Masters of the Airy Manner: Auden and Byron

W. H. Auden’s engagement with the poetry of Byron is perhaps not the most significant of his various literary relationships; probably not as important as that with W.B. Yeats or with T.S. Eliot; and we notice that in New Year’s Letter, when he lists the poetic mentors he sees as sitting in perpetual judicial session over his works, Byron is not mentioned; Dante, William Blake, and Arthur Rimbaud are the three principal judges, while John Dryden, Catullus, Lord Tennyson, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Hardy, and Rainer Maria Rilke hover in the background, adding ghostly dignity to the court proceedings. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Byron was important to Auden—and the key-work that he dedicated to him, Letter to Lord Byron, came at a crucial moment in his career and marked a turning point.

Of course, there are turning points and turning points; it is generally considered that the major one came in 1939, and divided him neatly into English Auden and American Auden; the division was even given official status with the publication of a major collection of his early works under the title, The English Auden. I certainly don’t want to deny the importance of this move in both biographical and literary terms. His arrival in New York coincided with the death of W.B. Yeats, an event commemorated by Auden in both a prose article and a famous poem—his first written in America. Indeed, the poem has come to be seen almost as the inauguration of his career as American Auden. His own revisions to the poem only heightened that sense of a new start—and of a break with the past.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the elegy is Auden’s most famous poem. In an essay titled “Disenchantment with Yeats” (in Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), Edward Callan says those attending the memorial service held for Auden in Westminster Abbey might have got the idea that he was a one-poem poet, rather like Thomas Gray or W. E. Henley—one, that is, who is widely known for only one poem.[1] (Philip Larkin was another poet who saw this as a likely fate for himself, and said in a rueful letter to a friend, “They fuck you up will be my Innisfree . . . ”)

The poem is a magnificent elegy but we know that it also marked a certain stage in Auden’s difficult relationship with Yeats; to use a rather hackneyed expression, he was “coming to terms” with Yeats. Auden’s disenchantment with the senior poet is well-known. He reported, for example, how he, Auden, had introduced C. Day Lewis to the poetry of Frost and Hardy, while Day Lewis had introduced him to the later poems of Yeats; whereas Hardy had a good influence on Day Lewis, Auden declared “I wish I could say the same about Yeats’s influence on me. Alas, I think it was a bad influence, for which, most unjustly, I find it difficult to forgive him.”

As Edward Callan puts it in his essay,

Auden developed an almost obsessive fear of the danger of Yeats’s kind of outlook [ . . . ] The stages of his growing disenchantment with Yeats marks the hardening of his conviction that the greatest threat to individual freedom in the modern world—the Utopias of both left and right—were a direct legacy of the Romantic outlook on which Yeats prided himself.

To a certain extent Auden’s distancing himself from Yeats was a definite rejection of the notion of the poet as Bard, as inspired singer of irrefutable truths. Yeats wasn’t the only figure that Auden came to reject in this sense; Shelley was another name often mentioned, and particularly his famous definition of the poet as “unacknowledged legislator of the world”—a concept, Auden said, that reminded him of the secret police. But Shelley had never actually exerted any strong influence over Auden, so did not constitute in any way a direct threat.

Clearly there would have been no need for a rejection if there hadn’t been points of contact. In his reassessment of Yeats, Auden was rejecting what in fact had been, and possibly still were, strong temptations for him. There was the alluring notion of being the inspired leader of a generation, a role that had almost been thrust upon him from undergraduate days; and there was the temptation of being a public figure, imparting wisdom on public affairs, political and social.

He never entirely shook off this role, and certainly one of his earliest poems in America, “September 1 1939,” was to become one of the great public poems of the century—despite the poet’s own attempts to suppress it, excluding it from his Collected Poems. Even fairly recently this great New York poem took on a new lease of life, as people turned to its lines in another tragic September.

