W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet by Charles Osborne
(Eyre Methuen, London, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York)
C. Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life by Sean Day-Lewis
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London)
The reviews of two recent biographies — Charles Osborne’s W. H. Auden and Sean Day-Lewis’s life of his father, C. Day-Lewis — have been nearly as interesting as the books themselves. “MacSpaunday” remains a bone of contention for the British literary intelligentsia, perhaps because his collective reputation is mixed up with memories of the 1930s, a period which throws a long shadow, to the extent that nobody is certain whether all the spies have yet been flushed. The amount of embarrassed soul-searching which is evidently involved makes me very aware that I am from another country. But it sometimes happens that the foreigner’s view gains clarity from detachment. What matters most about MacSpaunday is that at least two of his components wrote enduring poetry. Whether Auden will be thought of as the genius and MacNeice as merely the master craftsman is a question not likely to be answered just yet. My own guess is that MacNeice will eventually be regarded as Auden’s equal, if not in stature then at least in individuality. The only reason he was ever ranked lower was that he never influenced anybody, since he worked tricks that only a first-rate verbal talent could even try to copy. Anybody could try to copy Auden.
That was why all the young writers were ready to agree that Auden spoke for his generation. They thought they could talk that way too. Even at its least artful, the poetry of a man like MacNeice reminds the dabbler that he has no gift; even at its most artful, the poetry of a man like Auden makes any reader feel like a writer. The changes that make common phrases memorable seem so small, so easy. He was recognised immediately as a magician, but always those who did the recognising thought of him as their magician. Why, this man says our thoughts aloud! Hence the possessiveness. And they are possessive about him still. In nearly all the reviews of Charles Osborne’s book the chief concern has been that Auden, their Auden, should not be traduced.
Well, he hasn’t been. Osborne’s book is light-toned and often distinctly unscholarly, but it has caught the man. That it did not also concern itself with catching the great poet was perhaps a tactical error. Tom Paulin, in the New Statesman, caned the book for leaving out Auden’s high seriousness as an artist. He did not consider the possibility that Osborne was showing good manners in taking that for granted. There is also a possibility that Osborne simply did not recognise high seriousness in Auden, but this seems unlikely, since he has been so good at recognising it in Verdi. Books with the appropriate gravity will come in time — probably too gravid and certainly too many of them. This one has the gossipy actuality of a lived life. As with Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind, there is not much that it shirks. Auden comes out of it as a sad man in old age, and not very appealing in his prime — if what you want from genius is good behaviour and easy manners. According to this account his homosexuality hurt nobody, not even himself, but he had an overbearing manner and a full catalogue of disgusting personal habits to go with it, most of them focused on the unassuageable need to cram things into his mouth. He blamed untimely weaning — a tip to his biographer, who sensibly starts at the beginning.
Auden’s childhood was apparently very happy, like Benjamin Britten’s. For both of them there seems to have been enough love and encouragement to suggest that the middle class is a useful one for talent to be born into. A homosexual mentor called Michael Davidson helped to guide Auden’s precocious mental development, but there was no suggestion at that stage of rebellion against his upbringing. Unusually among bright lads, Auden honoured his parents from the start. He always held that a child deserved as much neurosis as it could stand, but it is hard to see where his own share might have come from if he had not been homosexual. Even then his originality was mainly the concomitant of talent. Most of his eccentricities sprang from dedication. His version of Oxford aestheticism mainly confined itself to a strange choice of clothes. Probably he just bought the first clothes he saw in the window and put on the first he found in the morning. There was no lobster-walking: the poses he struck were all intellectual. What wowed his contemporaries was the way he said things, especially when he wrote them down. They found him overwhelmingly original and obviously they were right. His decisions were different from theirs. He was being driven by the complicated instinct of a great gift. When he got interested in Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen, or decided to ape Eliot’s eclectic references by sowing his own work with scientific phraseology, he was not making arbitrary choices but following an impulse. His friends, not following an impulse but making arbitrary choices, were bound to be bowled over. Osborne paraphrases their worship, which few of them have ever made any secret of. Stephen Spender is disarmingly frank about his adoration in World Within World and Day-Lewis went on record with his immortal ‘Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!’, which is an easy line to laugh at but should remind us that hero worship can look quite logical when there is a real hero about. Day-Lewis wasn’t alone in the sentiment — he merely had the misfortune to put it in the most durably excruciating form.
