Michael Wood on The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62 (edited by Edward Mendelson):
In a poem from the early 1960s, ‘On the Circuit’, W.H. Auden describes himself as ‘a sulky fifty-six’, who finds ‘A change of meal-time utter hell’, and has ‘Grown far too crotchety to like/A luxury hotel’. There is plenty of self-parody in this picture – a little later in the poem he identifies his worry about where the next drink is coming from as ‘grahamgreeneish’ – but this was a time when Auden was rearranging his sense of himself and of his world. Comedy was one sort of arrangement, and an important feature of his view of life; but he was seriously ‘unsettled’, as Edward Mendelson says, and had acquired ‘a profound new sense of menace and dread’.
He had become professor of poetry at Oxford in 1956, although he was still mainly living in New York, and in 1958 he had shifted his summer residence from Ischia to a small town near Vienna, taking leave thereby, he said, of all kinds of fantasies he now felt too old for. Mendelson wonders whether one of Auden’s reasons for moving to Austria, although ‘perhaps too deep to have been conscious’, might have been ‘his wish to live in a culture that … could not escape from its awareness of its own guilt’. This is a plausible thought and, even if not true psychologically, would still work as the kind of parable that Auden, in his prose even more than in his poetry, teaches us how to read. Like other northerners, he had, he suggests in the poem ‘Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno’, brought questions about change to an unchanging Italian place, ‘hoping to twig from/What we are not what we might be next’, and he needed to take off before the south became a habit:
If we try
To ‘go southern’, we spoil in no time, we grow
Flabby, dingily lecherous, and
Forget to pay bills
Still, he will ‘go grateful’, he says, glad
To bless this region, its vendages, and those
Who call it home: though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.
It is part of the same change that he now wishes to pay homage not to ‘Provocative Aphrodite’ or ‘Virago Artemis’, for all their powers over the world of nature and desire, but to a quieter, more discriminating classical figure, Clio, the Muse of History. In the world of those major goddesses it is ‘As though no one dies in particular/And gossip were never true’. Clio by contrast is
Muse of Time, but for whose merciful silence
Only the first step would count and that
Would always be murder.
She is to ‘forgive our noises/And teach us our recollections’, and Auden reminds us that poetry has no special place in her attention:
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them,
Nor can I see a reason why you should.
This last stanza offers us a bit of that humility that Auden was often tempted to overdo, but it also chimes with a recurring trope in modern literature in English. Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine.