From New International, Vol.1 No.5, December 1934, pp.139-140.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
by Stephen Spender
New York, Random House. $1.50
by W.H. Auden
New York, Random House. $2.50.
The process of evaluating “culture” goes on. The slightly tarnished literary journals participate: to keep a section of their audience, they must keep abreast of the times, even if only for academic reasons. The Arts, suffering from the overdose of prosperity, are now showing signs of social virility, though the past still weighs them down. Otherwise, why the confusion, the sudden jerks and lightning twists back to Surrealisme? After the war, the Era of Schools began! Dadaism, Modernism, Vorticism, Cubism, Imagism: these have now more or less succumbed to the pens of literary historians. And poetry, which has been a dead dog in this country for some years, has with the arrival of Spender and Auden, caused the cultured eyelids to lift a point.
Any important poet writing in the English language cannot help but “spring and feel the influences of the past” – to be at all worth the salt of his pen. The present Mr. Eliot who regales the intellectualized Catholic world and the Church of England with metaphysical pageants, has had a wee bit to say in the moulding of Spender. Spender is an aristocrat of blood and idea, occasionally though the blood clots and his poems, always broad with generalizations and wide concepts, sometimes lack the beauty of intimate feeling which makes for the sensual quality that high poetry should have. His poems are addressed to Buchmanites, Oxonians, to “classical scholars” “who dream of the ghosts of Greek boys” and it is not accidental that his conceptions of communism should have the mirage of a poetic Utopia about them.
Spender sees the hawkeyed aristocracy carefully planning their lives as if the world were “superb of all instinct” – and he dedicates himself to action: “Hands, wings, are found.” But soon after you encounter the oft-familiar mood of Mr. Eliot: “After success, your little afternoon success” etc., the past crawling back! Sometimes pity rather than understanding makes him suspect, and his images – like “builds with red hands his heaven” increases the suspicion of churchliness, mythmaking and ignorance. Those who have died in the war “have learnt a strict philosophy of clay”. All the brutal images of capitalism find their expression in Spender’s sullenness: the unemployed “who stand behind dull cigarettes” “and greet friends with a shrug of the shoulder” – and his participation: “I’m haunted by their emptiness”.
He clips his pictures with scissors and sometimes cuts close to the portrait and disembowels his image, though “The speed-lines of Dictators” gives you a focus so sensitive that you almost sense the motion of your own movement in it. In the poem to Van Der Lubbe, he sets his eyes for gleaming, and they neither blench nor blink, with this result:
“O staring eyes, searchlight disks,
“I’ll throw you these words,
“Yes, no, yes, no,
When the world is too much to bear, Spender retreats: “This century chokes me under roots of night” and “This writing is my only wings away.” The young offspring to the inheritance of a rotting system, in war, will have left, “the vivid air signed with their honor” – an epitaph for slightly too judicial a mind, but savagely biting. In writing about beggars he sweeps along momentarily in the majestic flight of Shelley: “No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament to make them birds upon my singing tree” and in the last line of the book “Death to the killers, bringing light to life.”
When Spender falls flat – and that is often – he then seems to be writing from the frigid insides of his class, though Proust obtained heroic results in bed, with prose, where reflection and disenchantment gave us Swann’s Way. Spender, with less groping and less mystery of ideas, and lesser documentation of slogans, stretched as an elastic, will then produce “that clean sharp stroke” “where the axe goes into living wood”, as a blurb on the bookjacket declaims.
Auden is an intellectual’s poet; and one is slightly awed by his psychomantics. He is an obscurantist with the vague and foggy reaches of his poetry lying out on the moors, or drying in the fogged sun. His images and meanings are clouded in the atmosphere of his methods. From the running lines of the ballad, he jumps into an admixture of Imagism for Tea, and thence back to rigid blank verse entrées for a midnight supper, and finally with the simple radiance of words he crams his overflowing energies and emotions into bald little couplets that result into the hangover of the morning after: like,
“Face that the sun
Auden will start from any one point, and in the midst of his meanderings wander into the class struggle. Often his wanderings take on the gay pictures of an exercize in the gaiety of his intellect. Perhaps the intention is either vulgar or noble, but one cannot help but feel that he is too often a playful schoolmaster concerned with his versicle muscles. In juxtaposition he places the jingling dunce cap on his own head – to complete an act of clownishness begun by his past teachers. And in England there have been many teachers of daring, though in their mental experiments some have gone to the Anglo-Catholic church through the medium of the esoteric publishing house of Faber and Faber, Ltd.
But to give the impression that this alone is Auden would be unfair to him, for despite himself he is rich with poetry. Though diffused in the brackishness of his technique, his singing sometimes sparkles with wit and irony, and makes us sorry that E.E. Cummings, America’s most meritorious clown in poesy had such binding effect on Auden.
Like Spender’s farewell to his past, Auden in a ballad says Allons! to Baudelaire, to Cocktails, to Maters and Paters, to Lawrence “brought down by smut hounds” and to his profession in torment “destroying intellectuals” and the final lines: “Lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down.” Then with the wit of an engraving on a tombstone are the dirge lines:
“If we really want to live, we’d better start at once to try;
This is Auden at his best. The rest of the book is divided into a series of prose poems (bastard literature) with diagrams and imposing titles to help them along: Journal of an Airman, including without diagrams a statement purporting to be the second law of thermo-dynamics, being, “self care or minding one’s own business”. Then there are a series of circles, large and small, with bright reference to their psychological meanings, and also lines of prose and poetry running through their empty spaces, all of which had its place in its time in the eccentric magazine for the gentlemen playboys of literature, viz. transition. The Dance of Death, the last poem, a fantastic play in the pattern of symbolism, never attains more than juvenile strength. In the beginning the characters are wearing dressing gowns, their clothes lying before them; a moment later they are in bathing suits and they say: “Boys from France, Join in our dance.” Death – capitalism disguised as a dancer – dances, and through the dance the rhymes are running fast in this pitter-patter fashion:
Death finishes the dance and walks off with their clothes; a basket of uniforms is brought on, and then the chorus:
“But these aren’t ours.
“One moment sir, the Kellogg pact
“Scholarships – not battleships.”
Then the audience chips in saying:
“One, two, three four
This is the method; this is the man; this is the poet. One cannot find fault with Auden’s purpose, but with the leftist infantilism that cannot allow the head to grow. The circus performs its own function and does not mingle in poetry: let Auden cease clowning!
The fellow travellers of the revolution in verse forms should start by giving us more of their finished products and less of the laboratory smells of their experiments.
Last updated on 7.7.2006