Friday, July 7, 2017

Letter to Lord Byron by W. H. Auden

Source of book: I own this - my wife found a copy of the complete Auden in hardback for my 40th birthday.

Apparently, it has been an entire six years since I sat down and read some Auden - it seems impossible, but I read Paid on Both Sides and his early poems (1927-1932) back in 2011. That was before I started this blog, and was just writing notes in Facebook about what I was reading. That review is linked above in its re-formated blog version.

I had originally intended to read The Age of Anxiety, but I confess I wasn’t able to get into it, and decided to find another option. If nothing else, the last year has been one of anxiety for me, in significant part caused by the re-emergence of open Nazis in our society and their embrace by my former political party and many of my faith tradition. Anyway, it was a bit much, so I set it aside for a later time.

Instead, I took the simplest approach and picked up where I left off last time. Having read the two earliest sections in the book, I read the next, which happened to be the rather long poem, Letter to Lord Byron.

This poem came at an interesting juncture in Auden’s life. He had had an epiphany in Berlin in 1928, in which he realized he desired to be a poet. Lacking a reputation or sufficient funds to live as an idle gentleman, he took the usual route at the time of getting a job teaching at an English public school. (This is what we Americans would call a private school...those silly Brits…) After a few years of this - and some success for his poems, plays, collaborations, and prose - he set off on trips to Iceland, then China, with the intent to write about his trips. After this, he would settle down in the United States, writing and teaching at various universities. 

 Auden in 1939

Letter to Lord Byron was written in 1936, between the two trips. The poem is a commentary on modern (for then) life, informing Byron of the changes and how he and Auden would be perceived in each era. Auden takes the time to talk about contemporary writers and fads and ideas, generally in a nostalgic vein. The final section of the poem contains a good deal of autobiographical information: Audent tells of his time at school, his epiphany in Berlin, his years of teaching, and his trip to Iceland. Both the commentary and the autobiography are fascinating, quite witty, and full of delightful use of the language.

The poem has a form rather unusual for its time: Rhyme Royal. The stanzas have seven lines, with the rhyme scheme of ABABBCC, with iambic pentameter as the meter. Chaucer used the form in several of the Canterbury Tales, as well as in a few other poems. The form was popular for a while - Spenser used it -  but went out of fashion by Elizabethan times. However Shakespeare resurrected it for The Rape of Lucrece. It pretty much fell into disuse, with only a few poets giving it an occasional turn. Wordsworth wrote one, but it really is this poem by Auden that can be said to be the most memorable use of the form in the last few hundred years.

Auden starts off by apologising for bothering Byron, but notes that he just read Don Juan on the boat to Iceland, and liked it, so maybe Byron will do him the favor of reading his letter. He also asks pardon for using Rhyme Royal rather than Ottava Rima, but says at least his will be cheery.

He also mentions that he debated who to write to. He considered writing to Jane Austen, but he felt intimidated writing to a novelist - he was a mere poet. On the other hand, Auden had no fear of shocking old Jane:

You could not shock her more that she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

The whole tone of the poem is as tongue in cheek as this. Later, he describes his project of writing a travel book, which is sure to irritate his publisher with its digressions - even as he notes that digressions are indeed traditional in the genre. At that point, he has already rhymed “point” and “joint,” and needs one more for his “B” rhyme. Uh oh.

But now I’ve got uncomfortable suspicions,
I’m going to put their patience out of joint.
Though it’s in keeping with the best traditions
For Travel Books to wander from the point
(There is no other rhyme except anoint),
The well may charge me with - I’ve no defences -
Obtaining money under false pretences.

As many a poetic soul has done, Auden bemoans the problems of modernity - particularly compared with the fairytale. No longer can one go out and fight the dragon with sword. Instead, the mundane problems of poverty and macroeconomics and bureaucracy. Auden realizes, however, that the dragons have never gone away.

Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and to-day he still
Swinges the horror of his scaley tail.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

Milton beheld him on the English throne,
And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;
The hermits fought him in their caves alone,
At the first Empire he was also there,
Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:
He comes in dreams at puberty to man,
To scare him back to childhood if he can.

Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,
Whenever he’s lost faith in choice and thought,
When a man sees the future without hope,
Whenever he endorses Hobbes’ report
“The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,”
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.

It’s not too hard to see what Auden is thinking of here. Hitler had come to power in Germany a few short years prior, and to many, including Winston Churchill, the looming world war was already seeming increasingly inevitable. Auden goes on to paraphrase Tacitus:

He that in Athens murdered Socrates,
And Plato then seduced, prepares to make
A desolation and to call it peace…

And this is what tyrants do. It was also hard not to see the present in this, with multitudes losing hope, and embracing one promising a return to the glorious (and fictitious) past, and set up law and order against the “others.” And authoritarianism rises again, making a desert and calling it peace.

I love the last lines in the first stanza above:

In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

This really is a significant part of what attracts people both to demagogues like Le Toupee and to religious hucksters like Bill Gothard. Change - particularly change that addresses the injustices of history - is uncomfortable for a lot of people, and in our nation today, there are many who really, really want to return to a time when women and brown people knew their place. And both Trump and Gothard appeal to that in different but similar ways with their toxic visions of masculinity and power and their demonizing of non-whites and their cultures. Auden tends to be perceptive in his writing, and there is a lot in this poem that fingers some uncomfortable truths.

I also was intrigued by a passage in the autobiographical section. Auden speaks of his days in school during World War One. He notes that pretty much all the able bodied and able minded men were sent off to war, leaving the schools to be taught by the elderly - and by those who weren’t exactly fit for duty.

However, he mentions one eccentric character, who he gives the pseudonym “Reginald.” This teacher apparently departed from the acceptable curriculum intended to edify and instead telling scandalous tales of the outside world.

“Half a lunatic, half a knave.” No doubt
A holy terror to the staff at tea;
A good headmaster must have soon found out
Your moral character was all at sea;
I question if you’d got a pass degree:
But little children bless your kind that knocks
Away the edifying stumbling blocks.

Like Auden, I am a divergent thinker, and have never been able to just do what everyone else wants. So I can readily bring to mind several people in the category of this teacher (including a sunday school teacher or two who treated us like adults, not little kids…) Judging from how many of us who spent time in cultic groups specifically calculated to enforce rigid cultural and political conformity turned out later, much of this “edification” has turned out to be real stumbling blocks to us later. Thank god for the ones who kicked them away.

A few stanzas later, Auden adds this:

I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
Our hatred for weeds of any kind.
Slogans are bad: the best that I can find
Is this: “Let each child have that’s in our care
As much neurosis as the child can bear.”

I smile at that line every time.

Auden finishes by contemning “Normality” as being the source of no less than murder, committed in the name of conformity. Auden would know. As a gay man, he lived in an era when his sort were rather routinely murdered or imprisoned.

But I do think Auden had one thing wrong about this. It isn’t a “modern trick” at all. (He probably knew this, but poetry and hyperbole go hand in glove.) Rather, it is that same timeless “Dragon” he describes earlier, the forces of conformity - and the obverse: hatred of the “other.” The two are, of course, inseparable. Likewise, much of what we see in our modern reactionary waves are driven by that desperate determination to defend the dying forces of history to the very bitter end.

What I probably like the most about this poem is that it contains gems like these in what is mostly a humorous and wry poem. There is nothing of despair in it, more a gentle laugh at the expense of folies of all this. Things would, in time, become deadly, deadly serious. Millions would lose their lives. But we must also laugh in the midst, or we would go mad. My hope is that, like the dying forces of nationalistic imperialism that gripped Germany in the 1930s, our own moment may too meet its demise with the next generation. Auden was a youngish man on the cusp of the World War, and his generation in Europe was the key to rejecting the poisonous ideas of the Nineteenth Century and building what has been a remarkably peaceable and stable Europe after literally centuries of nearly endless fighting. My own generation and my children’s generation have a lot of work to do to undo the damage of the last few years. But I believe it can be done.




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