W.B., T.S. and W.H.: ‘Our clients at least can rune.’

At literary festivals I’ve often been asked why my writing name is C.K. Stead rather than Karl Stead, or even Christian Karlson Stead, and the answer is always the same: when I was young the major poets were W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. They weren’t Willie, Tom and Wystan. And initials were common enough here in New Zealand – R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn. Nor has it ever gone entirely out of fashion – E.M. Forster of course, but more recently A.S. Byatt, C.K. Williams, J.K. Rowling. I’ve had to resist several attempts to convert me to ‘Karl Stead’, not because I have anything against the two monosyllables, but because I don’t want to create problems for librarians and bibliographers.

There is, of course, no such thing as perfect safety. Some years ago a book listing paperback fiction in print awarded all of my novels to the Australian, Christina Stead. Since my first name is Christian it took only a ‘correction’ by a computer, shifting one letter and Christian became Christina.

Of those three major poets of my youth, I have read them all probably more often and with closer attention than any others, so each must have influenced my style and my idea of the role of the poet. From Eliot came the example of the poet critic – because Eliot had done so much to influence, and even revise, the accepted overview of the history of poetry prior to the 20th century. There are always literary people, often themselves writers, aspirant poets, who consider the idea of ‘criticism’ alien to poetry and ‘creativity’. The example of Eliot teaches otherwise. The writing of poetry is a constant making of critical choices – this word or that? this phrase or another? is the tone right? Whether or not poets choose to exercise their critical skill publicly on the poetry of others, they are often the best at recognizing what works in a poem, and what doesn’t, and why. In any history of the best literary critics, it is the poets whose work has lasted – Philip Sidney, Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and Eliot himself.

In my years as a university teacher, those three ‘greats’ figured frequently in my courses and in my writing about literary history. Auden was the one whose sheer competence always shone. He had such an ear for assonance, rhyme, alliteration, and such technical mastery for putting them to work. He was also a natural ‘occasional’ poet – a dependable ‘laureate’ for any and every occasion, public or private. And of course he figures in my memory bank of poems returned to in the night:

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

It seems so effortless, as if a musician is at work; whereas when Yeats triumphs, as he very often does, over the difficulties of poetic form, you feel that it’s more a feat of intellect than of ear and instinct – more like the work of an engineer than a musician. Eliot is different again – at his best lyrically mysterious,

O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold;

at his less-than-best, offering clunky articles of faith:

Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation.

So why do I feel – and why do many of those who write about Auden feel – that he is a performer of verse miracles, a walker-on-water, but never quite the Messiah? It is partly, I think, because he is such a moraliser – and worse, that when he changes his mind about what he wants to be the ‘meaning’ we are to take from his latest parable (I’m thinking here especially of his much discussed political shift from Left to Right) he is able so effortlessly to alter already written, and already famous, poems so they tell us something different – indeed often the reverse of what they meant when they were first published. If the changes can be made so easily, does either version deserve to be taken entirely seriously?

One poem he changed his mind about, first making changes and deletions, and finally declaring it to be ‘trash’ and removing it altogether, was ‘Spain 1937’. Since his death editions have begun to appear which restore some of the originals, so it is possible now to reread the poem as he first wrote it. I think it is a great poem, catching what the Spanish Civil War represented to the Left at the time. Auden came to believe that that political commitment, and the enthusiasm which made it out to be a great Cause, were politically mistaken, intellectually naïve, even morally deplorable. But even if one accepted those judgements (and I do not – it was a civil war fought in defence of a democratically elected Government) they are irrelevant. It is the feeling that matters, not morality or political justice; and ‘Spain 1937’ catches that feeling with strangely whimsical force and truthful nostalgia.

