent to go and fight. “I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?”
Auden arrived in Barcelona in January 1937, then traveled on to Valencia, the seat of loyalist government, where he opted to enlist as an ambulance-driver for the Communist-controlled International Brigades—by no means a safe sinecure in a war zone. Again, he encountered the grinding wheels of bureaucracy and echoes of the hated public-school system. Auden meant to risk his life for the cause; instead, he was given tasks he’d already done—writing propaganda, then broadcasting it to an audience made up entirely of fellow English-speaking volunteers for the various Republican militias, men who needed no more convincing that they were in Spain for the right reasons. He was not in Spain simply to preach to the choir.
After touring the Aragon front for just a few days, Auden quit the country and returned to England, initially remaining silent about his anticlimactic adventure for fear that his disillusionment would only be a boon to Franco. When he did finally speak about his experience, some two months after coming home, he said he still backed the Valencia government because its defeat would only increase the likelihood of continental war and the spread of Fascism to other countries. The only result of that would be the snuffing out of “justice, liberty and culture.”
Auden was endorsing the Negrín government, then largely a satrapy of Moscow, only as a necessary bulwark against something much worse. As he told an interviewer years later: “If the Republic had been victorious, then there would have been reason to speak out about what was wrong with it.” As a lesser-of-two-evils logic, the formulation certainly wasn’t the worst a British Leftist might have come up with at the time or, indeed, did. While the British Communist, and liberal, press peddled wishful nonsense about Spain almost daily, Auden kept his own counsel. Then he produced the best poem ever written about this decisive conflict which raised the curtain on the Second World War.
“Spain” is an attempt at the thematic reconciliation of past and present that Auden made a hallmark of his poetry. In that respect, it ultimately departs from the theological lines of Marxism, which trace yesterday’s “divination of water” through “invention of cartwheels and clocks” to the “struggle” of today, and set a choice for the anxious bourgeoisie to either “build the just city” or opt for “the suicide-pact, the romantic death,” an obvious allusion to Fascist victory. All the human deficiencies of body and mind (fear, greed, the “menacing shapes of our fevers”) apply to the Fascists, too, as Mendelson shrewdly notes, while the benign metaphor of nature applies to the Republicans. This is propagandistic, but that is the point. Auden’s was a paean to a noble cause, not a capitulation to the cynical forces that made it ignoble. “Nobody I know who went to Spain during the Civil War who was not a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist,” he wrote years later, “came back with his illusions intact.” That he was no dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist to begin with makes it unfortunate that the English prose writer with whom he shared more than either man was ever willing to admit was such a bloody-minded antagonist.
Orwell had once called Auden “a sort of gutless Kipling,” then regretted the remark, only to deliver a far more severe judgment in his celebrated essay “Inside the Whale.” As the critic Edmund Wilson had done before him, Orwell accused Auden of arrested development and expressed more than a casual whiff of disgust at his homosexuality. No doubt mindful of his own public school travails, he described the sort of poetry Auden had produced as “a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing,” before taking blunderbuss aim at these two stanzas in “Spain”:
To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
Orwell characterized the last four lines brutally as: “a sort of tabloid picture of a day in the life of a ‘good party man’” and went on:
In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men—I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means—the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the postmortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is “liquidation,” “elimination” or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
This is astoundingly unfair as literary criticism, and borderline idiocy as political critique. To begin with, Auden was not describing the life of a good party man but of a foreign volunteer convinced of the exigency of defeating Fascism, if unaware or oblivious of betrayals that made that endeavor impossible.
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.
On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so cruelly to inventive Europe.
These lines more than adequately identify his subjects, the heroes of the poem, as men rather like Orwell and himself. Orwell’s trajectory was the opposite of Auden’s in Spain. He went there to write about the war; only when he got there had he decided to participate in it because, as he put it in Homage, at “that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” He joined a small revolutionary militia, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), more or less by accident, owing chiefly to its fraternal inks with the Independent Labour Party in Britain, the political group with which he felt most at home and from which he had obtained his letter of introduction to Spanish revolutionaries. Orwell might just as easily have joined the Anarchists (his avowed preference) and did at one point seek to enlist with the International Brigades as a matter of sheer pragmatism: it was the only way he could ever see combat in the central front at Madrid.
