Thursday, July 11, 2013

America, England, and the Disinheritance of the Poets: Notes on W.H. Auden

I am, and will always be, a great lover of the poetry of W.H. Auden—and, come to think of it, of his prose and plays, too.  But any honest reader of Auden ought to ask two questions: why does W.H. Auden’s early, English work read as if the most important events of the time all took place in an English boarding school?  And why does his later, American period read as if it were inspired by the syllabus of a college course called, say, “Introduction to Western Civilization”?  I think the answers to both questions come when we look at the social situation of Auden and the groups with which he associated in the English and American periods of his career.  In each case, we’re dealing with very particular kinds of disinheritance, and with poetics that speak to different kinds of disinherited people.

Many people have noted the fixation on schoolboy stuff in Auden’s early poetry: there is, most famously, The Orators, a kind of sendup of prize-day orations at English boarding schools; and the early poems are full of a kind of students-vs-elders conflict.  And it’s not just Auden who writes this way. I remember first reading Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, and being astonished at what I took to be the narcissism of the piece: here was something claiming to be a novel that was really little more than a memoir of Isherwood’s school days, with scenes laid out as if they were of the greatest significance.  Edward Upward’s fiction can have much the same quality, Graham Greene edited a collection of essays called The Old School (to which Auden contributed) and Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, purportedly a book about what one must do to write a lasting piece of literature, consists for almost half of its length of recollections of Connolly’s time at Eton.  What gives?  Why this emphasis on one’s old school?

Connolly offers an answer that’s at least half right.  He writes, near the end of Enemies of Promise,

…were I to deduce any system from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence.  It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and their disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.  From this it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious…

Well, it goes on, and includes a bit about homosexuality that many would feel reflects poorly on Connolly.  But for present purposes, the point is that the public schools (Americans would say private schools—both terms refer to schools paid for by individual fees, rather than by taxes) make a deep impression.  No doubt this is true: such schools are about forming an elite, and they work hard to give their students a sense of status, with duties and privileges, and with a sense of obligation to the old school itself.

Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence, though, does not fully explain the school-obsession of the generation of English writers born between, say, 1902 and 1909.  After all, other generations before them had gone through the intense experience of elite boarding schools without having their work deeply marked by specifically boarding school themes and imagery.  What was so different about Auden’s generation?  The answer, I think, is disillusion and disinheritance.  It’s not just that they had intense experiences in school—it’s that their experiences involved a terrible dissonance between the values and expectations of school and the reality into which the schoolboys entered.  They were never able to fully rid themselves of school, because they were never able to fulfill the expectations the schools created for them.

Consider the timing of their births: Auden’s generation came of age too late to participate in the First World War.  They saw their elders at school—often their brothers—go out to war, to face what Isherwood called “the test”—the battle in which one would prove one’s value as a man, a leader, and a representative of one’s elite training. The schools preached sacrifice and the military virtues, knowing that they were creating officers for a desperate struggle, and even a future skeptic of all things jingoistic, the 11 or 13 year old Eric Blair (we know him as George Orwell) wrote poems in which he anticipated “the test.”  Here’s the first stanza of one called “Awake! Young Men of England”:

Oh! Give me the strength of the lion
  The wisdom of Reynard the Fox,
And I’ll hurl troops at the Germans,
  And give them the hardest of knocks.

One could go on quoting the rest of it, but the point is already clear: one must muster one’s courage and one’s wisdom, appeal to one’s God, and above all lead (it is the speaker who will, as an officer, hurl troops at the Germans).  That the result of all this will be the giving of hard knocks is enough to show us the puerility of the poet: this is no Wilfred Owen writing, but a child whose sense of war comes from the old men teaching at his school and telling stories about Nelson and Wellington trouncing Napoleon, or quoting from the more heroic passages of Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome.

