Saturday, November 28, 2015

`Private Islands of Schizophrenic Bliss'

“Were it possible to escape from our duties to God and our neighbor into our private islands of schizophrenic bliss, very few of us, I fancy, would take with us any of the great works of world literature. Our libraries would consist, for the most part, of those books which, read in childhood, formed our personal vision of the public world. To these tattered, dog-eared volumes, however, most of us have in the course of our lives added one or two extra treasures.” 

Auden’s observation, I suspect, is intended more as provocation than critical diktat, but he’s more than half correct. The books that attract us when we are young, in particular those titles nominally intended for grownups, suggest our future bent as readers (and, perhaps, writers). This I’ve observed in my life and the lives of my three sons. The adult titles I read early I continue to read in some form – the Bible, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, biographies and stacks of field guides. From this I would deduce that as a boy I liked good stories and compilations of hard information, which remains true to this day. The passage quoted above is from Auden’s introduction to Slick but Not Streamlined: Poems and Short Pieces (Doubleday & Co., 1947), John Betjeman’s first book published in the United States. That same year, Auden dedicated The Age of Anxiety to Betjeman, a poet he admired extravagantly. Auden continues: 

“In my case Mr. Betjeman’s work belongs—so do the novels of Ronald Firbank and the Li’l Abner cartoons—to this tiny group of later additions to my original nursery library: he is privileged to stand beside Icelandic Legends, Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, Eric or Little by Little, Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor (Stanley Smith, M.A., D.Sc. H. M. Stationery Office. 3s6d net), Struwelpeter, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (the 1869 edition), The Edinburgh School of Surgery, Hymns Ancient and Modern (with tunes), and Dangers to Health, a Victorian treatise on plumbing with colored plates, which, incidentally, I lent to Mr. Betjeman twelve years ago and he has not yet returned."
This is Auden in High Camp mode (Firbank!), exuding a joyous mock-pedantry, and yet giving us an autobiography in miniature. His father was a physician, and Auden remained interested in medicine throughout his life. Hededicated his own The Age of Anxiety to his fellow poet. was born in York but with his family moved to Harborne, Birmingham, as an infant. As a child he was fascinated by the limestone landscape of the moors and the declining lead mines of the North. One of his brothers became a geologist, and Auden’s poetry is studded with geological, mining and industrial references. Among his finest poems is “In Praise of Limestone.” In Forewords and Afterwords, his 1973 collections of essays and reviews, Auden writes: “I spent a great many of my waking hours in the construction and elaboration of a private sacred world, the basic elements of which were a landscape, northern and limestone, and an industry, lead mining.” His biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes:

“He took his landscape seriously, and asked his mother and other adults to procure for him textbooks with titles such as Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, maps, guidebooks, and photographs; and he persuaded them to take him down a real mine if ever there was a chance. He especially relished the technical vocabulary of mining, the names of mines and of the veins found in them, and the geological terms relating to mining.”

The interest in lead mining reveals something about Auden’s formative landscape, and also suggests a quality I value in any writer – scrupulous attention paid to the details of the real world. In A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970), Auden includes such geological headings as “Alps, The,” “Climber, An Amateur,” “Climber, A Professional,” “Eruptions,” “Landscape: Basalt” and “Landscape: Limestone.” In the poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” he writes:

“Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.”

Auden’s choice of headings for his commonplace book is vast and varied – “Anesthesia,” “Conception, The Immaculate,” “Homer and Seeing,” “Inverted Commas, Transformation by,” “Kilns,” “Madness,” “World, End of the” -- and suggests a joyous celebration of the world’s bounty. Marianne Moore wrote of Auden: “He is a notable instance of the poet whose scientific predilections do not make him less than a poet – who says to himself, I must know.” Edward Mendelson called Auden the first poet to feel at home in the 20th century. It’s quintessentially modern to embrace the outmoded, fragmented and abandoned, and to feel nostalgia for what is no longer modern, for “Tramlines and slagheaps.” In “Epithalamium,” written in 1965 for the wedding of his niece, Auden again indulges his breadth of interests, including the geological and biological:

“For we’re better built to last
than tigers, our skins
don’t leak like the ciliates’,
our ears can detect
quarter-tones, even our most
myopic have good enough
vision for courtship

“and how uncanny it is
we’re here to say so,
that life should have got to us
up through the City’s
destruction layers after
surviving the inhuman
Permian purges.”

In his foreword to A Certain World, after derogating literary biographies, Auden admits his commonplace book is “a sort of autobiography” and, in an interesting astronomical and geological metaphor, “a map of my planet” – presumably, his sensibility, his life. Around the same time, in August 1969, Auden was writing “Moon Landing,” about the Apollo 11 mission. It’s not a celebration of the voyage of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins:

“Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.”

But it is, four years before his death, another Auden affirmation of poetry and its consolations:

“Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.”


Suspirius said...

“… saints may still appear to blithe it”. I wonder if some of Auden’s poetic vocabulary isn’t a reflex of his childhood fascination with the subterranean? The transitive verb ‘to blithe’ has been excavated from a stratum deposited centuries ago. It was his habit to sink mines into the OED and bring to the surface its poetic fossils, from what a later poet called “a terrain/seen in cross-section. igneous, sedimentary,/conglomerate, metamorphic rock-/strata, in which particular grace,/individual love, decency, endurance/are traceable across the faults. (The Triumph of Love, LI).

Subbuteo said...

"Moon Landing" and "A Child's guide to Modern Physics" both wonderful antidotes to the still modern intoxication with scientism and technological utopianism.