What forced Orwell’s rupture with the kind of fellow-travelerism he chides Auden for espousing was the street fighting that broke out in Barcelona in May 1937, between the largest Anarchist militia in the city and the government-run Assault Guards. The POUM was plunged into this mêlée as a third party that took the side of the Anarchists and fortified its headquarters. After the fighting had ended, the Communists blamed everything on the POUM because it was the weakest and most easily cannibalized of the politically heterodox militias. It was branded a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column,” which was no contradiction in terms to the Stalinists, in a carefully choreographed prelude to the NKVD’s wholesale persecution of the party and its members.
Orwell and his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, narrowly escaped being swept up in the dragnet. Records in Spanish archives opened decades later make it clear just how wanted they were by Moscow’s Chekists. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was forged in life-and-death extremity and in the horrifying realization the “thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened.”
Auden didn’t suffer an ounce of what Orwell had in Spain, but it would not be true to say that he didn’t undergo a similar disenchantment, or that he declined to face unpleasant facts. For one thing, he was arrestingly candid about what joining the Republican cause entailed. Not “liquidation” or “elimination,” or some other quaint euphemism; it entailed murder. He came to his own defense, albeit belatedly, of these stanzas. “I was not excusing totalitarian crimes but only trying to say what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist position,” he wrote to American critic and academic Monroe K. Spears, who published this explanation in The Poetry of W.H. Auden in 1963:
(1) To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else. (2) In a war, the members of two rival groups try to murder their opponents. (3) If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.
The didactic clarity of these sentences would have no doubt met with approval from the author of “Politics and the English Language.” In fact, Orwell had written just months after returning from Catalonia that he was still firmly on the Republican side even if the scales had fallen from his eyes about how coopted and corrupted by Stalin’s foreign policy it was. Orwell also took pains to distinguish the Communist leadership, beholden to Moscow, from the rank-and-file soldier whom he’d found admirable, brave, and genuinely committed to winning the war at all costs. These included “the thousands of Communists who died heroically round Madrid”—the very people Auden was writing about. (No less of a grizzled Cold Warrior than John McCain paid much the same compliment in The New York Times to Delmer Berg, a Communist member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American unit within the International Brigades, upon Berg’s death in 2016.)
When the Marxist Romanian writer Panait Istrati was touring the Soviet Union in the late Twenties and inquired about the sacrifices demanded of the people by the dictatorship of the proletariat, he was answered with the barbarous cliché: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” “All right, I can see the broken eggs,” he retorted. “Where’s this omelet of yours?”
Even at his most grandiose or oracular, Auden was never sure there would be an omelet. And even in the best of circumstances, achieving it was by no means as foregone a conclusion as it seemed. “To-morrow, perhaps the future,” he intoned, leaving tentative and hypothetical the egalitarian workers’ state that might redeem so much “necessary” savagery. (In a more sardonic register, mañana, as Orwell took pleasure in observing, was a favorite expression for the Spanish soldier; it represented the ironic hope for what was unlikely to ever arrive, be it a consignment of working rifles or a decisive victory.)
The reality of socialist providence, too, offers both the solemn promises of the future of scientific discovery and “all the fun under / Liberty’s masterful shadow” and a kind of ridiculous liberal kitsch, which Marx and Orwell would have wrinkled their nostrils at: “the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing,” “the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,” “the weeks of perfect communion.” Auden could not help but mock the very thesis he was proposing as he was proposing it.
His unforgivable offense, or so he later came to believe, had been to “equate goodness with success,” that to the victor went the spoils because he deserved them, what he held to be the dire implication of his memorable closing line: “History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help nor pardon.” “It would have been bad enough,” he wrote in 1966, “if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.”
