Who Was Worst Famous Poet Of The 20th Century?
Continued from previous page
Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still…
Here we have a fine example of the depth of Auden’s socialist analysis of colonialism, which extends about as far as lamenting boy-on-boy violence, as shown in “The Shield of Achilles” (which may be his very worst, most laughably cliché-ridden poem):
…that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard…
Another triumph for our rhymster, “third” and “heard,” with “word” ending the next line – but the point is that this is as far as Auden’s sense of evil goes. He’s incapable of finding any historical context in the revolutionary violence that made Yeats a great poet in spite of himself. For Auden, an alleged socialist, it’s just “mad Ireland” doing what she does naturally.
This remarkable blindness concerning a certain island due west of Oxbridge will be a recurring theme in this series, leading us back and back to the question: why is it that only Lord Byron, the designated villain of English poetry, will spare a word for the Irish peasantry? Why do committed Marxists, professional sympathizers like Auden, always fail to see anything but a genetic predisposition to violence in the people whose mulched offspring literally paid for the careers of most English poets of the last three centuries?
Keep that question in mind; it’ll be on the exam.
One part of the answer is that Auden’s utter conventionality precluded such an heretical awareness. And it’s that conventionality, which defines every word the man ever wrote, that underpins his continuing celebrity. The shortest answer to the question, “How do you get famous without poetic talent?” is: sleep around the hot universities and squeeze tears, then stage a well-timed conversion to the Right.
Auden followed an absolutely conventional path to Anglicanism through Socialism, which in the circles he frequented was nothing but Flannery O’Connor’s “Church of Christ without Christ” anyway. When the red flag lost its luster, it was a very easy step for Auden to subside into a fluffy, tweedy devotion to that same Church, with the Christ part slipped back in.
I’m not in any way implying that Auden was calculating or insincere. Would he had been! Then he might have been an interesting poet. On the contrary, he was a genuine dunce, plodding along with the majority of middlebrow intellectuals who joined the Communists in the Thirties and then drifted back toward a vague, chastened piety after the war. If you want to see a very good, cruel account of the process, read Edmund White’s Memoirs of Hecate County. There were Audens cocktailing their way through every country club in Connecticut and the Home Counties; most of them simply didn’t pretend to be poets.
In Auden’s elegy for Yeats, written at the end of the 30s, we see the bovine instinct loitering around an interim deity, a way-station between Stalin and the Archbishop of Canterbury: a schoolboy’s deity, “poetry.” Again and again, the poem offers Yeats’ corpse to this word:
…Poetry makes nothing happen; it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches and isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Ah, this man is such a rotten poet that though I want to discuss his meaning, I can’t help marking the sheer lousiness of his rhymes. Why, Mistuh Auden, do dat river flow “south”? It wouldn’t be because you needed a rhyme for “mouth,” would it? And why for that matter, is poetry reduced to another one of your determinedly Platonic metonymies, “mouth” – aside from the appalling pun on riparian geography? Why, indeed, does this river which flows into the mouth flow “ON south” rather than simply “south” – could it be that you needed an extra syllable there? Could you, W. H., sir, rhyme your way out of the proverbial paper bag? (Hint: “tired old slag.”)