- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005


Edited by Stephen Burt with Hannah Brooks-Motl

Columbia, $34.50, 178 pages


Randall Jarrell had hoped to write his master’s thesis in English on W. H. Auden’s poetry but was deterred by his supervisor at Vanderbilt University on the grounds that Auden was still alive, thus not a proper subject for scholarly treatment. It was 1937 and Jarrell changed his subject to A. E. Housman who had conveniently died the preceding year. But he did publish, in the 1940s, two long essays on Auden’s work, “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry” (1941) and “Freud to Paul: The Stages of Auden’s Ideology” (1945), which together make up some 75 pages.

Those pages constitute a substantial part of the six lectures he would deliver on Auden in the spring of 1952 at Princeton University, where Jarrell was in residence as a visiting writer. For decades these lectures have been reposing as part of the Jarrell archive in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Now Stephen Burt, author of an intelligent book on the poet, “Randall Jarrell and His Age” (2002), has performed the difficult task of editing them.

A difficult task, since the nine folders of Auden material from which Mr. Burt has put together this book present many textual problems, too complicated to go into here, but requiring conjecture about exactly what should go where. Mr. Burt has coped manfully with the task, providing admirably full notes, identifying, amplifying, and correcting Jarrell’s allusions and quotations. This doesn’t mean that he has solved the problem of making the lectures add up to a progressive narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Many of the parts are brilliant, as one comes to expect brilliance from Jarrell’s witty and original formulations; the impression left by the lectures as a whole is somewhat more cloudy.

In his foreword to the book, Adam Gopnik speaks of “the long pieces that were extracted from these lectures” and says they make up an “almost comically detailed analysis of the transformations of Auden’s rhetoric in the 1940’s.” Mr. Gopnik gets two things wrong, since the “long pieces” — “Changes of Attitude …” and “Freud to Paul” — were published well before the lectures. (There is an academic etiquette that says you shouldn’t read aloud as lectures very much of what you’ve already put in print, but Jarrell seems not to have worried about that.) And the changes for the worse in Auden’s rhetoric, which Jarrell considers, were taking place well before the 1940s, were in fact to be heard prominently in such well-known poems as “Spain 1937” and “September 1, 1939.”

Jarrell had begun to read Auden in 1932 as an undergraduate, when he discovered “Paid on Both Sides,” Auden’s first attempt at a drama (he called it a “charade”) and his groundbreaking first volume, “Poems 1930.” He admired in Auden what he would later call “the tough, magical effects” of these poems written in “an eccentric variety of ordinary English” that resulted in a difficult, often obscure, but compelling indirectness. (Jarrell’s favorite early Auden poem was the untitled one beginning “Who will endure / Heat of day and winter danger, / Journey from one place to another.”) Many of these poems, to adapt a phrase of Wallace Stevens’s, resist the intelligence almost successfully and Jarrell thought they were the better for such resistance, especially when contrasted with the rhetorical style Auden increasingly employed from the middle l930s on.

As Auden became one of the most professional poets who ever lived, he became also a kind of symbolic figure who spoke, in Jarrell’s eyes, too directly, too “professionally” to his audience. His poems from the mid-l930s on into the l940s were characterized by “a slightly vulgar or crude or too-direct appeal, a sure-fireness, some variant of which Virgil Thomson [the music critic] calls the ‘wow technique.’” Auden became, in Jarrell’s words, “a master at moving an audience as he wished it to be moved,” “a true and magical rhetorician.”

One of the most amusing, and just, demonstrations of such rhetoric, delivered in Jarrell’s most extravagantly witty manner, concerns Auden’s use of capitalized personified abstractions, as in, for example, “one thirteen-line menagerie from the volume Another Time (l940), in which capitalized abstractions such as I Will, I Know, I Am, I Have Not, and I Am Loved peer pathetically out from behind their bars. Nearby, gobbling peanuts, throng the Brothered-One, the Not-Alone, the Just, the Happy-Go Lucky, the Filthy, hundreds of We’s and They’s and Their’s and Ours’s and Me’s.”

The list continues, and Jarrell finally declares that “Reading Another Time is like attending an Elks’ Convention of the Capital Letters.” By contrast he found this practice largely absent in Auden’s earlier poetry where the poet “said he-knew-not-quite-what to an audience that couldn’t quite make out what he meant.” At this moment in the fourth lecture, Jarrell has just read aloud “Spain, l937,” calling one of its phrases (“the poet exploding like bombs”) “worthy of the Stalin prize.” He might also have quoted Keats’s remark about Wordsworth, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.” To Jarrell’s tastes, Auden’s designs, however much they shifted as he frequently changed his mind, had, become all too palpable.

But his doubleness of feeling about the poet shows itself when, after convincingly demonstrating the faults in such a poem as “Spain, 1937” he immediately calls them “the faults of one of the best of living poets,” then proceeds to an account of Auden’s many virtues, bringing them out in some of his most attractive and inimitable prose. Among the “many noticeable virtues” of that poetry are, he says, its intelligence, its extraordinary wideness of subject-matter, and its range of wit and humor. As for Auden’s technical mastery, Jarrell writes “If the work demands a comic sestina in the style of Henry James, using as its six rhyme words the names of six of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, Auden’s eyes gleam, light up, sparkle, and he has it done by teatime.”

Finally, he has “an angelic or diabolical gift just for being interesting.” Summing up these virtues in a wonderful comparison, Jarrell supposes that Auden “would be, of all modern poets, the easiest for Pope or Byron to become accustomed to,” an imaginative piece of literary history that is absolutely right.

Earlier I noted my reservation about the overall shape of these lectures as the editor has put them together. By this I mean that what Mr. Burt terms the “conjectural reconstructions” of the fourth and the sixth (and final) ones don’t contribute to a satisfying progression over all. In the fourth one, the account of “Spain“‘s faults, then of Auden’s general virtues, is followed by a jump to the then-just-published “Nones” (l95l), which Jarrell finds the best book Auden has published in years: “So many of these poems are poems written by someone who is past, who has gotten over almost everything,” he justly characterizes the book. But then the final lecture goes back to Auden’s beginnings, with remarks about the early longer poems, “Paid on Both Sides” and “The Orators.” To this reader’s mind Jarrell fails to convince us of the eminent virtues of either of these poems, nor of the ones with which he ends the final lecture, Auden’s longer ventures from the 1940s — “For the Time Being” and “The Sea and the Mirror” — about which his remarks are too brief to carry the requisite weight.

In fact the only thing one misses from these wholly engaging performances is something Jarrell usually did in his essays about contemporary poets — picking out the best poems and describing why they are so good. He didn’t do this with Auden but rather left the challenge in the hands of his listeners — now, happily, his readers.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and is the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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