Anyone who has tried to write a poem has wondered, long before the words settle into lines, at the compulsion itself, the sense of urgent waiting in the room, and no one has described the feeling as beautifully as W.H. Auden. It was his life-long subject, in fact: how to respond to an encounter with a sacred being. By “sacred being” he did not mean a deity, or (to use his term) the Good One; he meant (borrowing his frames of reference from Coleridge and Keats) a presence, or a moment burdened with significance: “it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe.”
This definition comes in ‘Making, Knowing, Judging’, his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, given in 1956 and collected in The Dyer’s Hand (1963), an anthology of essays as powerful and as intimate as any of his poems, and the instrument in my case, while I was still at university, of a freeing revelation that writing wasn’t about having something original to say, and certainly not about Yeats’s “perfection . . . of the work” (Auden was a great reviser), but about the truthfulness of one’s response to any compelling situation, which might be an express delivery (‘Night Mail’) or The Tempest (‘The Sea and the Mirror’) or political disaffection (‘Under Which Lyre’), or hopeless love (‘If I Could Tell You’), or anything at all. Without a “passion of awe” and the consequent “desire to express that awe in a rite of homage”, no poem can happen. At the same time (or a little later, in the aphoristic essay ‘Writing’), Auden announces his equal conviction that poetry’s only non-aesthetic purpose is “by telling the truth to disenchant and disintoxicate.”
That swerve to disenchantment might seem like a detour from all the stuff about awe. What kind of detox did Auden have in mind? Was he speaking in code about his abandonment of the Left or more generally about the mid-century European “nightmare of the dark” (from which he fled to the USA, and for which, in this country, he was never forgiven)? And, in addition, was he advising the reader to find in poetry a spiritual refuge from the madness, as Hannah Arendt put it, of “theoretical systems” – perhaps even to take up “reticence” and “utter simplicity” instead? Arendt’s late essay on the poet is a fluent and loving appreciation. But it is a stretch to claim, as she does, “simplicity” for Auden: he loved philosophy and puzzles and baroque sentences far too much. And it is equally odd, I think, to characterise him as a sort of Christian mystic, retreating “behind the protective shield of orthodoxy”. He was too bodily and sceptical.
The tension between passion and disintoxication only eases when we return to the poems themselves and to one of his best, ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (1948), a surpassingly strange recitative about favourite subjects: habitats, human presence in nature, vanity, mortal terror, youth and sex, the long view of things. It is not quite, as has been claimed, an allegory of Classical culture set on the island of Ischia. It’s more mysterious than that, a poem in rangy syllabics about age and experience, giving up and carrying on. We start in a sunlit limestone terrain which may or may not be Ischia – its stones and chalks full of hopeful living things – and finish up surrounded by old marble statues and regrets. The rather High-Table opening (“Mark these rounded slopes / With their surface fragrance of thyme”) falters, the speaking voice admits its powerlessness in the face of ordinary fears (“Not to lose time, not to get caught, / Not to be left behind . . .”). What begins confidently ends with “the murmur of underground streams”.
It feels miraculous, nevertheless, and utterly truthful. Behind it is the accurate depiction of a mineral life cycle. Limestone “dissolves in water” and is gone in a geological instant, but it can be crystallised and changed. Marble is limestone that has experienced a metamorphosis; heat and pressure – a crush, really – have turned it into something else. Is it better for the change? Is sculpted marble a beautiful lie? The sacred encounter isn’t with one form of rock or another, with reality or art, this or that lover, but with their constant making and unmaking, with the close harmony that exists between different “modifications of matter”, or between noble passions and people waving dildos.
Another way of thinking about this – and Auden thought about it a lot – is to see the whole business of art, for which the poem is an apology, as an inspiring failure, “the power to enchant / That comes from disillusion”, as he says in ‘Prospero to Ariel’. That seems to me a compelling idea, if rather an unfashionable one. “Poetry makes nothing happen”, it’s “impotent”, it can’t be a “midwife to society”, we should settle for “short views” and be thankful for fog. Yet (hang on!) poetry also schools us in a radical hospitality to “human unsuccess”, making us “more aware of ourselves and the world around us . . . more difficult to deceive.” Anyone who has tried to write a poem and then read Auden knows about awe and disintoxication. That is what makes him inimitable, the feeling he gives us that we are with him, urgently waiting, on the edge of perception.