The Achievement of Auden

Peter Porter


If you believe, as I do, that W. H. Auden was not only the greatest English poet so far this century, but probably the last Englishman to dominate the civilized world of letters, then there is a great sadness in sitting down to assess his achievement as a writer. Everywhere English confidence is in flight - in many respects quite unnecessarily. Nobody wants any of the old arrogance to return, but the serene acceptance of his educated tongue as the true voice of feeling, an unpedantic knowingness and clubability, and a certainty that society is listening, were all qualities of the English man-of-letters in his prime which are sadly missed today. I have seen Dr Leavis's chastening of the limp-wristed "children of the sun" spoken of as an heroic campaign for truth, but the horrors of his Protectorate need no elaborating. And someone should tell Martin Green that a Brian Howard or a Harold Acton is not automatically equatable with an Auden or a Waugh, however willing the latter were to give testimonials to the former. Auden's (and Waugh's) lives were highly productive. They gave the world more than they took from it, and if each in his way adopted the attitudes of the overprivileged classes (to which they belonged rather haphazardly), then this was to avoid that Germanic-American solemnity which serious art has suffered from so badly during the last fifty years. I am sure anyone who knew Auden could give me chapter and verse to prove that he was a giggling, predatory homosexual, leader of an overvalued coterie, serious in none of his apparent enthusiasms, amateur as a psychologist, insincere as a theologian, lacking weight as moralist and poet alike. I acknowledge that there is much evidence -little bits of it peep through the pages of Christopher Isherwood and Stravinsky/Craft. I expect a lot more of it to be documented when Edward Mendelson's variorum edition gets under way and the biography appears (official biographies these days usually have to add warts, not excise them). Yet, whatever I encountered of this kind, I would still point calmly to the works themselves, and say that this corpus of poetry and criticism is the best contemporary example known to me of a serious and even tragic view of life made into human comedy with extraordinary resource and an absolute power to entertain.

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