W.H. Auden was born February 21, 1907, and his centenary year is therefore upon us. “We have one poet of genius today,” wrote Cyril Connolly in 1938 in his inquisitorial memoir Enemies of Promise. This praise has become more or less received opinion, as Auden’s reputation continues to rise, and the debt of contemporary poets to his style of intellect and clever comment remains as evident as ever.
One snag is that Auden in the 1930′s was a Communist fellow-traveler of the silliest kind. Writing his memoir, Connolly certainly knew and approved of the poem “Spain,” which Auden had published the previous year to register his Communist sympathies. “Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,” is a line that still lingers in the public memory. A more sinister totalitarian recommendation in that poem is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” This caught the eye of George Orwell, who famously savaged Auden as someone who would be elsewhere when it came to pulling the trigger.