Sunday, 29 May 2011

Human Time is a City

Accompanying the perceptive review by Anita (Auden) Money of my book on Auden (published by Authorspress in New Delhi) are six precious photographs - featuring Wystan Hugh Auden, his brother John, his father George Augustus Auden, his nieces Rita and Anita, Rita's mother Shiela, Rita's son Otto, and Alan Britten - so very graciously provided by Anita Money. Am beholden indeed to her for her graciousness. --Nibir

Sheila and Wystan Hugh Auden at Anita's wedding in Florence
Anita and Rita at Ischia with Mose (Wystan and Chester’s dog). 
Ischia is the Italian island where Wystan and Chester used to spend the summer.

Anita, Rita,  Sheila & George Augustus Auden (Wystan’s father) in Cumberland 1947

Anita with Alan Britten, Benjamin Britten's nephew by Auden plaque at Gresham's School (Holt)

(Edward) Benjamin Britten (the famous composer) and W.H. Auden collaborated on film and radio broadcasts, songs, and dramatic works. Benjamin Britten contributed incidental music for Auden and Isherwood's plays titled The Ascent of F6  and The Dog Beneath the Skin. Britten's song cycle On this Island takes its texts from Look, Stranger! Britten's last major setting of an Auden work, Hymn to St. Cecilia, was composed in 1942.

Anita, Rita and Otto (Anita's son) planting a tree at 
The Geological Survey of India in commemoration of John Auden

Sheila and John Auden visitng Rita at Oxford

Review Essay
 W.H. Auden: Therapeutic Fountain 
Nibir K. Ghosh
New Delhi: Authorspress, 2010.  Price: Rs. 525 (hardcover). Pages: xvi+175.