It’s a poem of 92 lines divided into four-line stanzas – long ambling lines, expository, cinematographic, as history closes gradually on the subject, Spain, and the year, 1937. It has been called impersonal, even unfeeling, but to me its rhetorical structure is brilliant and moving. ‘Yesterday all the past’ it begins, and that ‘past’ is at first quite random – more or less whatever comes to mind as representing it, until we get to stanza 6:

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek;
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero.
                        Yesterday the prayer to the sunset,
And the adoration of madmen. But today the struggle.

So this is where the lines, and the history, have been leading us – and the ‘struggle’ was one of those key words in Marxist terminology, signalling where we stood, which side we were on, and in what great cause: the class struggle – the workers, the underdogs, against all who through the ages have claimed privilege and oppressed them.

So now we are in a present in which that conflict is taking place, not just physically in Spain, but everywhere and in everything – in poetry, in science, in nature, in public bars, in ordinary lives: and what all this adds up to is a collective wish, the people asking the Life Force to intervene, ‘to descend as a dove / A furious papa or a mild engineer’, and bring it to a resolution.

But the Life Force throws the request, and the responsibility, back on those asking the question:

‘What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
                        Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.

Just past half way through quite a long poem, Spain is named for the first time. What happens here and now will determine the future for humankind; and what happens depends on ‘your choice’ – on what collectively ‘you’ want.

Now there are images of people who have come to Spain, as Auden did, answering the call of history to join the International Brigades:

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
                        They floated over oceans;
They walked the passes, they came to present their lives.

The poem takes us forward into the future, which can only be whimsically described because no one can know what it will be – except that it will be better if the ‘call’ has been answered. ‘Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love’:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lakes the winter of perfect communion;
                        Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but today the struggle.

There is no escape from the responsibility of now: you have to make a judgement, you have to take sides. Here is the final stanza:

The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
                        History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

There is something very particular and, perhaps, for readers new to his work, peculiar, about those early Auden poems. It is partly the flavour of its time, and he was one of those who defined it. He called the 1930s a ‘low dishonest decade’; but there is a nostalgia goes along with it – like the memory of one’s first smell of Paris plumbing and cheap hotels. I find the whole movement of ‘Spain 1937’ very affecting, especially the way it slowly focuses on its subject, turns it into a question, and departs, rather regretfully, as if the poet knows already, or guesses, that the Cause is destined to fail.

After the end of World War II, Auden wrote more poems that were domestic in content and (finding his precedents in the work of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop) syllabic in form. But here is a poem, a formal Petrarchan sonnet, that belongs squarely in that 1930s Leftist phase. It was at first named as number 12 of a sequence, in the collection called Look Stranger, and later given the title ‘Meiosis’, which the Concise Oxford defines as, ‘Biol. A type of cell division which results in daughter cells with half the chromosome number of the parent cell’:


Love had him fast but though he fought for breath
He struggled only to possess Another,
The snare forgotten in their little death,
Till you, the seed to which he was the mother,
That never heard of love, through love was free,
While he within his arms a world was holding,
To take the all-night journey undersea,
Work west and northward, set up building.

Cities and years constricted to your scope,
All sorrow simplified though almost all
Shall be as subtle when you are as tall:
Yet clearly in that ‘almost’ all his hope
That hopeful falsehood cannot stem with love
The flood on which all move and wish to move.

Here’s what I think it means. ‘He’ in the poem is a nameless male who is having sex with a nameless woman, and the ‘you’ addressed is the sperm which, released, will fertilize her egg. The ‘little death’ (as in French) is their orgasm. The sperm (‘you’) that ‘never heard of love, through love was free’. The journey it is freed to take is inside her body (the ‘world’ held in the male’s arms); and its ‘set[ting] up building’ is the development of the foetus in the womb.

Now the sestet looks forward to a future in which ‘almost all / Shall be as subtle when you are as tall’ – everything will be as ‘subtle’, as complicated, as difficult, when ‘you’ are grown to adulthood. But the hope for the future is in that ‘almost’, which allows for the idea of improvement. It is a poem against the idealism of romantic love, which still permits the idea of ‘progress’.

