Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Auden I give up and go home?

There's a shortish article by Peter Scupham in the latest Rialto, number 62, on Auden. It's supposed to be celebrating his centenary, and succeeds in this by the best measure I have available: it made me go and read some Auden; by chance the Collected Longer Poems is what came to hand.

Scupham has a critical conceit based on The Sea and the Mirror, Auden's treatment of The Tempest: the great man is part Ariel (pure lyrical talent) and part Prospero (crafty avuncular wise magician). The early poems are more Ariel, the later ones more Prospero.

As conceits go it's fairly interesting, and I have neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to pick holes in it with counterexamples. I'm pleased in fact to see a discussion which hints at the differences between early and late Auden which doesn't subside into an either/or value judgement. Late Auden, which I've always liked, reminds me at the moment of Horace: late, sophisticated, amused, exhausted yet still civilised. But it does lack the lyrical bite of the early stuff; Scupham quotes:

The tall unwounded leader
Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock
Are now perpetual,
Fighters for no one's sake
Who died beyond the border.

This is writing without the stabilisers provided by civilisation, not elegant but vital as the late verse, for all its wonderful virtues, is not. The power is generated partly by a daring use of words in a heroic abstract or even platonic mode ('the tall unwounded leader', 'the rock', 'the border'; all these nouns might happily take capital letters), and partly by Auden's astonishingly muscular syntax, in which a sentence is constructed in conversation with, not obedience to, the lineation. It might on a bad day be enough to make me give up writing. Today it inspires me: to read more Auden, and to write more, and better, myself.

PS As you know Wystan was named after Saint Wystan, who happens to be the patron saint of the church in Repton, Derbyshire, in whose crypt my father once declaimed the charming tonguetwister 'He crept into the crypt, crapped, and crept out again'.


Blogger Matt Merritt said...

Ha ha! That will make me laugh every time I drive through Repton, which is quite often.
Going off at a tangent, it reminded me that when I was at university, one of my lecturers made a good case (well, it seemed like it then, and I think the reasoning would still hold up) for Beowulf having been written at Repton, when it housed a large monastery.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Matt
I haven't been to Repton for a decade or more, but as I remember it's the sort of place I would like to believe such things about. But now I have visions of a bawdy medieval ballad about a vagrant despoiling the monastery with his stinking mess!

9:17 AM  
Blogger Matt Merritt said...

I do remember that the double monastery at Repton (ie., it held monks and nuns) was notorious for bawdy behaviour. St Boniface had to write a letter to King Aethelbald of Mercia advising him that it might not be a good idea to get quite so close to the nuns, and another letter to the nuns telling them to stop wearing so much jewellery and make-up.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

That's priceless.

8:34 AM  
Blogger James said...

This is interesting:

What exactly do you mean with "muscular" syntax? How does it oppose to, say, feminine syntax? Are there any major differences apparent?

12:10 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Good question, James.

I'm not sure I'd want to set up 'muscular' syntax as a category distinguishable from, for example, feminine syntax - I didn't mean 'masculine' syntax, for example.

I'll try to explain what I did mean in a separate post.

10:57 AM  

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