When I read Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times (the Phi Beta Kappa Poem he read at Harvard in 1946) for the first time, my astrological radar detected an Aquarius. Who but the Water Bearer -- also known (according to astrologer Steven Forrest’s list of Aquarian archetypes) as the Genius, the Truth Sayer, the Scientist, the Exile, the Revolutionary -- would write these lines: “Thou shalt not be on friendly terms / With guys in advertising firms, / Nor speak with such / As read the Bible for its prose, / Nor, above all, make love to those / Who wash too much. // Thou shalt not live within thy means / Nor on plain water and raw greens. / If thou must choose / Between the chances, choose the odd: / Read The New Yorker, trust in God; / And take short views.”
Only an Aquarius would have the chutzpah, or, in Auden’s case, the gall, to reveal opinions so conclusive they sound like truth. For an Aquarius is above all a person of strong individuality. An Aquarius speaks his mind without fear of recrimination. Despite pressure to conform, socialize, and be accepted, an Aquarius will choose his own path, remaining loyal to his personal truths. An Aquarius is a maverick. Auden is a maverick. Therefore, Auden is an Aquarius.
You may be thinking: but all poets are mavericks. Well, wasn’t Auden especially so? Doesn’t Auden represent the Truth-Sayer, the Exile, and the Revolutionary? Liberty and freedom of choice are paramount to him. As he wrote in his essay “The American Scene": "liberty cannot be distinguished from license, for freedom of choice is neither good nor bad but the human prerequisite without which virtue and vice have no meaning. Virtue is, of course, preferable to vice, but to choose vice is preferable to having virtue chosen for one.” Auden’s biographer Edward Mendelson wrote, “[Auden] hoped that art could serve persuasion as well as freedom by guiding its readers into making the right free choice instead of the wrong one.” And Marianne Moore has commented, “the thought of choice as compulsory is central to everything [Auden] writes.” So yes, fellow poets and devotees of Auden – what we have here is an Aquarius through and through.
Imagine my dismay when I discovered that our Truth-Sayer, Revolutionary, and Exile all wrapped into one was not technically an Aquarius but a Pisces! The sun rests in Aquarius from January 20 to February 18, throwing Auden in deep water with the other fish. And yet despite the plain facts of the case, I have decided - in true Aquarian spirit - to hold fast to my own personal truth. That’s right. No one could ever confuse Auden for a Pisces, the sign of dreamers and mysticism. In fact, didn’t Auden deplore Yeats for the elder poet’s interest in the magic and the occult? “The deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.” This was a man – and a poet – who told it like it was, in plain talk, or (in Marianne Moore's phrase) “plain American which cats and dogs can read!”
Or – did he? Was Auden as clear as air, or rather, a poet who made much use of irony, a rather more murky enterprise that achieves its means, according to Fowler, through – gasp! – mystification! Oh dear. I’m afraid that my aim – to prove that Auden is an Aquarius – has come undone. Perhaps my reliance on sun signs is flawed. [Right: Auden with his collaborator and fellow traveler Christopher Isherwood.]
Not many essayists disprove their thesis in the middle of an essay and continue writing in an attempt to make amends, but I suppose not many essayists write the words “Aquarius” and “Auden” in the same title line. Maybe it’s just this: I admire the Aquarian traits, and I admire Auden, and I wouldn’t mind having some more of the former, and being more like the latter, and I would foolishly like to think of Auden not as a human being, complex in his beliefs and counterbeliefs and charms and foibles, but as the fulfillment of the archetype of the Trailblazing Poet and Ideas Man. Which he was, undoubtedly - though he was also a devout Christian, raised on Norse mythology, whose “first religious memories [were] of exciting magical rites.”
The problem with archetypes is their one-dimensionality, which I suppose is why we really shouldn’t use the sun sign to define an individual’s personality. If Auden were here today, reading my defense of astrological reasoning, I suspect he would turn that superb one-liner on me: “Sorry, my dear, one mustn’t be bohemian!”