It’s exceptionally clever but by no means perfect. I admire the formal ingenuity without quite conceding that everything he wanted to say is really said. But form, as always in poetry, is important – and you should always read with one eye on that aspect. The poet, especially one like Auden, wants you to see and enjoy what he has done with the language, and if you only read to be moved or excited, you are selling the craft short.

I think it was in the 1970s I was lecturing on Auden and came on the fact that there were some early notebooks of his in the British Museum. I wrote asking whether I could have copies made and was told yes, if Mr Auden had no objection – but I did need his written approval. I knew he had recently moved from what had been his regular summer retreat in Italy (hence the poem ‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno’) to Kirchstetten in Austria, and I wrote to him there. I got no reply.

So I wrote again, this time mentioning (tentatively and politely) what I thought was a grammatical error in the 5th and 6th lines of the poem ‘Meiosis’: ‘Till You the seed […] that never heard of Love, by love was freed.’ Since the subject of the sentence is ‘You’, the verb should be ‘were’. Of course if the subject was ‘seed’ then the verb could be ‘was’ – but (as I read it) it wasn’t, and so it couldn’t be. This is what I wrote to Auden, calculating (rightly as it turned out) that an accusation of grammatical error would lure him far enough out of his Kirchstettin cave to respond also to my permission request. Here’s his reply, which was handwritten:

W.H. Auden's letter to C.K. Stead.

April 26th 1969

Dear Mr Stead
    Your letter of March 15th has only just reached me.
    Of course you can have a photo copy of that Notebook if you want it.
    I think ‘seed’ is one of those nouns that can take either a singular or a plural verb, so was is intentional.
    With best wishes
        Yours sincerely
            W.H. Auden

I had my permission. The grammatical point had only been a means of getting to him and is not important; but I still think the subject of that sentence is ‘you’, not ‘seed’, so the verb should be ‘were’ (‘you [...] were free’); and if the subject is ‘seed’, and he meant it in the plural, as his letter suggests, then again, the verb should have been were, not was (‘seed[s][...] were free’). So I suspect his reply was one he hadn’t given much thought. The seed is surely the single sperm that fertilizes the egg.

Auden’s Kirchstettin retreat is the subject of his charming late collection About the House, which includes the poem he called ‘The Cave of Making’ about the room where he did his writing. It is dedicated to the memory of Louis MacNeice (1907-63), the first of the MacSpaunday group (as the South African Roy Campbell called them) to die, and it contains lines that might be called Auden’s ‘defence of poetry’.

                        After all, it’s rather a privilege
            amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
            background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
            cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
            being read or ignored: our clients
at least can rune.

PS: Here is a poem by Harry Ricketts remembering his days as an undergraduate at Oxford when for part of each year W.H. Auden, old and famous, was a notoriously untidy (even grubby) resident in a cottage belonging to his old College, Christchurch.

On Not Meeting Auden

And did you once see Auden plain?
Well, no, though I could have any time
in late ’72, early ’73.

Sightings were reported daily
on the Broad and High: “He was wearing
slippers, man!” “He was holding plastic shopping bags.”

He would hang out in the café
in St Aldate’s, down from Carfax Tower
(where helmeted boys hammer out the quarter-hours),

but we never went: too Christian.
Besides, old fart with a ruined face,
what could he tell us about life, about poetry ‒

anything? We had beads, long hair,
Afghans and grants, ideals and flares.
We hitched to Greece, got Crow, got stoned, got the lyrics

of Ziggy Stardust, Transformer.
We knew exactly what Dylan meant
by that line: “I didn’t realize how young you were.”

So Harry Ricketts is suggesting the young saw Auden as ‘out of fashion’ by then, and were more interested in Ted Hughes (author of Crow), Bob Dylan and ‘flower power’ – a time I too remember vividly. I will be writing about Ted Hughes in a later blog.

– C.K. Stead

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