Tuesday, 03 October 2017 20:14

Letter to W. H. Auden

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in Poetry
Letter to W. H. Auden

by Christopher Norris


This verse-letter is written in Rhyme Royal, the seven-line stanza-form (rhyming ababbcc) that goes back to some of the earliest English poetry and was taken up by W.H. Auden in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. The piece first appeared in Letters from Iceland (1937), a jointly-authored book by Auden and Louis MacNeice containing a mixture of verse and prose, travel-notes and politics, the serious and the anecdotal or skittish. My poem is addressed to Auden and talks about our current world-political scene in relation to likewise ominous developments during the 1930s. It emulates Auden’s way of mixing the formal with the casual and his knack of moving out, cinematic-style, from the personal or parochial to the global or world-historical.

(‘MacSpaunday’: collective name invented by Roy Campbell for the group of prominent left-leaning 1930s writers [mostly poets] which included Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Campbell was a right-wing poet and polemicist who meant nothing very kindly or affectionate by it. A quick Google search will help with ‘Chad Valley’ and other perhaps unfamiliar references.)


Forgive, dear Wystan, my presuming thus
To pinch your rhyme-scheme, though you can afford
To humour me or not make too much fuss
Since you first lifted it from Byron (Lord)
And took some other tricks of his on board
(Which I'll do here), like using verse to chat,
As mood suggests, concerning this and that.

Still, let’s admit the parallels extend
Beyond such formal matters to the fact
That you, back in the 1930s, penned
Those stanzas full of doubts and fears, though tact
As well as your un-Faustian poet-pact
With sage Apollo, god of form, required
That verse-craft quell what panic-state inspired.

You won’t believe it but, just eighty years
On from your time of writing, we’ve now got
A US president who brings those fears
Of yours right back to life and shows we’d not
Yet managed to dig out the fascist rot
You saw as enemy to all that stood
For civic virtue and the common good.

CN gop 2016 trump

You keep it up, that semi-jester role
Encouraged by the verse-form, but it’s hard
To keep up now, in part because a droll
Or laid-back style’s the standard calling-card
Of satire’s current leftist avant-garde,
And partly owing to the thought that it’s
Quite likely he’ll soon blow us all to bits.

You don’t yet know it, writing from your own
Mid-thirties standpoint, but they’ll fight and win
The war they strive by all means to postpone,
Those old appeasers whose pro-Hitler spin
On world affairs our Tory toffs begin
To try once more, kowtowing to a fool-
Cum-gangster bred up in the self-same school.

CN trump and may

You see them now, hot-footing it to pay
Their fawning overtures as soon as he’s
Installed as president, though really they
Just want to front the quisling queue and seize
This lucky chance to get down on their knees,
Kiss arse if needed, and declare that he’ll
Have their loyal backing after that trade-deal.

One thing the verse-form helps with, as you know,
Is how to handle the eight-decade lapse
Which gives us knowledge of the way things go
Post-'39 while your temporal maps
Have lots of ‘here be dragons’ blanks and gaps
Which we can now fill in with all the late-
Won wisdom brought by simple change of date.

This form’s a winner chiefly through its use
Of that capacious rhyme-scheme, plus the way
Its mix of formal structure with some loose
Or casual phrasing lets us have our say
About how you lot might have saved the day
But not risk sounding smug or acting wise
After events that matched your worst surmise.

Besides, what price the dubious benefit
Of our historic wisdom if we take
From it no more than an excuse to sit
Around composing verses, or to make
Your low decade our theme just for the sake
Of cranking out more poems that allow
Us more escape-routes from the here-and-now.

So not for us to tax that ’thirties crew
Of poet fellow-travellers with the crime,
If such it is, of having much to do
With ideas, words and clever turns of rhyme
But not with urgencies of place and time
That, so we judge, should properly demand
They exit poetry’s cloud-cuckoo-land.

That's why I’m not the least degree inclined
To join the Orwell-clones who now deplore
You and your generation, or who find
Self-love and self-advertisement, no more,
In those formalities devised to shore
Against your sense of a world-order gone
To pot: let good verse-manners carry on!

CN macspaunday

Yet getting old MacSpaunday off the hook
Is too much like extending special leave
To us, or promising to close the book
On our inaction just so long as we’ve
Made good our case for history’s reprieve
On grounds of service to the poet’s art
In homage to its formal world apart.

For – truth to tell – we now have far less scope
Than you for any self-defensive move
Which says that poetry’s our last, best hope,
That its constraints may help us jump the groove
Of prose-constricted habit, and so prove
Not just an action-blocking trick of thought
But one that brings bad action-plans up short.

