September 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Poets

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We often mention T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the same breath, though this pairing presents us not with a simple union but a choice between two very different approaches to art. Readers, I have noticed, can like both poets, but can never like them equally. When we place these two together, the juxtaposition is a difficult one, leading us always to an overwhelming question:

What, exactly or roughly, do we want our art to do?

This is not an inconsequential question, and so even if you, the Sun reader, are bored by or hostile to pretentious poetry or pretentious thought or pretentious writing, I ask you to set that apathy or antipathy aside for a few minutes, because this column is not just an academic essay about what I think of two dead white men. It is a slightly more valuable discussion of what I think we should be reading and how that relates to the state and direction of our own art.

Eliot and Auden, in a sense, traded places.  Eliot was born into the St. Louis branch of an influential Boston Brahmin family. He was a promising philosopher, and studied at some of the most prestigious universities in the world. He finished off at Merton College, Oxford, which I understand to be about as lively an experience as being smothered by a slow drip of lukewarm wax. From his debut in literary London until the end of his life, he was known to be depressive and stiff.

At age 39, he became a British citizen.

Auden was born two decades later into an upper-middle class British family, and was provided all he would have needed to grow up into Eliot. He studied English literature at Christ Church, Oxford — but he graduated with the lowest possible degree. Later, he moved to New York, where he embraced the “lawless” American lifestyle. He taught, among other places, at Swarthmore and the University of Michigan.

At age 39, he became an American citizen.

There is of course more to this pairing than a canny biographical symmetry. Both Eliot and Auden wrote after the First World War. Eliot, however, wrote much sooner after the catastrophe; his magnum opus, The Waste Land, was published in 1922. Like many contemporary artists, he was disoriented by the aesthetic shifts of his time. And, also like many contemporary artists, he developed a fragmented, overwhelmed and overwhelming style in response.

Auden tried at first to imitate Eliot. He, like everyone else, failed. He eventually understood that modernism had burned itself out. In turn he began to experiment with the very forms that Eliot had implied were no longer relevant: sonnets, ballads and even alliterative verse. He wrote openly about the changes Eliot had latently scorned: 20th century love, conformity and scientific discovery. Auden enabled post-Eliot English poetry, because no one else knew what to do.

I won’t deny Eliot’s genius. His poetry is more resolutely intellectual than Auden’s, and often, though certainly not always, he had a greater talent for giving us particularly memorable lines. But even if Eliot is admired today, he should not be a model to us. If I will forgive him his misanthropy, his misogyny, his fetid semi-fascism and his diseased anti-Semitism, I will not forgive him for writing under the same assumption that makes so much of our own art so insufferable: he thought that he was post-everything. He meant The Waste Land to put a period on poetry. In Eliot’s words, James Joyce’s Ulysses had demonstrated “the futility of all the English styles,” and he wanted The Waste Land to do the same in verse. Ultimately, he believed it had.

So, should we favor a poet who thought that the end of the world came nearly a century ago, and that Western civilization had been in decline since the 1300s? To value Eliot over Auden is in a way to say that we have nothing to write about — when Auden, his associates and his successors have proven this wrong. We can avail ourselves of the old forms. It is possible and exciting to make good, traditionally informed art about modern, postmodern or post-postmodern life (whatever those may be). The Auden school draws on tradition to make use of its obvious relevance; Eliot fragments it to lament his sense of its irrelevance. And yet, in a turn of meta-irony, Eliot generates precisely what he’s complaining about.

Auden and friends give you boundless joy by expressing all those thoughts you believed you were alone in having: for example, Auden’s “To ask the hard question is simple, / The simple act of the confused will. / But the answer / Is hard and hard to remember,” or Louis Macniece’s “I do not want to be reflective anymore / Envying and despising unreflective things.” Eliot, on the other hand, limits himself to the thoughts you never did have: “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug / So rudely forc’d / Tereu.”

Eliot’s weakness lies in that he forged his ideologies from his pathologies. He said of himself, “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.” One must have a sick mind to move from St. Louis to England and believe their monarchy not only legitimate but also essential. And I appreciate Eliot’s use of the classics, but I think he read from them only what he wanted to. As for being Anglo-Catholic — well, fine. But I believe that Eliot was above all a gelid, unstable, self-loathing man, and I’m sure that this, rather than any real twilight of civilization, shaped his poetry.

We should instead learn from Auden and his group. Just as in the 1930s, we would do well to cultivate some articulate, intelligent, sensitive poets who make sense of our lives, who use the present vernacular to its highest potential and who do not think their circumstances so special that all the past 3,000 years of Western civilization are inapplicable.

And should you feel like only a dose of Eliot will do, perhaps you should try Philip Larkin instead. He is, I’m convinced, the reincarnation of Eliot writing under the anxiety of Auden’s influence. He equals Eliot for verbal force, and he phrases all the deepest sadnesses and frustrations of post-war life with a unique perfection and clarity: “Life is an immobile, locked, / Three-handed struggle between / Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse) / The unbeatable slow machine / That brings what you’ll get. Blocked, / They strain round a hollow stasis / Of havings-to, fear, faces. / Days sift down it constantly. Years.”

Elias Wynshaw is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ewynshaw@cornellsun.com. Imperfect, Tense appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elias Wynshaw