quarta-feira, 12 de dezembro de 2012

EARLY AUDEN By Edward Mendelson. Review by DENIS DONOGHUE


EARLY AUDEN By Edward Mendelson. 407 pp. New York: The Viking Press. $20. 
August 9, 1981
THE life of W.H. Auden is conveniently divisible into two unequal parts. Early Auden, born in York in 1907, went to school and college in England and stayed there, except for frequent travels, till Jan. 19, 1939, when he sailed for New York. Late Auden made himself a New Yorker if not entirely an American: He liked to keep up his relation to Europe by spending some months of the year in places like Ischia, and he returned to Oxford in his last few years, but he remained a New Yorker on principle. He died in 1974.
Auden's decision to leave England and settle in America caused a flurry among his English friends. It was easy to represent his departure as a run for safety from war and bombs, which he and nearly everybody knew were inevitable. In January 1938 Auden went with Christopher Isherwood to China and Japan. They spent three months there and came back through Canada and America. In New York they decided that America would be their next place. Isherwood thought of an extended stay, short of permanence, but Auden felt that the move should have such permanence as the human condition would allow. But the decision had been made, by intention if not yet in effect, in 1936. Auden was lonely and rather miserable. He identified England with the drab 30's, the ''low dishonest decade'' he attacked in the poem ''September 1, 1939.'' Disillusioned by his brief experience of the Spanish Civil War, he thought Europe a hopeless mess. His writings during those years were doom-laden and noisy, a combination many of his English friends found tiresome. In 1938, William Empson parodied him in the poem ''Just a Smack at Auden,'' presenting him as a poseur, a dandy of the apocalypse: Shall I turn a sire, boys? Shall I choose a friend? The fat is in the pyre, boys, waiting for the end. It was time to be up and go.
Edward Mendelson's book is a history and interpretation of Auden's writings during the years 1927-39. It is not a biography. There was a plan, a few years ago, that he and Stephen Spender would write the authorized life of Auden, but the difficulties raised by considerations of delicacy and tact proved insurmountable. Many of Auden's lovers are living unruffled lives, some of them enjoying marital satisfaction. It would be a wretched business to disturb them. So the biographical plan has been dropped. Professor Mendelson has now directed his attention to the writings, the poems, plays and essays which he edited and published in 1977 as ''The English Auden.'' These are, mainly, ''Paid on Both Sides'' (1928), ''The Orators'' (1932), ''The Dance of Death'' (1933), ''The Dog Beneath the Skin'' (1936), ''Letter to Lord Byron'' and ''The Ascent of F6'' (both 1936), ''Letters from Ice
It is an odd book. Professor Mendelson claims that Auden ''became the most inclusive poet of the twentieth century, its most technically skilled, and its most truthful.'' The claim is loosely worded: Before it could make sense, virtually every adjective would have to be expounded, the necessary qualifications taken into account, judicious comparisons made. But in any case the claim is effectively refuted by the book itself. The dominant impression enforced by Professor Mendelson is that Auden's moral and intellectual vanity kept him at every moment of his early life excited and bewildered, able to talk loud but not to think straight. Going through the early poems and plays, Professor Mendelson finds, mostly, incoherence, contradiction, extravagance. Indeed, while he mocks those critics who thought of Auden as a permanent undergraduate, a glittering adolescent, he goes far toward proving them right. F.R. Leavis spoke of Auden achieving his early success in a context ''in which the natural appetite for kudos is not chastened by contact with mature standards, and in which fixed immaturity can take itself for something else.'' Professor Mendelson adverts to this assessment, without quoting it, but his account of Early Auden has the effect of confirming it.
