September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, Ian Sansom, Harper Collins Publishers, 2019, 352 pp, £16.99 (hardback)
W.H. Auden’s image in the popular imagination is unfinished at best, and often plainly incorrect at worst. When Ian Samson told a friend that he was writing this book, about a poem written ‘uncertain and afraid’, they responded with a line that haunted Auden, ‘we must love one another or die.’ Auden came to detest this phrase, and later stated that ‘the whole poem . . . was infected with an incurable dishonesty – and must be scrapped.’
Often artists have come to despise their most famous endeavour – Rachmaninoff was internally plagued by the notion of playing the Prelude in C Sharp Minor to another American audience – but it has never stopped us from poring over it to lugubrious ends. Sansom, who is known for his fictional series, writes that he has been trying to finish this book for twenty-five years, since he first picked Auden for a PhD having never read a single one of his poems. Auden captured him, as he had captured so many others, and has never released him from his grasp. Sansom weaves three different ideas into his book, of the poem, the poet, and New York. In many ways, he also adds another: his life and how ‘the misfortune of poetry’, as Jane Austen puts it, has held him back; that so many years be spent writing this book. Alluding to E.M Forster, he writes that ‘This life is neither C Major nor Minor, but C very much Diminished.’ One is reminded of Jonathan Coe’s Benjamin Trotter, permanently caught with this idée fixe from a young age that slowly nears completion.
The poem itself is widely known and has often entered the mind of the ‘sensual-man-in-the-street’ at times of personal or political crisis. Auden’s distinctive style was to be flexible; resolved to be different. This had endeared him to the British literary psyche of the 1930s, and it still mesmerises many now:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Those who were in the vicinity of Fifty-Second Street on September 11, 2001, would be forgiven for sensing a grave sense of foreboding in those lines. ‘Obsessing our private lives’ always seems to be a rather odd sentence, out of place from the otherwise traditional lament that gives each verse its bitter taste. That line might send a shudder down any spine; the knowledge that the personal is always political. It also speaks to our time, since politics often invades or pervades our daily lives.
Elegiac, indignant, snobbish. Auden is all of these things yet he still draws us, with a poetic voice that defies all cultural norms and hides his structural genius. Sansom often seems to gloss over this point, so that the intrinsic themes of the poem – what Auden is trying to evoke – are left out. Often, he takes us through detours, through whatever he is currently reading (and often teaching) to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party today. Endearing, perhaps. Meandering, almost certainly. Acknowledging from the beginning that writing an entire book on one ninety-nine line poem seems absurd, Sansom almost leaves us bemused. His slow start gives way to a blistering tour through the verses, but ultimately fails to produce a conclusive view on Auden’s overall ideals. Auden’s notorious pronouncement that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ barely scrapes a reference, despite the poem’s particularly chastising, reproachful themes. Sansom says that he aimed to write not just about Auden, but about other writers who influenced his reading of Auden – and there is certainly an eclectic bibliography.
The themes that made the ‘political poems’ of Auden’s earlier period are those which hold the most value among those who have not delved deep into the mire of his troubled habits and life. There is a certain languid defeatism in this poem, a melancholia unsurpassed in his writing even today. And therein lies the secret to Auden’s enduring pertinent. Like Orwell, who spoke out during a troubled time, Auden was ‘Beleaguered by the same negation and despair’ – while for Orwell, bomber planes were ‘flying overhead, trying to kill me.’
That said, Auden was safely contained in America. The British establishment felt betrayed, but Auden had seen his fair share of fascism, having lived in Germany during the early years of Nazi rule, as well as having borne witness to the Spanish Civil War (as did Orwell) and Indochina (Journey to a War was written with Christopher Isherwood). His role as the Oxford Professor of Poetry is dealt with at the start of this ‘biography of a poem’, but his over myriad interests, from Bach to Benjamin (as documented by his one-time student Alan Ansen) deserves more discussion.
Sansom continually makes the point that he is not W.H. Auden. Auden is raised to this position of a flawed deity, rising among the ‘dense commuters’ who struggle through this haven of ours. This accomplished mix of biography, intellectual discovery and wide-ranging sources. A rigorously entertaining journey through Auden’s troubled landscape, Sansom’s Biography of a Poem offers intellectual virtuosity mixed with an ever-present sense of failure. A failure to be W.H. Auden, in any way. Like the rest of us.
Auden’s friend Stephen Spender once wrote that ‘I continually think of those who were truly great’. During his lifetime, Auden became the victim of two different cults, one of a literary club, and that of widespread public recognition. He seemed to despise both circumstances. Maybe this might help us to explain the private yearnings of a most public man:
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not to be universally loved
But to be loved alone.
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