One of W. H. Auden’s most famous poems is “September 1, 1939,” which you likely remember from its well-known denomination of the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade” and its soaring admonition: “We must love one another or die.” (This poem—and that line in particular—is luminously glossed by Spencer Lenfield at the JHI Blog here.) Auden hated that poem, however: he called it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written” and carried his recantation into the curation of his works—it does not appear (by his wish) in his Collected Poems.
Yet only four months later he began a poem that, outwardly at least, resembles “September 1, 1939” closely in its brooding on the “vast spiritual disorders” of the age. “New Year Letter” is a much longer poem, but its amalgamation of the ominous and the epic, the topical and the universal, the almost maudlin and the hard-boiled, the lapidary and the singsong is identical: the length only amplifies his characteristic talents and faults. Auden did not, however, disown “New Year Letter.” It appears—complete—in his Collected Poems, and we should be grateful: it is a rich, relentlessly searching poem, and well worth reading at the New Year—perhaps annually!
In what follows, I hope to pace through some of its stanzas, thinking about what separated it from the “dishonesty” of “September 1, 1939” and how the greater honesty of “New Year Letter,” in its (I agree) more demanding mixture of the personal and the political can help us perhaps be more honest with ourselves this year.
“New Year Letter” reads less like a single train of thought than a portfolio of poetic genres or moods. There is an ars poetica section (“Art in intention is mimesis / But, realised, the resemblance ceases; / Art is not life and can not be / A midwife to society, / For Art is a fait accompli”). There are a number of confessional sections and passages where the poet remembers the epistolary frame of the poem, addressing Elizabeth Mayer, its dedicatee. There are stanzas ripped from the headlines, clusters that veer into the vatic, and parts that reflect on the supposed innocence of the past. Some passages echo the desperately hortatory tone of “September 1, 1939.”
There is also a longish passage that resembles Chaucer’s House of Fame, in which Auden encounters a number of “great masters,” his literary forebears—Dante, Blake, Dryden, Tennyson, Hardy, Rilke (whom he bizarrely calls “The Santa Claus of loneliness”). It is with the passage just before on which I want to focus, though, as it contains one of the finest descriptions of “Impostor Syndrome” that I have read.
It begins with a question, but one phrased in such a manner and at such length that the sentence containing it hovers between grammatical moods, not committing to the interrogative almost until the very moment the punctuation mark appears.
That ever has the rashness to
Believe that he is one of those
The greatest of vocations chose,
Is not perpetually afraid
That he’s unworthy of his trade,
As round his tiny homestead spread
The grand constructions of the dead,
Nor conscious, as he works, of their
Complete, uncompromising stare,
And the surveillance of a board
Whose warrant cannot be ignored?
Auden pierces the grandiosity of calling poetry “the greatest of vocations” by winkingly referring to it next as a mere “trade” (and does so in a rather glib rhyme—“afraid… trade”), but it is difficult to tell if this impulse comes from humility or irony. That undecidability infects the whole passage, and that shiftiness is precisely what is, I think, most deeply moving about this passage. Its instability is perfect, compact, exact: how neatly it captures the slippery, protean nature of the condition it describes!
Consider the single word “rashness.” What, precisely, is rash? To believe that one is a great poet? To believe that there is some kind of Eliotic process by which tradition confirms the individual talent and its rightful place among the greats of the past? To believe that poetry is “the greatest of vocations?” And yet, what is really rash about any or all of these beliefs if that rashness is immediately followed by a counterbalancing fear of inadequacy, a fear that Auden names “perpetual,” suggesting an immediate conjunction of arrogance and self-doubt, a kind of simultaneous inflation and deflation of the poetic ego? Confidence that undercuts itself, leaden insecurity clipped to the wings of Icarus: is this rashness?
Or consider the ambiguity of the word “conscious.” The poet’s consciousness of “the surveillance of a board” of former poetic masters is, Auden says, a consequence of the activity of writing: he is conscious of their watching him “as he works.” While many of us probably feel the disapproval of certain internalized authorities while we are not working (“shouldn’t you get back to that article?” “how long have you been working on that book?”), it is during the actual process of their intellectual labor that the poet feels most intensely the company of their idolized models, those poets they hope to be like. But that company is not warm or comforting: it is minatory, oppressive, cramping. And yet a mere step back allows us to ask a shocking question: is the poet’s “consciousness” of this company an objective fact? In what way does this pressure, this “surveillance” exist? Does it make a different to say that it exists only “in the poet’s head?” The poem is equivocal—that is the power of the passage: it probably does matter, but it is undecidable, possibly undecipherable.
