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W. H. Auden, Humor, and the Politics of Today

Earlier this month New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posted a blog entry entitled “Soft Drinks, Sandwiches, and Kleptocrats.”  Almost all of it featured quotations from W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-42), which Krugman thought were relevant to an earlier column he had written.  His quoting of Auden reminded me that the works of great writers seem to have lives as timeless as the figures on John Keats’ Grecian Urn.

Just a few months after coming to America, the homosexual Auden, who knew what it was like to feel like an outsider, penned one of his many poems that displayed his sympathy for sufferers.  Sometimes known as “Refugee Blues,” it dealt with German Jews who were unable to receive permission to remain in the United States, and its haunting lines remain a permanent reminder of the need for political compassion. It begins thusly:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

And later on it includes the stanzas:

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: "They must die";
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

At the beginning of 2009 Tim Adams, a staff writer for England’s The Observer, wrote in “Reasons to Be Fearful”:

A new year is usually a time for hope.  But today many of us are full of doubt.  The financial crisis has brought wave after wave of bad news, replacing the old certainties with a sense of dread and insecurity.  And then there's terrorism, climate change and social breakdown. . . . Are our nightmares based in reality or are we the victims of a very modern kind of mass hysteria?  Out with the old . . . in with a new age of anxiety.

Adams then went on to remind us that “the idea that we lived in an Age of Anxiety was coined by W.H. Auden exactly sixty years ago, just after the war.”  Auden’s “Age of Anxiety” was another of his long poems of the 1940s.  It not only led to a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948, but, in the following year, to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” and soon afterwards Jerome Robbins's ballet (with a Bernstein score) Age of Anxiety.
In late 2007 Harvard Magazine featured an article about Auden’s poem, “Under Which Lyre,” which he had recited at the Harvard Commencement of June 1946. The magazine quoted a few stanzas from it, such as:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
        On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

The poem reflects Auden’s rich sense of humor, which still makes many of his poems a delight to read—earlier in 2007 Christopher Hitchens had written that “Auden had three of the qualities that make poets immortal.  He wrote beautifully about love, movingly about war, and he was witty.”  But, as the Harvard piece also notes, Auden’s “message makes ‘Under Which Lyre’ a truly American poem, in the tradition of Emerson and Whitman and Twain, all of them defenders of the individual against the collective.  The continued life of . . . [the] poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.”

In September 2002 an Adam Gopnik essay entitled “The Double Man:  Why Auden Is an Indispensable Poet of Our Time” appeared in The New Yorker.  Gopnik wrote,

Even people who don't read poems often turn to poetry at moments when it matters, and Auden matters now.  In the eighties, his lyric "Stop All the Clocks" [also known as “Funeral Blues”] became the elegy of the AIDS era, sold on bookstore counters, by the registers [and recited in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral].  In the nineties, Robert Hughes led off his memorable polemic against postmodernism "The Culture of Complaint" with a long, marveling quote from Auden's Christmas oratorio, "For the Time Being" . . . .  In the past year, Auden has been everywhere, by the sheer force of popular will.  Two of his lyrics about suffering and confusion—"Musée des Beaux Arts" and "September 1, 1939"—sprang to renewed life after [the terrorist attack of] last September 11th as the embodiments of our mood, posted on Web sites and subway walls.

Gopnik also mentioned that before Auden’s death in 1973, he removed "September 1, 1939" from his collected poetry.  Other poets, like the Russian-born Joseph Brodsky, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and later became the U. S. Poet Laureate in 1991-1992, thought more highly of the poem than did Auden.  In his collection of essays Less Than One, Brodsky devoted more than fifty pages to it.  He also, perhaps with some exaggeration, called Auden “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.”

Then there is this gem from Auden’s “Dingley Dell & the Fleet,” in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays.  In pointing out how playing politics on a national scale can be “vicious” if the goal of establishing “a just and smoothly running society” is ignored, he cites Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.  Pickwick had observed that in the town of Eatanswill there were “two great parties that divided the town—the Blues and the Buffs.”  Auden then quotes most of the following passage from Dickens’s book.

The Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, town-hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them.  With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question.  If the Buffs proposed to new skylight the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity.  There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns—there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle in the very church itself.

Sound familiar? How about President Obama’s Labor Day speech in Milwaukee?  

When it comes to just about everything we've done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says, no.  Even on things we usually agree on, they say, no.  If I said the sky was blue, they'd say, no.  If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say, no.  They just think it's better to score political points before an election than to solve problems. . . .  You know, I heard somebody out here was yelling "Yes, we can."  Remember, that was our slogan?  Their slogan is "No, we can't."  No, no, no, no.

In still another essay (“The Poet & the City”) in The Dyer's Hand, Auden distinguished between “two kinds of political issues, Party issues and Revolutionary issues.”  Regarding the latter he wrote, “There is only one genuine world-wide revolutionary issue, racial equality.”  Almost all other issues, however, he placed into the other category.  “In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but differ in their policies for reaching it. . . .  On a party issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature. . . . Rival deputies should be able to dine in each other’s houses; fanatics have no place in party politics.”  Auden thought that what was “so terrifying and immeasurably depressing about most contemporary politics” was the failure to admit that most issues were party issues, “to be settled by appeal to facts and reason.”

As I pointed out in an earlier essay on this site, President Obama eloquently expressed similar sentiments in his University of Michigan Commencement Speech (May 1, 2010).  The president also shares something else with Auden, an admiration for the ideas of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who was a good friend of Auden and is one of Obama’s favorite thinkers.  In the present political climate of incivility, perhaps it would be good to keep in mind some sentiments shared by Auden but contained in a Niebuhr essay on humor and faith.

All men betray moods and affectations, conceits and idiosyncrasies, which could become the source of great annoyance to us if we took them too seriously.  It is better to laugh at them.  A sense of humor is indispensable to men of affairs who have the duty of organizing their fellowmen in common endeavors.  It reduces the frictions of life and makes the foibles of men tolerable.  There is, in the laughter with which we observe and greet the foibles of others, a nice mixture of mercy and judgment, of censure and forbearance.

Niebuhr thought that meeting “the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies with laughter, is a high form of wisdom,” and that our humor should reflect another quality that often seems lacking in our political discourse—humility.

Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself.  The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence.  People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. . . . All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions.  What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously.

In one of his Shakespeare essays contained in The Dyer’s Hand, Auden indicated that “laughing and loving have certain properties in common, and that “real laughter is absolutely unaggressive.”  A few years before his death, he wrote that “man is the only creature who laughs.  True laughter is not to be confused with the superior titter of the intellect, though we are capable, alas, of that, too.”  When he was still a young man, he had, with a touch of humor, written, “My deepest feeling about politicians is that they are dangerous lunatics to be avoided when possible and carefully humored.”  Always appreciative of multi-word meanings—he loved looking through the Oxford English Dictionary—he might not have minded one saying that for the rest of his life he continued to believe that politics and politicians should be “humored.”