We may well think that Auden’s generation should be grateful for having missed the slaughter, and I’m sure in some sense they were.  But in addition to a kind of survivor’s guilt, there’s a significant sense of not having been allowed to take the test for which one had prepared—a failure to fulfill one’s set task.  It’s important not to underestimate the effect of this on a generation whose elite status was in large measure justified by a rhetoric of service through leadership.  Many of Isherwood’s travels and adventures, including his dangerous trip to China during the Sino-Japanese war, were in his own estimation attempts to take “the test” he’d missed.  And Auden, the least militaristic of men, took an inordinate pride in his American major’s uniform when, after the Second World War, he worked as part of a group surveying the psychological damage caused by bombing.

There was another role the boys at England’s elite schools were meant to inherit, beyond that of military leadership: they were meant to rule over the greatest and most expansive economic empire the world had ever known.  This world, of course, was destroyed: war debt and the resulting taxation ruined the landed families, and the Depression (or, in English terms, the Slump) destroyed the industrial economy.  If you were a middle-class schoolboy, hoping to get ahead by your wits and your elite school credentials, you were in terrible trouble: of two million middle-class jobs in England during the Slump, some 400,000 disappeared.  Joining the workforce when one in five of the positions you might have aspired to has disappeared is a terrible thing, far worse than the dire conditions faced by current graduates in America, and more on a par with what we’re seeing now in Greece and Spain.  One was meant to be a valiant leader at war and a prosperous leader at peace, and instead all of one’s intense training and indoctrination at school led to… well, to a sense of failure, and perhaps of betrayal.  The arrested development and permanent adolescence of which Connolly speaks wasn’t just the product of intense school experiences: it was the product of the failure of these experiences to be fulfilled.  It was a matter of disinheritance.  And if you want feel how powerful a sense of disinheritance, consider how largely the American Civil War looms in the consciousness of the southern states as compared to the states of the north.  If we had to go by the numbers of war re-enactors, we’d think that the Confederates outnumbered the Union troops ten to one.

But what about Auden’s American period, from 1939 on?  I’m going to have to sit down and make a proper study of Auden’s vocabulary and allusions some day, but my sense is that there’s a marked turn away from psychological and Marxian terminology and a serious uptick on overt references to what we might call the classics of Western high culture after Auden settles in America.  It’s certainly true that his work appears in fewer political contexts and in more academic and cultural reviews (a quick survey of his bibliography reveals that about half of the appearances of his writings in journals during his English period appeared in politically-oriented publications, while only about 15% of them did during his American period, which would make sense for a poet shifting from theory and politics to high culture).  But let’s grant, on the basis of my experience as a longtime reader of Auden, the assertion that there are a lot more poems like “The Fall of Rome,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “Voltaire at Ferney,” and “At the Grave of Henry James” — that is, a lot more of the overtly high-culture themed poems—in the work of the American Auden than in the English Auden.  What explains this turn toward overt high-cultural references?

Once again, a certain kind of disinheritance comes into play.  We can get at it by first considering some words Edmund Wilson wrote about Auden in 1954.  Surveying Auden’s Collected Poems, Wilson notes a difference between the English Auden and the American Auden.  “He is no longer rebelling against British institutions,” writes Wilson, he is dealing with a very different world, a hypermodern, industrialized, commercialized, materialistic and rootless world, and with “the problem of how to live in it… to avoid being paralyzed or bought by it.”  Wilson continues:

It may well be that this aspect of Auden is more intelligible to an American than an Englishman, for this feeling oneself a member of a determined resistant minority has been now for nearly a hundred years a typical situation [for cultivated humanistic writers] in America.  Such people in the later nineteenth century were likely to be defeated or embittered.  In our own, they have felt the backing of a partly inarticulate public who are not satisfied with the bilge that the popular media feed them in their movies and magazines, and who are grateful to anyone who will take a stand for that right to think for themselves which is supposed to be guaranteed us by the Bill of Rights and that right to a high level of culture which the framers of the Constitution—taking it so much for granted—would never have thought to include.  These American writers of which I speak do not constitute a group, they do not frequent an official cafĂ©; and on this account the visitor from Europe is likely to come to the conclusion that, except in universities, we have no intellectual life.  He cannot conceive that the American writers are functioning in the crevices of cities, on the faculties of provincial colleges or scattered all over the country in the solitude of ranches and farms.  This kind of life was now [since his arrival in 1939] to be Auden’s lot…