Auden rejected this poem—and his earlier poem on Spain—because, as he saw it, they were not honest. According to Anthony Hecht, the only possible way of understanding his rejection of “Spain” is by accepting that “Auden came to misunderstand his own poem because he had changed his views about history, and was, moreover, unaware of this.” This may or may not be the case; the one thing that is clear is that a major shift in his attitudes and thinking had come about.

However, it is worth emphasizing that such changes did not come about all of a sudden, with one ocean-crossing and the death of a major poet. Auden’s dissatisfactions with the role that had been thrust upon him had begun earlier; the move abroad naturally makes a convenient break, for publishers, critics and biographers, but nothing was ever as simple as that with Auden.

Before his move to America he had published an important anthology (just one of many that he was to edit in his lifetime), The Oxford Book of Light Verse, a volume still in print. In the introduction to this volume he gave a broad definition of light verse:

When the things in which a poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one, he will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech

Until the Elizabethans, he tells us, “all poetry was light in this sense. [ . . . ] In the 17th century, poetry, like religion, had its eccentric sports. Milton, with the possible exception of Spenser, is the first eccentric English poet, the first to make a myth out of his personal experience . . . .” The division of the poet from the society for which he writes was accentuated in the Romantic age: “As the old social community broke up, artists were driven to the examination of their own feelings and to the company of other artists. They became introspective, obscure, and highbrow.”

This, of course, had been a frequent complaint about Auden’s own early poetry. And strange as it may seem to a reader of his first poems, complaints of obscurity in fact troubled him. Auden never took the Eliot line that in a difficult age a poet had to be difficult. The poet should not be cut off from his society; he should not be maudit—should not, it seems, be moderne.

Defining Milton as “eccentric,” he did not use the word in any indulgent or approving way. Although Auden himself may have seemed to cultivate a certain eccentricity of manner—bedroom-slippers out of doors, obsessively rigid bedtime hours—he was not in any way attempting to create a picturesque poetic persona for himself; indeed, with his strict adoption of regular writing hours, he seemed determined to make poetry-writing seem as humdrum a job as that of “the unimportant clerk” who “writes i do not like my work / On a pink official form.” We may be reminded of another poet he greatly admired, Robert Frost, who wrote in “The Constant Symbol”: “We must be preserved from becoming egregious . . . ”

Considering the potted history of English poetry that Auden provides in the introduction to the anthology, one might see certain parallels with Eliot’s own strictures on post-17th-century poetry; but the dissociation that Auden is talking about here is not one of sensibility—or not primarily; it is rather a dissociation with the audience, with the wider community. And he saw Modernism, whether in the highly intellectual version of Eliot or the aristocratic version of Yeats, as being guilty of perpetuating—or, rather, of exacerbating—this dissociation. For all Eliot’s refutation of romanticism, Auden saw both movements as sharing the same fault of “Bardism”; the poet, as he puts it in the introduction to the Light Verse anthology, puts on his “singing robes”; whether these robes are the flowing mantles of the Romantics or the patchwork cloaks of the Modernists, the point is that they set the poet off from the wider community.[2]

Auden is therefore clearly turning his back on this tradition—the tradition in which he had grown up and written his first important works and become, paradoxically perhaps, famous. And in this act of self-rejection he felt a sense of identity with another poet, who, as he saw it, had rejected an earlier falsified version of himself, one that had made him extremely famous, in favor of a less charismatic but more authentic role.

Now we may feel that Auden rather simplifies Byron’s poetic development. He had a great fondness for clear binary divisions—his essays are full of such categorical distinctions, as between the art of Prospero and that of Ariel, between Edens and New Jerusalems, between Dingley Dell and the Fleet—and he makes a sharp division between what we might call Byronic Byron and Ironic Byron.

In his earliest prose piece on the poet, written in 1938 for an anthology entitled Fifteen Poets, he wrote:

No egoist can become a mature writer until he has learnt to recognise and to accept, a little ruefully perhaps, his egoism. When Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he had imagined, he became a great poet. For Byron was not really odd like Wordsworth; his experiences were those of the ordinary man.