Rhetorically effective though it doubtless is, but inexcusable? This elegiac sign-off carries an alternate meaning, or at least it does to those who invoke it in the present-day. I have seen Syrian revolutionaries nod affirmingly to this threnody precisely because they know they will neither be helped nor pardoned in their defeat.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote Orwell. Not so, answered Auden. “It takes little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ,” he wrote in the prologue to The Dyer’s Hand, the essay collection which explained his entire artistic sensibility and in which he obliquely referenced his decision to repudiate “Spain” before concluding in his own darkly Orwellian terms: “'The unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”
Witnessing the totalitarian mindset in a war zone made him ever more conscious of it in himself. From being the uncertain and wary Tiresias of progressivism, Auden culminated an old-fashioned liberal pragmatist, arguing for the satisfaction of basic human requirements over the pursuit of transformative ideological fantasies. He was fond of Brecht’s utilitarian maxim, “grub first, then ethics,” and by 1950 was citing as the only worthwhile goal of global revolution the enshrinement of the right of everyone to have “food, light, housing, medical attention, and so forth necessary to health.” From No pasaran to “Hands off the NHS” in the space of a mere 13 years.
It is impossible to see Auden’s political dislocation as distinct from his geographical one—his becoming an American or, as he more aptly put it, a New Yorker. It was here that he was able to bury old European fathers: his elegies for Yeats, Freud and Marx were all written in New York within a year of his disembarkation from the French liner that carried him and Isherhood over. It was also here, in 1939, that he finally found a worthy companion and yet another fruitful artistic collaborator in Brooklynite Chester Kallman, not to mention a culture more suited to his tastes:
America has many faults, one of the worst being that Americans always want answers to everything, and when you tell them there aren’t any, are very upset. But when they are in a tough spot they do look forward, unlike the English who the worse things get, the more passionately do they cling to the past. I have almost definitely decided now to become an American citizen.
According to his journal, Auden passed the evening at the Dizzy Club on 52nd Street in Manhattan the day Hitler invaded Poland. Not long after, he recorded that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—which was accompanied by the Stalinist injunction to party members not to criticize collaboration with Nazism even though it represented a shocking about-face of official Communist policy—made any hypothetical alliance between liberals and Reds impossible. Out of this conjuncture was born the poem that, some 60 years later, got faxed around the world after al-Qaeda operatives flew a pair of commercial airliners into two blind skyscrapers.
“September 1, 1939” may be a political or public work in the tradition of “Spain,” but it was also an abandonment of the illusions that characterized the latter, the “clever hopes” that had defined a “low, dishonest decade.” The choice, the poem seems to say, has now seemingly been made in favor of the romantic death and the suicide-pact. We are lost “in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.” Cast aside, too, is the guiding Vision of Agape, which may account for why Auden excised this poem from his corpus. What everyone wants, it turns out, is not “universal love / But to be loved alone.” And yet, we are paradoxically informed in hopeful concluding stanzas, we “must love one another or die” and that “[i]ronic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages.”
“That’s a damned lie!” Auden rebuked himself in 1964, the same year that the “love one another or die” line was crudely pilfered and mangled by Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign team in its apocalyptic “Daisy” television ad. “We must die anyway.” He may not have been optimistic that liberal democracy would survive but, contrary to his most vicious detractors in England who saw him as a fugitive from the very struggle he’d given voice to, he was willing to risk his life on its behalf. After the Wehrmacht rolled into France, Auden contacted the British embassy in Washington, D.C., and offered himself up for “anything” his native country would ask of him. He was turned away, although, according to Mendelson, this act of patriotic volunteerism was unknown to Fleet Street, which savaged him and Isherwood for being comfortably ensconced an ocean away.
He wrote to Stephen Spender in 1941, the only way to defend civilization from Hitler was, “in order of immediate importance, (1) to kill Germans and destroy German property; (2) to prevent as many English lives and as much English property from being killed and destroyed; (3) to create things from houses to poems that are worth preserving; (4) to educate people to understand what civilization really means and involves.” Points three and four might still be classed as ironic points of light flashing out, but one and two strongly suggest, pace Orwell, a jingoistic Kipling with all the guts intact, or someone playing at that role for effect.
