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Art and Politics In Yeats, Auden, and Eliot

ISSUE:  Spring 1986
Saving Civilization: Yeats, Eliot, and Auden between the Wars. By Lucy McDiarmid. Cambridge.$32.50 cloth, $10.95 paper.

Western civilization has never fully recovered from World War I. In November 1918, when an armistice was finally signed after four years of slaughter unimaginable to Victorian England, eight million soldiers on both sides had been killed and an additional 20 million had been wounded or diseased. The war had cost more than $603 billion, an unassumable debt. Part of Europe lay in ruins. About 25,000 miles of trenches, enough to circle the equator, had been gouged out of the Western Front.

Woodrow Wilson was certain that World War I would end all wars and that the world would be made safe for democracy. He thought that his League of Nations would establish the brotherhood of man. Instead, after haggling for six months at Versailles, the politicians drew up a treaty that, to borrow Charles Mee’s phrase, marked “the end of order,” a treaty that made World War II inevitable. These two decades between the wars—20 years separating a horrifying past from a future which would prove in certain ways unspeakable— were marked by economic depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and a good deal of questioning about the function and value of art.

What is the artist’s role in a world turned upside down? How should a writer best respond to poverty and hunger, to Hitler’s rise in Germany, to the Spanish Civil War? Artists chose a variety of paths. Some opted for the safety of their study; others opted for a rifle. Christopher Caudwell, the Marxist critic, fought and died for the Republicans in Spain. George Orwell went as well, before he learned that one form of totalitarianism is just as evil as another. He survived after being shot in the neck. John Dos Passos went to Spain and made a film; Hemingway went and wrote a book. For Whom the Bell Tolls disappointed those who were expecting polemics rather than a novel. In Hemingway’s view, the artist could do the most good by writing well,

It is this question—the artist’s concurrent responsibility to his art and the world around him—with which Professor McDiarmid concerns herself in this intelligent study. She discusses three major figures during this trenchant period between the fiasco at Versailles and “the nightmare of the dark,” as Auden depicted Europe in 1939. Yeats, Eliot, and Auden, as McDiarmid explains, “were eager to do good in the world, yet irritated by the demands made on literature to take sides and solve problems.” The men felt “a civic urge to become engagé and an artistic need to remain disengaged.” During these decades of anxiety, each author kept wrestling with the question of how the artist can best save civilization.

To the benefit of each man’s writing, “saving civilization” remained primarily a conceptual issue, more a question of culture than of political ideology. This is not to say that these men avoided politics entirely. As McDiarmid acknowledges, Yeats and Eliot have been labeled “reactionary,” even “fascist, ” and Auden and his disciples have been viewed as poets of the “Left.” But McDiarmid argues, correctly I think, that “such labels do no service to the poets as citizens; all were less doctrinaire than the terms imply. Nor do they help us understand their poetry, which at its most intense rises above the slogans of the press and the crises of the present moment. . . .” For Eliot, civilization meant “all the good things that we have gained, and want to keep, and also all the good things that we have lost, and want to regain.” Yeats and Auden would not have disagreed. In the end, all three men recognized that art is not a handbill, that civilization cannot be rescued by tendentious literature.

If they rose above politics, then Yeats, Eliot, and Auden also transcended the narrow limits of nationalism. Given the patterns which recurred in all three lives, it should not be surprising that civilization for Eliot encompassed more than America; for Yeats and Auden, it extended beyond Ireland and England. To varying degrees, each man wandered, physically, intellectually, one might even say spiritually. Eliot, who left America for England in 1914, lamented his plight as a “resident alien.” Although he took two British wives and became an English citizen in 1927, the British recognized that he was not one of them. And to Americans Eliot’s new accent and manner seem contrived. Auden traveled widely: to Iceland, Spain, China, Italy, and Austria. And when he left England in 1939 for America, he committed an act for which some have never forgiven him.

Yeats spent the greater portion of his life outside Ireland. Surprisingly, for all his interest in the Irish past, he never learned Gaelic. His refusal to endorse the Easter rebellion in 1916 infuriated Irish patriots, as did the condescension with which he sometimes spoke of his contemporaries. In “Under Ben Bulben,” for example, he advised his fellow authors:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

Such condescension made Yeats vulnerable to the charge of elitism: the stereotype of the artist composing in the proverbial ivory tower, oblivious to the social currents swirling below him. “Cast your eyes on former days,” he urged his disciples. Yeats believed that those “seven heroic centuries” of Ireland’s idealized past, rather than the world in 1938, were the proper stuff for art.