In fact, he has little good to say about Early Auden. Most of his commentaries are impatient with what he regards as Auden's pretention. Virtually nothing elicits his approval or stirs him to warmth, except for ''A Summer Night'' (1933), a poem whose values were gained only to be lost again before the ink was dry. At one point Professor Mendelson refers with capitalized irony to ''critics for whom the young Auden is the One True Auden,'' and he makes it clear that he is not among them. But there is more, if not more good, to be said about the early Auden. His imagery has not worn well: Helmeted airmen, spies, groups of initiates crossing frontiers with doubtful passports, these have receded into the early cinema, Garboland, the stuff of revivals on Bleecker St. Auden did a lot of loose thinking under the guise of a meditation on History: For a man who wrote so much about this abstraction, his span of attention was remarkably short; he was mostly to be found twitching from one enthusiasm to another. Momentary vibrations were enthralling to him, so long as they were intense. He expressed passing opinions with the assertiveness, but not the authority, of convictions. When people are both unhappy and discerning, as Kenneth Burke has said, they tend to believe that their unhappiness is derived from their discernment. So in Auden's early poems and plays; but the belief did not assure him that he would make for himself a future consistent with his merit. Nevertheless, Auden's early work is more forceful than Professor Mendelson's account of it suggests. Bewildered as he often was, and unduly receptive to casual notions, he had a voice distinct from the other fainter voices which issued from much the same experiences. Empsom has praised Auden's ''curl of the lip,'' and it is worth a critic's while to ask how the lip got curled and what its curl meant. Besides, years were not wasted which yielded such poems as ''This Lunar Beauty,'' ''That Night When Joy Began,'' ''What Siren Zooming,'' ''Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,'' 'Miss Gee,'' ''The Watershed,'' ''Paysage Moralise'' and ''A Summer Night.'' The plays are interesting because they were written by the author of these poems, but not for any other reason.
Professor Mendelson is informative on the early influences: mainly T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Freud, John Layard, Homer Lane, D.H. Lawrence, the other Lawrence (T.E.), Trigant Burrow, Marx and Edward Upward. But these are standard issues by now. Sometimes he gets himself into such a hurry that he gets things wrong. A glance at Eliot's Criterion or at Perry Meisel's ''Twentieth Century Views on Freud'' would have saved him from the error of saying that ''Auden was the first imaginative writer in English to take Freud seriously -Lawrence dismissed him, Joyce derided him, everyone else ignored him.'' He makes a fuss about Auden's theory of the origin of language, but it is clear that the theory was Malinowski's rather than Auden's. These lapses issue, I think, from Professor Mendelson's impatience: He is anxious to move along to what really engages him, Later Auden. The implication of the present book is that the best thing about Early Auden was that he eventually thought straight enough to make himself Later Auden.
The change began, for Professor Mendelson, in the months between Auden's final decision to leave England, July 1938, and his departure for New York in January 1939. During that period, Professor Mendelson says in an arresting sentence, Auden ''sought poetic subjects in knowledge that he could share, rather than in knowledge that set him apart.'' At this point Professor Mendelson's book is nearly finished, but the best pages in it are the last; nothing becomes him so much as the warmth with which he points beyond this book to his next, a study of Later Auden. If it takes up where the vivacity of these last pages leaves off, it will be splendid. At the end, Professor Mendelson gives what I assume is the plot of the next volume:
''Without pomp or melodrama Auden has made the one discovery that can release him from his private island. All his daring splendid projects for changes of heart and history led to contradiction and defeat. But his small private hopes, which he had scarcely noticed, brought lasting rewards. For a young poet, praised by the crowd and conscious of his genius, this realization was both unsettling and exhilarating: if he was not so special as he hoped, then he need not be so isolated as he feared.''
Well said. There is clearly a relation between Auden's later styles and the decision to settle for minor recognitions in the absence of a grand unity. The later work has much to do with the middle style, music, opera, Christianity, the gratifications of weather and landscape. But these are matters for another book, Professor Mendelson's next.
Denis Donoghue is the Henry James Professor of Letters at New York University. His most recent book is ''FerociousAlphabets.'' Land'' (1937), ''On the Frontier'' (1938) and ' Journey To A War (1939)
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