Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.
Auden reached his artistic pinnacle at Europe’s darkest moment, a fact that might itself be described as Audenesque. The year 1939 yielded other burnished gems besides his “September 1, 1939″: the threnodies to Yeats and Freud, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Law Like Love.” Critics of Auden’s “Spain,” who see it solely as a testament to all that was sinister and myopic in an epicene Communist’s worldview, should take the poem’s full measure. For instance, the apostrophe to nations, which calls upon “the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror,” has that life replying: “O no, I am not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you I’m the / Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped . . . ” We know now from the publication of long-secret Soviet archives that the yes-man, the bar-companion, and the easily-duped comprise precisely the grim troika that enabled and excused Stalin’s reign of terror for so long. The poem is, thus, also a withering indictment of the Western intellectual class to which Auden belonged with such passion and brilliance. So his conscience managed to get it right, in the end—even if his short-lived political allegiances got it so remarkably wrong.
Though his abandonment of those allegiances is praiseworthy, it did nothing for him as an artist. Auden’s poetry steadily declined in quality as his commitment to religion broadened and his sense of purpose—both as a poet and as a “citizen”—grew humbler. He also traveled less, abandoning the exploratory wanderings of his earlier years, confining himself mainly to his adopted city of New York and his shire-girded summer home in Austria. As Philip Larkin observed in a withering 1960 essay, “What’s Become of Wystan?,” someone who had read nothing of Auden’s work after 1940 would have little to talk about with someone who had read nothing before 1940. A shame, too, in Larkin’s opinion: a born-again Yank might well have gone on to become a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony” instead of the book-obsessed purveyor of agape Auden became. So much, one supposes, for Pascal and the wisdom of sitting still.