Auden and Eliot
The consensus seems to be that W H Auden (1907 – 73) was the most important poet of the last hundred years, and I am here my friends to tell you why I and others like me have named their sons after him, why he is so deserving of accolades, why his fame grows yearly and why he is an affirming flame. He never wrote anything as devastating, technically so perfect nor as cynical as T S Eliot’s (1888 – 1965), The Waste Land or The Hollow Men. Auden’s colorful vignettes such as Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast, Law Like Love, The Unknown Citizen, Funeral Blues, and many others have grown in popularity since his death. This is an unheard of event in the world of letters, and due to their singularity as having poem stickiness—I just coined that from the pop music industry—they stay with you after you’ve heard them . . . in a loving haunting manner.
Auden was a romantic, a democrat, moderate, openly gay, respectful of science and modernity, a calm personality, honest in his religion and wise beyond his years. Eliot was a pessimist, an anti-Semite, a cynic and had no respect for democracy as even a small sampling of his work will show you. He believed in authority, was a snob and was sympathetic to Fascism. He described religion as the crown knot of fire and the door we never open, but he himself was seen as a poet who had his own issues around sensual life—‘Dare I eat a peach?’—a self-ostracized outsider to the middle ground of the working folks and devoid of a natural sexual demeanor. His poems were as W S Maugham said of Joyce’s novels: “. . . written for PhDs,” perhaps even incomprehensible. Throughout they contain contentions of class clout and the charge that the modern world—market democracy—was a dry sterile landscape of mob rule as we would also see in Ezra Pound’s poems, a poet he influenced. In a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933, published under the title After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), to his shame this is what he wrote, "What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable." R Kirk.
Auden’s view of religion was broader and can be summed up with, “You must love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.” He was a world traveler and self-effacing in his daily tribulations, in the orbit of his friends, from his journey as a youthful Marxist-socialist into the later American Protestant which he sincerely reflected on in his work For the Time Being and many others poems. In his different stages of his life he offered up priceless insights for the modern life. Though defensive of his talent, he was also humble and candid to the assigned venue of his characters of his many stories, some created like The Average Man or Victor out of pure construct, some like Musee, Yeats or September 1939 from a heart filled with lean wisdom and others like A Day for a Lay or Letter to a Wound, devastatingly frank verses about his most personal experiences.
It was true that the West’s very own ‘Pickled Poet’ in old age, according to him, had a face that looked like ‘a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain,’ or as his good friend Christopher Isherwood said, “such a face belonged in the British Museum.’ From the shared cigarette in Spain to the shot of liquor in On the Circuit:
Then worst of all, the anxious thought,
Each time my plane begins to sink
And the No Smoking sign comes on:
What will there be to drink?
Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?
he was like a poet fairytale, kindly, judicious, authentic, a fine table set under the open bright summer stars. He dished up a banquet, gastronomically executed like Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto: the port, brandy and wine supplied with erotica, tobacco, Jack & Jill, every small man and every Beanstalk Giant from the Age of Anxiety. What a light! And to think, humor too.
The Love Song of Prufrock Investment Bakers
I buy gold . . . I sell gold.
I shall hide it in the cold pantry hold.
I shall make my decisions only after the rulers have been polled.
Shall I spend my bullion? Do I dare I eat a mango?
I crave to sell my assets but it is all contango.
I have seen the bankers do the tango and fandango.
I do not think they will dance for me.
I will drive to their depository in my Dodge Durango,
Shouting at my group, “Go, gang go!”
Ihave seen the daring bankers, robbing all my working kins
For over seventy solar spins, as though there were no worse sins;
Back when the rulers allowed the banks to chance all our wins.
They laugh at our foolish toils, they rejoice in our roils.
I have seen them on their posterior, hording their evil spoils,
Till the shot awakes us and the pistol recoils.
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