Three wild and crazy Englishmen (Auden, Lewis, Spender) hang out in Venice
In an earlier post, “Fiction v. Poetry,” we used W.H. Auden’s Introduction to Shakespeare’s The Sonnets (Signet/Penguin 1964) and his argument against “vulgar, idle curiosity” in favor of “anonymous” William Whomever-peare and pure enjoyment of his Platonic “Vision of Eros,” to make our case for elegant poetry, and against gossipy fiction.
Critics complain that TV is killing literature, but so-called literary fiction has been killing literature long before the boob tube arrived. I Love Lucy didn’t make us stupid. Henry James did.
The poets of Modernism can be divided into the car-salesmen and those who really were brilliant.
E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and most of their followers, for instance, are merely car salesmen.
T.S. Eliot, Chrisopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden were brilliant and talented men, and others in their circle, like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, were consciously involved in politics and cultural change. The British Empire, which was at its height in 1914, groomed its poets for active work; the poet as soldier has a long tradition in Britain, from Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney to the Cambridge Apostles and Auden’s friend, Sir Stephen Spender, member of the Communist Party and an editor for thirteen years of a magazine secretly funded by the CIA. Nothing like the British poet-spy hybrid has ever existed in America, except, perhaps, for the mysterious Mr. Poe (was he in Paris, was he in St. Petersburg, was he murdered, or not?) and the hybrid practice is hardly on the more plain and practical Americans’ radar screen.
Auden’s insistence, then, that “artists” and “men of action” are two separate creatures—is this a ploy by this world-traveling, transatlantic citizen, once rumored to be part of Kim Philby’s Soviet spy ring? Emerson, in “The Poet,” goes a long way in establishing this distinction when he calls the Poet a “Sayer” as opposed to the “Knower” and the Doer.” “Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men,” Emerson says sourly, establishing his pedantic categories. But these fine distinctions Auden and Emerson make are finally a bunch of hogwash: Emerson and Auden would have us believe that Hitler’s speeches had nothing to do with Hitler’s guns, that the material state of our poetry has nothing to do with the material state of our state.
Auden’s poetry was first accepted and published by T.S Eliot, at Faber. Auden is not considered a genuine modernist; Auden’s poetry rhymes, and he has a marked sympathy for great writers of the past, so on the surface, at least, Auden seems to run counter to the Futurism of Pound, the anti-Romantic animus of Eliot, and experimental modernism, in general.
But Auden could not have been part of this influential, Modernist clique without having some share of the characteristics of that clique, and never mind that Auden chose Ashbery for the Yale Younger, and also Merwin–who attended one of the earliest Poetry Workshops at Princeton—set up by Allen Tate, the leader of the American wing of Eliot and Pound’s European Modernist clique. Yes, in case you didn’t get it, we’re talking about a clique.
OK, so talented people get to know each other and help each other out. What else is new?
Associations, purely in themselves, justify an historical interest, but there’s more involved. It’s not rocket science. We need to know two things; first: we need to read the clique members in question, and second, we need to ask: What is Modernism?
Scarriet has already done a lot of work investigating the writings and prejudices of leading Modernists like Pound and Eliot, who were notoriously anti-Romantic and anti-populist. But for the second question, the art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire (because Anglo-American High Modernism originated in the middle of the 19th century, and mainly in France) will be a great help.
The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past two rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bousset and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.
Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.
In this brief excerpt from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), we see American Modernist poetry of the 20th century and all the steps which led to it, in total.
1) we see the spirit of the England’s pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—Baudelaire even refers to Raphael—with its narrow, cult-like, manifesto-ism, 2) the misanthropic spleen aimed at middle-class people who go to museums and are moved by great paintings of the past, 3) the appeal to the “minor poets” (for what is Modernism if not a great hierarchy of minor poets?) and their 4) “particular beauty” (as if major poets have no “particular beauty!”) and 5) “circumstance” (what is Modernism but fragments blown by the winds of circumstance?) and 6) “the sketch of manners.” As if great artists and poets from the past do not give us “manners!” Hogarth, anyone? “The Rape of the Lock?” But here is Baudelaire busily doing what Pound, Eliot, and their followers will do over the next 100, 150 years, up to our present day: 1) A blanket, or crudely selective, rejection of the glories of the past, especially the 18th century, and the early 19th century, while celebrating the ephemera of “particular beauty” among friends and minor contemporaries. 2) A manifesto-ist misanthropy, 3) A hatred of the lower classes, and their middle class tastes and aspirations.
Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer. The Modernists always protest too much.
One more note: 4) A crucial geopolitical fact emerged with the origins of Modernism: the alliance of former enemies Great Britain and France; these two new friends fed each other’s decadence, and discovered together a certain imperial animus towards Germany, Russia, and the United States. The problems the U.S. had with Britain and France during their mid-19th century, Civil War-era of is a much neglected subject.
But back to Auden and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We would expect, then, that T.S. Eliot-annointed Auden, would tend to be anti-Shakespeare, as this is the calling card for every Modernist: Celebrate obscure minor artists while knocking down the great Past Masters. Eliot’s attacks on Hamlet, Milton, Poe, and Shelley are well-known; Pound pretty much sneered at every Past Master he possibly could.
So do we find Auden, in his famous 1964 Introduction, attacking Shakespeare, or, at least damning him with faint praise?
Auden’s first major point is: “it’s good that Shakespeare was anonymous,” a New Critical point (another Modernist calling card, as Eliot and his right-wing American henchman, Ransom, popularized New Criticism). Here, on the second page of his Introduction, is Auden, the New Critic:
Even the biography of an artist is permissable, provided that the biographer and his readers realize that such an account throws no light whatsoever upon the artist’s work.
Auden, as chummy as he was, could certainly be an ogre when laying down the Party Line: Auden will make it “permissable” to write the biography of an artist, but only if you and I “realize that such an account throws no light whatsover upon the artist’s work. Thank you, Mr. Auden.
He defends his crazy idea brilliantly, of course:
The relation between his life and his works is at once and the same time too self-evident to require comment—every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure—and too complicated ever to unravel. Thus, it is self-evident that Catullus’s love for Lesbia was the experience which inspired his love poems, and that, if either of them had had a different character, the poems would have been different, but no amount of research into their lives can tell us why Catullus wrote the actual poems he did, instead of an infinite number of similar poems he might have written instead, why, indeed, he wrote any, or why those he did are good.
This is great stuff, isn’t it? I’d hire this guy as a subversive for my country in a minute. This is uncannily good reasoning. Auden first concedes the field to the anti-New Critical argument: “every work of art is a self-disclosure,” Auden admits, but Auden’s concession is two-sided: the anti-New Critical position is “self-evident,” but also “too complicated ever to unravel:” if Lesbia had been a little different, then Catullus’s poems to her would have been different—but how? We don’t know. And therefore we can’t know anything about the relation between the maker and the made.
But is this true?
And is this true for Poe, who wrote his “Raven” not because he happened to have the hots for some particular person, but because he wanted to demonstrate how a popular poem could be written? Or, for Shakespeare, whose sonnets contain Platonist philosophy, and not just personal gossip? We grant that connections between life and art are often tenuous and difficult to trace—but should we close the door on attempts to make connections, on micro, or macro, levels? To do so seems arbitrary and silly.
Auden then proceeds, “Let us forget all about Shakespeare the man, leave the speculations to the foolish and idle, and consider the sonnets themselves,” and begins his discussion of “the sonnets themselves” rather weakly:
The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets as we have them, is tha they are not in any kind of planned sequence. The only semblance of order is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman. In both heaps, a triangle situation is referred to in which Shakespeare’s friend and his mistress betray him by having an affair together…
Sometimes batches of sonnets occur which clearly belong together—for example, the opening series 1-17, in which the friend is urged to marry, though, even here, 15 seems not to belong, for marriage is not mentioned in it.
