day by day: a blog
December 17, 2007
[Tomb of Marian Adams, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC; photo credit: http://www.quidplura.com] I blogged the other day ("family secrets") about some of the surprises and new perspectives which our genealogical database of Auden's might precipitate in his readers. Sometimes, though, just the opposite will be the case. Sometimes, we will get striking new, empirical support for his airier or more unsubstantiated assertions.
Take this famous paragraph from the essay "As It Seemed to Us", written in 1964: "On the whole, the members of my father's family were phlegmatic, earnest, rather slow, inclined to be miserly, and endowed with excellent health; my mother's were quick, short-tempered, generous, and liable to physical ill-health, hysteria, and neuroticism. Except in the matter of physical health, I take after them" (see Forewords and Afterwords, pp. 498-99).
This dichotomy notwithstanding, there were some limited, but striking, similarities between the early lives of Constance Rosalie Bicknell and George Augustus Auden. Both were young children amongst large broods of siblings (she the youngest of eight; he the seventh out of eight), both suffered the very early loss of their fathers (she never knew hers at all) and both had to cope with the early death of a sibling (William Auden died at the age of 15 in when George Auden was six; Arthur Bicknell was killed in a railway crash at the age of 20 when his sister Constance was 12). No wonder that as adults both Constance Bicknell and her future husband chose the medical profession.
But, beyond those similarities, the Auden database, provisionally titled "Family Ghosts", confirms two cultures embodied in the early experiences of Auden's parents: one culture of life and one of death. The two Auden family deaths I have mentioned, those of the Rev. John Auden in 1876 and of William Auden in 1878, were the only ones which George Auden had to confront before a new family generation came into being with the birth of his own first child in 1900.
Born on 27 August 1872, Gorge Auden was, as I said, one of eight siblings (seven brothers and one sister), he had three uncles and four aunts. Before the arrival of Bernard Auden in York on 5 July 1900, within his immediate family circle "only" Dr. Auden's father and one brother had died — that is, there were two deaths amongst his relatives out of a possible 14 (an 86% survival rate).
By stark contrast, Constance Rosalie Bicknell, born on 13 February 1869, was one of five sisters and three brothers; she and her siblings had nine uncles and five aunts. Only a few months after baptizing his own youngest daughter at Southwold Church, Suffolk, Rev. Richard Bicknell died at Christmas in 1869. In the subsequent years, the toll of Bicknells and Birches amongst Constance Bicknell's closest relatives is a sombre one. 30 Jan 1880: her mother, S. A. Birch, dies; 26 Feb 1881: brother, A. H. Bicknell is killed; ca 1884: her aunt, E. E. Birch, dies; 29 June 1884: her uncle, H. M. Birch, dies; 28 March 1892: her favourite aunt, G. Bicknell, dies; 5 July 1893: her favourite uncle, C Bicknell, dies; ca. 1896: her aunt, L. R. Birch, dies; 1897: her uncle, J. W. Birch, dies; 27 July 1898: her uncle, A. F. Birch, dies; ca. 1900: her aunt, L. Birch, dies.
Thus, her father and mother as well as one brother, four uncles and four aunts had died before 5 July 1900 when her first child was born — 11 deaths out of a two-generation family circle of 21 (a survival rate for her Bicknell and Birch relatives of only 48%). By the time Constance Auden became a mother, she had experienced very much more close-at-hand death and suffering, very much more "abandonment", than her husband had.
These mortality figures, hitherto unknown, illustrate the vastly greater casualty rate amongst members of Mrs. Auden's family than amongst those of Dr. Auden's. Dr. and Mrs. Auden's youngest son's mind, both poetic and schematizing, makes crucial, dark, ambiguously mythic equations on the base of this elemental differentiation.
For W. H. Auden, one parent, and perhaps one gender, is associated with a culture of life and one with a culture of death. But, and this is the vital point, the culture of art is associated with the world of death. Within the universe of Auden's work, the gravitational pull of the culture of life, personified as Eros perhaps, holds in place such terms as masculinity, "cure", prose, sexual health, personal weakness and timidity, humour, science, modern techniques and knowledge, while around the latter (call her Thanatos, Thetis, Gaia) constellate qualities and associations such as femaleness, morbidity, suffering and sexual repression, as well as the for Auden self-immolating arts of poetry and music, along with mysticism, emotional strength, and the spiritual authenticity experienced in loss.
Auden's poetry sprang from the dynamic between those two powerful forcefields or systems. Neither system, until the very end, overwhelmed the other: the poetry is the record of the interference patterns between the systems. So, when in the mid-1960s Auden started obsessively repeating stories about how unfitted his parents were for each other, he was articulating, in barely displaced terms, "Thoughts of his own death" as a writer and a man. These premonitions suddenly preoccupied him “like the distant roll | of thunder at a picnic.”
