W.H. Auden’s Delightful Teaching

The most contentious issue in literary-critical theory, over the centuries, and especially with regard to poetry, is the debate about the didactic function of literature. The first work of literary criticism in English addresses the matter directly. In “An Apology for Poetry” (“apology” in the sense of an apologia, a defence of a belief, not an admission of guilt or regret), written around 1580 by that quintessential Renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney, and published posthumously in 1595, the poet-critic speaks of poetry’s “delightful teaching”. To distinguish it from and prioritise it over both philosophical and historical writing, his emphasis is as much on the delight (which verse, at its best, affords) as the teaching it embodies. It is through the verbal delight that the teaching is communicated. The poet “doth not only show the way, but gives so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it … he doth not only far pass the historian, but for instructing is well nigh comparable to the philosopher, and for moving leaves him behind him”. 

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Beyond its general influence throughout subsequent literary criticism, Sidney’s “Apology” (or “Defence of Poesy”, its alternative title) is specifically recalled by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry” (written in 1821, published in 1840), who writes that while “ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created”, poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought”.

Shelley’s contemporary, John Keats, nonetheless issued a salutary warning, with regard to poetry’s teaching function, in a letter a few years before Shelley wrote his “Defence”:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.

Yet this caution was challenged, later in the century, by another poet-critic and cultural theorist, Matthew Arnold, who, discarding orthodox Christianity in the familiar mid-nineteenth-century way, argued, in “The Study of Poetry” (1880), that, in an age of increasing rejection of Christian faith and practice, poetry would take the place of religion: it would instruct, uplift and comfort us, as religion was no longer capable of doing:

More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

Such high-minded Victorian literary moralism inevitably spawned, in turn, a vigorous reaction and repudiation, and nowhere more so than in the “Preface” to Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s famous first novel, published in 1891 and epitomising the “decadent” art-for-art’s-sake movement of that period, explicitly rejecting the Arnoldian idea of art for life’s sake. Wilde was being typically and deliberately provocative in his aesthetic credo; nonetheless his emphatic tone is indicative of how deeply embedded the idea must have become, through the long Victorian age, that the teaching function of such as poetry was its principal purpose:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things … There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all … The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything … No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. All art is quite useless.

For all the aesthetic differences between the 1890s coterie and the ensuing Modernist movement of the early twentieth century, which got into its full stride after the First World War, we can see a persisting compatible wariness of the explicitly didactic or moralistically utilitarian interpretation of poetry in the literary-critical theorising and poetic practice of such as T.S. Eliot. In his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)—as revolutionary in its own way and time as Wilde’s “Preface”—this poet-critic repudiates Romantic subjectivity and, with it, the expression of personal convictions and feelings:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

While Eliot has William Wordsworth particularly in mind here (and Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as embodying “emotion recollected in tranquillity”), elsewhere he makes similar statements about Matthew Arnold, accusing him of “putting the emphasis upon the poet’s feelings, instead of upon the poetry”. What we might call the classical ideal in poetry envisages a creative tension between the poet’s didactic purposes (philosophical, sociological, theological, or whatever) and an aesthetic that aspires to a universal expression. Eliot, for example, described himself as a “classicist in literature”, a concept that does not annihilate originality (if it did, Eliot’s achievement—his “individual talent”—would have amounted to nothing), but it places constraints on the “turning loose of emotion” and the “expression of personality”. He was well aware—as he expressed it in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), in relation to literary critics—that “personal prejudices and cranks” are “tares to which we are all subject”. What mattered, ultimately, for the poet was to transcend these limitations so that the poetry speaks of and to the human condition at large and, in doing so, delights as it teaches. Oddly, one of the most febrile champions of his poetry, the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, with his “armed morality”, was nonetheless of another mind, and persisted in the Arnoldian tradition of prioritising the moral strenuousness and implications for life of great verse. For him, as Gabriel Gersh has written, poetry was “a moral and social force, at once a prophylactic and a remedy for the corruption and degradation in our materialistic society”.

Not that subjectivity (the expression of personality) necessarily entails didacticism, of course. Or, contrariwise, that an escape from “personality” eradicates the didactic function. Poets often make universal judgments about the human condition, as we see in the greatest of English poems, the epic Paradise Lost, yet John Milton’s idiosyncratic and highly-opinionated personality and emotions are undeniably, if only sporadically, explicitly evident. But, being held in check, they are subordinate to the general Christian-Humanist teaching of the work and to the poem’s universal significance and function of asserting eternal providence and justifying the ways of God to man. This formidable teaching is embodied in an unprecedented, and probably unsurpassable, marshalling of classical and biblical sources, in the context of a development of a new style of writing: “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime”, as Milton announces at the beginning. Paradise Lost provides, in astonishing abundance, arguably the best example of the inexhaustible delight that can accompany poetic teaching. Lytton Strachey, the Bloomsbury essayist and controversialist, who placed Milton next after Shakespeare as the greatest of English poets, typically overstated the matter, but correctly admonished those who go to poetry for its teaching alone or as a priority: “Who cares about what Milton had to say? It is his way of saying it that matters; it is his expression.”