This passage throws a different light on that famous line on Yeats: “He was silly like us.” If only, Auden seems to suggest, Yeats had had the savvy to turn his silliness into a joke—to extract some knockabout fun from the Gyres and the Golden Dawn, to crack a joke or two while standing in God’s holy fire . . .

However, the important point here, clearly, is the acceptance of the poet’s ordinariness: “his experiences were those of the ordinary man . . . ” Byron and Auden learned to make poetry from these experiences, rather than—to quote from a later poet writing in what is clearly the same tradition—from any propensity “to swagger the nut-strewn roads.”

The circumstances in which Auden wrote his famous Letter to Lord Byron were, of course, not exactly ordinary. It was 1936 and the poet was on a trip to Iceland. It was a chance for him and for his travelling companion, Louis MacNeice, to take stock, to reconsider their careers—and, as Auden frankly admits, to have a holiday. Auden had in fact initially set out on his own and was only joined by MacNeice later. So it was quite definitely a trip into the wild, into as empty and unknown a land as Europe could offer.

All of which makes his choice of reading matter—and his reasons for the choice—somewhat surprising:

In certain quarters I had heard a rumour

(For all I know the rumour’s only silly)

That Icelanders have little sense of humour.

I knew the country was extremely hilly,

The climate unreliable and chilly;

So looking round for something light and easy

I pounced on you as warm and civilisé.

The anglicized pronunciation of the last word, as demanded by the rhyme, reminds us inevitably of the anglicized pronunciation of the name Don Juan in Byron’s poem. In both cases, one could say that there is a comic contrast between the poem’s joyful acceptance of exotic material and the narrator’s stolidly British refusal to alter his vowel-sounds and habits of accentuation.

Auden, as narrator, obtains comedy from the equally amusing contrast between the landscape and his reading-matter:

I can’t read Jefferies on the Wiltshire Downs,

Nor browse on limericks in a smoking room;

Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns,

Or Marie Stopes inside his mother’s womb?

However, there is more to it than that. One could say that Auden is here rejecting all possible temptation to play the role of prophet in the wilderness. He is, indeed, rejecting the entire wilderness tradition (although he was to write brilliantly on it in later life). In the poem he expresses his specific distaste for mountain-poetry, in his famous (or notorious?) lines on Wordsworth and his followers:

The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit,

He tears his clothes and doesn’t shave his chin,

He wears a very pretty little boot,

He chooses the least comfortable inn . . .

   [I..] think it time to take repressive measures

When someone says, adopting the ‘I know’ line,

The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.

He declares his uneasiness with an “interest in waterfalls and daisies, / Excessive love for the non-human faces,” stating his fear that “It won’t be long before we find there is / A Society of Everybody’s Aunts / For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.” And he here makes the uncompromising declaration:

I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,

And landscape but a background to a torso.”

Three times in the poem he uses the feminine rhyme of “scenery” and “machinery”; on the second occasion he says: “To use a rhyme of yours, there’s handsome scenery / But little agricultural machinery . . . ” Byron’s use of the rhyme is to be found in the “Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill”:

Men are more easily made than machinery—

Stockings fetch better prices than lives—

Gibbets on Sherwood will heighten the scenery,

Showing how Commerce on Liberty thrives!

Auden includes this poem in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Byron published in 1966. The rhyme in Auden’s hands reminds us of his fondness for industrial landscapes; as he says, with clearly anti-Wordsworthian intent: “Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has stamped on / The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.”

The poem gives Auden the chance to make a more general consideration of Romanticism. He offers us in the third section a brief history lesson; this, of course, was to become one of Auden’s specialities; in later works, like the “Sonnets from China,” he provides brilliant synecdochic overviews of the whole of human history, and in more fabulistic works like “The Fall of Rome” he throws light on great historical trends, using suggestive anachronistic vignettes. In the Letter to Lord Byron we have an early example of this gift for sweeping survey, with the poet applying the viewpoint of the hawk or the helmeted airman to a broad swathe of history rather than just to “our time”; in this case he confines his vision to a period from the Augustan Age onwards.

The argument anticipates the one he was to develop in the introduction to the anthology of Light Verse. As his example of the two arts in the Augustan age, he takes the figures of Isaac Watts and Alexander Pope:

We find two arts in the Augustan age:

One quick and graceful, and by no means holy,

Relying his lordship’s patronage;

The other pious, sober, moving slowly,

Appealing mainly to the poor and lowly.

Each artist knew and shared the concerns of his audience:

The important point to notice, though, is this:

Each poet knew for whom he had to write,

Because their life was still the same as his.

As long as art remains a parasite,

On any class of persons it’s alright;

The only thing it must be is attendant,

The only thing it mustn’t, independent.

It is hard not to notice the overturning of Marxist language and concepts here. Things began to change with the Industrial Revolution, when the engineers of this revolution “A new class of creative artist set up, / On whom the pressure of demand was let up: / He sang and painted and drew dividends, / But lost responsibilities and friends.”

Those artists with “originality of vision”, he tells us, “Jumped at the chance of a secure position / With freedom from the bad old hack tradition, / Leave to be sole judges of the artist’s brandy, / Be Shelley, or Childe Harold, or the Dandy.” And he concludes with a desolate look at the effects of what he calls the Poet’s Party (punning on the double meaning of this word) on the present day:

To-day, alas, that happy crowded floor

Looks very different: many are in tears:

Some have retired to bed and locked the door;

And some swing madly from the chandeliers;

Some have passed out entirely in the rears;

Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few

Are trying hard to think of something new.

The theme, then, of Letter to Lord Byron, is not at all what one might expect from the circumstances and situation of the poet; the bleak emptiness of Iceland has curiously enough inspired in Auden a witty but at heart serious meditation on the relationship between an artist and his audience. It is clearly a theme that Auden felt to be important at this point in his life, and equally clearly Byron was crucial for his argument—even, one might say, for his repositioning of his own self.

What emerges in the poem is that, for Auden, the greatness of Byron’s best poetry depended entirely on a question of tone—or of voice. The word voice recurs many times, of course, in Auden’s poetry; most famously perhaps in the lines from “September 1st, 1939”:

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of authority

Whose buildings grope the sky . . .

The kind of voice Auden is referring to in the Letter is one that is clearly speaking to other people, on level and equal terms, and not addressing them from a pulpit or a pedestal:

I like your muse because she’s gay and witty,

Because she’s neither prostitute nor frump,

The daughter of a European city,

And country houses long before the slump;

I like her voice that does not make me jump:

And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,

Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.

In his biography of Auden, Humphrey Carpenter quotes a passage Auden wrote for a symposium in 1948:

“The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow-poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolmasters, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow-poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow-poets.”

Actually, Carpenter goes on to comment, he wrote largely for his friends, whether or not they were poets. The word “friends” recurs in the Letter, particularly in these famous lines:

Art, if it doesn’t start there, at least ends,

Whether aesthetics like the thought or not,

In  an   attempt   to   entertain   our   friends . . .

Some have, indeed, said that some of the faults of obscurity in his early poetry can be attributed to the fact that the poems were addressed too specifically to a close group of friends, excluding anyone not “in the know.” However, at this point in his career Auden was concerned to extend the circle—or rather to find a way to connect the private and the public. One is reminded of his famous squib, “Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places”; Auden now seems determined to convert this sentiment into a method and style of poetry.

Carpenter also quotes a piece of advice that Auden gave to another poet in a letter:

Try to think of each poem as a letter written to an intimate friend, not always the same friend. But the letter is going to be opened by the postal authorities, and if they do not understand anything, or find it difficult to wade through, then the poem fails.

The strategy adopted in Letters from Iceland—that is to say, the writing of letters to friends—allowed both Auden and MacNeice to talk on public matters while adopting the tone of a private conversation. And this communicative skill was, as Auden saw it, Byron’s great achievement in his best poetry.