This is an odd position to come to in a poem that is, more than anything else, consumed with the questions of what it means to be lied to and what it means to lie to oneself. The poet mulls over in a surprisingly upbeat passage a few pages after the one I just quoted from the effectiveness of the “Prince of Lies,” and concludes that the devilish lies we are told maliciously can be—often are—more effective guides to truth than is the benevolence of friends. Mephistopheles may be our “foe / But [he is] so much more effective, though / Than our well-meaning stupid friends / In driving us towards good ends.”
Auden reconsiders a moment later, however: “But the Accuser would not be / In his position, if did not he / Unlike the big-shots of the day / Listen to what his victims say.” The Devil tempts us most effectively toward wrong, in other words, not by whispering promises of power but by letting us ramble our way into our own illusions. We will talk our way into hell, Auden thinks; all the Devil needs to do is supply an attentive ear. He elaborates all this in a marvelous, swift-footed passage:
Observing every man’s desire
To warm his bottom by the fire
And state his views on Education,
Art, Women, and The Situation,
Has learnt what every woman knows,
The wallflower can become the rose,
Penelope the homely seem
The Helen of Odysseus’ dream
If she will look as if she were
A fascinated listener,
Since men will pay large sums to whores
For telling them they are not bores.
Mansplaining is not only tedious; it is a ticket to damnation, it seems!
The poem continues on with an examination of other diabolical stratagems for drawing humanity into its own self-made cage of lies. One memorable clutch of lines even explains a ploy closely akin to something with which we are by now all-too-familiar: the cry of “fake news!”
The False Association is
A favourite strategy of his:
Induce men to associate
Truth with a lie, then demonstrate
The lie and they will, in Truth’s name,
Treat babe and bath-water the same…
All in all, Auden decides, the Devil “may never tell us lies, / Just half-truths we can synthesise.”
There is much more to the poem, and much of it addresses concerns which are grimly pertinent to the present: demagoguery, populism, migration and a refugee problem, a paralytic intelligentsia determined to “resist” but arguing over the means and method of how to do so, the difficulty of making accurate judgments of what precisely is even going on. But what I take most from the poem is its insistence that the determination not to lie often requires not silence but listening. That is, we lie not so much in the content of our words but in our persistent egotism that we must be the one to speak. Listening does not require credulity—else Mephistopheles’s seductions would be effective—but it requires the humility of really accepting that we live among other people, in “confederation” (an important word in the poem) with them.
Auden’s insight, in other words, is not relativism, the assertion that no one has a monopoly on truth, or if it is relativistic, it goes well beyond that principle. The charity so often touted as a solution—that we must accept that others have their own truths—is not really adequate or realistic: it is, at any rate, a difficult posture to maintain. But even worse, that kind of charitable acceptance does not require of us that we listen to other people, just that we give up trying to coerce them into accepting our truths. Rather than acceptance without listening, Auden asks us to consider simply listening, an action that forces us into a self-discipline greater than charity. Listening requires humility, even sacrifice: you must deny your own impulse to speak, an impulse that can exist even if one intellectually accepts relativism’s epistemological pluralism. Listening creates a real pluralism, one that exists in the world, not merely in one’s own mind.
Listening, it is true, may expose us to the lies of others, people who will take advantage of our humility by irradiating us with their lies. But listening does not remove our defenses, what I think Auden would see as our innate sense of right and truth. Recall that in the first passage I quoted, Auden leaves us suspended somewhere between the poet’s humility and their irony—but perhaps that is because humility and irony are not so much at odds as we tend to think. We associate humility with a kind of abjection and irony with a kind of archness, but why this should be so is seldom explored. Irony is certainly not insincerity, nor is humility necessarily debasement.
Auden’s “New Year Letter” is a statement of resolutions: it partakes of what he calls the “common meditative norm, / Retrenchment, Sacrifice, Reform”—the spirit of the New Year, what we Jews at our new year call teshuvah. But the word “resolution” comes from a root meaning “set loose” or even “unbind” or “separate,” and to me that is quite the opposite of what Auden means for us to do at the New Year. Rather than set ourselves loose from one another, we must attend to those around us, we must turn and return to them (teshuvah means “return”). We must listen.
To a year of listening, then.