In this brief summation, Auden is utterly wrong. First, how can Auden say there is “no planned sequence” when the first 14 poems pertain to “increase?” Auden is being obtuse when he replaces “increase” with “marriage.” Sonnet 15 does fit, even though it doesn’t refer to “marriage,” for, as we see in its final couplet, “And, all in war with Time for love of you,/As he takes from you, I engraft you new.” The first 14 poems celebrate “increase” of the flesh. 154 (the number of The Sonnets) is divisible by 14. Sonnet 15 marks a shift in the theme. With Sonnet 15, immortality is bought not by having children, but by making poems. Auden saying Sonnet 15 doesn’t fit because it doesn’t mention “marriage” is ludicrous.
Auden is also wrong to assert that every poem in the first 126 are “addressed to a young man (or men),” since the great majority of the first 126 poems are genderless. Nor are the final 28 poems all addressed to “a dark-haired woman.” Scolding others for being biographically “foolish,” Auden falls into the same error himself, making all sorts of biographical assumptions. Auden does have the intelligence to say The Sonnets are not precisely carnal in nature, but that doesn’t prevent him from making all sorts of biographical, carnal speculation—flying in the very face of his own principle.
So according to Auden, the sonnets have no order.
Auden’s second point is that they are “extremely uneven in poetic value.” Auden quotes some Wordsworth (who Auden admires) calling the Dark Lady sequence “abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless,” with Wordsworth detailing the “chief faults” of the sonnets as a whole, thus: “sameness, tediousness, quaintness, and elaborate obscurity.” Imagine William Wordsworth accusing William Shakespeare of “sameness.” The mind boggles. Wordsworth is the token Romantic the Modernists tolerate, fearing to look like goons if they hate all the Romantics; Wordsworth has that certain dullness which makes him palatable to good, grey Modernism. Then Auden lets us know what Walter Savage Landor thought: “not a single one is very admirable.”
Auden himself claims to admire only forty-nine of the sonnets, and quickly adds that Shakespeare did not want any of them published, since they are basically a sweaty-palmed, sexual “confession.”
Auden doesn’t give one shred of evidence why Shakespeare should have been embarrassed by these poems—Auden’s theory is founded on the very type of speculation he condemns as “foolish” and “idle” and “vulgar.”
Auden then makes a few scattered formal and rhetorical observations, praising Shakespeare’s skill, citing a few isolated passages, and concludes the essay by putting the Sonnets in a Platonist milieu—the beloved’s “beauty” can belong to the flesh (bad) or to character (good) and loving the beloved unconditionally is the sonnet’s most important trope. Auden is sure the Sonnets grew out of visionary dream, in which Shakespeare fell into a kind of trance which made him somewhat mad. Auden wants to turn Shakespeare into a puritanical, visionary, passionate, self-doubting, Catullus. None of it is very convincing, and mostly because Auden can’t stop himself from investing the Sonnets with unfounded and crude, biographical and fictional elaborations:
The story of the sonnets seems to me to be the story of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.
As outsiders, the impression we get of his friend is one of a young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially frivolous, cold-hearted, and self-centered, aware, probably, that he had some power over Shakespeare—if he thought about it at all, no doubt he gave it a cynical explanation—but with no conception of the intensity of the feelings he had, unwittingly, aroused.
In other words, according to Auden—who condemns any historical speculation regarding Pembroke or Southampton—Shakespeare was in love with Auden’s boyfriend, Chester Kallman, and had thoughts of marrying Chester, except, that is, when he was being distracted by a dark-haired woman—who also liked Chester.
Auden ends his Introduction with a long, irrelevant passage from The Two Noble Kinsmen—a passage scholars cannot even be sure was written by Shakespeare. Evidently, the publishers were howling for Auden to finish his Introduction, and, drunk on Pinot Noir, he quickly did.
Reading the Sonnets with Auden’s “story” in mind, a reader will quickly be disappointed, for there’s no “story” at all in the Sonnets. It’s a far more sophisticated document than that.