Wystan was a Wunderkind. The question turns on how long he remained a Kind. It is usually true that the bigger the talent, the slower it ripens into wisdom. Auden’s was a prodigiously creative mind at play. Among the things it played with was politics. Nowadays there are serious people who find it hard to forgive the 1930s intellectuals for their infatuation with Communism, but if the serious people were as serious as they think they are they would do a better job of imagining the past. Osborne has been punished in some of the reviews for missing the nuances of the English class system. As his fellow Australian I suppose I could be convicting myself of an equal obtuseness by saying that I can’t see he has missed much. He has brought out the cosy, resolutely chauvinistic insularity in which the young middle-class English poets could rebel against their comfortable upbringing by condemning what they conceived to be a capitalist society. He has also assumed, surely correctly, that the young people of the time had good reasons for supposing that the capitalist system would not be able to sustain itself, and no inkling as yet that democracy — or capitalism, for that matter — was not really susceptible of being analysed on materialist lines. Backing Communism looked like the only way to fight Fascism.
Nowadays it is easy to think like George Orwell. At the time you had to be George Orwell to manage it. A more damaging criticism of Auden is not that he was a dedicated revolutionary but that he was only playing at it.
By Osborne’s account, Spain turned Auden away from radicalism rather than towards, while China, which he visited in the company of Isherwood, finished him with politics altogether. ‘Thin gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes.’ ‘All Dung’ and ‘Y Hsiao Wu’ had a wonderful time in the Shanghai massage parlours but All Dung’s net conclusion seems to have been that the world-scale political struggles already well under way had little to do with him: his shoes were too expensive. In other words he realised that he had been a bourgeois liberal all along. To the cold eye this might look like an even deeper descent into frivolity but Osborne prefers to believe that Auden was simply facing facts. The flight to America was away from politics and towards art, the thing he was good at.
Up to this point, it seems to me, Osborne’s view is not only sympathetic, it has the additional merit of being right. Auden’s callow demand for the death of the old gang was silly if sincere, and cynical if a pose, but the important point is that he was out of all that soon enough. He can hardly be much blamed for toying with, as a young man, what artists like O’Casey, Brecht, Aragon, MacDiarmid and Neruda went on supporting into old age. That he still seems blameworthy is because he spoke for England. MacNeice did a more thoroughly vituperative job of castigating a privileged society than Auden ever did but MacNeice spoke for himself— he lacked Auden’s fatal resonance in the collective consciousness. Auden’s ideal of a new order had more to do with homosexuality than with state ownership of the means of production. It had to be vaguely put. His mistake was to believe that his soul was his own. His emigration to America was widely regarded as treason then and in some quarters still is now.
Benjamin Britten went to America too. For a while he and Auden worked in the same house: 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn Heights. The place was a hot-bed of genius. Osborne seductively evokes the creative hubbub, with talented people scratching away behind every door. One of them was Gypsy Rose Lee. (Considering the proclivities of most of the male residents, one can only conclude that she had come to the wrong house, but perhaps she needed a rest.) Auden was an able housekeeper, thereby proving that his otherwise slovenly habits were largely a matter of choice: he begrudged wasting his powers of organisation on everyday affairs. Britten, on the other hand, couldn’t abide mess. But the chief difference between them was that Britten’s embattled country drew him home, eventually to the Order of Merit, a knighthood, and the universal esteem of his grateful compatriots. He didn’t come home to fight, but he did come home. Auden, who knew he couldn’t fight either, thought he might as well stay where he was.
