The title is terrible. That was my first thought before opening What Auden Can Do For You, the short new appreciation of the great English poet by the popular Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith. It seemed transactional, reeking of literature-as-self-help books of the How Proust Can Change Your Life variety. But maybe that isn’t fair: Maybe all poetry is supposed to do something for us. Hesiod’s Works and Days is farming advice of the mundane variety — “on the eighth of the month, it is time to geld the boar” — which was probably pretty useful in ancient Greece. Even in the abstract, poetry can have utility, with Robert Frost famously calling it a “momentary stay against confusion.” In that light, maybe it’s not unfair to blatantly ask what use we can wring out of Auden.
Well, old Wystan Hugh won’t teach you much about plowing fields, but he might have some insight into matters “of Eros and of dust,” to borrow from his most famous poem, “September 1, 1939.” That was the one forwarded arounded after 9/11, with its imagery — “unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night” — suited almost perfectly to a lower Manhattan covered in human ash. That poem alone seemed to revive Auden’s popularity, however briefly.
Writing for Princeton University Press’s “Writers on Writers” series, McCall Smith makes the case that “in reading his poetry we see love illuminating the world” and that, further, “reading Auden in troubled circumstances gives his work a particular resonance.” McCall Smith — famous for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels — writes that he first started seriously reading Auden in Belfast in 1973, this constituting “the greatest literary discovery of my life.”
Grandiloquent stuff, but it is only trying to rise to a poetry that was unabashedly catholic and authoritative. Today, poetry is small, in good part because we have been taught that authorial certainty is a form of despotism, that the meekness of write-what-you-know is more appropriate for our age where everyone has a valid point. Auden would have none of it; the poems I return to, at least, are the ones in which he seems to condense the whole of Western history into a line or two of confident verse: “We fall down in the dance, we make / The old ridiculous mistake.” Somehow that says far more than it ought to.
Maybe Auden spoke about the world because it was harder to speak about himself. Born in 1907, he lived his life as a “a homosexual who thought homosexuality wicked,” as the scholar Paul Fussell once noted. A trip to Spain in 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, particularly focused his mind on the rise of fascism. He would move to the United States two years later and, as McCall Smith notes, come to hear accusations that he abandoned England during her darkest hour. But if he is not terribly political, he is not terribly personal either. Verses like the impossibly tender “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest” — made particularly famous by Four Weddings and a Funeral — are rare in his oeuvre.
Auden was, above all, a poet of culture. McCall Smith writes that Auden “shows us how a life embedded in a culture may find in that culture the things that sustain us and point us in the direction of good choices.” You can look at Auden’s work, then, as an argument for humanism, a cultural liberalism in which everyone must partake, if we are to avoid gassing and bombing each other into oblivion. His “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” yearns to “[t]each the free man how to praise.” This seems to have been the aim of every verse he wrote.
And if Auden was not political, he was only not overtly so, preferring allegory to, say, the embarrassing propaganda peddled by Pablo Neruda or, worse yet, the regressive romanticism of Ezra Pound. To understand suffering, for example, he heads to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, where he stands before Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, amazed at “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” That was written in 1938, when much of Europe had turned away from a disaster from its own.
So maybe the name of this book is the most radical, insightful thing about it: the notion that Auden is, as McCall Smith writes, “a healer,” and that this is healing is collective. It’s not just what Auden can do for you alone, but for all of us.