WH Auden



Thoughts on the English poet

“The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of living” (Auden, WH “In memory of WB Yeats”).

Almost 50 years ago, poetry lost Wystan Hugh Auden (1887-1973). Poet who alongside TS Eliot and Ezra Pound[I] forms a great triad of modern poetry in the English language. It is worth mentioning that his poetry complements the aesthetic spectrum of this modern production. WH Auden is far from both, he does not share the same cultural and literary universe. Your strain is another, it's another, your class. The political perspective contributes a lot to this distancing. After all, Eliot is a conservative Christian; Pound, a fascist, supporter of Mussolini and Auden is an Oxford graduate who participated in the republican resistance in the Spanish Civil War, a man of the left. These data in the comparison between the poets and in the observation of the poetry of the three are operative for the intellection of this poetic moment.

Definitively, the political diversity that we find in this trio is the proof that good poetry does not need, it does not depend on, the assumed political bias. Good poetry has no race, creed, ideology or gender. It has poetry: condensed language, aesthetically constructed. The poetic depends on dexterity with words, understanding their musicality, their rhythm, their message – I think of Jakobson.

It depends on how they, the words, are arranged on the sheet of paper, the skin of the poem, and on its syntax, a living body in rich order. It depends on how the words are used, in the obvious denotation or in the suggestive connotation from a lexical selection. It depends on the invention of new meanings, when tropes are applied and the relationship between the meaning and the expressed form that produces an unrecognizable strangeness and then, at the speed of light, transforms itself into something luminous, vibrant, ethereal … poetry. Thus, these poets are equivalent, as they are in tune in the act of writing good poetry.

Since the greatest characteristic of poetry is its universality, which, without a doubt, is associated with the character of truth that words assume in each possible reading, after all, as WH Auden says in the epigraph “the words of a dead man change in the bowels of the living.” Auden himself, however, had already warned that the truths contained in the readings are finite and can be organized hierarchically: the most true, the doubtful, the certainly false and the absurd.

So I deal with the real ones. They are the ones who manage, from the singular and individual particularity, to reach the universal that afflicts, touches, silences us all. The poetic universe, therefore, is the space in which individuality, personality and personality expand and manage to reach the whole. It was not otherwise that Aristotle in the well-known chapter 9 of Poetics proposed that poetry is more philosophical and elevated than history: “the historian and the poet do not differ, because they write in verse and prose (…) they do differ, in that one says the things that happened and the other what could happen. That is why poetry is more philosophical and higher than history, since the former refers to the universal and the latter to the particular”.

However, uniqueness can arise from different materials, if the composition process is observed. It can come, for example, from real facts, from what has been experienced, or it can arise from a fruitful, absolutely hypothetical moment. And in this way, Drummond's poetry is distinguished (When I was born a crooked angel / one of those who live in the shadows / said: Vai Carlos! Ser left in life[ii]) and Pessoa (The poet is a pretender./ He pretends so completely that he even pretends he is pain/ The pain he truly feels[iii]), or even that of Eliot (Present time and past time / Are both perhaps present in future time / And a future time contained in past time. / If all time is eternally present / All time is irredeemable[iv]) and Auden's:

A uttered sentence makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do;
We doubt the speaker, not tong we hear:
Words have no words for words that are not true
Syntactically, thought, it must be clear,
One cannot change the subject half-way thought,
Nor alter voltages to appease the ear:
Arcadian tales are hard-luck stories too.
But we should want to gossip all the time,
Were fact not fiction for at its best,
Or find a charm in syllables that rhyme,
Were not our fate by verbal chance expressed,
As rustics in a ring-dance pantomime
The Knight at some lone cross-roads of his quest?[v]

