Tag Archives: auden

Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures given while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on ‘clarity and obscurity’, the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here).

After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for written intros, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the modern tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – is an attempt by poets to recreate the kind of enigma which form previously provided.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the examples of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only someone ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all.

What, Armitage asks, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information? And what does that say about our responsibilities as readers?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, one of my favourite poems full stop, describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image.

That image, The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

I think the questions Armitage is raising are important ones, although, like him, I am not clear about the answers. There are no universal references, but poetry cannot be a private language.

I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that), or find a reproduction.


NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms and so, rightly, is criticism.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden), poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

It is an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.

On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)

Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.


1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.


NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.

The Uncomfortable Beach Chair – W. H. Auden’s ‘Their Lonely Betters’

There is a game which critics like to play where they trace the career of a poet and try to track the ways in which what they wrote changed over time, what those turning points say about the poet, their poems, and the times they were living in.

Like all good games, this one is endless. There are as many answers as there are people; there is always a different position to take about what the change was, or how it happened, or what ‘version’ of a poet is best. Or, like Philip Larkin did, you can pretend you are above the game by saying you don’t believe that poets ‘develop’ at all.

W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden had a long career. In the 1930s he was the most famous young poet of his generation in England. When he died in 1973, he was living in Austria, having left England for America just before the Second World War.

Auden is a perfect subject for the game, in two ways. He captured something in the atmosphere in the thirties in a way no other poet did, the connection between private anxiety and public foreboding, the emotions of ‘dread, guilt, disaster or disease’ which have made so many people compare then to now. But his career also has an obvious ‘turning point’ to get the game started: when the war that his poems had done so much to presage broke out, his poems changed.

John Sutherland says that Auden has two identities. On the one hand, ‘he is… the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century,’ and, on the other, he is ‘a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character’. Larkin, writing as a young-ish man in 1955, was less charitable: Auden’s later poems too often seemed to be written ‘by someone no longer capable of strong feeling, or of conveying strong feeling in poetry, or of thinking it matters whether it is conveyed or not’.

Larkin played the ‘development’ game like a master, even as he professed his own disbelief in it. He even had an answer (‘no more than a hint’) as to why this had happened: ‘[Auden’s] decline as a poet dates from the time he cut himself off from… the insecurity that England represented’. He praises the old Auden’s ability to find, amongst that insecurity, ‘images, rhythms and phrases that completely won the reader’s confidence, no matter how little was otherwise conceded’ (those readers included Larkin, whose schoolboy poems were largely attempts to copy him).

Auden scared himself with his own precocious powers of persuasion. Later, he scrupulously revised poems to edit out, or supress entirely, moments where he thought that he had been too breezy about politics, or too certain about the truth.[1] Auden’s ability to express ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was always about more than his ability to convince, or the way in which he reflected specific responses to a specific time and place. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted.

What counted was Auden’s feeling for the feeling of unease. On the one hand, he could create suspense in all the ways Larkin admired about the early poems: by being elliptical, alluding to warfare, or espionage, or actual disease, and writing in a way which makes you feel like he is leading you on a secret mission, though you have no idea what the object is, only that it probably isn’t good (‘Control of the passes, was he, saw, the key’). Auden also played against expectations by using familiar forms in unfamiliar ways, particularly the creepy bastardisations of nursery rhymes and ballads that lull the reader into thinking something innocent is going on, before pulling the rug from under you.

Auden’s consistency was in effect, not form, or even tone: he is trying to make you feel uncomfortable. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that ability to unsettle (follow the link to read the full poem). Auden starts with a simple image of himself doing what the lucky have been doing a lot of recently: sitting in his garden, listening to the birds.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, but we are prepared for a kind of argument. Perhaps it is God withholding words from the vegetables and the birds: Auden had ‘reconverted’ to Anglicanism at this point. In any case, the argument appears perfectly legible whether you believe in a creator or not. It is the difference between humans and nature. He continues:

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,

And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

In ‘only proper’ and ‘Robin-Anthem’ already you can see the extension of that ‘garrulous, ingenious, playful-sentimental’ and ultimately going-nowhere tone of voice which convinced Larkin these later poems were devoid of feeling. The tone extends into the third stanza, which lays out the argument even clearer: ‘Not one of them was capable of lying’. This is all done in such perfect, almost too perfect rhymes, and a simple, lightly skipping rhythm: the first line or two of each stanza have an extra syllable, running down to the end, but the rest are regular. 

Something changes, however in the final stanza, and when it does, it changes the whole poem. First, there is the brilliance of the first line. It wakes you up.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

With its rolling ‘l’s, the line leaps off the tongue. That skipping, extra syllable suddenly sounds a lot more serious, an incantation rather than a going-through-the-motions. The line seems to sum up the argument so far: able to speak, people are ‘better’ than nature, but they are lonely, divorced from its certainty and happy ignorance.

The next line then seems to back this up, by letting us see the loneliness which language entails: ‘who count some days and long for certain letters’. The natural thing to expect is ‘count the days’. If someone is expecting something, we don’t usually talk about counting individual days. Or Does Auden mean that for some people, only some days ‘count’?

It’s not clear. The uncertainty stops you in your tracks. We have been stopped twice, in fact, first by the clarity of the first the line, then by the uncertainty of the second. The l in ‘long for certain letters’ picks up the speed and the skippishness of the line before, but only partly, so we also have a further sense of falling, and that sense is compounded by the early break in the third line: ‘we, too’.

It is a break in sense, too. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The uncertainty which was first introduced by the word ‘some’ has been there all along.

There is a kind of mirroring between the helplessness of the person waiting for ‘certain letters’ and the flowers in the second stanza who are waiting for the bees to decide who they can ‘mate’ with.[2] It is not so much the sadness of being separated from nature that Auden is drawing out (which is, after all, not so sad — how could we be anything other?).

Dependent, as we are, on language, we are vulnerable to one another, and Auden is writing about that vulnerability, the loneliness and uncertainty which is a part of being human, of being loved and unloved, and doing so in ways which, Auden feels, we cannot control. Despite the certain-sounding rhymes of ‘weep’ and ‘keep’ (they end in consonants) the final lines land as a question, almost an accusation.

Until I wrote this thought I agreed with Larkin about Auden’s ‘development’. But there is ‘strong feeling’ here: the feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps Auden isn’t sitting so comfortably in his beach-chair after all. 


[1] This included the astonishing poem ‘Spain’, with its reference to ‘necessary murder’ in defence of the Spanish Republic (George Orwell objected), as well as another now totemic poem, ‘September 1, 1939’, where Auden changed the final line ‘we must love one another or die’ to ‘we must love one another and die’.

Larkin inherited this uncertainty. Just a year after he criticised Auden’s later work, he would write his own confident-sounding last line about love in ‘An Arundel Tomb’: ‘what will survive of us is love’. He, too, thought it too confident. It is the same line.

[2] I have stolen this point about the birds and the bees from John Sutherland’s article.

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.