Apart from the brief prose piece I’ve already mentioned, Auden wrote extensively on Byron in two major essays; one was the essay on Don Juan collected in The Dyer’s Hand and the other was the introduction to The Selected Poetry and Prose of Byron, published by Signet Classics in 1966. There is a certain amount of overlapping, as Auden felt at liberty to include long passages from the earlier essay in the introduction. In any case, the two essays both contain valuable criticism and offer us great insight into Auden’s own thoughts on poetry.

He draws, as already mentioned, a clear division between the poetry that made Byron famous in his own times and the poetry we value him for today, connecting the latter with his prose. In the introduction, he says, “It does not matter where one opens the prose; from the earliest years till the end, the tone of voice rings true and utterly unlike anybody else’s.” In the essay on Don Juan he declares:

From the beginning, his letters seem authentic but, before Beppo, very little of his poetry; and the more closely his poetic persona comes to resemble the epistolary persona of his letters to his male friends—his love letters are another matter—the more authentic his poetry seems.

He quotes a typical passage from a letter to Byron’s friend Hobhouse and goes on to say, “while the letters and Don Juan have been written by someone-in-particular, Manfred must have been written, as it were, by a committee.”

One of the key-words here, clearly, is “authentic,” and he links that word very specifically with the notion of the writer as friend; indeed, in the essay on Don Juan, he includes a long philosophical passage on the notion of friendship, which is interesting but not directly to our purposes here. The essential concept is, in any case, clear; until Byron discovered a way to adopt in poetry the same friendly tone that he used in prose, his poetry remained false or inauthentic.

The discovery, in Byron’s case, turned out to be a purely technical one. Many people have talked about Byron’s realization of the possibilities of ottava rima and his handling of it, but I think no-one has analyzed its technical qualities more acutely than Auden. Perhaps he may seem to go too far in his appraisal of its importance:

Take away the poems he wrote in this style and meter, Beppo, the Vision of Judgment, Don Juan, and what is left of lasting value? A few lyrics, though none of them is as good as the best of Moore’s, two adequate satires though inferior to Dryden or Pope, “Darkness”, a fine piece of blank verse marred by some false sentiments, a few charming occasional pieces, half a dozen stanzas from Childe Harold, half a dozen lines from Cain, and that is all.

The selections he made in his own edition of Byron’s poetry reflect this assessment. Whatever one may think of this sweeping assertion, Auden’s appraisal of Byron’s use of ottava rima is masterly. Paradoxically he sees the potentiality of the form to lie precisely in its tight restrictions. Noting that Yeats is one of the few poets to have made successful use of ottava rima in serious poetry, he points out that Yeats relies on frequent use of half-rhyme or para-rhyme. In Byron’s time this was not considered legitimate:

Because of the paucity of rhymes in English, it is almost impossible to write a poem of any length in this stanza without using banal rhymes or padding the line in order to get a rhyme. [ . . . ] The very qualities of English ottava-rima which force a serious poet to resort to banal rhymes and padding are a stimulus to the comic imagination, leading to the discovery of comic rhymes and providing opportunities for the interpolated comment and conversational aside.

Byron’s gift was not for concentration or concision, which was what the Heroic Couplet required: “in heroic couplets he becomes self-conscious and stiff . . . ” He was naturally expansive, and paradoxically the constraints of ottava rima allowed him to become so—allowed him, that is, to talk as freely and naturally as he did in his letters to friends. It was an entirely new verse style, and Auden describes it brilliantly in his Letter to the poet:

I think a serious critic ought to mention

That one verse style was really your invention,

A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,

You are the master of the airy manner.

Of course, the finest homage Auden can pay is by writing himself in a form that is closely allied to ottava rima, Rhyme Royal. He gives a modest explanation for not adopting the stricter form of ottava rima:

Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper,

The proper instrument on which to pay

My compliments, but I should come a cropper . . . ,

But of course it is only mock-modesty; he shows himself fully skilled and adroit in handling the stanza. The occasional groping for a rhyme (as when he parenthetically notes, after a double rhyme of “point” and “joint”: “There is no other rhyme except anoint”) is all part of the fun and entirely in the Byron tradition. Part of the fun of this kind of poetry, Byron suggests in Beppo, lies in the fact that the poet is not in full control:

But I am but a nameless sort of person

(A broken Dandy lately on my travels)

And take for Rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,

The first that Walker’s Lexicon unravels . . .

