As I have been saying, 1936 is an excellent year for great poetry and great poets. I’ll turn here to a great poet who is not yet on his game—Wystan Hugh Auden, whose Look, Stranger (a title he hated—he changed it to On This Island in the American edition) is published in 1936. Much of the work is, in my opinion, Auden struggling to find his voice—some tentative love poetry, none of which yet manages the beauty of his “Funeral Blues” (perhaps most memorably recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral) which will be perfected in 1938, and some imitative stuff on time that seems obviously influenced by Eliot’s better work. Auden’s keen eye for the humdrum and the here-and-now, which I think hits its stride in the late 1930s (and which I’m sure you’ll therefore see here on a Friday later this year), hasn’t yet fully developed, to my taste. But I think there’s a spot or two in Look, Stranger where Auden latches on to something worth mulling over, and it’s to one such poem, then untitled but later titled “Who’s Who”, that I’d like to turn your attention:
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.
In this sonnet, Auden takes advantage of the form by executing the “turn” at the ninth line beautifully—the octet establishes the “important” figure, only to have the sestet undercut that importance by acknowledging the person who is simultaneously unremarkable and vitally central to both the poem and the “important” man. This isn’t the kind of poetry that really elevates me out of my chair, whooping at the beauty of it or kicking myself for never having conceived of such a brilliantly obvious idea. It’s like the compulsory program in figure-skating—the goal is not to surprise the judges, but rather to show them how flawlessly a double axel can be executed by someone in whose DNA the axel has been helixing since birth. Auden, still a young poet (in his mid-20s, or thereabouts), shapes an almost ideal sonnet, and totally independent of any of its content, I think it’s really beautiful for that reason. It’s like looking at a painting and realizing how exactly the painter has captured the color of the sky at dusk—the rest of the painting may be emotionally powerful or fairly cliche, but the perfection of that one color might be enough to take you through the day.
To turn, though, to the content of the poem, I’m struck by what Auden does and doesn’t say. We are given two characters—the first, a man of importance, and the second, a person (whose gender is not specified—important to note since Auden was gay, and increasingly openly so in the 1930s) of no particular importance. The sonnet’s structure and our fairy tale notions may lead us to a very simple conclusion about the poem: “Ah,” we say, “Auden’s pointing out that the people we think are important usually aren’t. It’s the simple folk who count.” But is the poem all that clear on the point? The public figure has achieved real things—he has survived a violent childhood, struggled to make his impact on the world, done things of note (generally feats involving some kind of courage or adventure), and remained human and reachable despite it all. The private figure is a person of no real talent: he or she can manage basic household tasks, whistles, and is apparently content in the most simple of circumstances. When this private individual receives “long marvellous letters” from the famous man, on occasion an answer will be penned, but the letters are little thought of. None survive the dustbin. Who are we really being asked to sympathize with?
I wonder. I wonder in part because Auden by the mid-1930s is becoming a figure of some note—a political poet whose left-wing idealism is drawing a lot of young people to his art. By the mid-1930s, he’s starting to become disenchanted with all of this. Is he in this poem? If so, I think he must be the famous man in the octet, lamenting the distance that separates him from the private fellow who won’t answer many of his letters, who doesn’t understand how much he means to Auden. But I’m not sure of this interpretation at all—the sonnet is so formal, so carefully structured that I’d be a little surprised if it was a welling-up of some private pain of Auden’s. Art can mask pain, of course, but I’d like to think I could feel it just a bit more than I do, if it really is there.
But what are we left with, as a response to the poem? I may be jumping too far, by expecting that I’m asked to take a side—to see one or the other of these figures as in the right and therefore admirable (or at least pitiable). I wonder, though, if Auden really intends us to sympathize with the private person in the sestet. The language there, to me, suggests a person so withdrawn from the world that their lot is not really enviable. And I can’t help but feel that there is something significant in the twin details of only responding to some letters, and keeping none—not just that the love is not reciprocated, but that somehow there’s something emotionally stunted about the quieter half of this star-crossed pair. To respond to the poem’s eventual title, Who is Who, really, in this poem? Does even Auden know the answer? He takes a somewhat obvious jab at the “astonished critics”, but can this really just be a poem about the fact that “some people might not believe it, but famous people don’t always find true love”? I kind of doubt it. Anyway, I may be reading this entirely wrong, and I’m hopeful some of you will chip in with your own thoughts or reactions to the piece.