Sunday, November 10, 2013

`For All Writers Living and Dead'

A reader writes: “I sometimes think I could spend days and days doing nothing but reading Larkin and Auden.” It’s a comfort to know we can still be seduced by a writer long familiar to us, one we’ve cohabited with across a lifetime.My reader and I are contemporaries.We came of age as readers when both Auden and Larkin were still at work, and he has just reread, as I often do, “At the Grave of Henry James.” He singles out two lines – “A warm enigma no longer in you for whom I / Surrender my private cheer” – and says “[they] move me greatly. I don’t know why; they just do. I like too the contrast between the `small taciturn stone’ and the `great and talkative man.’” More than twenty years ago I first visited James’ grave in Cambridge Cemetery, on a winter day like the one Auden recalls, and of course his poem accompanied me. 

Poems for the gifted dead too often are maudlin affairs. Auden avoids that failing and gives us, instead, what we expect – “Master of nuance and scruple” – and what surprises – “Pray for me and for all writers living and dead.” The Master himself does something comparably consoling and unexpected, as when he writes of another Master, one of his (and ours), George Eliot: 

“Both as an artist and a thinker, in other words, our author is an optimist; and although a conservative is not necessarily an optimist, I think an optimist is pretty likely to be a conservative.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

Auden also gave us:

As the poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,
The rolling-in-money,
The screamingly-funny,
And those who are very well hung.

There's a wonderful CD recorded by Jill Gomez and Martin Jones, with several of Benjamin Britten cabaret songs, lyrics by WHA.