 Human Time is a City

Anita Money

Nibir K. Ghosh begins his preface to W.H. Auden: Therapeutic Fountain with the observation that “How to make a world better for men to live in has fascinated the minds of thinkers, philosophers and writers in every age” and that there have been “visions of good and possibly attainable systems…and at other times fantasies of a desirable but unattainable perfection.” It is in this context that he feels Shelley’s statement that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” should be understood.  Auden objected to and found absurd the claim that poets were world legislators but he had himself been drawn to exploring concepts for an earthly paradise or New Jerusalem, at times detailing a purely private Eden, but ultimately always concerned with ways to make a better world, which is the thesis of this book. His own line “For poetry makes nothing happen,” from his elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats has caused outcry and debate though read in context it is saying something more as Ghosh recognises.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, 
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. 
“Auden in Error,” a poem by David Ray, precedes the preface and acts as a gentle  chastisement,  affirming that poetry does indeed make things happen, a pointer to the subtitle of Ghosh’s book which pays tribute to the therapeutic nature of Auden’s poetry.  In the appendix he has printed in full Auden’s address in 1951 to the Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom where Auden allows that artists and poets may have some political value as an irritant reminder of humanity: “I think that as long as there are works of art which are, each of them, unique, they are a witness, whether people understand them or not, to the world of humanity they reflect.”
Ghosh admires Auden’s poetry, both its technical virtuosity and the prophetic tone in which pronouncements were made which went on “to define the present and the future in relation to the past in order to give us a profound understanding of the age we live in.” He took up the challenge of writing this book as a result of the huge response to the ‘birth centenary’ tributes for Auden contained in the Special Section of Re-Markings (Vol.6 No.1, March 2007). He acknowledges with gratitude the help and guidance given by Professor Edward Mendelson, among others, and in the Foreword by Professor Jonah Raskin the hope is expressed that this book will bring Auden new readers from around the world to appreciate a poetry “that was intensely personal and that also reached out to the family of humanity and that cried out against war and against violence.” 
Nibir Ghosh’s perspective on Auden is not only sympathetic and shows understanding but is rewarding in the serious attention he pays to Auden’s early political enthusiasms and search for ways towards a just society. He illustrates the underlying continuity of a quest which culminates in a personal philosophy that draws on Christianity and places responsibility on the individual to accept life and learn to love his neighbour as himself in order to make the world a better place.
The first two chapters cover the political situation in the late 1920s and 1930s reflecting that whenever the historical process tends to break down, it becomes fairly difficult to separate literary history from social, political and economic history. He shows how much thought Auden gave to Marxist theory and illustrates this by using quotations from both his poetry and prose on the major themes of ‘class struggle’, ‘Industrialism’, ‘Freedom-necessity-choice relationship’ and the ‘theory of evolution’. These ideas, particularly the question of freedom and necessity and the theory of evolution remain important concepts in Auden’s work to the end, evolving in various ways. He frequently contrasts the instinctual world of the animal and plant kingdom with the self-conscious world of man and also the parallel realities of Nature and History. In Auden’s address to the Indian Congress in 1951 he speaks of the danger of equating two realities with different laws:
There are two real worlds and we inhabit both of them. One, the natural material world, the physical world, the world of mass, of number, not of language. A world in which freedom is indeed consciousness of necessities, a world in which justice means equality before the law of physics, chemistry, physiology. And then there is the other world, the historical community of persons, the world of faces, the world of language where necessity is the consciousness of freedom and justice is the command to love my neighbour as myself, that is to say, as a unique, irreplaceable being….Unreality comes when either world is treated as if it were the other one.
Auden’s interest in Psychology is seen by Ghosh as related to his quest for a means of creating a better society because psychological ills cannot be ignored if civilisation is to be restored to a sound state of mental health.  He offers an entertaining and revealing quote from Dylan Thomas:
I sometimes think of Mr Auden’s poetry as hygiene, a knowledge and practice, based on brilliantly prejudiced analysis of contemporary disorders, relating to the preservation and promotion of health, a sanitary science and a Flusher of melancholies.  I sometimes think of his poetry as a great war, admire intensely the mature, religious and logical fighter.
Auden’s ideas on Psychology were influenced by various people whom Ghosh mentions, including Homer Lane, Groddeck and Freud, but it is useful to remember that the initial influence came from home as George Augustus, his father, who was a doctor with an interest in Psychology, became school medical officer in Birmingham, a newly appointed post at the time, later becoming Professor of Public Health at Birmingham University. Auden, aware of the snobberies and gentilities as well as neuroses which existed in his own class and in some of his own relations, understood the psychosomatic nature of illness and related this to society. These concerns are apparent in the private fantasy world of Mortmere shared with Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward and in his plays dealing with saga rivalries and family feuds though his awareness grows, as Ghosh points out, when he confronts the wider world of social ills in Berlin.  Ghosh quotes my father, John Auden, to whom The Ascent of F6 was dedicated, on Wystan’s lack of class and racial prejudice but dislike of “evil in high places, whether in Kremlin, Berchtesgaden or Whitehall.” The combination of a medical background and a thoughtful Christian upbringing had a lasting influence on Wystan and my father who, when he went to India as a young geologist, was shocked at the prejudices of some of the Englishmen he met, later marrying my mother Sheila Bannerjee who was Bengali. Our first introduction to Wystan was in 1951 when he came to stay with us in Calcutta. 
In discussing Auden’s earlier poetry with its buoyancy and rhetorical advocacy of a new order against the old order and sense of imminent doom expressed in a new style “raising ordinary speech into strong and strange incantation,” Ghosh  comments on the immediate impact he had on his contemporaries in a shared public vision. He quotes from Koestler:  “the success of the Soviet economy provided such a contrast to the downward trend of capitalism that it led to the obvious conclusion that ‘they are the future – we the past.’” Later, for many, Communism  became the God that Failed.  For Auden, as Ghosh points out, the public vision lost its validity with political systems which turned humans into statistical nonentities and the rhetoric that had accompanied the vision began to pall. Communism shared with Fascism a totalitarian disregard for the individual. 
The dangers of rhetorical language which simplify the truth for effect and can obscure the more complex reality became a matter of crucial importance for Auden as a poet and Ghosh reflects sensibly on the controversy over his later corrections and rejections of poems. His quest for the good included a difficult technical quest to write poetry which was truthful and with a quieter impact which aimed to “tell the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” 
In this context, it is worth drawing attention to his appreciation of De la Mare’s anthology Come Hither for it explains his dislike of pretension in poetry (part of his objection to Shelley’s remark, I think, about legislators): “particularly valuable was its lack of literary class consciousness, its juxtaposition on terms of equality of unofficial poetry, such as counting-out rhymes, and official poetry such as the odes of Keats.  It taught me at the start that poetry does not have to be great to be good….” 
Ghosh’s book, though compact, covers a great deal in its carefully structured seven chapters. It will encourage the reader to access the references after each chapter and consult the bibliography at the end in order to read some of the texts mentioned in order to follow Auden’s thinking, for example, his view of the relationship of Art and Politics (“The Prolific and the Devourer”). It provides many illuminating quotations to illustrate Auden’s constantly expanding and changing ideas, showing the major influences on which he drew to formulate his own imaginative truths in his poetry and in prose. It should be a salutary book both for newcomers to Auden and for serious Auden scholars for it will introduce them to the wise thinking expressed with such mastery in the poetry and which shapes both the poetry and the prose. Auden’s originality, as Ghosh says, “lay in his quick responsiveness to, and in the vigorous enunciation and brilliant assimilation of, the ideas of innumerable representative thinkers. These ideas helped him integrate ideological confusions and raise them to new levels of consciousness….” He comments on Auden’s belief in the Fall and in Grace and his personal understanding of God remarking that “His poetry gradually moves from the contours of contemporary social reality towards the direct contemplation of religious matters related to the eternal design.”  He also quotes from “The Good Life” to show Auden’s critical view of the Church as an organisation: “When a religious body becomes an organised Church it becomes a political movement, and the historical evidence can point to no occasion on which the Church has been able to avert either war or economic changes.” 
Love which features so strongly in Auden’s work both as eros and as agape becomes, as Ghosh appreciates, the crucial building block of the just city once one can progress beyond the idea of being loved oneself alone (selfish love) to a universal love which means understanding that difficult command to love thy neighbour as thyself (as a unique other equal to oneself, not a faceless number). These changes come from within but with the help of grace:
I know nothing except what everyone knows
If there when Grace dances, I should dance.
Ghosh admires Auden’s poetry for its courage because, as he says, disillusions are not allowed to settle into despair or hatred but instead life is affirmed: "Taking cue from Old Masters, Auden could visualise the extraordinary nature of day-to-day ordinary human suffering and yet reveal how life remains a ‘blessing’." Auden’s words “Bless what there is for being” are engraved on a stone in his commemoration at Christ Church Cathedral.
I would like to end with two quotations which are an affirmation of Nibir Ghosh’s thesis: one from a letter written to my father in 1941 - “Every ohm of private happiness and decency is, I am convinced, a political asset to the world,” and a verse from “Aubade” written at the end of his life and published posthumously in Thank You, Fog in 1974:
Human Time is a City
Where each inhabitant has
A political duty
Nobody else can perform,
Made cogent by Her Motto:
Listen, Mortals, Lest Ye Die.

Ms. Anita Money is an administrator in an inner city London comprehensive organising work experience and enrichment opportunities for students. Her father, John Bicknell Auden, Wystan’s brother, worked for the Geological Survey of India until just after India’s Independence. Her mother, Sheila Bonnerjee, a painter, was granddaughter of W.C. Bonnerjee, the First President of the Indian National Congress. She Read English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. She Worked for William Cookson on the poetry magazine Agenda from 1993 to 2000. 

Courtesy & (c): Re-Markings ( March 2011

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