Not that it did him much good. In 1942, Auden was called up for the draft, rejecting the advice of friends that he could avoid going to war. This time, however, it was the U.S. Army summoning him, only to reject him for being an obvious homosexual. His service in the Second World War, finally, was after the fact: he was sent to Germany in 1945 as part of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, where he got to see at firsthand what killing as many Germans and destroying as much Germany property as possible had wrought. The survey’s conclusion was that the incineration of entire cities had done little to crush German morale and speed VE Day. Evil was done back to those who had done it first and it had achieved nothing.
Isherwood remarked in 1937 that Auden “enjoyed a high Anglican upbringing, coupled with a sound musical education. The Anglicanism has evaporated, leaving only the height: he is still much preoccupied with ritual, in all its forms. When we collaborate, I have to keep a sharp eye on him—or down flop the characters on their knees.” In fact, the Anglicanism never fully evaporated, as Arthur Kirsch ably demonstrates in Auden and Christianity, although it was sublimated to more temporal concerns. Kirsch retraces the three events which Auden claimed led back into the Church. One had to do with Communism, one with Fascism, and the other with a lover’s betrayal.
The first was in Barcelona where “all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed… I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then?” (Orwell had attested to the fact that churches in Spain had been gutted and burnt down and that this wasn’t simply because many had been used by Fascist garrisons, as many pro-Communist newspapers had falsely claimed: “it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket.”)
The second was “the novelty and shock of the Nazis”—and the horror of seeing the sensual man-in-street submit willingly before an ideology which “made no pretense of believing in justice and liberty for all.” (That Auden was contrasting the naked barbarities of Hitlerism with the closing line of the Pledge of Allegiance, which he got backward, may not have occurred to him at the time but was yet another sign of just how much he’d truly left behind of himself by emigrating to America.) His dread was made palpable in 1939 in a German-language cinema in Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He’d gone to see a comedy, which was shown along with a newsreel, told from the Nazi point of view, about recent events on the continent. Quite “ordinary, supposedly harmless Germans in the audience were shouting ‘Kill the Poles,’” Auden later recounted. “I wondered then why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”
The third and final lure back to Anglicanism was a violent response to erotic betrayal. He came “to know in person,” as he put it, “what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and the Christian sense, stripped of self-control and self-respect, behaving like a ham actor in a Strindberg play.” The much-younger and more promiscuous Kallman had cheated on him and Auden halfheartedly tired to strangle him as he slept. Kallman simply brushed Auden’s hands away. The quiet authoritarian lover from “Lay your sleeping head, my love” had now graduated into attempted murderer and the realization that he might violate his guiding principle to never do physical harm to another human being lingered on well after the adrenaline and embarrassment of that feeble gesture had worn off.
Auden’s Christianity was heavily influenced by two radical Protestant theologians who found much to recommend in Marx’s anatomy of social injustice: Reinhold Niebuhr, who has since been lionized by every liberal and conservative establishment American figure from Barack Obama to James Comey, but was then one of the founders of the Fellowship of Christian Socialists; and Paul Tillich, who emphasized man’s private relationship with God, as well as what might be called a materialist conception of spirituality. The “fundamental Protestant attitude,” Tillich had written in his book The Interpretation of History, “is to stand in nature taking upon oneself the inevitably reality; not to flee from it, either into the world of ideal forms or into the related world of supernature, but to make decisions in concrete reality.”
Auden thought so, too. He believed that loving God was coterminous with being happy, a condition he had sought in vain to achieve through secular politics in the previous decade. Happiness, as he understood it, was the “eternal duty” to which “all considerations of pleasure and pain are subordinate.” But this could only be achieved by paying honest attention to the present, what one encountered every day in a fallen world. Auden had come to distrust Utopians, those who, whether residing in Berlin or Moscow or London, would happily wade through rivers of blood to reach their New Jerusalem. But he also came to distrust Arcadians, the more mild-mannered aesthetes who preferred art and beauty to living human beings and sought retreat into the distant past in search of an Eden which never existed. The Utopian causes immense suffering by trying to reinvent a fallen world into something it cannot be: perfection. This is how we wind up with gas chambers and gulags. The Arcadian, however, exacerbates suffering by being indifferent to it. This is how we wind up walking past the starving child lying in our path in the street, or:
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Auden saw something of the Arcadian in himself and was wary of allowing it to get the better of his moral judgment. He defined prayer not as the petitioning of God for something one wants but as paying attention or listening to “someone or something other than oneself”—a higher form of journalism, one might say. He didn’t hold with the concept of Hell because he couldn’t stomach a place where endless torture was meted out by a malevolent and all-powerful being. Earth had had its fill of them already.
