day by day: a blog
February 08, 2007
The Island: W. H. Auden and the Regeneration of England by Nicholas Jenkins
The Island will be published in 2009 by Belknap/Harvard University Press in the United States and by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom.
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For many readers W. H. Auden is the indispensable modern poet and in the first year of the second century since his birth, I ask — How did Auden begin?
This book's young Auden is a shaman-like poet of gaunt lyrics and No Man’s Land-like moors which are the poetry of an apocalyptic struggle for survival within the 1920s English psyche. One of my claims is that, far from being a socialist as is usually assumed, the young Auden was a poetic nationalist who longed for an eternal tie with his nation.
The Island moves through post-industrial landscapes, underground Weimar Berlin, and the hothouse worlds of public schools. Informed by revelatory archival material by and about Auden, his milieux and his complex love life, at this book’s core are my readings of Auden's extraordinary poetry.
In 1937 Auden published On this Island, with its idyllic vision of a place “at the small field’s ending … | Where the chalk wall falls to the foam, and its tall ledges | Oppose the pluck and knock of the tide.” Here was his ultimate “island poem.”
The Island ends on a dramatic note with a visit to Buckingham Palace where Auden was awarded a medal for his achievement. Symbolically speaking, the crisis of post-War England and the first phase of Auden’s career both ended at that moment — in a brief blaze of ignominious glory.
The Island and Manhattan Transfer
The Island is the first part of a two volume study. It focusses on the shadow cast on Auden's poetry by World War One, on English culture and on the young Auden's poetic nationalism. The second part of my study, centered on Auden's poetry written in the years immediately before (and at the start of) the Second World War, sets his writing in the shadow cast not by a past conflict but by a future one.
Tentatively titled, Manhattan Transfer: W. H. Auden and the Last of England the book juxtaposes the English culture of The Island with the internationalized, émigré culture of Europe and the United States at the end of the 1930s; and it contrasts the "insular" poetry of Auden's first phase with the travel poetry which is so central a part of Auden's "turn" as a poet, the period when he deracinated himself and turned himself into his own poetic antitype, a cosmopolitan poet living and writing between cultures.
Manhattan Transfer ends with a reading of one of the language's greatest poems about the emblematic status of the exile in the modern world, "In Memory of Sigmund Freud", an elegy for the founder of psychoanalysis, or, as Auden describes him here at one point, a Moses-like figure, "an important Jew who died in exile." The immense controversy which Auden's decision to remain in the United States engendered in Britain indicates that he too saw himself as dedicated to "serv[ing] enlightenment" like Freud, and that he, again like Freud, was ready "to bear our cry of 'Judas', | As he did and all must bear who serve it." Every major poet needs not just great language but a great gesture - turning his back on national ties was Auden's.
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Posted by njenkins at February 8, 2007 03:02 AMWith the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins