What can WH Auden do for you?

When Auden died in 1973, forty years ago last week, it would have been hard to imagine how popular he would become in the ensuing decades. Morose and solitary, he described himself, in a poem of the early 1960s, as a “sulky 56,” who had “grown far too crotchety” and found a “change of meal-time utter hell.” In those later years, Auden seemed a shadow of his former self: his reputation had been tainted by some rather unforgiving reviews. Philip Larkin, for one, had dismissed his “rambling intellectual stew;” Randall Jarrell painted a sorry picture of a man “turned into a rhetoric mill, grinding away at the bottom of Limbo.” Jilted by his handsome younger lover, Chester Kallman, Auden took leave of all worldly pleasures, living out his last few years in a small town near Vienna. The obituaries of the enfant terrible of poetry were detailed but rarely strayed from reflecting on his much-anthologised poems of the 1930s, “As I walked out one evening” and “Lullaby.”

Auden has always seemed ripe for quotation. One of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ads included the signature line “We must love one another or die” from Auden’s poem “September I, 1939.” Two decades later, Auden’s lyric “Stop all the clocks” became the signature elegy of the AIDS era, and later made a cameo appearance in the 1994 romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. Faber and Faber immediately cashed in with Tell me the truth about love, a pamphlet which sold a reputed 275,000 copies. Auden’s lines are quoted, misquoted, appropriated, parodied, often without any attribution to the poet himself. Our language is peppered with his neologisms, not least the “Age of Anxiety,” defined in the OED as “a catch-phrase of any period characterised by anxiety or danger.”

In 2001, on the cusp of another “low, dishonest decade,” to use one of Auden’s terms for the 1930s, Auden was seen again as an indispensable poet of the age. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, poetry—the most concentrated of verbal art forms—once again emerged as a vital, commemorative form. But none of the poems written in the ensuing decade caught the prevailing mood so much as the one Auden wrote six decades earlier in response to a different crisis—that of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse

The lines are eerily prophetic; but beyond the sense of history repeating itself, what distinguished Auden’s poem is its sheer virtuosity of registers and the poetic “I” sitting in exile in a bar in the midst of it all. There’s a kind of toughness to the first two lines, as if Auden were putting on his American leather jacket to blend in with the St. Marks crowd, that is candidly shrugged off in the third. The poem that is at once about imminent disaster is also about a poet trying to naturalise his identity. Civilisation might be on the brink of collapse, but, as Brodsky argued in his essay on Auden, the poem shows that the resourcefulness and adaptability of language can save a culture from the “unmentionable odour of death.”

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