The great French philosopher Raymond Aron once described Marxism as a “Christian heresy.” For Auden it might have worked the other way around. His rediscovered Christianity represented a schismatic break from his youthful attachment to Marxism, although, because Auden never did anything in so direct or predictable a manner, this conversion did not proceed along the trajectory it was supposed to.
In “Inside the Whale,” Orwell made the salient point that talented writers in the Twenties were drawn to the Roman Catholicism for more or less the same reason writers in the Thirties were drawn to the Communist Party: “It was simply something to believe in.” Both had powerful and international organizations behind them enforcing strict disciple in their followers. Both trafficked in huge imagos: Moscow and Rome; Stalin and God; Hitler and the Devil, and so on. The English intellectuals of the Thirties, Orwell wrote, were deracinated patriots who “can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.” This memorable animadversion on leftist orthodoxy immediately preceded the one on Auden and “Spain.”
One way of translating agape is as “charity.” And so, when it came time to write about his near contemporary and most stinging antagonist, Auden was an exemplar of his own standard for virtuous conduct. “If I were asked to name people whom I considered true Christians,” he wrote in 1971, two years before he would die in his in sleep in hotel in Vienna, “the name George Orwell is one of the first that would come to my mind.” He cited two examples from Orwell’s collected prose and correspondence, which he was just then reviewing for The Spectator, to justify this appraisal. Both concerned the treatment of political enemies. One was Orwell’s refusal, as he recounted in Homage to Catalonia, to shoot at a Francoist soldier pathetically running out of the privy, holding up his trousers. Such a person, he observed, isn’t a “‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow creature similar to yourself.” The other example was Orwell’s insistence that Hitler and Mussolini should not be put to death or, if they must be killed, then it should be “in some hurried unspectacular way,” sparing them (and ourselves) the spectacle of a “solemn hypocritical trial of war criminals.”
This was a very fine tribute, one echoing what Lionel Trilling also memorably came to appreciate about Orwell. He must “sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage,” Trilling wrote in an introduction to Homage to Catalonia. “He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues.” Auden shared in the belief that traditional values were not necessarily hindrances to the creation of a more just society. They were advantages. He could also be just as incisive about the hypocrisies of his own side, deploying the épater style against his outspoken progressive intellectuals in 1965 at the start of the American antiwar movement. He called himself “the only New York intellectual who supports President Johnson on Vietnam.” This was half-true, but not right. America’s disastrous involvement in Indochina simply dredged up all of his lost illusions about Spain and he wrote perceptively about the side many of his own herd were championing:
“My complaint about our liberal left is that they are not frank enough about what will happen if and when we go. I have myself no doubt whatever that in a short time the Communists will take over South Vietnam. Disgusting as I find our intervention and unpleasant as I think the Saigon regime, I do not think the North Vietnamese are angels of sweetness and light, who care passionately about saving human lives. We ought in the U.S. to be demanding a relaxation of our Immigration laws and other measures, so that those who want to get out of S. Vietnam can.”
That last comment was no mere throwaway plea. Auden was forever concerned with the plight of refugees and the displaced, whether they were fleeing Hitler, Franco, Stalin or the general carnage of postwar Europe. Democratic nations always turned them away for the same reason—and still do:
“Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.”
“Vietnam is ghastly,” Auden wrote Dodds in 1968, adding that he’d vote for Rockefeller for president if the Republican were nominated, seeing the choice between Johnson and Nixon as no choice at all. He by now described himself as no more politically astute than the average reader of The New York Times, praised the benefits of marriage, which he’d once seen his relationship with Kallman as approximating, and argued that the “integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions” than by appeals to his wallet. The poetic imagination, he insisted in yet another variation of his long-running rejection of Shelley’s maxim, is “not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.”
