Summing Up Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden’s relevance today is based largely on the prescience of his works. For instance, for all the fuss over obscenity in this country, Auden wisely reminds us, in his Letter to Lord Byron, that “the pious fable and the dirty story/Share in the total literary glory.” Our administrators could also do well to recall his tongue-in-cheek paean to the independence of educational institutions, Under Which Lyre, delivered the year Harvard controversially invited the director of the American federal office of censorship to speak at its commencement. Auden nails the ‘official types’ we are so used to, with the lines “And when he occupies a college/Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge” and finishes with this priceless advice to students:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

There are two ways to not approach the life and works of WH Auden. One of them is by believing the tripe about his being a ‘left wing revolutionary poet’ – a mischaracterization if ever there was one. Although some of Auden’s most famous poetry is in the ‘revolutionary’ mould – like September 1, 1939 and Spain 1937 – most of his work is devoid of the adrenalin rush of those poems. The other is by seeing everything he did through the prism of his identity: Englishman, Englishman in America, Englishman in New York City, homosexual, etc.

If I had to take a shot at unfairly summing Auden up, I would point to his strongly held belief in the biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Auden was totally convinced of the rightness of this commandment, and even dedicated a poem, A Summer Night, to the moment in 1933 when he felt the existence of the persons around him to be of “infinite value” and “rejoiced in it”. People were to be accepted and loved despite their imperfections. Read Auden knowing this one fact and at the very least you will know why, in the second stanza of September 1, 1939, he is even able to forgive Hitler (“I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return”). His famous line “If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me” springs from the same belief. So too his many real life kindnesses and spontaneous acts of charity, including marrying Erika, the daughter of Thomas Mann, when the Nazis were about to revoke her German citizenship, so that she could get British citizenship (the two were hardly in touch for the rest of their lives, but never divorced).

The sheer range of subjects dealt with in Auden’s poetry indicates a deeper love for life itself, and the wonder of it all. There is Auden the politician, Auden the art critic, Auden the romantic and (most memorably for me) Auden the lover of science. The synthesis of these personas with Auden the Poet, the Master, the man who lived on a street in Austria called ‘Audenstrasse’, resulted in poems like In Praise of Limestone and After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics. It also produced lines of spellbinding beauty like:

And make us as Newton was, who in his garden watching
The apple falling towards England, became aware
Between himself and her of an eternal tie.

When asked about teaching writing, Auden tellingly remarked, “If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different – natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things.”

This ability of Auden to meld varied topics like history, tragedy and everyday life did not miss the horror of Indian partition. His poem Partition is one of the true masterpieces to come out of that catastrophe, in a set with Margaret Bourke-White’s haunting black and white photographs. The poem uses the impossible brief given to Sir Cyril Radcliffe – to draw up the boundaries between the new nations of India and Pakistan – to comment on the insanity and desperation of the entire blood-drenched nightmare:

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas.

Christopher Hitchens uses this poem to devastating effect as a framework for his outstanding essay The Perils of Partition.

The other salient ‘India’ reference in Auden’s works is a picturesque mention of the Brahmaputra river (or ‘Brahma’s son’, as he calls it), in Streams, an ode to water:

Growth cannot add to your song: as unchristened brooks
Already you whisper to ants what, as Brahma’s son
Descending his titanic staircase
Into Assam, to Himalayan bears you thunder.

Does it matter that he was gay? I think it does, only because his published work is so devoid of any indication of his orientation (an exception is a gentle hint in Funeral Blues). My theory is that the repressed, depressing decades that Auden lived in are to be blamed for this whitewashing of his human desires. The unrestrained ardour of the meant-to-remain-unpublished The Platonic Blow confirms this view. (If curiosity gets the better of you and you Google the poem, remember – like Mark Twain’s hilarious lecture on self-gratification, ‘The Science of Onanism’ – it was meant for a private audience.)
Auden believed that the purpose of art is to “disenchant and disintoxicate”. He also famously declared that “poetry makes nothing happen” (In Memory of WB Yeats). I think he was wrong about both. Auden’s poetry can be at once enchanting and intoxicating. As for whether it can make things ‘happen’ to you, decide for yourself after reading these lines:

Appearing unannounced, the moon
Avoids a mountain’s jagged prongs
And sweeps into the open sky
Like one who knows where she belongs.

– Aditya Bapat

aditya head shotAditya is a lawyer practicing in the Bombay High Court. He holds degrees in law from Columbia University and the University of Pune. While at Columbia, he studied Argumentative Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. Aditya has also worked as a research assistant on the upcoming third edition of ‘Datar on Constitution’ a leading commentary on the Constitution of India.

Nityaasha Foundation