“Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”
W. H. Auden’s Struggle with Politics
February 25, 2015
Feb 25, 2015
20 Min read time
W. H. Auden’s Struggle with Politics
W. H. Auden at Boston College, circa 1970. Photograph: Burns Library, Boston College.
What responsibility does the artist have to society? Speaking at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy gave one answer to that perpetually nagging question. For a politician it was a highly unusual one, though perhaps less so then than now. “Society must set the artist free,” Kennedy declared, “to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” This is essentially the same view of artistic and personal freedom that Stephen Dedalus defends against the nationalist Davin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “When the soul of a man is born,” Stephen opines, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is essentially Rousseauist, corresponding to the liberal idea that individuals best serve the general good through the exercise of their personal freedom. For all its nobility of spirit, this view is frequently contested—even, or maybe especially, in democratic societies. Davin responds to Dedalus as many a politician has responded to the artist or intellectual, by demanding commitment: “A man’s country comes first. . . . You can be a poet or a mystic after.” He finds Stephen to be “a terrible man,” even a bit of a traitor, for insisting so unequivocally on his personal liberty. It is Stephen’s peculiar separateness, his disregard of party or faction, that Davin finds threatening.
Political orthodoxies of both the right and left have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics, supporting their contention by asserting a utilitarian moral right. Artistic freedom concerns one person alone, or at best a privileged minority, while politics concerns the good of many. Political concerns can seem reassuringly anti-elitist. For collectivists, whether nationalist or proletarian in their orientation, communal benefit always outweighs the prerogatives of the individual. The left in particular has long held that by allowing too much power to the few, liberal governments erode the welfare of the many. And for Marxists, the primacy of individual liberty and formal rights is a sham concealing unjust advantages and systematic oppression.
Yet poetry, relying as it does on the primacy of individual sensibility and the often-contested “right” to free expression, has a long and vexed historical connection to liberalism that has remained deeply problematic to critics from the more radical fringes of the left. For that reason, I am concerned mainly with the relationship between leftist critics and poetry; not because the right is lacking in doctrinal pressures, but because since the early twentieth century literary intellectuals as a group have inclined toward left-wing politics, and also because the left, at least in the West, retains strong anti-authoritarian and libertarian traditions that conflict with tendencies toward censoriousness and control.
In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.
In the classical sense, the term politics refers to a form of activity concerned with public life. In that context, the vicious intensity of the internecine cultural controversies we often see playing out in the pages of journals—or now, on social media—seems quite odd. Often the parties involved tend to share largely similar views on broader issues. The driving force in these conflicts is often “politics” in a less savory sense, as Jonathan Chait recently pointed out: the use of intimidation and rhetoric “to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Debates over speech and sensitivity often invoke an undemocratic understanding of what politics is and how it works, one concerned primarily not with individual freedoms but with enforcing group solidarity and the hegemony of a prescribed set of opinions.
Auden’s case is revealing. In the 1930s his work developed a following among committed Marxists. Ideologically Auden was a fellow traveler: not a Party member but sympathetic to the egalitarianism of the left. What he perhaps failed to realize, at least initially, was that this audience had certain expectations that did not conform to his traditionally liberal sensibilities. What was expected was overt encouragement of true believers, a celebration of class struggle, and unwavering demonstrations of loyalty to approved causes. Having courted their favor, Auden found himself in the position of having to meet their demands. Along with many other writers and artists, Auden traveled to Spain to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. On returning from Valencia, where he had worked as a radio broadcaster for the local government, Auden composed “Spain,” a poetic hymn to the fight against Franco. Fellow volunteer George Orwell commended “Spain” as “one of the few decent things written about the Spanish war” but also noted its less commendable portions:
Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.
Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
According to Orwell, “the second stanza is intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of a ‘good party man.’ In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.” Orwell’s criticism was telling. Auden later had fits of guilt about “Spain” and recanted parts of it. He had the bad timing, however, to drift away from the party line just as demands for ideological conformity were growing more strident. By the late thirties, it was clear that the war in Spain had not gone well, that Hitler was rearming, and that fascist movements were gathering strength throughout Europe. Auden became a convenient scapegoat for leftist critics angry at the political fecklessness of their own faction. F. W. Dupee, for instance, was less concerned with Auden’s commitment to anti-fascism than with asserting that poetry was a form of activity requiring political control and supervision. For Dupee, being a radical poet meant doing effective work on behalf of the party. In Partisan Review, he criticized Auden’s deviations from orthodoxy: Auden appeared to be thrusting “deeper and deeper into his own ego” and abandoning his role as “the impersonal voice of a generation.”
Poetry, relying on the primacy of individual sensibility and the often-contested “right” to free expression, has a long and vexed historical connection to liberalism.