Maybe, but he never entirely gave up his poetic engagement with History. When the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, early in 1968, Auden took the image of an “ogre” to represent the Soviet Army, stalking a subjugated plane but unable to speak plainly or intelligibly—similar to the indictment he’d leveled against the Marxian dialectic in 1940. And when it came to his defense of the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who thought that Auden’s was the “greatest mind of the twentieth century,” he made himself a one-man UNWRA for the exiled Russian.
By the early Sixties, Auden had taken to insisting that racial equality was the “only one genuine world-wide revolutionary issue,” possibly forgetting his injunction in the previous decade that it was the elimination of hunger, poverty and sickness, or perhaps now subordinating it to the civil rights movement. Was this yet a further sign of his creeping Americanization? If so, he wasn’t willing to pick up his lyre for Selma or King, perhaps judging this epoch the inheritance of a younger generation of poets who could do so better than he. Of limestone, the moonshot, and an aging body, the sexagenarian sang, remarking somewhat hopefully of a culture just discovering his poems from the Thirties—one of “buttons and beards and Be-ins”—that he might yet find common ground with it.
A number of Sixties radicals were certainly inspired and guided by him. He mentored the English poet James Fenton, who has scarcely avoided comparison with his predecessor in the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry. Fenton was present at the fall of Saigon in 1975, as a foreign correspondent riding into the city aboard a Viet Cong tank, belonged to the same Trotskyist faction as his New Statesman colleague Christopher Hitchens, who recruited him and who went to his grave being able to recite all of “September 1, 1939” word-perfectly.
Yet as against such reverent discipleship, not everyone who came across Auden in his declining years was nearly so impressed. “I doubt if he respects his own feelings anymore,” Allen Ginsberg acidly wrote to his father in 1957, after a drunken quarrel with Auden on the Italian island of Ischia, where the elder poet then spent his summers. They’d been debating the merits of Walt Whitman, whom Auden thought overrated and Ginsberg idolized. “I think his long sexual history has been relatively unfortunate and made him very orthodox and conservative and merciless in an offhand way—he sounds like an intelligent Time magazine talking… It all boils down to some sort of reactionary mystique of original sin. Auden is a great poet but he seems old in vain if he’s learned no wildness from life—sort of a Wordsworthian camp.”
His principal defect, as Larkin had concluded in that 1960 critique, was that he had gone from being a writer to being a reader and he had replaced in his verses the raw material of human experience with the high-mindedness of literature. Was this growing old in vain, or the wisdom of an old man who’d grown tired of experiencing so much of the 20th century? By Larkin and Ginsberg’s lights, Auden had become the Arcadian he so mistrusted.
If that held true for much of the poems, it did not apply to the life of the poet. About suffering, Auden was never indifferent. His acts of personal kindness went unpublicized until well after his death. Whether it was aiding a fellow parishioner at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, or financing medical procedures for those too poor to afford them, the man who invented his poetic language but set limits on what it could achieve, ultimately hoped to improve a little by living. Portraits of the artist as an old man show a face as furrowed as the North English countryside he loved, hair an uncombed or sweaty mess, a suit worn like a pile of old laundry. A mephitis of alcohol and tobacco smoke surrounded him wherever he went and he lived like a pauper and often behaved like a holy fool: “Time and again, when to all appearances he could not cope anymore,” a friend recalled, “when his slum apartment was so cold that the water no longer functioned…when his suit…was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom, in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to kind of intone an utterly idiosyncratic, absurdly eccentric version of ‘count your blessings.’”
That friend was Hannah Arendt, whom he revered and even embarrassingly proposed marriage to after the death of her husband in 1970. Three years later, he dedicated his final book, Forewords and Afterwards, a collection of essays and reviews, to her. In hindsight, theirs seems an overdetermined friendship. In 1939, when the future author of Eichmann in Jerusalem was in a state of perilous exile in France, the English exile in New York had already contrived of a serviceable definition of evil: “Not universal love, / But to be loved alone.” And this metaphysical concept was not something possessed exclusively by world-historical monsters; it belonged to all men:
Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day,
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults…
And every time they meet the same thing happens;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.