Auden at 100

We’ve been quietly obsessed here at 3QD as today, Wystan Hugh Auden’s centenary, approached. In the NY Sun:


For most writers, their 100th anniversary looms like a final exam proctored by posterity. A writer who is still being read 100 years after he was born, which usually means at least 50 years after he wrote his major works, will probably keep being read into the future. But for W.H. Auden, who was born 100 years ago today, the century mark feels less like a trial than a celebration. (In fact, it is being celebrated with readings around the country, including one at the 92nd Street Y on March 5.) For when Auden died, in 1973, his immortality was already secure.

Maybe even his friends at Oxford, reading the manuscripts of his very first poems in the late 1920s, guessed that the world would not, could not, forget Auden’s voice:

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,

Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:

This land, cut off, will not communicate,

Be no accessory content to one

Aimless for faces rather there than here

In these lines — written in August 1927, when the poet was just 20 years old — we can already hear the tones and strategies of Auden’s first major poems. Here are the confidently mysterious addresses; the anxiety of a generation grown up between two wars; the circumambient blight that seems to attack society, industry, and the soil; even the knotted grammar, which seems to withhold its meanings like a message in a dream, or a secret code. No poet ever sounded like the early Auden, though he spawned a school of imitators. The mere fact that Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis knew Auden, and presumably were in on the secret of his sibylline verse, helped to cement their places in literary history.

The extraordinary public interest in Auden that marked his career from the beginning, and helped make him an icon of the 1930s, was more than simply admiration for a greatly talented poet. Rather, there was a general impression, in England and then in America, that Auden had been chosen by History to receive its secret messages. If his verse was obscure, with its bent grammar and dropped pronouns and private allegories, that very obscurity made it sound exceptionally urgent. He was a radio playing bulletins from the future, and if the language of those bulletins was foreign, their accent was unmistakably dire. Most of his unforgettable lines, in the first six or seven years of his career, take the form of threats and rumors: “It is time for the destruction of error”; “Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys”; “The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.”

All of these lines were written before the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism. But they show that the 1930s — which Auden was later to name “a low, dishonest decade” — had already found their best interpreter.

This modest, wartime Auden poem seems fitting for the occassion (in Edward Mendelson, ed., The English Auden):

He watched the stars and noted birds in flight

The rivers flooded or the Empire fell:

He made predictions and was sometimes right;

His lucky guesses were rewarded well.

And fell in love with Truth before he knew her,

And rode into imaginary lands,

With solitude and fasting hoped to woo her,

And mocked those who served her with their hands.

But her he never wanted to despise,

But listened always for her voice; and when

She beckoned to him, he obeyed in meekness,

And followed her and looked into her eyes;

Saw there reflected every human weakness,

And saw himself as one of many.