Saturday, 21 February 2015

Consider this and in our time: on W.H. Auden's birthday

Makiko and I will be opening a bottle of red wine tonight to celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden (on whom I shall be teaching undergraduate seminars in a few weeks time). Auden’s attempt at a politically committed poetry in the 1930s still seems worth our attention, even if he never achieved anything quite as forceful as Hugh McDiarmid’s first ‘Hymn to Lenin’. Even so, ‘A Summer Night’ still strikes me as an effective attempt to break out of the narrow enclosures of traditional English poetry – that middle-class ‘garden’ of so many 30s poems – and to range illuminatingly across the ‘European sky’ of contemporary class politics. ‘A Communist to Others’ certainly has problems, but I none the less admire the poetic project underlying it. And the famous ‘Consider this and in our time’ remains, in its terse Freudo-Marxist authority, both enigmatic and diagnostically impressive.


It’s sadly true that Auden ends up, poetically and politically, somewhere else altogether. ‘In Praise of Limestone’, beautiful though it is, returns to the meditative tradition of English landscape poetry he began by rejecting; and ‘The Shield of Achilles’, which so powerfully registers the traumas of twentieth-century history – Stalinism, Nazism, US nuclear bombing of Japan - ends up somewhere beyond politics altogether. But still, for that brief moment of engagement in the 1930s, and the poems it produced, a bottle of red wine seems apt enough – though for the poetic career as a whole, perhaps it’s a Forsterian two cheers rather than three.

8 comments:

Pete said...

"celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden"
that is so very middle class. (

Tony Pinkney said...

Well, using the occasion of the birthday to recall a rare (and brief) moment of intersection between the middle-class Oxbridge literary tradition and a wider working-class experience and Communist politics. Since my Lancaster colleague Tony Sharpe is an Auden enthusiast too, perhaps I'll organise a day-event around this topic next February 21st.

Anna said...

But does Mr Sharpe share your working class sympathies/communist politics for such an event- i don't recall any such inkling from my time at Lancaster?

Tony Pinkney said...

Hi Anna, Tony Sharpe and I joint-teach our third-year 1890s-and-modernism course very amicably, so I'm sure we'd pull together productively for an Auden day-event! Interesting to learn that you are - as Marlow might have put it in 'Lord Jim' - "one of us" - when were your Lancaster years?

Anna said...

Many moons ago now Tony- late 90’s. But you definitely stood out for me because of your passion for politics and political issues which was a marked contrast to the other lecturers who were rather anonymous in that respect- I had no inkling of them as people in that sense. That’s why I asked about Mr Sharpe- which you’ve deftly sidestepped! One thing I remember was a comment you made about actually using your legs to walk instead of taking the car manageable distances-it hadn’t occurred to me as a youngster, having grown up in a house where the car was the natural choice and a sign of mobility. But I was just a kid at that age, experiencing some freedom having lived at home with mom and dad all my life. And it has occurred to me that maybe in some respects an English literature degree is perhaps more fully enhanced by life experience and the thinking that comes with this- if I did the same degree now all my essays would be different and I think I’d bring more to it. Also I’d speak out more as I was a bit timid! Anyway I enjoy reading your blog particularly to see what your views on contemporary issues are.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for the kind words, Anna. Yes, the late 90s was my intense Green Party phase (I was elected to Lancaster City Council, with four other Greens, in 1999). I feel more ambivalent about Green politics now, but still hold to my sense that English studies can raise searching questions about the kind of society we want to live in (which is why I’ve been offering various Utopias options at BA and MA level – though they don’t always recruit well, young people being often, sadly, so cynical and pessimistic). Hope you feel your English degree stood you in good stead in later life, and perhaps one day, at a suitable career turning point, there might come a moment when you could dip back into the field at MA level, if you were so inclined. We’re certainly wealthy enough as a society (if that wealth were justly distributed) to give everybody a year or two’s sabbatical of that kind in later life!

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Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,
I'm still working on Morris's Icelandic Journals, but I've gotten interested in Auden and Iceland. I met him in 1968 when he was here on a reading and pushing his and Taylor's translation of the Elder Edda. I'd hoped to ask him about Letters from Iceland, some changes made in this curious book. Any comments from you would be helpful. Gary Aho