Wilson is describing a very real America, one dominated by a materialistic elite that, in the later part of the nineteenth century, displaced the old cultivated and civic-minded elite of which the purest model is the Boston Brahmin.  It is the world T.S. Eliot, whose family had once dominated St. Louis and paternalistically run the town as a kind of colony of cultivated Boston, fled, seeking to find something like it surviving in England.  And it was a world from which Wilson, himself descended from the older and more cultivated and paternalistic elite, felt profoundly alienated.  Here’s something he wrote only two years after the piece on Auden, something about the destruction of the old elite by the new ruthlessly commercial and materialistic elite, and how that destruction effected his father’s generation:

The period after the Civil War—both banal in a bourgeois way and fantastic with giant fortunes—was a difficult one for Americans brought up in the old tradition…. They had been educated at Exeter and Andover and at an eighteenth-century Princeton, and had afterwards been trained… for what had once been called the learned professions; but they had then to deal with a world in which this kind of education and the kind of ideals it served no longer really counted for much…. Of my father’s close friends at college, but a single one was left by the time he was in his thirties; all the rest were dead—some had committed suicide.  My father, though highly successful, cared nothing about making a fortune or keeping up with current standards of luxury, which in our part of the world were extravagant.  Like many Americans who studied law, he had in his youth aimed at public life…. But he could not… be induced to take part in the kind of political life that he knew at the end of the century…

The new America that arrived in the late nineteenth century was triumphant in the middle of the twentieth, and disinherited class of people committed to high culture functioned, in mid-fifties America, as a kind of resistance to the dominant commercial culture, and its badge of membership came in the form of references to that culture.  All this would change soon enough: generations that saw no conflict in citing Henry Adams and Mickey Mouse in the same novel or poem were on their way.  But the view from Wilson’s desk in 1954 was of a high culture that was a form of resistance to the values of commodity and commerce—the disdain for pop culture implicit in his statement about Auden is almost at an Adornan level.  And there was a sense among a broader segment of the population that there was something to this sense of high culture as resistance: it’s what sent the young Allen Ginsberg to the poems of Blake, for example, and caused him, in a poem written in the year between these two passages of Wilson’s prose, to denounce America as “Moloch”—an ancient Ammanite god, and hardly a figure out of popular culture. 

Auden was, of course, caught between the residual world of the American poet as highbrow or leftover Brahmin, and the then-incipient, now-dominant world of the American poet as academic (or, more precisely, as creative writing professor).  His work wore the badge of the older, highbrow caste, and his poems provided something the caste, and those sympathetic to its resistance to commercial culture, needed: the Collected Poems that Wilson reviewed sold some 30,000 copies—a success even in the commercial terms that dominated, and still dominate, American life.


  1. Sally Connolly8:06 PM

    Fascinating insights. I'd locate Auden's Americanization right in the early months of 1939 when he writes of "ranches of isolation" in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats". Ranches is such an American word.

    As a Brit who attended a (very minor) public school I should like to point out that there is a distinction drawn between "public" and "private" schools in the UK. Public schools are in a whole other league with Harrow and Eton at the top. I know several individuals who attended the latter and then gone on to distinguish themselves in academia and politics who are still, first and foremost, described by themselves and others as Etonians.

    1. Oh, yes. I recall Cyril Connolly writing something about the distinction between (if I remember correctly) "leading school," "first rate school," "good school" and "school."

  2. Do any of us ever recover from what happened to us in junior high school? That's not just true of those of us who write, is it?