The point is, we’ve your own example there
In front of us, your poems and the whole
Mind-set we call ‘The Thirties’, so you bear
The burden of our thinking how you might
Have done much more to carry forward the fight
From literary speech-act to the sphere
Of action where the world may lend an ear.

So, like I said, we’re all the more to blame
For blaming you yet failing still to learn
The lesson that you ‘thirties poets came,
In different ways, to mark as your great turn
Of life and thought, so that you’d either spurn
Much of your early work or make it known
That we should deem it kid’s stuff, long outgrown.

Not so, at least not always, so why strain
Credulity by asking us to twist
Our judgement round and treat your poem ‘Spain’,
That conscience-call, as if we’d somehow missed
Its glaring faults because they offered grist
To Orwell's tetchy mill and also fed
Your taste for giving self-reproach its head.

Always a flip-side, and for us it’s that
Temptation to indulge our own retreat
From deed to word or act to poem-chat
By totting up your moral balance-sheet
And fancying our tame versicles to meet
The kinds of standard you applied, not just
Late on but when your muse was more robust.

In short, no jacking up our feeble score
As activists or militants by dint
Of self-applied analogy with your
Half-century sustained poetic stint
And, more than that, your having left in print
So many poems that (late qualms aside)
Took politics and ethics well in stride.

Suppose our situations were reversed,
You looking back across the eight-decade-
Long interval and witnessing the worst
Of times again, what with this bottom-grade
Moronic US president who’s made
It clear he’ll kill all life on Earth through one
Means or another by the time he’s done.

CN north korea kim jong un donald trump nuclear threat uss john c stennis 584269

Just think (the implications won’t be lost
On you) how it’s within the power of this
Illiterate thug to start a war whose cost,
Should just a few ICBMs not miss
Their target, adds up to the thought-abyss
Of humankind extinct along with all
The arts and sciences on the small ball.

God knows, you had it bad back then, but think:
What shall they say of us who had the chance
To put a stop to him, that missing link
In modern guise, yet chose to look askance
At action-plans and cultivate a trance-
Like will to have no distant rumours spoil
Our peace with echoes of that mortal coil.

You’ve heard me out, and patiently, so I’ll
Not try your patience too far but remark,
For what it’s worth, that elements of ‘style’
(So-called) in your best poems strike a spark
Of shared humanity against the dark
And all-destructive potency that waits
On one man's word as will or whim dictates.

My point: you had the hint of gravitas,
The serious note, as in an end-of-term
School homily by one who might just pass
As Head-material, that it took to firm
Your satire up and make the guilty squirm,
Along with just the light touch to disarm
Our finely tuned self-righteousness alarm.

For, unlike some, you managed to hold out
Against the idea that satiric scorn,
Or saeva indignatio, had clout
Enough by fear of mockery to warn
The wicked off their ways so that, twice-born
At its dread summons, they confessed in full
How far they’d yielded to temptation’s pull.

Just think of Peter Cook (I know, he showed
Up decades later – Pete-and-Dud sketch guy),
And how he talked about the debt he owed,
As satirist, not just to Private Eye
But to those Berlin cabarets whose wry
Take on the 1930s did so much
To save the world from war and Hitler’s clutch.

No, satire’s not enough to show the likes
Of Trump in their true colours, or arouse
Such popular revulsion that he strikes
Them suddenly as just a big girl’s blouse
(Nice phrase – you’ll like it) and the people’s vows
Go up: God help us if we don’t get rid
Of this buffoon and mend the harm he did.

Allow me just one last attempt to nail
Down what I mean, although perhaps the drift
Is fairly clear: that poetry must fail
In times like yours and mine because the gift
Of words-in-order’s not a thing to lift
The curse of evil government or fill
Wrong-doers with a cautionary chill.

The formalist in you said poems had
No power to ‘make things happen’, since their place
Was ‘in the valley of their making’ – Chad
Valley, or so it seems – and lacked the space
For anything so brute or in-your-face
As politics, or palpable intent,
Or speech-acts of a world-transforming bent.

But that was you late on, when you’d long switched
Allegiances from Marx and Freud to God
With Freud as handy back-up, and so ditched
All thought of poetry as lightning rod
Or galvanizer for the ’thirties squad
Who had no time for any such divorce
Between the conjoint claims of form and force.

If you were sitting now in that ‘low dive
On 52nd Street’ and read a page
Or two of our news coverage, you’d arrive
At much the same conclusion: not an age
For private threnodies rehearsed offstage
But one that leaves the poets, now as then,
Lone formalists against the anchormen.

CN auden

Read 3576 times Last modified on Monday, 09 October 2017 13:27
Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.