Auden in Isolation

Harry Goodwin 26 April 2020
Image credit: Wikimedia commons

June 1933 was, as Vice-Chancellor Toope would put it, a difficult and uncertain time. Hitler had won power a few months earlier; the Great Depression was ruining people’s lives across the world. Britain was experiencing an epidemic of middle-class job cuts. W.H. Auden, then twenty-six, was as appalled as any compassionate citizen. But he was also happier than ever.

Auden’s poetry had until then consisted of elusive fragments, stylish but baffling patches of verse which hinted at a withheld private myth: ‘You are the one whose part it is to lean,/ For whom it is not good to be alone’. It was his way of expressing his gayness without outing himself to a persecution-minded world. In their opacity, these early poems mirror his feelings of exclusion from intimacy. They’re hard work, and not always rewarding.

Then things started working out for Auden. Amid the economic carnage, he found a teaching gig in Worcestershire. It got him the money to travel and write; the gorgeous Malvern Hills were a bonus. More to the point, he made friends and may have found love. It meant the world to the shy, gay, self-reproaching poet.

In June, he had what he would later call a ‘vision of agape’, the highest form of love. He was sitting on the school lawn with three common-room friends. It was a one of those faintly magical English summer evenings, calm but a little hot-under-the-collar. Auden felt sun-drunk: ‘quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened’. An irresistible ‘power’ seemed to engulf him. ‘For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it meant to love one’s neighbour as oneself’.

Auden’s newfound happiness startled him. He felt ‘lucky’, to use a word which crops up a lot in his poems. But he also felt uneasy. The world was falling to pieces; he wanted to be a good citizen. The tension between his private affections and public duties threatened to shatter his personal idyll. How to square his ‘metaphysical distress’ with his ‘kindness to ten persons’?

‘A Summer Night’ recounts the night of Auden’s vision: the peace, the tenderness, the something-in-the-air aura of sex. If you care about this kind of thing, it marks his arrival at the plain-spoken, big-hearted, slightly preachy idiom of his conflicted-leftie period. That phase produced the urgent, public-spirited, Auden poems which everyone knows, or ought to know: ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, ‘September 1, 1939’. George Orwell, in one of his Toryish moods, detected in them ‘a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing’. But back to the garden:

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers

All is well. But the intrusions of an evil world give this happiness a tragic, elegiac cast: ‘Soon through the dykes of our content/ The crumpling flood will force a rent’. Will these friends stay together? Or will history’s acid burn their bonds?

Auden’s hope, expressed in the closing stanzas, is that friendship will not only endure but give him the strength – the confidence in human goodness – to help rebuild a battered world. Intimate love will flower into universal love, and universal love will validate intimate love:

May this for which we dread to lose
Our privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong

Auden trends during public crises: AIDS, 9/11. The current pandemic should be no different. It is keeping us apart from our friends long enough for us to wonder if things will be quite the same when we reunite. (October? 2021?) Self-isolation will show us how much, or how little, they matter to us and we to them; how much, or how little, of life’s meaning stems from sitting in rings with them, talking about nothing much.

But friendships die, as we all find out at one point or another. Sometimes they explode; sometimes they fade into small-talk or silence. The stress and tedium of lockdown will sever many a bond. Later on in life, Auden would learn that the people you love are the people who can break your heart. His youthful confidence in ‘luck’ hardened into a count-your-blessings stoicism. Right now, we turn to the young Auden to console us, and to the old Auden to stiffen our spines.

Intimate love does not proceed as neatly to universal love as Auden hoped that June evening. Only poetry, with its brief, silent communion of hearts between poet and reader, can forge a harmony between the two. As he wrote in 1937, the best we can do – we must do – is to ‘love your crooked neighbour/ With your crooked heart’. Most of us will never again feel such an acute strain between our obligations as citizens and our longings as friends. Present hurt affirms past fondness. Let’s be better friends when we meet again, and be better citizens for it. For the time being, all we can do is, however crookedly, match Auden’s hope

That later we, though parted then
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look


‘A Summer Night – To Geoffrey Hoyland’

Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June;
Forests of green have done complete
The day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.

Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working place;
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms,
Are good to the newcomer.

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening,
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
From leaves with all its dove-like pleading
Its logic and its powers.

That later we, though parted then
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

Moreover, eyes in which I learn
That I am glad to look, return
My glances every day;
And when the birds and rising sun
Waken me, I shall speak with one
Who has not gone away.

Now North and South and East and West
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all:
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.

She climbs the European sky;
Churches and power stations lie
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers,
And blankly as an orphan stares
Upon the marvellous pictures.

To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here; though we
Whom hunger cannot move,
From gardens where we can feel secure
Look up, and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her Eastern bow,
What violence is done;
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

The creepered wall stands up to hide
The gathering multitudes outside
Whose glances hunger worsens;
Concealing from their wretchedness
Our metaphysical distress,
Our kindness to ten persons.

And now no path on which we move
But shows already traces of
Intentions not our own,
Thoroughly able to achieve
What our excitement could conceive,
But our hands left alone.

For what by nature and by training
We loved, has little strength remaining.
Though we would gladly give
The Oxford colleges, Big Ben,
And all the birds in Wicken Fen,
It has no wish to live.

Soon through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent,
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river-dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears;
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears:

May this for which we dread to lose
Our privacy, need to excuse
But to that strength belong;
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned voices of his parents rise
In unlamenting song.

After discharges of alarm,
All unpredicted may it calm
The pulse of nervous nations;
Forgive the murderer in his glass
Tough in patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.