Poets on Power (and its loss)

Poets on Power (and its loss)

Mini Teaser: Turning the pages of a collected Auden, one's eye repeatedly catches something that seems strikingly appropriate to the state of Europe today.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

In the spring of 1939, at the end of what he was to call "a low dishonest decade," W.H. Auden looked back across the Atlantic at the continent he had just left and wrote:

"In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
All the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye."

As recently as two years ago this would have read like the description of a vanished Europe, one relegated to history. At that time, optimism was high, with "unity" the theme in the western part of the continent and "democracy" in the east. Now, though things are not remotely as bad as they were when Auden wrote, his lines again seem uncomfortably relevant to what is happening in Europe--hate among nations in the east, a kind of disgrace in the west. And pity frozen in the eye of the television screen.
In fact, turning the pages of a collected Auden, one's eye repeatedly catches something that seems strikingly appropriate to the state of Europe today. In the short poem "Brussels in Winter," for example, he writes about the future headquarters of NATO and the European Community:

"Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing."

Which seems to sum up the current state of both "Europe" and "the West" about as succinctly as it could be done.

In "The Fall of Rome," a poem he dedicated to Cyril Connolly, Auden depicts the decay of the West with the kind of images that came to be described as "Audenesque":

"The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns."

Then, just as we have settled for an interesting but rather familiar exercise by the poet, in the last verse he contrasts all this with what is happening to the east, in the approaches to the Eurasian heartland. He conveys the otherness of the latter--an otherness that we have come increasingly aware of in recent months, and one that we can no longer explain simply in terms of communism--with what is surely one of the most haunting images in modern poetry:

"Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast."

A century in which intellectuals and artists have been so heavily politicized has produced surprisingly little memorable or even passable poetry with political themes. But it is very refreshing when one does come across the occasional lines of verse that speak directly to the great issues of our time, not in the vapid, generalizing, language of the social sciences, nor in the knowing terms of the op-ed piece, but in precise, concrete images, that can both crystallize what we already half knew and suggest new connections and distinctions.

I suppose the most quoted poem of our time, certainly by those of conservative disposition, has been Yeats' "The Second Coming." We may have been a bit vague as to what a "gyre" was, but that first stanza spoke powerfully to those of us who believed that the crust of civilization and order is thin, and the possibility of chaos real. It is one of the very few modern poems that many people have memorized and that has become hackneyed through overquotation. (It has even become well-known enough for other poets to play off it. See, for example, the great couplet by Ted Pauker--a.k.a. Robert Conquest: "When psychology meets education/A terrible bullshit is born").

Then of course there is Kipling's "Recessional," much quoted in earlier days but seldom referred to now. If the message of "The Second Coming" was only too clear, that of "Recessional" has been thoroughly misunderstood for much of its life. Usually interpreted as an arrogant assertion of imperial and racial superiority, it is in fact a warning against pride and complacency, and a plea for modesty, self-discipline and moral awareness in the transitory world of political power:

"The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stand Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart."


"Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and heartland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!"

Kipling also wrote "Dane-Geld," the only poem that could be incorporated without commentary into an International Relations 101 course, at least one of the non-politically correct variety:

"It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:--
'Though we know we should defeat you,
We have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away'.
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:--
'We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!'"

Chesterton in "Lepanto" wrote on a related theme, that of neglect and indifference in the face of threat from the infidel:

"And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mas"s;

I'd never heard of another poem by Chesterton, "The Secret People," until Philip Larkin included it in his rather idiosyncratic Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Surprisingly, the poem is about the alleged revolutionary potential of England's silent majority, in a country in which authority has moved away from king and squire to a new class, and in which the interests of ordinary people have been neglected and betrayed. With a grand historical sweep, Chesterton gives his bitter account of a hundred and fifty years of English history:

"A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people's reign;
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and never scorned us again....
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albura plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains...
They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs."
Chesterton went on to speculate about a violent English Revolution:
"It may be we shall rise in the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia's wrath and our wrath be the worst."

Well, it didn't quite happen like that of course. Instead of an English Robespierre or Lenin there was mild-mannered Clement Attlee, and instead of violent convulsion there was the Welfare State. The English fate was to be not high, technicolor drama, but a decent, mundane, relentless deterioration.
The three major poets in residence during this late period of British decline--Auden only paid visits--were John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, and Dylan Thomas.

Betjeman could evoke the sense of decay as well as anyone:

"Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?"

