Even with all the rain, last night’s event at the New School was standing room-only. Yet again.
David Lehman presented a lecture on W. H. Auden, giving us in one hour’s time the vital details and contradictions of the poet’s life and work, and addressing such questions as “Can a flawed poem be a great poem?”
By the age of twenty-two, Wystan Hugh Auden was the most prominent poet in England, with a sound more modern than any of the day. For example: “It’s no use raising a shout./No, Honey, you can cut that right out.” And yet, in January of 1939, he left England and moved to New York City. His reason for coming to NYC—not definitively clear: “He’d become accustomed to peregrinating,” David said. Perhaps NYC was the next place on his list. But perhaps, too, Auden desired to be a less-known entity. Or perhaps it was because he fell in love with a young man from Brooklyn named Chester Kallman.
He seems to have been happy in New
York —it certainly was his choice to be here—and yet
he wrote “Refugee Blues” and “The Unknown Citizen,” and he spoke of
loneliness. Perhaps this was a
loneliness that followed him here. David
read a poem that Auden wrote just before his arrival in NY, a poem inspired by
a painting he’d seen in a museum in Brussels. “Pay attention to the adjectives
and adverbs,” David said.
In order of appearance, they are “human, dully, reverently, passionately, miraculous, dreadful, untidy, doggy, innocent, leisurely, forsaken, important, white, expensive, delicate, amazing, calmly.’
The poem is titled “Musee des Beaux Arts” and the painting is Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Without a title placard for this uncanny painting, it’s unlikely that a viewer would know to search for, and find, the very subject of the painting. No clues can be gotten from the gaze of the personages in the foreground, who leisurely turn away from what’s taking place in the horizon—the disaster, the forsaken cry, the unimportant failure of the fallen Icarus.
The poem begins:
suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along”
(David points out that to reverse the inversion in the first two lines to “The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering” would be to lose the eloquence.)
The poem is an example of Auden’s later style—which held more gravitas than his earlier work. It was a style of poetry that was wordy, discursive (too wordy, too discursive, said his critics). You can contrast the style of “Musee des Beaux Arts” with that of the conversational, idiomatic style of William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” written twenty years later and inspired by the same painting. In Williams’s poem, there is only one word that editorializes: “unsignificantly.”
That no one chose to notice the fall of Icarus, that his death made nothing happen, brings us to the famous line that appears in Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats (d. January 1939).”: “For poetry makes nothing happen.”
Yeats died right before Auden came to America, and Auden’s eulogy marks his first American poem. “You were silly like us,” Auden writes at the start of the poem’s second section. Yeats, silly? David explains: “Very esoteric pastimes did Yeats have.”
(Note that to reverse the inversion would be to lose David’s
eloquence: “Yeats had very esoteric pastimes.”)
Auden’s eulogy, David points out, is poised between two contradictions: “And each in the cell of himself is almost/convinced of his freedom” and “In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.” (I wondered if there might be, within these contradictions, a nod to the paradox in Yeat’s poem, “The Balloon of the Mind”: “Hands, do what your bid: /Bring the balloon of the mind/ that bellies and drags in the wind/into its narrow shed.” Here Yeats implies that the mind needs restrictions, not total freedom.)
David then read “September 1, 1939.” This was the poem that began circulating the internet immediately following September 11, 2001, and was excerpted on the subway walls for the Poetry in Motion series so that those who’d had no previous exposure to the poem, were now reading it during their anxious commutes. It seems that we instinctively countered all that was unprecedented with the precedence of poetry.
Some of Auden’s most famous poems were ones that he would later revise and, finally, renounce, “September 1, 1939” being one of these. The couplet at the end of stanza two, “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return,” has been criticized for implying a justification for Germany's behavior in the wake of the Versailles Treaty.
Auden wanted to cut the second to last stanza. He called it
“intellectually dishonest,” but before finally renouncing the entire stanza, he
revised the last line, a line that he felt was false, and a line that David
says is rhetorically the strongest in the entire poem.
The line: “We must love one another or die.”
Auden’s revision: “We must love one another and die.” (Emphasis is mine).
This version, David says, weakens the polemical effect. Imagine if Patrick Henry had said not: “Give me liberty or give me death” but “Give me liberty and give me death.” Brodsky’s take on the line was: “We must love one another or kill.”
When David has his Oulipo on, he likes to tag on a ‘t’: “We must love one another or diet."
David made the decision to include all of the original
stanzas of “September 1, 1939” in The
Oxford Book of American Poetry because, he says, the inclusion dramatizes
an issue that should not be neglected: Does the greatness of art excuse its
P.S. (Auden-unrelated) I often hear people talk about what a brain and a wit and a gentleman and a true scholar David is, but I don’t hear enough about the way he dresses. Last night he lectured in a shirt, tie, and jacket ensemble that, with its deep tones of blue accented with amber, had an alchemy that was so very easy on the eyes and made his face glow. Wear it again, David.