He was never quite forgiven for it. P. N. Furbank, reviewing this book in Quarto, argues with some force that he never forgave himself either, and lived unhappily ever after. Most of the evidence, however, suggests that Auden was pretty good at not noticing his own blunders. Indeed the most repulsive item of behaviour which Osborne has to recount concerns what sounds like monumental insensitivity in just this matter. Donning American uniform in the last months of the war as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey, Auden made a lightning tour of Germany and stopped off in England to tell his erstwhile countrymen that compared with what had happened to continental Europe they had never suffered at all. He said this while helping himself to generous portions of their rationed food. Arrogance is often a cover-up for guilt but it is still arrogance. A decent silence would have been not just better manners but less blasphemous. Osborne has credit coming to him for not trying to soften this nasty episode. It is recorded that upon being told by an angry friend to hold his tongue, Auden looked contrite. Probably he had fallen into the trap which lies in wait for anyone deficient in self-esteem — the belief that one’s opinions do not matter. And if one is in possession, as many artists are, of an ad hoc personality, it is often hard to remember that ordinary people pride themselves less on their work than on the consistency of their conduct, judging others by the same criterion. By the time the play-actor finds himself held in contempt, it is usually too late to remind his audience that he was only talking for effect.
Auden seems to have got crankier as he grew older. Perhaps the personality was transferring itself from the work to the man. Osborne has plenty of stories to tell, including the startling information — it was certainly a new one on me — that Auden had a heterosexual affair with a comely American lady called Rhoda Jaffe. But it took Chester Kallman to bring him what measure of domestic bliss he ever found. The friendship conferred all the blessings of stability. Apart from the aesthetic aspects — Kallman might have started off playing a credible Tadzio to Auden’s Aschenbach but he did not age gracefully — the only thing you could say against their relationship was that it was a permanent terminus. Homosexual marriages are between lovers, and as Marina Tsvetaeva put it in her touching little handbook for lesbians, Mon frère féminin, lovers are children and children don’t have children. Nevertheless Auden seems to have obtained from the long alliance an enviable amount of peace and quiet. Those who believe that Auden’s work went flat after the war should at least consider that the reason might not necessarily have been that he was cut off from his roots in England. Perhaps he had found contentment — traditionally a great enemy of lyric poetry.
My own view is that Auden got sick of his own winning streak. He took a moral stand against his early work, which he now conceived of as having created excitement through playing fast and loose with the truth. His later work eschews suggestiveness, some might say at the price of losing all poetic interest. There is good reason, I think, for saying that anyone who can’t appreciate what Auden is up to in his later work probably can’t appreciate his earlier work either, but there is no denying that Homer occasionally nodded. Osborne is commendably strict with the looser work, and rightly dismisses Academic Graffiti, which is an exercise in that least forgiveable of all literary genres, the unfunny joke. He also shows, arrestingly, that Auden didn’t have a clue about how to translate Die Zauberflöte so that a singer could sing it. I would have liked to have heard more on this point, since Osborne, with his operatic connections, is well equipped to punch a large hole through Auden/Kallman’s loudly flaunted expertise as librettist.
The end began at Christ Church College, Oxford, and was very messy. Osborne tactfully scamps the full story of what happened between Auden and the young man he reported for the alleged theft of his wallet, but there is already more than enough sadness in the fact that the great poet ended his life as a bore. The needle got stuck. He gave the same few monologues interminably and unasked, so that eventually the Fellows had to tell him to put a sock in it or else quit the table. The man who had once spoken more excitingly than anyone wound up unable to amuse a pack of dons. Like Mencken’s semantic asphasia, the punishment seems Dantesque in its cruel appropriateness.
But what was he being punished for? Surely not homosexuality. He often counted himself unlucky to be so, but we all gained by it. Before the Wolfenden Report, if English homosexuals wanted to write public poetry about love then they had to write obliquely or else get arrested. Compelled to indirectness, Auden invented a new style of verbal architecture, so uniquely of its time that it will sound original for ever. Also the search for boys got him away from home. He saw the world, learned about it quickly, and stopped being silly soon enough. The worst you can say is that he suggested a greatness he never quite attained, but that might be just another way of saying that he set a pace not even he could match. Verdict: bent but outstanding.
Cecil Day-Lewis, on the other hand, was straight but average. Sean Day-Lewis has done a more thoughtful job of recounting his father’s life than Osborne has done with Auden’s. Indeed he has written a truly distinguished biography.