Except "in the matter of physical health", this poet had seemed all his life to be an Auden and not a Bicknell. But in fact, Auden died horribly prematurely. Born the youngest of three sons, he was the first of the triumvirate to die. His mother was 72 when she expired in her sleep one August night during 1941. In 1973 in Vienna, when W. H. Auden's body stopped working and finally moved beyond all ideas of dawns, waking and response, at 66 he was even younger, and proved even more Bicknellesque, than Mrs. Auden had been.
December 13, 2007
Scholars matter, right? I remember Thomas Pynchon commenting in, I think, the Preface to Slow Learner, his ruefully-titled collection of short stories, that one of the key books for the underground in the 1950s had been Helen Waddell's study The Wandering Scholars.
Originally published in 1927, Waddell's book offered a vision of 12th and 13th century Goliardic poets as scruffy but learned, itinerant figures who lived attractively outside the walls of the 3Cs: cities, conventions and culture, much as many writers of the 20th century aspired to do. In a sniffy review of the book in Modern Philology in 1928, the literary historian Howard Mumford Jones remarked tartly that "Miss Waddell.... is so insistent that we shall see medieval scholars as men, she forgets that they were both scholars and medieval. [So a "scholar" is not a "man"?] Not only does she incessantly dramatize her facts, but she is perpetually pointing a modern instance." Mumford Jones wanted to pin The Wandering Scholars down; Waddell wanted to emancipate them, to buy their poetry a ticket.
At the moment, literary critics might be called a generation of "pinners". That is why there is a special interest in an emancipatory exhibition which Molly Schwartzburg, the literary scholar and the Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is curating next year. Called "On the Road with the Beats", it will feature, amongst much else, the partially unrolled manuscript of Kerouac's On the Road, cut-up Burroughs typescripts, artworks, and a plethora of recordings (poetry, jazz, interviews).
In her exhibition guide, Dr. Schwartzburg writes that: "The Beats were a generation in motion. Pilgrims in search of a destination, they crisscrossed the globe, from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Mexico City, Tangier to Paris, Calcutta to London. While many literary circles are synonymous with a particular city, the Beats are unique in their association with locales around the world." In the re-thinking of the map of mid-century culture which is ongoing as this timely exhibition occurs, the Beats' anti-parochialism and anti-nationalism, deeply occluded in so many of the triumphal, formalist metanarratives of American culture throwing off the shackles of European conformity but highlighted here, will need re-inclusion and re-assessment.
"On the Road with the Beats" will run at the Ransom Center Galleries from 5 Feb. to 3 Aug. 2008. It promises to be a landmark, freewheeling, emancipatory show.
December 12, 2007
The centenary year of Auden's birth is winding to an interesting and fruitful end. On the whole, I think it's been good. As it concludes, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that one of the "new directions" which Auden scholarship can now most profitably take lies along the path of defamiliarization.
Auden says somewhere (yes — we also desperately need a concordance to Edward Mendelson's magnificent multi-volume edition of Auden's Prose!) that a person's best-kept secrets are those which he or she keeps from themself. Obviously, Auden meant this provoking apothegm to apply to himself as well as to others. Like Auden, I'm not claiming that the keeper of such secrets is a liar, or even a fibber. What I am saying is that Auden scholarship may now be in a good position to go beyond Auden's own self-definitions and to understand better his inevitable historical cultural, and perhaps even sexual, blindnesses. But, in order to do so, it needs to knock over some crumbling walls so that we learn what was really "myth" and what "history", what "red herring" and what "figure-in-the carpet", in the copious comments which Auden made on himself and on his writing. The scholarship also needs to confront aggressively some of the poorly-sourced stories which a few commentators, for want of further or alternative evidence, have let sediment round Auden's work.
Part of my own contribution to this defamiliarizing effort has been to labour, with the indispensable and ingenious help of Anthony Andrews, Matthew Jockers and Edward Mendelson, on what would once have been called a "family tree" of the Bicknell and Auden families. (I know, I know — "a genealogy!?" "a family tree!?" What can I say in response except that all writers, even scholars, have to follow their intuitions, even when these lead them in the most anachronistic-looking or unpropitious-seeming directions…)
The genealogical database is intended for the unlimited use of all interested researchers. I hope to have a preliminary version of it online during the first half of 2008. Some will dismiss, or disagree with, both the general concept and/or the particular uses to which the database is put. I don't care much about that. I think the tree offers, in latent form, many tantalizing opportunities to rethink or recontextualize Auden's poetry. For here, for now, I'll give just two very small instances of what I mean by that claim, one from each end of Auden's life.