A few stanzas later we find Byron addressing the goddess Fortune—“And as for Fortune—but I dare not d-n her, / Because, were I to ponder to Infinity, / The more I would believe in her divinity.” As Peter Cochran suggests in a note to his on-line edition of the poem, “though the tone here is light, the meaning is profoundly authentic.” Presenting himself as almost helplessly in thrall to the form of his poem, Byron is able to give comic expression to what was an almost fatalistic belief in the role of fortune: “This Story slips forever through my fingers, / Because, just as the Stanza likes to make it, / It needs must be, and so it rather lingers . . . .”

Auden allows himself similar moments of apparent helplessness. He begins one stanza by invoking Yeats, quoting the title of his sonnet “The fascination of what’s difficult”—and ends the same stanza with the couplet:

Et cetera et cetera. O curse!

That is the flattest line in English verse.

There is a clear echo here of Byron’s famous “Hail Muse etc.”, and of many other moments when Byron achieves high comedy by apparently flailing around, like a clown on a tight rope.

However, Auden is serious in his notion that an artist is given new potential by imposed restrictions. It was a notion he referred[?] to frequently, especially when advising fellow poets. For example, in the early 1930s he told John Cornford, still a schoolboy, “You might do more with stricter verse forms . . . as the very nature of the form forces the mind to think rather than to recollect . . . .” And in one of his late epigrammatic squibs he declared:

Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,

force us to have second thoughts free from the fetters of self.

The Letter was also part of a general campaign on Auden’s part to broaden the field of poetry—in particular, to find a place in it for the non-earnest. As he says in the Letter, “Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather; / Except by Milne and persons of that kind / She’s treated as démodé altogether.”

Of course, he got the chance to create his own anthology of Light Verse in 1938 but his real aim was to break down such distinctions altogether. In 1965, in a wonderful anthology of Nineteenth Century British Minor Poets, he was to write: “When [ . . . ] I read The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, what really surprises me is not that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch should have admired a number of poems that I dislike—in sixty years readers may be saying the same thing about me—but his unconscious assumption that comic or light verse is not quite poetry: ‘real’ poetry is ‘earnest’ statement.” Auden attributes the responsibility for this prejudice to Matthew Arnold and pays homage to Walter de la Mare, who printed “folk songs and nursery rhymes side by side with poems by the ‘Greats’.”

Although he felt the need to keep up the campaign as late as the 1960s, I think it fair to say that he had already won the major battle back in 1936, when he published the Letter to Lord Byron. It gave him a new direction for his poetry, opening the way for the more discursive poems of his later career, and it also prepared the way for a good many other long works by later poets who used strict form with a similar lightness of touch: poems by Kenneth Koch, A. D. Hope, Andrew Waterman, Clive James, Vikram Seth, John Fuller—just to give a sprinkling of names. I don’t know enough about the history of Byron criticism to say whether Auden contributed to a revival of Byron studies in his time, but I do think it fair to say that it is greatly thanks to him that the spirit of Byron lives on in so much good contemporary poetry.

[1] Auden’s memorial stone in the Abbey is engraved with the words, “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.”

[2] In one of the most amusing stanzas in the Letter to Lord Byron Auden lists the various singing-robes of the great poets of English literature, concluding that he saw Byron “like Sherlock, in a dressing-gown.

About Gregory Dowling

Gregory Dowling grew up in Bristol, UK, and studied at Oxford University. Since 1979 he has lived in Italy; he is a professor of American literature at the University of Venice. Apart from his academic interests he has published four thrillers, set in England and Italy, and he has written and regularly updates the sightseeing pages for the Time Out Guide to Venice. His most recent book is a study of the poet David Mason (Story Line Press).
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