The twentieth-century American poet and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, in his poem “Ars Poetica”, put the issue most succinctly: “A poem should not mean / But be”.

So where should we place the extraordinary achievement of W.H. Auden in this long history of contested ideas about poetry and its character and function? He belonged to the second generation of Modernist poets, many of them nurtured by Eliot in his role as a publisher at Faber & Faber, which brought out Auden’s first regularly published book of poems in 1930. Nearly a century later, Princeton University Press has produced this handsome edition, in two large volumes, of more than 2000 pages, of Auden’s poetry, meticulously edited by Edward Mendelson, the poet’s literary executor. This has already been rightly acclaimed, internationally. The editor’s copious, meticulous notes reveal for readers and scholars the poet’s many revisions to his poetry, with explanations of obscure references in it and other invaluable details for informed enjoyment and understanding of the verse.

Addressing directly the issue we have been discussing, Auden famously declared, in his elegy for another poet, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (1939):

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

A poem which perfectly exemplifies delightful teaching, in which the aesthetic perfection is the totally adequate medium for the universal truth of human experience it conveys, is Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”, written in 1938 in Brussels, where the Palais des Beaux-Arts—which was the poet’s original title for the poem—is located. It was published the following year and subjected to some minor revisions (mostly of punctuation), as Mendelson notes, over the years. He also records Auden’s explanation of the sources of references in it to “a pond at the edge of the wood” and to the torturer’s horse who “scratches its innocent behind on a tree”. These come, respectively, from the sixteenth-century paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Winter and The Massacre of the Innocents. This inspiration is consistent with the principal source of this ekphrastic poem (a text derived from an artwork) which is The Fall of Icarus, also by Brueghel and on exhibit to this day at the Palais in Brussels.

The poem’s subject has a threefold character: suffering is part of what it means to be human; suffering can take place anywhere, any time; and it may be inconsequential from the perspective of other human beings (and, indeed, animals)—even simply ignored. They are preoccupied with their own lives. Nobody with any mature experience of life needs Auden to tell him this: these are commonplace, universal ideas. It is his way of telling that matters—the consummate delight of his teaching. And, here, it is twofold: in the qualities of the poetry and in Auden’s realisation of Brueghel’s visual representation of the tripartite idea in the concluding third section of the poem. This artistic inspiration is anticipated at the beginning, in the opening lines: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”. Already, Auden has opened the scope of the poem beyond referencing the suffering component of the more general problem of evil in the fallen human condition, by commending the great painters of centuries past for their understanding and representation of it. Similarly, he surveys the generations, from children, “skating / on a pond”, indifferent to much that preoccupies adult life and “the aged waiting reverently”, as he focuses on the Masters’ understanding that “even the dreadful martyrdom” will take place in “some untidy spot”, where “the dogs go on with their doggy life”.

The following reference to the innocence of the torturer’s horse brings us directly into the frame of Brueghel’s famous painting, as the ploughman’s horse there, is—pointedly—at the centre of the work, and like his master, they are oblivious to the ignominious plummeting of Icarus into the sea, occurring in the bottom right corner of the painting (all we see is his leg disappearing into the water), which is supposed to be the principal subject of the work, as its title suggests. The accurate visual assessment of humanity’s attitude to suffering is now textually clarified: “The ploughman may / Have heard the splash”, but “for him it was not an important failure”. And the shepherd, even nearer to the disaster, with his flock grazing on the edge of the cliff, is gazing mindlessly, utterly indifferently, into the sky, his back turned completely away from the supposedly extraordinary (and, of course, legendary) incident. In the seascape at large, what captivates any viewer’s attention, as it is so exquisitely realised (and as exquisitely expressed by the poet) is

     the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

A perfect painting of an idea has found the perfect poetic expression of it, with the additional sense that any good poem conveys: that its aesthetic completeness requires neither one word, more nor less, in order to say what it needs to say, as Helen Gardner observed of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

One subject we might have supposed that Auden could have been tempted into explicit telling (and even telling-off) his readers, rather than sustaining his brilliance at showing, and leaving readers to derive their own ethical and moral ideas from what has been thought and “ne’er so well expressed”, is the subject of homosexuality. He firmly resisted this temptation, if it ever occurred to him. As Mendelson records, when the editor of a projected anthology of homosexual verse, The Male Muse, contacted Auden in 1972 for a contribution (in the years when the “gay rights” movement was burgeoning), he received a clear refusal: “My answer is, I’m afraid, no”: “When I write a poem for publication … I always try to write in such a way that it makes sense for any reader, whatever his or her sexual tastes.”

