Coming up on the 15th of February at Poetry East, the London Buddhist Centre, an exploration of Auden’s great poem of political fears and disenchantment: ‘September 1st, 1939’, with Ian Samson who has recently published a book dedicated to an in-depth exploration of the poem.
But what would that great poet of political engagement in the twentieth century have made of the current state of the world? Would it have brought out the ambivalently committed English socialist of the earlier years, or the Christian humanitarian Auden of maturity? Would he have understood that modern right wing populism is not quite the same thing as the fascism that he knew, and proceeded to dissect the differences and similarities with prophetic brilliance?
A partial answer to these impossible questions is provided for me at any rate by the still pertinent introduction to Faber’s 1979 selection of Auden by Edward Mendelson:
” In Auden’s unbroken vision of history, the ancient discontents survived in contemporary forms, but so did the ancient sources of personal and literary vitality. Modernism, disenfranchised from the past by its own sense of isolated modernity, could bring literary tradition into the present only as battered ironic fragments as in Eliot or by visionary heroic efforts like Pound’s to ‘make it new’. For Auden, it had never grown old. A laconic old English toughness survived in his poetry as did an Augustan civility…. Modernism tended to look back toward the reigns of a native aristocracy, too often it found the reflected glory of ancient tradition in political leaders who promised to restore social grandeur and unity through coercive Force. Auden’s refusal to idealize the past saved him from comparable fits of mistaken generosity. His poems and essays present the idea of the good society as, at best, a possibility never actually to be achieved, but towards which one must always work.’