Eliot has been attacked on similar grounds. In a famous pronouncement, he labeled himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” The comment was honest, and accurate, but it infuriated some of those whose sympathies lay elsewhere. For both Eliot and Yeats there was an ancillary charge: the inaccessibility—perhaps extreme difficulty is a more accurate phrase—of some of their writing.

The Waste Land has proven beyond argument to be the most consequential poem of the 20th century. After its publication in 1922, other poets wondered, as Eliot did himself, what else could be said, where poetry could possibly go from here. As a number of critics have argued, the poem is, on one level at least, a depiction of Western civilization after World War I. But the poem—highly allusive, replete with references to myth and history, written not only in English but also in French, Greek, Latin, German, Dutch, and Italian—is not accessible to both highbrows and lowbrows. How can Eliot, an unsypathetic critic might ask, possibly save civilization when the vast majority of people can’t understand what he is saying?

This matter of a writer’s audience—an issue which began with the ancient bards and carried, through Shakespeare and Dickens, into present time—proved a seminal concern for Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. Each man felt compelled to address this matter, and McDiarmid’s analysis of this issue is especially enlightening. Speaking at Harvard in 1933, Eliot announced his preference for an illiterate audience, a startling statement given the complexity of not only The Waste Land but also the Four Quartets that were to come. For Auden, the difference between theory and practice here was far less pronounced. For him, poetry was “memorable speech.” Writing in 1936 for the Workers’ Educational Association, Auden said, “Personally the kind of poetry I should like to write but can’t is “the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people.”“

Auden was more successful than he thought. Using colloquial, sometimes salty language, he showed an educated compassion for man’s plight. “As I walked out one evening,” for example, was completed during the Spanish Civil War. Monroe Spears has called this the best of Auden’s ballads, and Auden chose to include the poem in his Selected Poetry.

The world of the poem, like the world in which Auden wrote it, is turned upside down. Deadly serious in his message about how we must live after innocence has been lost, Auden playfully draws upon nursery rhymes to present several ironic reversals. Jack in the beanstalk challenged the giant; Jack in Auden’s poem finds the giant “enchanting.” And Jill, who once innocently went “up the hill to fetch a pail of water,” now “goes down on her back.” Auden’s response to this fall from grace, this world of experience, is love in the face of human imperfection:

O look, look in the mirror,
  O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
  Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
  As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
  With your crooked heart.

The message could hardly be misconstrued by anyone.

The poetry that Auden wrote during the 20 years between the wars, and over the course of his career as well, can be uproariously funny, much more so than the poetry of Yeats or Eliot. Auden was more than willing to laugh not only at the human predicament but also at himself. Such humor complements Auden’s skepticism, which is also more pronounced than that of the other two men. It would have helped, I think, if McDiarmid had paid more attention to Auden’s propensity for laughter. It proved trenchant in his poetry and hence in his response to the subject of this book.

Such quibbling aside, Saving Civilization offers a valuable analysis of the art of three major writers during a critical period in what Elizabeth Bishop has called “our worst century so far.” McDiarmid has at her command the canon of each man: not only the poetry but also the plays and essays. This thoroughly documented study makes judicious use of previous scholarship. Some of the material covered is familiar ground: each man’s battle with Romanticism, for example, and his attitudes toward the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But such material is incorporated into a coherent whole, and the book, despite its relative brevity (129 closely set pages of text), does justice to a matter that is in no way simple.

At the beginning of Section V of “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, Eliot evaluated what he had written between Versailles and Hitler’s invasion of Poland. With Yeats’ death in January 1939, Eliot had become beyond argument the preeminent poet writing in English. Eliot chose, however, to downplay what he had done:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.

These two decades were hardly wasted, and Eliot had not failed, any more than Yeats or Auden had. Failure for the poets would have meant silence, an abject renunciation of art. Yeats, Eliot, and Auden had the same traits that Marlow found so remarkable in Kurtz: they had something to say, and they said it. “[T]here is one field in which the poet is a man of action,” Auden asserted in 1939, “the field of language.”


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