“Samuel Johnson is a person not much appreciated in the United States. And the people who do like him are either like Yvor Winters, or nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans. But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic and he wrote some exceedingly acute things.”
Auden is not at his best in The Table Talk of W.H. Auden (Ontario Review Press, 1990), transcriptions of the poet’s conversations kept between 1946 and 1948 by a young admirer, Alan Ansen, and edited by Nicholas Jenkins. In his foreword, Jenkins notes that “Auden was never aware of any obligation to moderate or refine his comments.” Few of us would wish to be judged by our casual conversation, especially where alcohol was involved, as it usually was with Auden. Jenkins is merely being honest when he says the book “does not pretend to be a polished literary work.” Too many sentences begin with the phrase “I don’t like . . .” – always a reliable sign of bloviation. Still, Auden was an accomplished talker and literary raconteur. One can imagine him issuing pronouncements like the one quoted above, laced with provocation, and being assured of a happy reception from the star-struck Ansen.
Auden says “Yvor Winters” as though the name were the punch line to a joke. It’s notable that almost seventy years ago, he was spouting some of the same silly prejudices we hear from literary types today. Consider his mistaken linkage of tastes in literature and politics, and the association of rudeness and membership in a political party. This is lazy and vulgar, and unworthy of a great poet. The final sentence, however – “But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic . . .” – sounds suspiciously autobiographical, an admission of grudging affinity.
In “Paralipomena to The Hidden Law” (Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, 2003), the late Anthony Hecht notes Auden’s “remarkable resemblance” to Dr. Johnson. Both writers had poor eyesight and held cleanliness in “utter disregard.” Both favored, in the words of Johnson biographer W. Jackson Bate, “the wrong side of a debate, because most ingenious, that is to say, most new things, could be said upon it.”
Quoting Bate again, Hecht says Auden and Johnson shared a “lifelong conviction – against which another part of him was forever afterwards to protest – that indolence is an open invitation to mental distress and even disintegration, and that to pull ourselves together, through the force of attention and the discipline of work, is within our power.” The poets shared a belief that “effort in daily habits – such as rising early – was necessary to `reclaim imagination’ and keep it on an even keel.” In the vernacular, both were workaholics, least unhappy when most engaged in work – a lesson to us all. One knows from experience that concentrated work, mental or physical, is a tonic and relaxant, and idleness is corrosive of well-being.
Hecht notes that both Johnson and Auden were largely indifferent to their surroundings. “In addition, Bate wrote, Johnson `was able to distinguish between “loving” and “being loved” and to value the first without demanding equal payment through the latter,’ while Auden wrote, `If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.’” Continuing with Bate’s observations, Hecht writes: “Both men were determined, if at all possible, `to be pleased’ with their circumstances and with their fellow human beings, as a reproval of their own `impatience and quickness to irritability or despair. Johnson and Auden maintained, in Bate’s words, that “the `main of life’ consists of `little things’; that happiness or misery is to be found in the accumulation of `petty’ and `domestic’ details, not in `large’ ambitions, which are inevitably self-defeating and turn to ashes in the mouth. `Sands make the mountain,’ [Johnson] would quote from Edward Young.”
Both were courteous and respectful of others – rare qualities among artists of all types. Again quoting Bate, Hecht writes: “Both firmly believed that fortitude `is not to be found primarily in meeting rare and great occasions. And this was true not only of fortitude but of all the other virtues, including “good nature.” The real test is what we do in our daily life, and happiness – such happiness as exists – lies primarily in what we can do with the daily texture of our lives.’” Both men, in short, were thoroughgoing gentlemen of the middle class, religiously observant, who believed in regular habits even as they failed to live up to them. Getting back to Auden’s characterization of Johnson as a “great melancholic romantic,” Hecht concludes his comparison of the two like this:
“These resemblances might be carried one extraordinary step further: since both men were by nature disposed to admire neoclassical decorum and to exhibit it in their work, Johnson’s ability to praise the pre-Romantic extravagance of Richard Savage is a precedent for Auden’s `Romantic Iconography of the Sea,’ which is the subtitle of his Page-Barbour Lectures, The Enchafèd Flood.”
Later in Table Talk, Auden asks: “Don’t you think that’s right, though, about Johnson being the prince of middlebrows? But not so much in his poetry. And those Johnsonians!”