Edward Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography (Princeton UP, 2017)
Reviewed by Daniel T. O’Hara
This essay has been peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 editorial collective.
Edward Mendelson’s Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography combines with minor revisions, as its author notes in the new preface, the two earlier separate volumes published eighteen years apart in 1981 and 1999, respectively. Of specific revisions, the most important is the addition of a postscript about Auden’s “secret life.” This does not consist of sensational or lurid adventures, but of Auden’s selfless, quiet giving and other acts of unannounced and otherwise unremembered charity. However, although updating scholarship where needed, including references to a recently discovered journal (2004) from August-November 1939 and eliminating as much repetition as possible, this one volume edition contains the earlier ones pretty much as they were. This includes introductions overviewing each volume to come, hefty numbered parts delineating and subdividing periods into chapters in Auden’s life and career of his English and then American affiliations. Auden spent his summers after World War II first in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, and then beginning in 1958 in Kirchstetten, a village that is forty kilometers from Vienna. He would winter usually in New York City, unless he was teaching around the USA at different universities and colleges for a term or two (one up to three years), from the University of Michigan to Swarthmore College. For five years in the second half of the 1950s he was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, for three-week periods in the fall semesters. Oxford made allowances for Auden’s needing to be in New York to make money with his many and diverse prose projects of reviews, articles, prefaces, essays, editorial and anthology work. Mendelson’s separate biographies ended with epilogues wrapping up each of the original installments, and as the reader notes, they remain in place here. This all makes for a monumental, not to say magisterial 895-page tome by the literary executor of the Auden estate.
Of Mendelson’s many remarkable accomplishments, it is the shift he makes in how we view and value the divide in the career between early English and later American Auden that stands out. When in 1981 the first volume appeared, it was the early English modernist Auden who was still loudly celebrated, with the later American Auden as progressively never quite measuring up, whether seen as a Christian existentialist humanist or postmodernist poet. To be sure, there were recognized rare virtuoso exceptions in the later work, such as a handful of lyrics (“The Shield of Achilles”  being one famous instance) and perhaps Caliban’s final prose poetry address to the audience in “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944), done in the late most baroque style of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl and The American Scene. But also, then the later Auden was seen as progressively becoming lost both in the quixotic quest for creating a truly modern epic poem (his “For the Time Being” and “the Age of Anxiety” being viewed at that time as being wholly abstract and prolix failures); and in the la-la-land of Californian or more generally American popular culture, with all those lax poetic lines in the loose verse of the final five years of his life so filled with obviously narcissistic self-references. Mendelson, ever the smart partisan of the later Auden, has now won the battle, and reading this one-volume compilation makes the reader feel its rightness even more. Just as he had demonstrated in Early Auden (1981) that the English modernist “masterpieces,” however delightful or provocative at the time, such as “The Watershed” (as later named by Auden), were in fact more gamesmanship and puzzles than they needed to be, conflating Conradian spies and “secret sharers” with cruising gay lovers in Laura Riding/Thomas Hardy-like lines and enjambments; so, too, he revealed in Later Auden (1999) that the American Auden contained not only some of his greatest poetry, in original innovations in traditional styles of the canzone, the sestina, and the Italian sonnet, but simply some of the greatest poetry created in the twentieth-century, concerned like no other poets in the West were at the time with the worldly history and possible global future of the city, of citizenship, and of civilization itself. This is not to say that Mendelson presents his critical perspective polemically, but in fact, he presents it as modulating, in response to the process of reading the poems themselves, so that he can say in his new Preface honestly: “If I were to rewrite the two books today, they would be even more admiring of their subject than they already are” ( ix).
To see his achievement on behalf of the later “American” Auden, we must turn to “The Murderous Birth,” Chapter VIII in Part One “Vision and After” of the “Later Auden,” which is largely an elaborate original reading of “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” (1944). I realize some of the irony using the nationalizing descriptors, of course, but as I hope to show, in tweaking a bit Mendelson’s reading of Caliban as Jamesian, the American label holds even truer than it at first appears.
