In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the narrator is a maniac named Kinbote who, in the guise of providing scholarly notes to a poem, ignores the poet’s obvious intentions and manages feverishly to recount his own demented autobiography – to hilarious effect. Since life imitates art, our greatest poet of public life, WH Auden, has found his own Kinbote in an old Oxford chum, the historian A L Rowse.
From the very first pages we’re in Kinbote’s realm. The young Auden is reading the young Rowse letters about a friend’s adventures with boys. Rowse, flustered, dashes off to tea and comments: ‘In my view private life should be kept private, not brandished in public – too vulgar and undignified. I have never had any sympathy with Wilde’s vulgar Irish exhibitionism, asking for trouble and bringing down untold (and unnecessary) suffering, even death, upon hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Unforgivable.’
Auden always liked to refer to himself camply as ‘Mother’. In fact, one of the most celebrated anecdotes about him has it that a Yale hearty in a club car sent him a note asking, ‘Aren’t you Robert Frost?’ and Auden wrote back ‘You’ve spoiled Mother’s day.’
But Rowse imagines Auden is always invoking the spirit of his long-dead parent and cites the habit as proof of Auden’s mother-fixation. But Rowse, like Kinbote, is concerned to advance his own cause. Rowse takes a whole generation of English writers to task for not studying hard enough at Oxford. After reminding us he was first of his year in History, he writes: ‘I disapproved of all these bright sparks of my (literary) acquaintance who did no work, got Thirds in the Schools, like Connolly, Waugh, Wystan – or got sent down, like Peter Quennell (my opposite number as Eng Lit Scholar at Balliol) and John Betjeman.’
Auden, we learn from Rowse, failed to write really distinguished poetry (such as A E Housman’s) because he ‘did not get down to the dull, laborious grind of thinking things through and finding out.’
Along the way through this scolding, stentorian, often lunatic book, we learn many things about Rowse. He wants no biography written about him. He has ‘always’ (sic) been fond of talking to animals. He has no patience with Thomas Mann’s ‘sentimental little story, Death in Venice’. He has even less use for literary criticism. For him the 1930s were ‘years of misery, public and private, increasing anxiety and pain.’ He spent years later on in the United States teaching, only to learn that ‘Americans are without irony.’ If only Auden, the ostensible subject of this little book, had been treated to the same loving care.
Although Rowse admits he never knew Auden’s companion Chester Kallman, he has his spies everywhere:
I used to hear from a Jewish woman friend, of the New York Times circle, that Chester became rather uppish about his writing and treated Wystan de haut en bas. One has known that happen, when a protégé one has coaxed along to fulfil himself, in the end takes a high line with one.
One has, has one?
But perhaps the funniest Kinbotism of all involves Kinbote’s creator. Rowse confuses the minor composer Nicholas Nabokov with his great, distant relative Vladimir and writes of Auden’s opera collaboration: ‘The music was composed by the too diversely talented Nabokov. I am no authority on opera, and cannot speak of any of these works; still, I cannot believe that Nabokov’s music would be much good.’
If this book were nothing but buffoonery about a nobody it would be grotesque good fun, but since it’s about a genius it has its sinister side. According to Rowse, Auden started out as a poet of slender if real talent who instantly went downhill because he espoused the Left without understanding politics, because he came to write prose decked out as verse, and because he lost contact with English soil and traditions through two disastrous moves – first to Berlin and later to the United States.
Rowse reminds us again and again that he himself came up the hard way from the working class and never entertained any delusions about the virtues of the poor. Instead, he embraced an aristocratic culture, wrote lyric verse and left Oxford only intermittently for teaching assignments in the States. His own background makes Rowse precisely the wrong reader for Auden. As Edward Mendelson, the best reader, has written: ‘Most critics of twentieth-century poetry … still judge poems by their conformity to modernist norms; consequently, a myth has grown up around Auden to the effect that he fell into a decline almost as soon as he began writing. Critics who give credence to this myth mean, in fact, that Auden stopped writing the sort of poems they know how to read: poems written in a subjective voice, in tones of imaginative superiority and regretful isolation. Auden’s poems speak instead in a voice almost unknown to English poetry since the end of the eighteenth century: the voice of a citizen who knows the obligations of his citizenship.’
Mendelson goes on to argue that Auden left England to exchange his role as poetic prophet and scourge for that of interpreter of society. Yet this plain, public side of Auden appeals not at all to Rowse, who admires T S Eliot, the arch-modernist, as well as Hardy and Housman and Yeats – all writers nostalgic for the past.
By contrast, Auden was immersed in the present. Even his sense of history was as tangible and acrid as a cigarette. This is clear from the conclusion of a 1935 poem to Isherwood:
In the houses
The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes.
And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, hand.
Because Auden was a man of this century he came to exert decisive influence on the two best American poets to win international renown in the last twenty years, John Ashbery and James Merrill (two men who in no other way resemble each other). Merrill took from Auden the demotic, social tone as well as Auden’s large, Augustan vision of social harmony, whereas Ashbery emulated Auden’s daring, his appetite for long, softly pedalled lines and his energy in stuffing the most unexpected bits of odd knowledge down poetry’s craw.
Because Auden enlarged our sense of the content and technique of poetry, in part through his recuperation of lost traditions, he became the most useful mentor to working poets today. Too bad that Rowse, who knew the man, muffed the chance to trace out their formative years in favour of some High Table ‘swabbling’, to use one of Auden’s words.