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Posts For: March 4, 2007

Low and Dishonest

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.

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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.

Given his fellow-traveling, Auden might have been expected to welcome joining the war against Nazi Germany. Instead, 1939 found him in New York, where he sat out the whole period of the Nazi-Soviet pact and wrote another line that stays in the public memory, condemning the “low dishonest decade” then on the point of expiring. Auden’s evasion in New York was too much even for Connolly, who was no good at literary or political enmities. Auden then dropped the infantile Leftism, turned Christian, started re-writing his poems to take out the pro-Soviet nonsense, and so reached apotheosis as a Grand Old Man.

But the Auden centenary now brings up another snag. In May 1951, the Soviet agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were tipped off by their handler, Kim Philby, that they were about to be arrested, and they were ordered to seek refuge in Moscow at once. The day before Burgess fled, he contacted Stephen Spender, whose career as a poet was carried out in Auden’s shadow, to ask him how to contact Auden. It is not quite clear whether Auden was staying with Spender at the time, or was already away in his summer home on Ischia, the island off Naples.

This week, the opening of British intelligence files reveals that when Burgess went missing, Spender informed them of that last-minute telephone call, and also that he had passed the message on to Auden. When intelligence officers questioned Auden, he inexplicably lied to them, denying that Spender had told him anything, and added, “He must have been drunk.” Auden had become an American citizen by then, and the FBI wanted to interrogate him. In due course, in mid-June, the Italian police questioned Auden, and the documents show that he “reluctantly admitted that Spender was probably right.”

Why the lying and prevarication? Most essentially, what could Burgess have had in mind when trying to get hold of Auden as virtually the last thing he did before going into exile, never to return? Was he about to appeal to Auden for protection? There may be an innocent explanation, in that the two had known one another for many years; both were homosexual, and had friends in common. The very least that can be said is that Auden appears to have been anxious to hide something, and in the circumstances this was active fellow-traveling. So in spite of his undoubted great gifts, he was contributing his bit towards making yet another decade low and dishonest.

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