Auden's Apologies for Poetry

Auden's Apologies for Poetry

Lucy McDiarmid
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 200
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    Auden's Apologies for Poetry
    Book Description:

    Common wisdom has it that when Auden left England for New York in January 1939, he had already written his best poems. He left behind (most critics believe) all the idealisms of the 1930s and all serious concerns to become an unserious poet, a writer of ingenious, agreeable, minor lyrics. Lucy McDiarmid argues that such readers, spoiled by the simple intensities of apocalypse, distort and misjudge Auden's greatest work. She shows that once Auden was freed from the obligation to criticize and reform the society of his native country, he devoted his imaginative energies to commentary on art. And about art he was never complaisant: with greater passion than he had ever used to undermine "bourgeois" society, Auden undermined literature. Every major poem and every essay became a retractio, a statement of art's frivolity, vanity, and guilt. Auden's Apologies for Poetry, then, sets forth the unorthodox notion that the chief subject of later, "New Yorker" Auden is the insignificance of poetry. Commenting on all the major poems and essays from the 1930s through the 1960s, and analyzing manuscript revisions and unpublished works, it charts the changes in Auden's poetics in the light of his shift from an oral to a written model of poetry. In his earliest work Auden voices the tentative hope that poems can be like loving spoken words, transforming and redeeming, themselves carriers of value. After 1939 he takes for granted a written model. His later essays and poems deny art spiritual value, claiming that "love, or truth in any serious sense" is a "reticence," the unarticulated worth that exists--if at all--outside the words on the page. Later Auden creates a poetics of apology and self-deprecation, a radical undermining of poetry itself.

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6084-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION The Finest Tumbler of His Day
    (pp. 3-13)

    By some accounts Auden was the finest tumbler of his day.

    “The Ballad of Barnaby,” a libretto written for the students of a Connecticut prep school in 1969, constitutes a nostalgic apology for poetry (EG42—46). Barnaby’s spiritual history is Auden’s as it would have been in a simpler world, the kind of world in which poems like “The Ballad of Barnaby” are not written.

    Thisfaux-naïfnarrative—illustrated by Edward Gorey in 1972—tells the story of a religious awakening.¹ Barnaby is a performer, pleasing the crowd with his gymnastic feats: “The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne,...

  7. CHAPTER ONE Pardon and “Pardon”
    (pp. 14-45)

    “Pardon’s the word to all,” announces Shakespeare’s unbamboozled Cymbeline, shedding holy tears as lovers join in an atmosphere of universal charity. The line, one of Auden’s favorites, echoes through his poems and essays for years. Pardon, along with “unbamboozled,” implies reconciliation: the harmony of the dancing bridal pairs comes into being when errors are corrected and faults forgiven. If only for the duration of a grand finale, the dancers mirror a heavenly order. The idealized scene of warmth and pardon recurs over the centuries, whenever “earthly things made even / Atone together”; when Count Almaviva, more unbamboozled even than Cymbeline,...

  8. CHAPTER TWO The Generous Hour: Poems and Plays of the 1930s
    (pp. 46-72)

    Father Christmas and Freud, kind grandfatherly figures with beards, benevolent, generous, and authoritative, precipitate weddings. They are sources of spiritual influx: both patriarchs liberate an erotic drive that develops into a love with redemptive powers. InPaid on Both Sides(1928) Father Christmas presides over the dream that reveals the frozen, imprisoned “Man-Woman,” embodiment of all sexual forces, and Freud (of “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” 1939) releases the “household of Impulse.” John Nower’s dream ends with a ritual that reconciles the “Accuser” and “Accused,” who then “plant a tree” together (CLP25). Freud, also working at the level of...

  9. CHAPTER THREE The Other Side of the Mirror: New Year Letter, For the Time Being, and The Sea and the Mirror
    (pp. 73-118)

    “Whereas in life”: this unobtrusive phrase from Auden’s 1943 speech lies at the heart of the long poems Auden was writing in the early 1940s. Whereas in life: the phrase implies two planes, one artificial, one not. Whereas-in-life is built into the genres ofNew Year Letter(written 1940),For the Time Being(written 1941–1942), andThe Sea and the Mirror(written 1942–1944), genres otherwise unalike: a letter substitutes for the voice, the performers of an oratorio look out at the life they mimic, the “commentary” onThe Tempestsituates itself after the play. The long poems adopt...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Apologies for Poetry: Poems 1948–1973
    (pp. 119-158)

    “But perhaps you think poems are as foolish / as most poets,” Auden remarks in “Epistle to a Godson,” deprecating the previous eighty lines of his poem and implicitly apologizing for whatever follows (EG6, 1969). The “epistle” to Auden’s godson Philip Spender devotes most of its time to explaining why it cannot be written: its author, says the poem, has no authority. Auden undermines his own status from the beginning: “who am I to avouch for any Christian / baby, far less offer ghostly platitudes / to a young man?” And, farther on, “I speak from experience, how could...

  11. CONCLUSION Writing This for You to Open When I Am Gone
    (pp. 159-168)

    All access is blocked; the border is absolute. The stage dissolves only to reveal another stage: there is no crossing over. The prompter who echoes Ariel is only a “Prompter”—not a breathing human being like you, outsideThe Sea and the Mirror, but eight black letters on a white page. Poetry makes nothing happen: “if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.”¹ There is still “no change of place,” as Auden wrote in 1930, but the border is now the margin at...

  12. APPENDIX: The Manuscript Drafts of New Year Letter, Part III, Opening Passage
    (pp. 169-172)
  13. Index
    (pp. 173-176)