A world is born from the uttered phrase
Where everything happens as it is;
In the word the word is committed:
To the speech, not to the speaker, the endorsement is given.
Clear is the syntax, and more: that nothing
Change the theme to its natural flow
Don't even trade times for love for nothing
For there are sad versions of pastoral.
For an endless blah blah
If facts are our best fiction?
Before the verb easily found
Than gives rhyme to false enchantment,
Which zagais dance pampers the unfathomable
Knight wandering in solitude[vi]

Self "were fact fiction for us its best” – the facts are our best fiction, would Auden be the poet, due to his attachment to the real, reductive, limited or something less, smaller? Absolutely not. In the same way as certain Drummond when he says that “time is my matter, the present time, the present men, the present life”[vii], neither is it. Therefore, the dichotomy between real matter and fictitious matter cannot be a determining factor that qualifies the lyrical effusion of the York poet.

Understanding that his poetic material could not be unreal, it is worth observing under which influences WH Auden produced his work. Reading some poems, we see him involved sometimes with Marxist theories, sometimes with Freudian ones, sometimes with an existential Christianity, which will make him relegate, to a certain extent, his homoaffectivity and his Marxism at the end of his life.

On the other hand, we also have that his work adheres to the physical space since there is an English Auden and an American since he became naturalized in 1939. Both, however, worked on the same real subject, the best fiction.

Edmund Wilson, in a brief text "WH Auden in America” of 1956, warns that, despite Auden's genius being basically English and that includes his restlessness, his wealth, his obstinacy, his daring and his eccentricity, America would have provided him with a mind that feels itself at the center of things and this would have given him a point of view that is inter- or supranational, bringing him closer to a more-than-perfect lyrical universality. On the other hand, José Paulo Paes, an excellent translator for the poet, in fact, an excellent translator, says that “the American phase is marked by a metaphysical concern almost always absent in the English phase, in which political and psychological concerns predominate”.

From this perspective, I observe that Auden's Marxism is more viscerally attached to youth. This political-ideological hue, however, should not indicate that his texts are pieces of pamphlet propaganda, something almost always – there are exceptions – anti-literary. Rather, poetry is coated with a critical character of the circumstances surrounding bourgeois exploitation and seeks to constitute an alert to the conscience of the human race. There is in the poet, therefore, no characteristic of engaged poetry, stricto sensu, who use literature as a label for purposes that do not belong to it, that is, mere propaganda. I read:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expenditure of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.[viii]

Today the inevitable increase in the chances of dying,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder;
Today the expenditure of powers
In the boring, ephemeral pamphlet and boring rally.
The stars are dead; animals do not see.
We are alone with the day that has fallen to us and time is short and the
History on the verge of defeat
You can say woe but you cannot absolve or help us.[ix]

Poetry does not differ from the poetry of Eliot and Pound only by the choice of matter to be worked on, its attitude towards the world is different. However, we cannot fail to observe that the influence of the Poundian canon is easily verifiable in the production of the poets of the 30s and this includes Auden. The future temporal dimension that for Eliot and Pound was non-existent, after all we were in The Waste Land [X], a truth from which there was no way out, in the poetry of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis[xi] and others reverted to utopia in close relationship with the political option.

Auden's experience with Freud began in 1928 when he discovered the theories of Homer Lane and Georg Groddeck in Berlin.[xii]. The former an American psychologist, the latter a German psychoanalyst whose conceptions about desire and psychosomatic illnesses were much more incisive than those of Freud himself, who is seen by Auden like this:

But he wishes us more than this: to be free
Is often lonely; he would unite
The unique moieties fractured
By our own well-meaning sense of justice, 

Would restore to the larger the wit and will
The smaller possessions but can only use
For arid disputes, would give back to
The son the mother's richness of feeling.[xiii]

But he didn't want more than that. Be free
It's often being alone. He took care to unite
broken uneven halves
by our good intention to be just;

to give back to the elders the sharpness and the will
that minors have and use
in foolish disputes, give back
to the son the opulence of the maternal feeling[xiv]