The kernel of Mendelson’s reading arises amid summarizing what Auden did for himself in writing “The Sea and the Mirror”:
By writing “The Sea and the Mirror” as a series of monologues for fictional characters borrowed from Shakespeare, Auden could write autobiographically in a deeper and more comprehensive way than ni his first-person lyrics. He expressed a different aspect of himself in each character, without masking that aspect behind a self-consciously public face. . . . To think his death I thought myself alive. The murder that never quite occurs in “The Sea and the Mirror” [as Sebastian notes], was [really not in the play but] a murder that repeatedly did not quite occur in the thirty-five years of Auden’s life (534; author’s italics).
What Mendelson means, and he supports this nugget of evidence by a prior step-by-step presentation and elucidation of supporting imagery from other poems, criticism, letters, notes, and so on, is suddenly and finally revealed in a brief rather blurted out note of intended consolation to Beata Wachstein, one of Elizabeth Mayer’s two daughters, who had recently suffered a miscarriage. Mendelson describes the note as “commiserating on her miscarriage in a blithe tone that concealed the private depths of his theme” (534). He then cites the note itself, linking it to one of Caliban’s most diabolic formulations addressed to the audience for this imagined performance of Shakespeare’s play, after which we the readers listen to the actors still apparently in character making sense of their magical experiences:
“‘Just a note to say how sorry I am about your misfortune, and to wish you better luck next time. My mother had a miscarriage before me, for which I cannot be sorry, because if she hadn’t, perhaps I shouldn’t exist.’ Or, as he has Caliban say [as Mendelson interpolates here]: ‘We should not be sitting here now, washed, warm, well-fed . . . unless there were others who are not here . . . others who have not been so fortunate, others who did not succeed in navigating the narrow passage’” (535).
For Mendelson, Auden confesses in this note to the final piece of the fateful nightmare scenario in which, somehow even before his conception, Auden, as Sebastian does with his living brother in the play, thought his unborn sibling’s death in order “to think myself alive.” This murderous cogito explains, Mendelson concludes, the presence of the life-long phantasm of obsessive guilt and ironic self-consciousness haunting the life and the work, taking the form in “The Sea and the Mirror” as Prospero’s cursed slave, Caliban. Auden’s own original sin is then this murderous birth because his very conception required the displacement into a miscarriage of the lost completely innocent child that was thus not to have been born.
This bizarre paradox of repressed unconscious thinking is actually a now rare but once more familiar rhetorical figure, that of metalepsis or transumption. Harold Bloom brought it to critical attention in his theory of the anxiety of influence more than forty years ago, but it has now largely faded from discussion. Basically, it is the revisionary trope of displacing a prior reality, even as a later reality thereby may assume the imaginary position of creating and revising this prior reality. Just as Auden by giving Shakespeare’s Caliban the image of the late James’ voice, his style of speaking in his writing, so, too, Auden would displace both James thereby and at least Shakespeare’s original invention in this instance, albeit not Shakespeare himself, though certainly surpassing Browning’s revision in “Caliban on Setebos.”
The cost of such flagrant lying against time is guilt primarily at the strongly violent, transgressive, even homicidal wishes involved in such post-romantic or modern revisionism in which the belated poet imprisons the precursor in the former’s chosen invention, thereby making the precursor over into the later poet’s creature. Mendelson sees such guilt in terms of the consequences of these transgressive or murderous wishes, following Auden’s lead, even as he recognizes it as delusional in actuality, except when it comes to Auden’s ambivalence about his own homosexuality. Mendelson concludes that Auden’s negative feelings about being gay arise from and compound the guilt he assumes for his impossible murder of his miscarried potential sibling, as if this extreme negativity proved he was divine or demonic, after all:
In his darkest imaginings about himself, [Auden] connected his illusory sense of guilt about his own birth with his inescapable sense of guilt about his homosexuality, his sense of it as criminal and isolating. The crime was that his sexuality was itself a punishment for an earlier crime. The obscure offense against childbirth that he had committed by being born was now punished . . . by another obscure offense against childbirth. (535)
Caliban, of course, becomes Auden’s revisionary vehicle for this transumptive metaphoric transformation. He is an instance of what I would more specifically call the revisionary phantasm. This is the autobiographical fiction representing the wish for divine power vis a vis others, known and unknown, in everyone, anyone. This mega-personification or giant form and the scenario accompanying it stands for the power of art to influence and determine the identities of others, those known personally or otherwise.
Whether Mendelson’s reading is entirely fair to Auden—is the revisionary autobiographical phantasm and its scenario throughout the critical commentary Auden’s or Mendelson’s?–it does point (on the poet’s part) to a system of belief in daemons (a la Yeats and Goethe—or Plutarch?), spirits of genius with feelings for or, more likely against, the poet, as in “There Will Be No Peace” (1956):
Though mild clear weather
Smile again on the shore of your esteem
And its colours come back, the storm has changed you:
You will not forget, ever,
The darkness blotting out hope, the gale
Prophesying your downfall.
You must live with your knowledge.
Way back, beyond, outside of you are others,
In moonless absences you never heard of,
Who have certainly heard of you,
Beings of unknown number and gender:
And they do not like you.
What have you done to them?
Nothing? Nothing is not an answer:
You will come to believe – how can you help it? –
That you did, you did do something;
You will find yourself wishing you could make them laugh,
You will long for their friendship.
There will be no peace.
Fight back, then, with such courage as you have
And every unchivalrous dodge you know of,
Clear on your conscience on this:
Their cause, if they had one, is no thing to them now;
They hate for hate’s sake (Auden: Collected Poems , 617).
This is a remarkably lucid presentation of the nameless, faceless sources of guilt that so often in the poet’s life—or even prior to his birth–can be given something of a local habitation and a name, an embryonic figuration of personhood (at least), which then serves repeatedly as stand-in for the driven nature of the career. When we combine this belief in the daemonic, in daemons—as part of whichever psychologizing system or allegorizing psychomachia we follow Auden into reformulating this visionary belief in genius—we just may begin to hear another more familiar American voice than James’ reverberating now on Auden’s moonless night—rather than under the original “pale sagging moon”—that is flooding the shore with reiterations of “the sea”:
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me . . . on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me (Whitman : 253).
Auden, as a radical anti-romantic modernist, was to be sure no fan of Whitman’s, just as he was not fond of the other romantics (American or British); but then, given Whitman’s large embrace of his “brother” Death, whose proper name or “word,” Whitman eagerly speaks as himself, and Auden’s dread of the specter of the potential sibling he “murdered” so he could be born originally–if one credits Mendelson’s argument fully—how could one expect otherwise? In the land of the id, Mendelson shows us learning so well from Freud and some of his most maverick followers, all contradictions are possible, equally true or false, at any one time.
Beyond this familiar point (to Auden), however, there is a more salient one. Auden, seventy or more years before our time with its post-colonialist sensitivities, underscores via Caliban’s address to the audience–to the readers—how the liberal minded benefactors of those impoverished and sacrificed in wars and other preventable events must be held publicly accountable as any rabid imperialist, is also guilty up to the hilt: “We should not be sitting here now, washed, warm, well-fed, in seats we have paid for, unless there were others who have not here; our liveliness and good humour, such as they are, are those of survivors, conscious that there are others who have not been so fortunate, others who did not succeed in navigating the narrow passage . . . .” (Auden, Collected Poems 1991, p. 428). Why? Perhaps, as we have learned, thanks to Mendelson’s monumental achievement, because there is no peace. Or, so Antonio, Prospero’s Iago-like brother, would confirm as he sings to himself at the end of the speeches of the other characters, who don’t know they are actors right before Caliban, who does know, begins his address to the imagined audience of actual readers (us):
One link is missing, Prospero,
My magic is my own;
Happy Miranda does not know
The figure that Antonio,
The Only One, Creation’s O
Dances for Death alone
(Auden : 422)
Condescending mercy ever breeds no justice, as Prospero will ever discover, it appears, and no justice means for sure no peace can be forthcoming from any of our demons.
Auden, W. H. 1991. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.
Mendelson, Edward. 2017.Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography. New Preface.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Whitman, Walt. 2002. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Norton Critical Editions. Ed.
Michael Moon. New York: W.W. Norton.