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.