The American phase, in turn, is basically of an existential character, which is the result of its reconversion to Anglicanism. Its philosophical basis is Kierkegaard[xv], for whom, in the words of Paes, “God was infinitely distant from man, faith had to be blind as a leap in the dark and anguish was the price to pay for the fatal freedom of having to choose by ourselves what to do at each moment of our lives without any guide to guide us in the choice”. Such a predisposition surely justifies Wilson's statement about his supranational position. In addition, it brings you closer to the topos romantic of the “fall” to which every human being is subject, when the imperfections of the human race, its restlessness, its defects, its agonies emerge, shaped in the poetic work as solution and sublimity.

In addition to these aspects of Auden's poetry, there are two more that are not limited to his time-space. Rather, they run through his entire output: the rhetoric and poetics of simplicity – I like to think of Bandeira – and the classical influx.

In an article published in a newspaper (The state of Sao Paulo 23/08/1998), Philip Hensher makes an interesting point. He says: “Often [Auden's poetry] asks the reader to consult a dictionary, to understand lines like 'Epannaleptics, rhopalics, analytical acrostics' (apanaleptic, ropalic, anacyclic acrostics[xvi]), or, just as often, a biographical dictionary, allowing the reader to follow along when he begins to compare himself'with Bradford or with Cottam, that will do'[xvii]. But he is not a poet who, like Pound or Zukofsky, requires a whole library to read his works. Complete Poems. "

Indeed, Hensher's assertion is correct, but it is not prudent to approach this poetics of something prosaic. It is configured as a project that foresees the effect of meaning, as it usually happens with great poets. In Portuguese we have Bandeira and some Oswald, which, however simple they may seem, constitute a source of biographical and intertextual references that can never be disregarded. The rhetoric of simplicity, therefore, aims to convey a simple appearance, however there is little simple in the process that engenders it.

In this way, even though we don't need a library to understand him, we cannot naively observe his poetry as if we were reading a newspaper article. After all, we are dealing with poetry and this one does not admit, whatever it may be, a neutral, shy or naive look. It must be remembered, despite the referential appearance, that we are facing a code, used to meaning effects that are a necessary part of the message.

It is true that, by proposing the apparently simple to the detriment of the complex, Auden displaces the effect of the immediate act of reading to the act of intellection, that is, provoking a delay in the hidden complexity. What could just be a joke or reworking of an anecdote expands into much greater meanings and truths, read:

Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.[xviii]

Let us honor, as an ideal,
upright man,
although we value
Just the horizontal one.[xx]

Therefore, part of the criticism that understands Auden's poetry is wrong, because it is so simple, it does not need comments. There are countless sources of it, countless questions that involve it, the result, the poem, the perfect matter in conjunction with reality, pure fiction.

* Paulo Martins is a professor of Classical Letters at USP. Author, among other books, of Representation and its limits (Edusp).



[I] Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) and Ezra Weston Loomis Pound (1885-1972).

[ii] Drummond de Andrade, C. “Poema de Sete Faces”.

[iii] Pessoa, F. “Autopsychography”.

[iv] Eliot, TS "Four Quartets".

[v] Auden, WH "Words".

[vi] Translation by João Moura Júnior.

[vii] Drummond de Andrade, C. “Mãos Dadas”.

[viii] Auden, WH "Spain".

[ix] Translation by José Paulo Paes.

[X] Poem by Eliot published in 1922 whose theme is great war.

[xi] Stephen Harold Spender (1908-1995) and Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972).

[xii] Homer Lane (1875-1925) and Georg Walther Groddeck (1866-1934).

[xiii] Auden, WH "In Memory of Sigmund Freud".

[xiv] Translation by José Paulo Paes.

[xv] Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1885)

[xvi] Auden, WH "The Epigoni".

[xvii] Auden, WH "Letter to Lord Byron".

[xviii] Auden, WH "Dedication to Christopher Isherwood".

[xx] Translation by José Paulo Paes.

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