W. H. Auden is still best known for the poetry he wrote in the 1930s, which captured the spirit of an anxious age. But his later poems are unsettling in their own way too, if you know where to look.
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).
But 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. 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.
Rather, 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 unsettle you. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that sense of unease (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 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 doubt 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 as well. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The doubt, 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. 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 but different?). 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.
 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.
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.