Homage to Auden
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
W.H. Auden would have been 100 years old this past Wednesday, February 21. Yet, who today reads Auden or recalls the power of his elegies of Yeats and Melville or the existential depths of his theological questions in “New Year Letter” (1940) and “The Age of Anxiety” (1944-1946)? Short of some frequently anthologized poems—such as “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938)—Auden’s work seems to have fallen out of favor in a poetic world where the narrative poetry of Billy Collins, Charles Wright, and Donald Hall holds sway. To be sure, Hall’s poetry recalls the nervous angst and theological struggles (implicit in Hall; explicit in Auden) of Auden’s later poetry. Yet, Auden is mostly forgotten these days and certainly does not occupy the same place in the canon as his contemporary T.S. Eliot and his modernist poetry.
In the mid-twentieth century, Auden gave us some of our most invigorating poetry as he struggled with the themes of death, violence, purification, and rebirth. In “The Hidden Law” (1940), for example, Auden ponders the mysteries of the universe and its inexplicable operations as well as the ways that our mundane lives reveal—and conceal—the ambiguities of love, happiness, despair, and death.
The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.
It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
The Hidden Law.
Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die:
When we escape It in a car,
When we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law.
Auden gives free reign to his humor and the ironic pathos of the life of an individual in a bureaucracy in “The Unknown Citizen” (1939). “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be/One against whom there was no official complaint . . . And our teachers report that he never interfered with their [his children’s] education./Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
While we can celebrate Auden’s birthday by quoting his poetry, we can also honor Auden by turning to one of his most trenchant critics, Randall Jarrell, who remains one of America’s best critics. Thanks to Stephen Burt—whose Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia, 2002) is the single best account of Jarrell’s powerful work and his relationships with contemporary critics such as Delmore Schwartz, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—we now have many of Jarrell’s reflections on Auden collected in one volume. In Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (Columbia University Press; 200 pages; $36.50), Burt makes available for the first time the lectures that Jarrell delivered at Princeton in 1951 and 1952. Burt observes that “a sympathetic reader might also see in Jarrell’s acceptances and rejections not only evidence of long, careful attention but the most intense and continued reading Auden had yet received in America—a stimulus of judgments of our own.”
In his first lecture, Jarrell observes that “Auden’s originality is plainer than his influences, and he is, very obviously, one of the most original poets alive.” Yet, when Jarrell writes about Auden’s prose, he pulls no punches: “The French call a typewriter a machine for writing; Auden, often, is a machine for generalizing.”
In his second lecture, Jarrell points out the move to religion in the poetry of Auden’s middle period. “In the poetry of his middle period Auden is always praying or exhorting, but he prays to some abstract, eclectic Something-Or-Other, who is asked in vague and elevating language for vague and elevating abstractions.”
Finally, the later Auden, according to Jarrell, becomes an “automaton that keeps making brilliant little jokes.” In particular, The Age of Anxiety is a work that is almost impossible for a lover of Auden’s poetry to be just to; while one reads it, one feels the man who, during the 1930s, was one of the five or six best poets in the world, has gradually turned into a rhetoric-mill grinding away at the bottom of Limbo . . . into an automaton . . . that compulsively and unendingly and uneasily as a neurotic washes his hands.”
Reading Jarrell on Auden not only drives us to pick up Auden’s poetry and reread it, but it also urges us to seek out Jarrell’s original and still compelling critical voice in volumes such as Poetry and the Age and A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. Reading Jarrell on Auden alongside Auden’s own poems is a fitting way to wish Auden a happy centennial birthday.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at