The word ego offers a clue to the critic’s motives. Dupee’s attack on Auden’s insufficient militancy was probably motivated less by personal disapproval than by “political” requirements. The motives underlying it had to do, in very broad terms, with the liberal West’s perceived decline, a sense that was equally common in both Marxist and right-wing circles during the thirties. A grand confrontation with fascism was recognized as inevitable, and many leftist thinkers believed that Western powers would or could do little to halt its advance. Several theories were put forward to explain the West’s powerlessness, but the prevailing account emphasized the historical failure of bourgeois democracy itself. This view accorded well with the deterministic outlook of Hegelian Marxists such as Georg Lukács, whose influence as both a theorist and a bureaucrat in Stalinist Russia is hard to overstate. The examples that Marxists had before them did little to encourage a sanguine view of democracy’s prospects—Franco’s victory in Spain, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and, to everyone’s surprise, Mussolini’s conquest of Abyssinia. “Decadent” modernist art was seen by some—by Lukács in particular—to have weakened western liberal democracies. A critical vanguard was needed to defend socialism against similar pernicious influences, with Lukács directing it from Moscow. (Lukács’s cultural policemen took a dim view of art they viewed as tainted by “humanism” and psychoanalysis. Lukács saw Freud, in particular, as absolute proof of the decadence of the western bourgeoisie; modernism was the representative form of its cultural decline.) The points of departure for the campaign against decadent art were Stalin’s decree “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations” and its endorsement by the Congress of Socialist Writers, which made socialist realism official Soviet policy. Lukács took up the call in Internationale Literature. The German poet Gottfried Benn found himself pilloried in much the same way as Auden. His work was a favorite subject of attacks by Marxist partisans such as Klaus Mann and Alfred Kurella, who became important figures in postwar East Germany. The scale and organization of the Stalinist campaign for socialist art shows the depth of the Communist Party’s commitment to a platform of using art and criticism as propaganda. In more general terms, it exemplifies the Left’s faith in the political efficacy of cultural production. But it is perhaps more telling that hardly any lasting works of socialist realist art were produced, while attacks on western and Russian artists proliferated.
Proponents of Stalinist aesthetics had little or no constructive agenda. Their primary tactic was the political smear, used with impunity. Hannah Arendt describes it as the totalitarian double bind: invent a crime and then cast someone—it little matters whom—as the culprit. Auden, like Benn, was a young, sufficiently important writer of whom an example could be made. And, like Ivanov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Dupee was simply a clever, opportunistic prosecutor alleging, largely without evidence, that Auden had broken with the reigning orthodoxy. The examples of Auden’s deviancy and bankruptcy were his disinterest in political rhetoric and his rejection of “the pamphlet [as a genre] in the name of the poem.” He was also accused of sentimental Christian humanism; he dared to challenge “Marxism in the name of Love”! According to the script, he was supposed to recant and accept judgment, thereby proving all at once his guilt, his submission, and the infallibility of the party.
Ironically the charges against Auden turned out to have a kind of dubious merit, if only as a reasonably perceptive literary critical prognosis of where he was tending. Auden’s rejection of Marxism came out of a growing sense of inner conflict. In the manuscript published posthumously as The Prolific and the Devourer, he expressed growing distaste for activist politics. It shows why he changed course so radically, from the politically engaged poems of the early thirties to the view that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The first appearance of this anti-utilitarian stance on art occurs in the context of a critique of official Marxism: “Tolstoy, who, knowing that art makes nothing happen, scrapped it, is more to be respected than the Marxist critic who finds ingenious reasons for admitting the great artists of the past to the State Pantheon.” Auden’s decision to undertake an autobiographical self-examination charting his growing distance from Marxism may have been motivated in part by the rough treatment he received at the hands of radical intellectuals like Dupee.
“Poetry makes nothing happen” has two meanings, both of which can be deduced from The Prolific and the Devourer. In its more pessimistic valence, it suggests that writers and artists are incapable of effecting political change. As Auden observed in his unpublished meditations:
If one reviews the political activity of the world’s intellectuals during the past eight years, if one counts up all the letters to the papers which they have signed, all the platforms on which they have spoken, all the congresses they have attended, one is compelled to admit that their combined effect, apart from the money they have helped to raise for humanitarian purposes (and one must not belittle the value of that) has been nil. As far as the course of political events is concerned they might just as well have done nothing. As regards their own work, a few have profited, but how few.
