Posts Tagged ‘Edward Mendelson’

W.H. Auden: “what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself”

Friday, May 20th, 2022

Some good news in a sad year: Princeton University Press has just published the two-volume set of the complete poems of W.H. Auden, one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century. The volumes, edited, annotated and introduced by leading Auden scholar Edward Mendelson, include unpublished poems, songs, juvenilia, original texts and revisions. Together, the two volumes total nearly 2,000 pages.

There’s significance in the publication date: 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of the year Auden began writing poetry. Had Princeton waited another eleven years, it would have marked the centenary of another remarkable event in his life, which Mendelson describes in his introduction:

“At the same time, when he was looking publicly toward social revolution, he was quietly approaching an inner one. In May 1933 he wrote a sestina, ‘Hearing of harvests rotting in the valley’, one of his bravura historical summaries of many centuries in a few rapid stanzas. After describing earlier centuries’ fantasies of escape from ‘the sorrow’ of unhappy cities to the happiness of utopias somewhere else, the poem ends by imagining a different kind of transformation, not an escape from sorrow, but the sorrow itself melting into a revitalizing flood, after which ‘we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.'”

“A few weeks later, in June 1933, he experienced what he later called, in a lightly-disguised autobiographical essay, a ‘Vision of Agape.’ This occurred when, sitting with three fellow teachers at the Downs School, he knew for the first time, because he was experiencing it, ‘what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.'”

An excerpt from the essay:

“One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another.

Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”

Lovable Auden and his hidden furies

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

mendelson2A young provincial teenager attended a fancy London literary party in the 1950s. His English teacher has abandoned him among the roomful of bigshots as she went to hobnob among the literati. “I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself,” he recalled.  Then one of the older guests befriended and advised him. “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.”

The older guest was W.H. Auden, and the act was one of many kindnesses performed by the poet, as recounted in “The Secret Auden” by Edward Mendelson (below right) in the current New York Review of Books here.  Apparently, Auden had a habit of slipping away from the great and the famous at gatherings, and seeking out the least important person in the room.

He also had a habit of funding the education of postwar orphans, and shaking the trees to keep Dorothy Day‘s homeless shelter from closing.  This was not the way many saw him, or the way he portrayed himself as “rigid and uncaring.” His motives were many, but one was certainly a profound self-knowledge.

earlyaudenmendelsonWrites Mendelson: “On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

Or, as his protégée Joseph Brodsky said, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” Maybe he got it from Wystan.

I didn’t know about this, either: Wystan, The Life, Love and Death of a Poet premiered last year at Oxford:

Auden’s prophetic voice: “All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.”

Friday, June 8th, 2012

One of the problems of a large library is that it depends on a fallible sense of memory. I have a visual recollection of where a book might be, and that is my sole form of “organization.”  So naturally, I couldn’t find Alan Ansen‘s The Table Talk of W.H. Auden when I wanted it.  It wasn’t where I remembered seeing it, and therefore will remain in hibernation until it chooses to be found.

The immediate spur to my search was an article in last week’s The Scotsman, an interview with Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor:  “So impressed was Auden by Mendelson’s dedication – he told his long-term partner Chester Kallman ‘I’ve just met a young man who knows more about me than I do’ – that he asked him to become his literary executor. He died two years later, in 1973, aged 66.” Read the whole article here.

I found instead Conversations with Auden by Howard Griffin, another young man who attached himself to the ageing poet.

Now here’s what’s curious.  I was talking earlier today with a technologist about the double-edged sword of modern technology. It can lead to international sharing of medical research – or it can lead to porn addiction.  In that sense it’s like nuclear energy – it can power a nation, or bring us another Hiroshima.

So what did I find on the first page of Griffin’s book?  After discussing the advantages of the modern era, there’s this prophetic exchange:

Griffin: You mean at least we have technological advantages?

Auden:  Yes. The power instruments.  You cannot have advances in science without having the good and bad, without being given a choice. It is always up to men to decide how they are going to use what they have.  With each new invention, the question of free will is resurrected. The first invention of all was the apple – divine knowledge which caused the trouble. The story of Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is a myth to explain history. One must acknowledge its poetic truth, for human beings still seem much like Adam and Eve, blaming things on each other, and desiring to be gods.  Out of their monstrous vanity human creatures want to be their own cause. Adam succumbed to the temptation to eat the apple – but not out of appetite. … The story of the Fall has to be told in mythical terms because it is what conditions history.  In Genesis we do not have a race of people but the first man and woman, and the first thing they do is eat of the tree, an act that begins time and loses them this innocence.  Civilization itself remains neutral and ambiguous.  All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.  As temptations, they can make a man behave either much better or much worse.

Someday I’ll find The Table Talk of W.H. Auden again. Perhaps I’ll even find the syllabus Auden used for his University of Michigan classes, back when he was poet in residence in the 1940s.  I had retrieved this treasure from the university’s archives year’s ago.  Somewhere in the garage, I’m sure.

W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”