After 1940, Auden’s poetry became more conceptual and less inspired. Nevertheless, he still wrote great poems. ‘If I Could Tell You’ is, in my view, one of the finest villanelles in the language, while ‘August 1968’ (on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) is political poetry at its most effective. Only eight lines long, it is especially notable for the way its wonderful final line restores the word ‘drivel’ to its original meaning – such that it both describes and denounces:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Perhaps it is how we choose to quote Auden that gives us a clue as to the nature of his greatness. Larkin once said that ‘This Be The Verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’) would end up being his ‘Innisfree’ – the mediocre poem everyone remembers. Notwithstanding ‘Funeral Blues’ (popularised by Four Weddings and a Funeral), Auden has suffered no such fate…