What tells against it is the irredeemable commonplaceness of the subject. All this book’s reviewers seemed confident that Day-Lewis’s reputation had vanished. The reputation was put there in the first place by reviewers not very different from them. Day-Lewis deserves respect as a man of letters who carried out his duties conscientiously; most of the poets praised today will be lucky if the same is said of them. As for his poetry, at its best it showed either an unforced knack for metaphor (as when he called the darkness in cinemas ‘furs they can afford’) or, even better, an avoidance of effects in favour of sparely articulated argument (‘That we who lived by honest dreams/Defend the bad against the worse’). But he reached maturity late and was always in danger of slipping back. His most common state was a protracted version of an adolescence that had never been very judicious in the first place. The young Day-Lewis bought the whole radical package, Communist Party-card included. Less forgivably, he gave advice in metrical form.
Don’t bluster, Bimbo, it won’t do you any good;
We can be much ruder and we’re learning to shoot.
What makes this even more foolish than Auden’s death of the old gang is its absolute deafness to tone. That is also what makes it less sinister.
From the political viewpoint Day-Lewis was a chump, but not even that definition should be pressed too hard. He simply had a sheltered upbringing, in a sheltered class in a sheltered land. Young people with that background didn’t have to be ignorant about state terror in order to misunderstand totalitarianism. They could be told all about it and still misunderstand. It wasn’t cynicism, it was innocence. Few of us are innocent now but we can claim no credit, nor should we be quick to condemn those who were silly then. It was Day-Lewis’s personal misfortune that he sounded sillier than anyone else of comparable intelligence. He got out of the Communist Party but his bellicose utterances about learning to shoot were not forgotten when the real shooting started and he found he had no stomach for it. He spent a day in the army before being rescued by Harold Nicolson at Rosamond Lehmann’s instigation. The revolutionary poet sat out the war in the Ministry of Information, writing captions for its illustrated publications. Day-Lewis was no doubt right to declare himself useless as a soldier. His biographer, however, might have been a bit slower to endorse this opinion: part of the point of the call-up was that you had to serve, ready-or-not, and if you ducked out then somebody else had to face the bullets meant for you.
Rosamond Lehmann was one of the seven mistresses Day-Lewis laid claim to as a lifetime’s total. Professor John Carey, who is apparently set on adding unintentional humour to his repertoire of comic effects, adduced this figure as evidence that Day-Lewis had the morals of a tom-cat. Perhaps in Professor Carey’s part of Oxford the tom-cats are unusually well-behaved. Morality has a lot to do with opportunity. No man scores points for chastity if women do not like him. Women obviously liked Day-Lewis very much indeed. He could easily have bedded seventy or even seven hundred. Instead he confined himself to the ladies whose photographs adorn this book. Beautiful without exception, they are an impressive bunch, culminating in Jill Balcon — not, on the face of it, the sort of woman who would give herself to a humbug. He did what he could to keep them all happy, with deleterious effects on his digestive tract. In January 1945, while the Germans were counter-attacking in the Ardennes, Day-Lewis got sick-leave from the MOI: he was worn out from guilt about making love to Rosamond Lehmann. And, of course, from writing captions. But in this connection, as in every other, his most reprehensible act was to express himself in verse. Mistresses found that they were losing their attraction for him when they read about it in some sonnet sequence. His poetry was a direct expression of his life. That was one of the two main things wrong with it.
The other main thing was that he was short of inspiration. But most poets are short of that. The reviewers have searched hard in both these books for the man behind the work. In Day-Lewis’s case the man is fairly easily detected but with Auden there always seems to be a discrepancy between the man people who knew him think they remember, and the poet that even people who never met him feel they know exactly.
What has been illuminating about the critical reception for both books is the concern with conduct. Britain has been lucky in her poets: there have been comparatively few shady characters. But a side effect is that criticism tends to remain an occupation for gentlemen, who rarely feel bound to discuss such a sordid matter as talent. If English literary history offered a few more examples of good writers who were bad hats, there would be less agonising over the routinely fallible behaviour from which nobody is exempt, and more willingness to get on with the genuine critical task of investigating the individual talent which scarcely anybody possesses.