Here’s another classic poetry battle between the 19th and 20th centuries in the Poetry Bracket, Round One:
W.H. Auden, the well-connected, gay, British poet, became American in 1940.
T.S. Eliot, who helped Auden first get published in 1930, went from American to British in 1927.
Auden traveled to Iceland, Germany, and China (with Christopher Isherwood, who ended up, like Aldous Huxley, in California); Auden rather famously called the 1930s that “low, dishonest decade.”
Auden also wrote a well-known elegy on Yeats—who died at the end of that decade.
Auden knew Stephen Spender—who secretly got CIA funding for his literary magazine, Encounter.
Auden taught at Michigan, gave John Ashbery the Yale Younger Prize, and spent most of his life as an American in New York City; he was a chain-smoker, and it was said of the Jungian W.H. Auden that he “smelled like shit.” Actual shit.
Auden wrote rollicking poetry ballads, similar to Kipling (whom Eliot loved) and Auden converted to Christianity (he knew C.S. Lewis at Oxford) around the time he crossed over to America; Auden also edited an anthology of Light Verse, wrote somewhat admiringly on Poe, and had a few interesting, but ultimately misguided things to say about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
He’ll be remembered for a few poems.
Auden’s entry is from a later poem of his:
“Let the more loving one be me.”
This sums up his personality: a witty, somewhat cynical, romantic, puppy dog.
Auden’s line sounds very 20th century, in its hippie pleading in the face of that era’s spectacular wreckage of hatred and violence.
Amelia Welby is a 19th century poet, another one of those women poets championed by Poe—whom the 20th century, fueled by the insanity of Ezra Pound, forgot. The moderns were even contemptuous of Edna Millay; 20th century women poets like Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, and Eleanor Wyley were overshadowed by the brittle Marianne Moore—because Moore, not the others, belonged to the 1920s Dial clique of Pound, Williams, and Eliot.
Welby’s line has music, not morals:
“And birds and streams with liquid lull Have made the stillness beautiful”
But Welby’s beauty is moral. A idea which, unfortunately, completely disappeared in 20th poetry.
Twilight At Sea
The twilight hours, like birds, flew by,
As lightly and as free,
Ten thousand stars were in the sky,
Ten thousand on the sea;
For every wave, with dimpled face,
That leaped upon the air,
Had caught a star in its embrace,
And held it trembling there.
Most moderns read a poem like this and sneer at its pretty sentimentality.
But it’s not sentimental at all. There’s no expression of morality in Welby’s poem. It’s sensual only.
“Let the more loving one be me” is sentimental, and a little egotistical, too.
It’s the august beauty of “Twilight At Sea” which scares moderns away—because words that bend to beauty seem to them to give up way too much. They want words to do more. Which they can, in prose. But, the moderns want poems, too, to sound like prose; the moderns don’t want the meal (prose) and desert (poetry) to be separate. Ever. Table manners in the 20th century suffered a blow.
The “lull” in Welby’s line is not the noun, meaning a break in activity, but the verb, which means soothe with sound.
Sound echoes sense in the Welby. The “stillness” is the unified dignity of the line, describing natural beauty—whose natural beauty invades itself in the line’s insouciant “lull.”
Auden’s line is a good one, too. Psychologically, people tend to believe that in every love relationship, imbalance or inequality inevitably appears, grows, and ruptures the bliss—and Auden insists on being the lover, “the more loving one,” even if the beloved, like a silent star, is indifferent to human love.
We like this contest. We like both sides.
Welby, the more loved “stillness,” wins.