But his interest was social-anthropological not political. It was not the weakening of a political order or the decline of a country that he recorded and mourned, but the passing of a way of life, a culture--the middle class, suburban, tennis-playing culture of the inter-war Home Counties. And what he railed against were not politicians but the inroads of technology ("Let all things travel faster/Where motor-car is master/Till only Speed remains) and the vulgarity and ugliness of the new (All concrete sheds around us/And Jaguars in the yard.")

Larkin, less attached to a class, was the true laureate of British decline. His deep personal unhappiness and pessimism ("Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth") were a perfect fit with what was happening in the country, and the decline of England, together with the sense of loss it evoked, was one of his principal themes:

"I thought it would last my time --
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn't going to last,
That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts --
First slum of Europe: a role
It won't be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guild halls, the carved choirs..."

When the Wilson government decided to withdraw the British presence from "East of Suez" in the late 1960s, Larkin responded with his bitter "Homage to a Government":

"Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And that is all right.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money."

It is a poem that is likely to be quoted often by Americans in coming years.

Dylan Thomas wrote nothing resembling this. Indeed, and to be fair, he was dead before the really conspicuous, galloping decline set in. But as he did not have a political bone in his body, and as he walked through the Great Depression (while living in South Wales, a bastion of radical politics) and the Second World War seemingly oblivious to what was going on, it is unlikely he would have been moved to write about it in any case. Yet Thomas did write a "political" poem of a kind, one divorced from any specific time or place but giving powerful expression to a version of the Great Man view of human affairs:

"The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
The five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose's quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow."

Oddly enough, Auden, in the middle of his "Marxist" period, wrote a sonnet--"Embassy"--which, in a very different way, expressed a similar view of how the world works:

"As evening fell the day's oppression lifted;
Far peaks came into focus; it had rained:
Across wide lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
Two gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes:
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain:
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror."

So, back to Auden. He was an incessant reviser and censor of his own poems, he couldn't leave them alone. The poem quoted above, for example, doesn't appear in the Random House edition of his collected poems, which is said to contain "all the poems that W.H. Auden wished to preserve." And the couplet from "Brussels in Winter" that I quoted earlier was changed in later editions to the much more specific, and to my mind inferior:

"The city still escapes you; it has lost
The qualities that say 'I am a Thing'"

He also dropped a whole stanza from "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," (from which the first quotation, on the state of Europe, in this piece comes.) After the assertion that Time "Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives;", the now missing stanza went on to say of Yeats:

"Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well."

In this case the motive was almost certainly a change of opinion about one or both of the poets named in the dropped stanza.

But far and away the most spectacular act of self-censorship on Auden's part was undoubtedly the omission of the important poem "Spain 1937" from his collected work. There are some marvelous things in this poem--for instance, the description of Spain as "That fragment nipped off from hot Africa/Soldered so crudely to inventive Europe."

But the heart of the poem is a passage contrasting the ongoing and violent political struggle with the promise of a normal, sane, future, once victory is achieved.

"Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love;
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician.
Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but today the struggle.
To-day the inevitable increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the face of murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet at the boring meeting."
The first two lines in the last quatrain of that passage have a history. Originally they read:
"Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;"

In that form they caught George Orwell's eye and he wrote about them in Inside the Whale, published in 1940:

"But notice the phrase 'necessary murder'. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men--I don't mean killed in battle, I mean murder....Mr. Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is by people who don't even know that fire is hot..."
It has been widely assumed that it was this onslaught that caused Auden to revise those lines, and perhaps later to drop the whole poem from the various selected and collected volumes. But Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor and editor, says that this is not so, that Auden first published his revision a month before Orwell published his criticism. A whole month...that hardly settles the matter. In the small and incestuous world of serious English writing, it is not only possible but more than likely that Auden would have known of the impending attack for much longer than a month before it was delivered in print.

Not that one would want to make too much of this clash between Auden and Orwell. Despite the harshness of his criticism of that one passage, and very typically, Orwell described "Spain 1937" as "one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish War." And both men stand out as among the most honest, intelligent and decent commentators on their time.

In 1939, the year that Yeats died, another Irish poet was born. Like his great predecessor, Seamus Heaney has written of the troubles of his country in words that now seem to speak of more than Ireland:

"Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite's a common sound effect
On all sides "little platoons" are mustering--
The phrase is Cruise O'Brien's via that great
Backlash, Burke--while I sit here with a pestering
Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait
To lure the tribal shoals to epigram
And order...
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap."

In this century men have looked to many exotic and improbable places--Russia, China, Cuba, even Nicaragua--for signs of what the future will be like. It will be very strange indeed if it turns out that the first place in which the plot of the post-Cold War world was previewed--even before that world had come into being--was in a small British province on the northwest rim of Europe.

Essay Types: Essay