But later in the same work Auden explores a more nuanced position: poetry should not make things happen; it should not be instrumentalized for a political cause and is harmed by acceding to such uses. “Poetry makes nothing happen” is therefore as much a rhetorical act as a statement of Auden’s actual beliefs about the efficacy of poetry. It means, essentially, Don’t corrupt poetry by making it do the wrong thing. This intriguing—or, to some, infuriating—speech act against political speech might be considered as atonement for his earlier endorsement of the “necessary murder” (i.e., the murder of political opponents). Given his feelings of responsibility for the effects of what he wrote, Auden may have come to regard “Spain” as incitement to violence and to feel responsible for its consequences, considerations that echo Yeats’s misgivings: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”
Auden’s assertion that art plays no role in political history subverts the call for engaged art. For that is precisely what socialist realism was: a dogmatic reflection of Soviet cultural policy. Auden might say that, if the artist changes the world, he or she does not do so qua artist. (“If the criterion of art were its power to incite action,” he writes, “Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.”) Yet Auden’s assertion is not entirely incompatible with a leftist or even a Marxist agenda. In substance this opinion mirrors the view Trotsky expresses in “Art and Politics.” Trotsky writes, in a typical left-pessimist vein, that art both registers and “suffers…from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.” He adds, however, that “to find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology.” While art cannot “escape” or “partition itself off” from crisis, and while Trotsky believed—as Auden no longer did—that “the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution,” he carefully distinguished the idea of revolution from the political regime already established in Russia, warning artists against prostituting themselves to power out of a sense of allegiance to communism.
Auden went further. He insisted on a meaningful distinction between poetic language and political discourse: “To be useful to an artist a general idea must be capable of including the most contradictory experiences, and of the most subtle variation and ironic interpretations.” By contrast, political concepts are intended to “secure unanimity in action.” Consequently “subtlety and irony are drawbacks” in political expression. The importance of irony in Auden’s poetic repertoire grew because double (or multiple) meanings are less useful as rhetorical incitement than simple and immediately intelligible language. When criminally bankrupt ideologies—then as now—depend on passionately crude rhetoric used by those who not only advocate violence but often engage in it as well, it is not easy to dismiss Auden’s reservations. Indeed, he was among the first English writers, along with Orwell, to recognize profound similarities between the rhetorical styles of Nazism and Stalinism, signaling deep affinities between the two extremes.
The Liberal Elegy
In returning to the elegiac tradition, somewhat tentatively in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and then with greater conviction in a sequence of poems he began composing soon after arriving in New York in 1939 (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” “Voltaire at Ferney,” and “Herman Melville”), Auden sought to emphasize the commemorative as opposed to the proleptic function of poetry. He sought to reclaim for poetry the capacity to consider historical events from multiple perspectives—and therefore as objectively as possible—without endorsing an activist agenda. In effect, he found a way of putting into practice Trotsky’s warning against Stalinism in art.
Auden’s “turn” was part of a growing aversion among artists and intellectuals in the late thirties to extreme forms of political commitment. At first, many had been attracted to anti-liberal dogmas, but the more conscientious drew back as totalitarianism unfurled its true colors in Spain, China, and Poland, making clear the political and humanitarian implications of the domination of society by a single party. Yet, for writers of Auden’s generation, reversing course sometimes came at the cost of abandoning earlier commitments—and friends and careers as well. It was both difficult and courageous to act or speak on principle.
Auden insisted on a meaningful distinction between poetic language and political discourse.
The complex itinerary of Auden’s great elegies reflects this change. On the one hand, they revisit of the canon of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism. On the other, the elegies display a continuous, ironic reliance on the anti-liberal themes that Auden wished consciously to disavow, if we take seriously his arguments in The Prolific and the Devourer. For instance, in the poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller” he writes:
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, even our hand.
Similarly in “Voltaire at Ferney,” the philosopher, who has dedicated his life to humanity and justice, feels that “the night [is] full of wrong / Earthquakes and executions” and that “all over Europe” lurk “horrible nurses / Itching to boil their children.” The irrational seems poised to triumph. However, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the greatest of Auden’s elegies, claims that poetry may partially transcend the flaws of its maker and the particular situation of its making.