He had previously (in 1969) rejected a request from Kenneth Tynan to contribute to another anthology (also expressive of the so-called liberating mind of those times) on sexual fantasies. Again, Auden made his position very clear and in more detail:

On the subject of sex, I am an extreme reactionary, i.e. I consider it a private not a public matter. What dismays and disgusts me about the contemporary world is that people seem no longer to distinguish between their friends and strangers. (Can it be that they have no real friends?) A book is written for the public, that is to say, for readers whom the author does not know personally. For me, this means that there are a number of subjects which one does not put into a book, and pornography is one … My objection to pornography in general is that, with very few exceptions, it is Manichean and anti-sex.

This has not prevented his poems being appropriated as texts affirming homosexual love. The best known of these are “Lay your sleeping head, my love” (1937) and “Funeral Blues”, better known by its opening line, “Stop all the clocks” (the evolution of which, from 1936, in various versions, is, typically, carefully detailed by Mendelson). There is nothing specifically homosexual about either poem, although the use of the latter in the popular film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), where it is tearfully recited by the character Matthew at the funeral of his lover, Gareth, explicitly adopts it for this purpose. Prior to reciting the poem in his eulogy, Matthew says he will “turn from my own feelings to the words of another splendid bugger: W.H. Auden”. But Auden’s speaker, in the poem, could just as easily be a woman, as in “Lay your sleeping head, my love”.

This is not to say that these poems, and others, must not be read homosexually, but the poet’s own warning (quoted above) should always be borne in mind, not only to avoid the intentional fallacy (that we can make decisive and exclusive statements about a poet’s intentions and audience when writing a poem), but because Auden’s moving celebrations of the moral imperative of human love should not be restricted either to hetero- or homosexual expression of it, or, indeed, to just sexual expression of it of any kind. Although it is a difficult concept for the modern mind to entertain, there is love between human beings that is not sexual at all, and poetry can celebrate that, too.

Amongst his multiple gifts as a poet was Auden’s mastery of rhythm and metre. Here, again, we see how the artistry of verse—of poetry be-ing, not just meaning (in MacLeish’s formulation)—is crucial to its function as the most delightful of teachers. In “O what is that sound which so thrills the ear”, the sustained, insistent and terrifyingly accumulating rhythm of the ballad is as vital to its effect as anything that is said in the work. Interestingly, the poem (written in October 1932, at a time of mounting tension in Europe) was initially inspired, not by contemporary events, but (as Mendelson’s quotation from an address by Auden in 1971 indicates) a painting on Christ’s Agony in the Garden, “probably [Mendelson suggests] Giovanni Bellini’s in the National Gallery” in London. Auden noted:

In the foreground was the kneeling figure of Christ; nearby on the ground, the disciples asleep. In the background some soldiers were crossing a little bridge. Visually they look quite harmless and there is nothing to show whither they are going. It is only because one has read the Gospel story, that one knows that, in fact, they are coming to arrest Jesus. 

Each stanza is in the form of a question and answer between an unnamed couple, the former of the two being apprehensive (“O what is that sound”), the latter (at least initially), reassuring (“Only the scarlet soldiers, dear”). Yet as the poem proceeds, relentlessly, the soldiers moving from their customary drill to an exercise of armed pursuit—the anapaestic beat harmonising with their marching—the tone of the work grows increasingly darker as the malignancy of their purpose and the object of their actions (which turns out to be the couple themselves) is frighteningly clarified. The unstoppable rhythm and the insistent repetition of the questioning participles, combine to orchestrate the immediacy of the emergency:

O why have they left the road down there;
Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling?
Perhaps a change in the orders, dear;
Why are you kneeling?

At the climax, the earlier-mentioned vows between the two are abandoned by one of them, whose formerly reassuring voice is replaced by one of betrayal: “I promised to love you, dear, / But I must be leaving”. The closing stanza, solely in the voice of the abandoned one, leaves little—but, in a sense, everything (as the best poems do)—to our imaginations:

O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.

The range of Auden’s poetry—in subject matter and style—is all but inexhaustible. A reader would be difficult to please if he or she could not find a work resonating with and enriching their experience of life. My favourites, for example, include (in addition to those already noted) “In Praise of Limestone” (1948, dedicated “To T.S. Eliot on His Sixtieth Birthday”), “O Tell me the Truth about Love” (1938, of which Auden wrote: “For me personally it was a very important poem”), the ballad “Miss Gee” (1937: “I defend Edith Gee against all comers”, Auden commented in 1947. “I’ve been told I was too cruel, but it’s actually true”) and “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times” (1946), where, satirically, Auden indulges in a didactic “Hermetic Decalogue”, which closes thus:

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God,
And take short views.

This splendid edition of Auden’s poetry is an example of the best that painstaking literary-scholarly research can offer and, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, it has indeed “set a crown upon [the] lifetime’s effort” of Edward Mendelson.

Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and is Literary Editor of Quadrant.


One thought on “W.H. Auden’s Delightful Teaching

  • rosross says:

    My favourite quote from Auden, which applies too often personally and culturally and never more so than in the time of Covid is:

    “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread. Than climb the cross of the moment. And let our illusions die.”.

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