· Muted celebrations for poet who shunned Britain
· Academic interest fails to match popular appeal
Thursday February 22, 2007
But the cocktail party and several small soirees which honoured his memory may mark the start of a fightback by enthusiasts for a man whose complications have led to a uniquely split reputation.
"He has been much criticised for leaving Britain when he did," said Dr Rhodes, who lectures in literature and visual culture at Sussex University. "Traditionalists condemned him for that while the left and radicals denounced the way he changed his views, his religious conversion and the way he seemed to retreat into lyrical poetry. But it's hard to see those opinions accounting for the lack of interest among today's students."
There are smaller initiatives which attest to Auden's enduring appeal. In York taxi drivers have adopted the poet for a Culture Cab scheme, in which drivers memorise Auden's work to make visitors feel welcome to the city where he was born. It is an initiative typical of what academics call the "Four Weddings phenomenon", which has given Auden - or a small number of his 400-plus poems - a mass audience, while specialist work dwindles on his life and verse.
Hugh Haughton, lecturer in English and related literature at York University and another speaker at the conference, said: "It is a mystery that he is not more studied, but this could be a reason. We are comfortable with modernists, or with poets of the everyday such as Larkin. But what do we do when faced with someone who could do both? Auden's ability to travel between different types of poetry and to master them all seems to be hard for us to digest. It is like dealing with two people - a parallel with the problems people have in coping with his Marxist early years and conservative views later on."
The revivalists welcome both controversy and the likes of York's Culture Cabs as aides to Auden studies, along with developing campaigns for a memorial in York. The city's W H Auden Society yesterday raised Camparis to the poet's memory at his birthplace - now a chartered accountants' office - at precisely 6pm, when Auden always had one.
The society's president, Hugh Bernays, who runs a local arts centre, said: "He regarded cocktails at 5.55pm as impossible and at 6.05pm as outrageously late."
The betrayal and the brilliance
When I was a student in the 60s, people who cared about poetry would fight their corner passionately. Some thought that all virtue lay with the Black Mountain poets, or with William Carlos Williams, or with the Beats. Most acknowledged Eliot somewhere in their pantheon. There were many fanatics for Pound. Not many were as enthusiastic as I was about Auden.
You could say he had betrayed his gift - which is what Larkin said - when he went to the States. You could say he had betrayed Modernism itself, by not taking seriously enough the command to Make It New. You could say he had ruined poems with revision, or suppressed his best work, such as Spain.
What happened after his death in 1973 was very interesting: a gradual process by which all kinds of Auden poems found their way into public consciousness. The old rows we used to have were forgotten. Auden's new readers came at him with a less prejudiced eye.
We began to learn more about his life, and more about his work. There is an amazing amount of it, including a great body of prose writings. It is still in the process of being published. The question mark that hung like a cloud over his reputation has moved on, and hangs over others. Auden at 100 seems well vindicated. Happy birthday, Uncle Wiz!
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