With the publication of volumes V and VI, the Princeton edition of W.H. Auden’s collected prose is complete in almost 5,000 pages, covering over 45 years of a writing life. These final volumes cover the last ten years of Auden’s life, from 1963 to 1973. They are handsomely presented, and the helpful introductions and notes by the editor, Auden’s literary executor, form a kind of skeletal literary biography.
There’s a case for considering Auden to have been the last of a now-vanished breed, the man of letters. His name was familiar in every literate household, and even people with little interest in contemporary writing had heard of him. This was an outcome he planned while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, where he became known as a young man who liked to lay down the law. As his friend Stephen Spender tells us, a student who wished to meet Auden had to make an appointment. He would then find himself being interviewed, because even then Auden was putting together a like-minded group with a view to taking over the artistic scene in London—which, after graduating with a third-class degree and a mind well-primed with Freud and Marx, is exactly what this extraordinary young man did. His name quickly became an adjective, Audenesque.
Then, when he and his friend Christopher Isherwood left England for America in early 1939 on the cusp of World War II, thus earning themselves everlasting obloquy in some circles in England, he turned his back—as we can now see—on the whole Marxist-leftist basis of his dominating position among English poets in the 1930’s. Soon after arriving in America he began to be ashamed of what he realized had been insincere political posturing, and he decided that poets had no business dabbling in politics if only because, as he wrote in his elegy for W.B. Yeats, “poetry makes nothing happen”; or, as he puts it in one of these later pieces,
The world about us is full of gross evils and great misery by which any decent person is appalled; but it is a fatal delusion and a shocking over-estimation of the importance of the artist in the world to suppose that by making works of art we can do anything to eradicate the one or alleviate the other. The political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Titian, Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven, et al. had never existed.
Then in 1940, watching a German film on the invasion of Poland, he received a shock that upended his whole view of things when some German members of the audience began to shout, “Kill them! Kill them!” In that moment he understood that the premise of liberalism, that people are fundamentally good, and therefore perfectible, was a delusion. Very soon he was thinking that only religion could ex- plain and treat the mystery of evil. He began reading religious writers, and made his way back to the Anglican Church of his childhood. At Mount Holyoke, where he taught briefly in 1950, one could track his reading of writers such as Chesterton, Kierkegaard, and Charles Williams by his signatures on the old library cards.
This is why the Auden one encounters in these late prose pieces is a surprisingly conservative, disenchanted realist, convinced that our civilization has taken a wrong turning, with very little likelihood of ever finding its way back. As he wrote in the conclusion of a commissioned essay on the fall of Rome that Henry Luce could not bring himself to print,
I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labeled capitalist, socialist, or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.
Toward the end of his life, in 1970, he put it even more strongly:
Everyone today will agree that the world we have fabricated during the last two hundred years is hideous compared with any fabricated in earlier times. And no one, I think, believes anymore in the liberal dogma of Progress; namely, that all change must be for the better. On the contrary, most of us, both old and young, are terrified of what the future may bring.
As one wonders about that emphatic “Everyone,” one also remembers that, old or young, throughout his life, Auden liked to speak his mind, something he does continually, often entertainingly, in these essays ranging over an extraordinarily wide range of subject matter. “Only bores study sociology,” he declares in a piece on Wilde’s criticism, and in a note on “Liturgy, Reform of” in his autobiographical “commonplace book,” A Certain World, he remarks that, while the Catholics “have made a cacophonous horror of the Mass,” his Anglican coreligionists seem “to have gone stark raving mad”—and those are only three of the bracing remarks to be found in these volumes.
As the son of a physician, Auden was intensely proud, too, of being able to claim membership of the professional middle class. To the end of his life, whatever the vagaries of his private life, he kept up his middle-class habits of working hard and paying his bills on time, and he enjoyed writing about Edmund Wilson as a fellow middle-class man.
One of the great privileges accompanying middle-class status in Auden’s England, as in contemporary America, was that insofar as a good education was available, invariably one was provided. Auden’s family sent him to prep school, public school, and Oxford, thus enrolling him in a tiny elite minority of English children. Nonetheless, reading these lively, interesting, wide-ranging essays brings home the huge, unacknowledged fact about modern education, that no matter who provides it, or where, it teaches very little worth knowing.
For the older Auden, the most important subjects were literature, history, and religion, and it becomes increasingly obvious as one reads that he was self-taught in all three. This is not surprising. Like Auden, I attended school prayers, beautifully sung, every day of my life for years, but I learned nothing about religion. In the sixth form it dawned on me that the history I was reading was rubbish, and as for literature, it took an enterprising young French master to tell us we were little barbarians because we had not so much as even heard of T.S. Eliot.
For all of us, one deadly effect of modern education has been eccentricity and susceptibility to intellectual quackery. Like thousands of others, Auden fell for Marx and Freud, the two great quacks of modern times, and though he recovered from that infection, he was not entirely immune to bizarre ideas. His father convinced him, mistakenly, that their family name was Icelandic, and that is why Auden liked to tell people he was Nordic. It is also why he liked to dislike Rome, whether imperial Rome or Catholic Rome, and why he refused to believe that England had ever really been a province of the Roman Empire, or a really Catholic country.
As goofy ideas go, that one is fairly harmless, but it got Auden into trouble with Tolkien, whose stories he admired, when he wrote that “The north is a sacred direction to him.” Tolkien—otherwise grateful for Auden’s support—quickly told him that “The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil,” and that The Lord of the Rings ended with something “far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a ‘Nordic.’”
It is enormously creditable to Auden, therefore, and a tribute to his intelligence and humility, that, being a 20th-century writer, he ended as wise and sane as he did. To my taste, the most touching passage of these books comes at the end of a talk given for the BBC in 1966, and expresses a cautious hope that people might begin to recover a sense of phenomena as sacramental signs. He then comments that such a development could only be “based on a conviction that in art and in life, to quote Wittgenstein: ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one, and a condition of the world like logic.’” That is the kind of sentence that should be carved in stone in every city center.
Incidentally, to judge from the many references to this famous quotation now available online, it appears that, first, no one quotes the whole of it, and, second, no one begins to understand it. If logic is “a condition of the world,” as is mathematics, then there is no escaping the inference that such a condition can only be predicated on what we call mind or intelligence. It follows, too, from Wittgenstein’s linking of ethics, aesthetics, and logic that to act illogically, unethically, and unaesthetically are very dangerous things to do because they deny the nature of things. Thank you, Auden.
[The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume V, 1963-1968, edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 608 pp., $67.50]
[The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume VI, 1969-1973, edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 808 pp., $67.50]