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The Archbishop on poet W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

Wednesday 12th March 2008

A foreword from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, for the Guardian paper's "The Great Poets of the 20th Century".

Two things that are often said about great poets are that they create the taste by which they are appreciated and that they have the capacity constantly to reinvent themselves.  Auden illustrates these features perhaps more dramatically than any other of the great names of the twentieth century.  From his very earliest work (represented here by 'The Letter' of 1927), he created a distinctive verbal landscape and tone – and, especially in the early poems, a distinctive visual landscape as well.  But, while some aspects of the tone or register remain absolutely consistent, the landscape alters steadily and expands, sometimes towards a quite abstract subject matter, yet always with disciplined energy and, increasingly, with a particular skill in producing a sense of aphoristic solidity, a certain timelessness of perspective, unyielding, compassionate, distressingly honest at times.

Born in 1907, the third child of a doctor and his intensely intelligent and artistic wife, he was already writing and publishing serious, complex, authoritative poetry when an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford.  To his contemporaries, he had something of a mystique, and was widely seen as a guru in matters of poetic taste; that mystique survived through the thirties, when he and some of those most marked by his influence and friendship became an extraordinarily 'iconic' presence in British cultural life.  The fact that all of the group were in varying degrees involved in the tangled politics of the time, with strong affiliations to the Communist cause, gave special force to this presence.  Some of the poems of the thirties were instantly recognised as having a lasting and classical quality, like the unforgettable 'Lullaby.'

Guardian book 'Great poets of the 20th century'So it was all the more startling, even shocking, when Auden left the UK not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, and made his home in New York for most of the rest of his life.  The new context, and the impact of his deepest and longest-lasting sexual relationship, combined with a return to the High Church Anglican Christianity of his childhood to effect a marked change in both the style and scope of his work.  Several very long and ambitious pieces deal with issues of art and politics and theology, guilt, love, creation and violence in a voice characterised by astonishing metaphorical invention, intensity and difficulty.  His semi-serious remark that he would like to be remembered as 'a minor mid-Atlantic Goethe' reflects the ambition of this phase of his work in particular.  He is more than ever in his later work a 'learned' poet, yet the combination of this intimidatingly erudite background with colloquial language, irony and unfailing emotional directness makes him very different from other poets who paint from a dense palette of historical and literary allusion.  Somehow you don't simply respond by thinking, 'inaccessible'.

In his last years, personally none too happy, he moved around more between the USA and Europe, especially Austria, where he and his partner owned a house; and the poetry becomes just a little drier, with rather more pastiche and rather more resort to condensed, formal or epigrammatic vehicles.  But the intelligence is still unceasingly at work, more elegiac, sometimes more self-indulgent, often self-deflating.  He died of a heart attack in his Austrian home in 1973.

The early poetry – and some of his essays in poetic drama in the twenties and thirties - is full of what was to him the uniquely 'authoritative' landscape of Pennine limestone, isolated communities, mine-workings, cold skies and deep-rooted and revengeful violence, all serving not as a backcloth for any sort of regional mythmaking but as a set of framing metaphors for the social and political tragedy of the era, and, perhaps even more importantly, for the sense of doubleness and loneliness, being suspicious and creating suspicion, that was bound up at this point in his life with Auden's homosexuality.  The convoluted political context, with its rhetoric of covert operations, espionage and treachery, is inextricably connected with a muted but intensely felt sexual politics – of a very different kind from what we associate with the phrase in more reent decades.  The poetic voice is often that of someone obscurely working as a kind of double agent or trying to negotiate difficult border country.  The encounter with psychoanalysis in the thirties take this in a slightly different direction, and there is a steady movement towards an affirmation of time and bodies from which suspicion – but not irony – retreats. In what for some might seem a paradoxical development, the recovery of Christian belief and imagery allows for the poetry of hard but accepting self-awareness to be pervaded also by a sense of absolution mysteriously granted in advance, and of an elusive but overwhelming order of joy to which the poem compulsively moves ('Whitsunday in Kirchstetten').

The technical skill is always exceptional.  Auden familiarised himself with an immense world of poetic conventions in different languages and traditions and could produce superbly original examples of the most recondite disciplines of rhyme and syllabics.  You'd call it dazzling if it were not so all-pervading and (if not unobtrusive, at least) apparently intrinsic to the poetic argument and energy.

If I had to find one word for Auden's poetry, it might be 'satisfying' – not remotely in the sense of comfortable, but full of that sense of creative necessity that poetry conveys when it is most itself: this is how it must be said, this is (borrowing Geoffrey Hill's language) a poetry of 'atonement' where something is at the same time finished and set free in the fabric of the words.

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