In 1946, a British-born resident of Manhattan, who happened to be one of the major poets of the twentieth century, came to the New School to give a series of lectures on Shakespeare. The lecture series proved tremendously popular. Several people took such obsessive notes that the lectures could later be re-constructed for publication.
W. H. Auden is the poet in question, and the world's foremost Auden scholar, Edward Mendelson addressed Auden's life and works in his New School poetry forum with David Lehman on November 20. Mendelson, Auden's literary executor and the editor of all standard editions of the poet's work, has expressed the view that Auden was "the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century and the first to understand its special temptations."
A lean figure with reddish hair and a stirring delivery, Mendelson read to us and commented on a series of Auden poems that demonstrated the arc of Auden’s work—a poetics frequently transformed by Auden’s political and ethical concerns. Leaning over the podium, Mendelson remarked that a fundamental aspect of Auden’s work was that he often addressed his reader directly, using the pronoun “you.” This was an inclusive impulse: the reader could be anyone or everyone. Auden did not want to speak from puplit or stage but intimately to an individual person.
Auden was egalitarian when it came to diction. Mendelson and Lehman commented on Auden’s wide-ranging use of styles and vocabulary, from cockney rhyming slang, on one extreme, to well-wrought sestinas on the other. In a low passionate voice, Mendelson read the well-loved ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening” with its opening lines: “As I walked out one evening/ Walking down Bristol Street / The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat.” Auden said profound things in an accessible way. "We all know what happens to harvest wheat," Mendelson said.
In the same poem Auden writes, "You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” This maxim or command forms a beating core to Auden’s artistic project. Auden came to think that the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor had to be heeded although (or possibly because) it is the most unnatural thing in the world. He made this recognition at the time he turned away from Marxism and towards the moral imperatives of Christianity. He switched his belief from huge abstractions (such as History with a capital H) to the existential individual. "History does not have a moral core," as Lehman remarked to Mendelson before the reading.
Mendelson explained a concern for "the other" was integral to much of Auden’s work. Auden illuminates love for the other in what is agruably the most joyful of Auden’s poems, “The Willow That Ran up the Stair.” A poem about a bad poet, it takes the ideological position that lack of literary skill is not the measure of a man's value as a human being. The language of this bad poet may be all wrong, but his ideas are right.
Auden famously revised his view and his poems. His tendency to revise or disown poems that he no longer believed in has caused controversy. The last part of "In Memory of Wiilliam Butler Yeats" is a prime example. Three stanzas were cut. According to these stanzas, time "pardons" writers such as Kipling, Claudel, or Yeats -- writers who articulated the wrong political ideas -- because they wrote well. Auden dropped the stanzas because this struck him as an immoral position.
Mendelson put a different spin on the revision. He said that when Auden wrote the poem -- in early 1939 -- he held that Kipling and Yeats were guilty because of their fascist sympathies. He contended that Auden remained a leftist all his life but that his early stance of condemnation became morally repugnant to him, and that this was why he dropped the three stanzas from his famous elegy for Yeats.
The habit of making changes in his poems can be quite a challenge for the editor, as Lehman pointed out. In the end, Auden’s veering away from his early role as a political poet followed from his feeling that a poet might be the wrong person to act as a political leader.
Auden's own work. separated from his intention, has been used for deceptive political purposes. During the the Q & A section, Lehman recollected Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" re-election commercial -- one of the most famous TV commercials ever shown -- which uses Auden’s line “we must love one another or die” from “September 1, 1939.” The commercial depicted a nuclear war and suggested that Johnson's opponent for president, Barry Goldwater, was a reckless warmonger. The commerical was a chilling misuse of Auden’s words that painted Johnson as a peacemaker. A year later Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam.
There’s a telling anecdote Mendelson related about a letter Auden wrote after an appearance at a political meeting early in his life: “I found I could do it. I could speak at a political meeting and bring everyone to their feet.” Mendelson recounted Auden’s words in a deadpan tone. “It was exciting and degrading. I never want to speak at a political meeting again.” Even in a strictly poetic endeavor -- composing “Sebastian’s Sestina” for The Sea and the Mirror -- Auden vered from orthodoxy. He did not follow the sestina form exactly. According to Mendelson, flipping certain stanzas from their natural order (as Lehman demonstrated in the q & a session) conveyed more efficiently the message of forgiveness central to the sesina, a plea for meaning over aesthetics. Always, what mattered to Auden most—Mendelson brought home to us throughout the evening—was what was psychologically and morally true.
EDWARD MENDELSON is the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden. His Early Auden and Later Auden, among other volumes, can be purchased on Amazon.
-- Nora Robertson