The most important aspect of an early version of the poem is Auden’s unmistakable distaste for Yeats’s nationalist politics. He clearly considers himself superior to Yeats, if not as a poet, then as a man in step with history and untainted by false consciousness. The poem displays the ideological vestiges of Auden’s Marxism. Yet if one examines the evolution of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” through successive versions, one sees Auden plagued with increasing doubts about that superiority. The elegy for Yeats first appeared in The New Republic in March 1939; later that year it reappeared with significant additions in The London Mercury; in 1940 it was published in the collection Another Time. Auden’s tinkering did not end there. Before including it in his Collected Poems, he made important alterations. The most significant change was removing the political stanzas from the concluding section:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
The change was controversial. Many of Auden’s readers would have agreed that Kipling and Claudel required pardon, and that it was up to them to dispense it. Auden himself came to doubt this, not because he suddenly became a “reactionary,” but because he questioned whether the greatness of Kipling’s or Claudel’s work—or Yeats’s for that matter—was separable from the lives and choices they had made. Furthermore, as “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” implied, political correctness did not secure literary greatness nor could its absence entirely undermine it. Auden certainly intended the words “forgive” and “pardon,” central to all his elegies of the period, to have religious overtones. He did not believe that absolution or condemnation could be meted out by political actors or ultimately by human judgment alone. In all likelihood he excised the offending stanzas because he felt they would be misunderstood and might serve to bolster the moral complacency of some readers. By removing them he was arguing, in effect, that it was not some infallible zeitgeist but poets themselves—including those with “bad” politics—who wrote poems. And sometimes men and women of reprehensible character or views wrote good or even great poems. In short, genius was not separable from human fallibility, even if great artists managed in their work if not in their lives to surpass ordinary limitations.
Fewer poets today are disciples of Auden than in decades past. His formalism makes him a difficult model for the imitative self-fashioning of young writers wanting to sound contemporary. But Auden’s idiosyncratic, mercurial spirit, in many ways the legacy of that one indelible line (“Poetry makes nothing happen”) marks us still. One can regard that legacy as a re-envisioning of the poet’s social role. Auden revived the art of civic poetry in the Horatian mode: asserting the poet’s right to express himself or herself as an individual, to speak apart from rather than for the collective. Civic poetry has typically also involved a rejection of radicalism. It is political, therefore, mainly in the Aristotelian and Arendtian sense of being concerned with the relationship between public and private life in general terms. Concern, however, does not imply activism but rather a stable sense of citizenship in which private needs are balanced against public affairs. In contrast to Sartre’s radicalization of the civic tradition, littérature engagée, both retirement and engagement, distance and proximity, are available to the Horatian civic poet. Civic poetry of this sort has characterized societies with varied forms of political organization, but it is not found under totalitarianism. As Arendt observes, totalitarian systems preclude civil society by withdrawing the right to privacy that is the foundation of liberal citizenship. Classically the social relationship between the poet and the world on which civic poetry is premised could be characterized as a form of cultivated leisure, allowing both the retirement from and the observation of the world’s concerns necessary for intellectual and social independence.
In Horace’s Odes the poet is a figure who occupies both public and private spheres and whose retirement depends on having played an active part in public affairs. He has withdrawn from these time-consuming duties voluntarily, and his position permits him both leisure and distance to observe and comment on the social world, to regard it critically but without alienation. Tocqueville describes the democratic individualism of such a position as “a thoughtful and peaceful feeling that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his peers and to retire to a distance from his family and friends, in such a way that, after thus creating a little society for himself, he willingly leaves the larger society to itself.” But the citizen, by remaining a citizen, does not forsake connection to the social order. The “little society” Tocqueville conjures is a microcosm, and while it may be created in part of out a need to order and control the chaos of the larger world, it depends on a sufficient condition of political and economic independence to choose and sustain retirement. It depends, to that degree, on a social order that is benevolent and restrained in its demands. One should also recognize that this retirement is voluntary, unlike exile. The civic poet retains his rights and therefore a political voice and is seldom driven to speak solely by moral outrage or deprivation.
In his essay “The Redress of Poetry,” Seamus Heaney writes that apologists for poetry frequently ground the defense of art in its social uses (meaning its propagandistic function), but in doing so these would-be-champions of art diminish the security and independence of the artist. The major responsibility of the artist in our time would seem to be not merely “slashing righteousness” (in Chait’s words) but critical independence and distance, including from the opinions of one’s peers. Heaney, echoing Keats, writes that “poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world.” When the “power [of art] as a mode of redress…as agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices” precludes its autonomously self-creating character, the survival of art itself is at stake. Heaney draws on two senses of “redress.” The first involves setting things right. This is, as it were, a lesser form of redress, where art proclaims and serves the cause of social justice. But there is also a greater redress, the opposite necessity of reestablishing art in its role independent of service. Art’s independence is inseparable in the end from the goal of individual liberty as such. Just as artists cannot be forced to serve the good cause, whatever that cause may be, neither should any of us be forced to serve ends that are collectively designated for us. Art must at times serve no cause but that of its own freedom. The tenor of Heaney’s discussion of poetry and politics recalls Auden’s. Like Auden, if perhaps not quite as extravagantly, he concludes that maybe the best we can hope for is that politicians and activists will leave poetry in peace.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of this moment—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall at Boston Review. We've also gone one step further and become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
February 25, 2015
20 Min read time