Auden's first published poem in anything other than a school magazine is "Woods in Rain", printed in Public School Verse: An Anthology in 1924, where his name is given as "W. H. Arden". It's always been assumed that this was a simple misprint, a compositor's error. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps it was actually a pseudonym? Auden was obsessed with names, especially his own family's names. The Dog Beneath the Skin is enough to show that. But does he ever mention the "misprint" of his very own name anywhere at the time?
Why "Arden"? Well, "Birch" was one family name which Auden was, in a double sense, familiar with. In 1920, the year in which Auden entered Gresham's School, Norfolk, as a 13 year-old, Wyndham Lyndsay Birch (1874-1950), a first cousin once removed of the young W. H. Auden, was the Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company. That is, Auden's relative was the head of the ancient institution which administered Gresham's, in effect W. L. Birch was the head of the Gresham's board of governors.
Another such name besides "Birch" which was known to Auden was "Arden". Auden's great-uncle (and Wyndham Birch's uncle), Henry William Birch (1825-1897), a former Governor of the Bank of England, had been married to a woman named Julia Arden (1830-1917). They had a son named John Arden Birch (1853-1896).
"Arden", then, like "Birch", was a "family name" for Auden — metonymically related to his own surname. However, at the same time, by the switch of a single letter of the alphabet, the name hides his identity from all those who did not know about this family link. Perhaps "Arden" in Public School Verse was a misprint. But I don't think that anyone will be able to claim for much longer that it certainly was a typesetter's mistake. Although very plausible, the new genealogical data renders that claim plausible but unproven.
In addition to being truthful, the literary historian also has to be interesting. The newer, alternative explanation (Auden appearing in print under a pseudonym) may get us closer to some fresh ideas about the need for some degree of clandestinity on the part of Michael Davidson. He was the East Anglian journalist (a member of the Walter Greatorex circle) whose friendship with Auden had around this time been forbidden by the school authorities and by Mrs. Auden and probably the person who submitted Auden's poem(s) to the editors of Public School Verse. Davidson singled out Auden's poem for praise when he reviewed Public School Verse in the Eastern Daily Press of 26 Sept. 1924. But of course he could confidently have expected Auden's Birmingham-based parents not to see anything, compromising or not, published in that Norwich newspaper.
The pseudonym hypothesis (I call it no more than that, and point out only that it could not exist if we knew nothing about the existence of the name "Arden" within Auden's mother's side of the family) might also indicate something about Auden's, and Auden's family's, ambivalence or unease about the diminished social position of poetry amongst the provincial gentry. Many will disagree, perhaps vehemently, with both notions. That's fine: argument is good. What I'm saying is that without the new ideas which the "tree" generates there can often be no argument at all.
Take another suggestion which the genealogical database throws up, this one from the 1960s. In that decade, Auden wrote a great many, still extraordinarily underappreciated, poems about modern science, such as "Moon Landing" and "A New Year Greeting". What is more (where is that concordance when I need it?), he remarked several times that the only magazine he subscribed to in the 1960s was Scientific American.
All this is significant enough in itself. But, for me anyway, a certain new tincture or coloration is projected onto these "scientific poems" and onto poems like them once one knows about a wedding which took place in 1966. That year Fridolin Mann — Thomas Mann's grandson, Auden's nephew — married Christine Heisenberg, one of Werner Heisenberg's daughters. From 1966 W. H. Auden was therefore a relation by marriage of one of the world's greatest theoretical physicists.
Irrelevant? I'll certainly be prepared to say so in public with an endearing smile on my face so just as soon as you have sent me the names of three other 20th century poets of substantial reputation working in any language who a) wrote repeatedly about science and b) were related to any one of the century's most prominent scientists.
In the meantime, as they used to say in the days before streaming media took over, "stay tuned."
December 03, 2007
Look, Stranger! (1936) was Auden's "wonder volume" his second book of lyrics, the collection which won him the King's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1937. I took the entire text (minus title page, colophon etc) of the book and I uploaded it to Daniel Steinbock's "TagCrowd" site.
Steinbock, a Stanford doctoral student in Design and Education, explains that, when a user performs these homely actions, by analyzing word frequencies his site will crystallize a word cloud out of the grainy vapours of language: an "informative, beautiful image that communicates much in a single glance. We see a whole new approach to text" including such uses as "visual summmaries for speeches and written works" and new sorts of "visual poetry".
I agree completely. Who does does not see something better for seeing it estranged, defamiliarized? After digital processing, here is the "reading" (poetry made out of rearranging poetry) which Steinbock's algorithm generated from Auden's words in Look, Stranger!. And, "stranger, look" which two terms migrated to the centre of this iconic representation of a volume from a decade of crisis —— love and, slightly smaller, night: