AUDEN AND THE LIMITS OF POETRY

by Alan Jacobs

Auden-4By the mid-1930s, W. H. Auden was the most famous and most widely imitated young poet in England. His verse was brilliant, ironic, often funny, wide-ranging in its reference—equally at home in the worlds of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry and the technology of mining—and sometimes impenetrably obscure. His poetic voice was from the beginning so distinctive that in 1933, when Auden was just twenty-six years old, Graham Greene could employ the word “Audenesque” in a movie review, confident that readers would know what he meant. The phrase “the Auden age” was in use before the poet turned thirty. But this widely recognized leader of the British intellectual avant-garde was an unhappy and confused young man.
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Auden had been unable to believe in God since his adolescence. His loss of faith and his discovery of poetry had come, interestingly enough, at almost the same time. But in the late thirties, as Auden’s uncertainty about his role as a poet grew (along with political and social tensions in Europe) some odd things began to happen to him. When in Spain during that country’s Civil War, for instance, he was shocked and disturbed to see that supporters of the Republican cause had closed or burned many of Barcelona’s churches—but he could not account for his own reaction. Soon afterward, he met the English writer and editor Charles Williams, and felt himself to be “in the presence of personal sanctity”—though what sanctity meant in a world without God he could not say.
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