What W H Auden Can Do For You, Alexander McCall Smith, Princeton.
W H Auden spent his life not just writing poetry, but wondering what art was for, what it could do and how it could do it. As time wore on, he became pessimistic about the power of art to change the world. At the very least, he became wary of art’s potential to be co-opted into propaganda, and favoured asking questions over preaching, though they were not the pseudo-questions of much modern art that simply wants to affirm the pointlessness of existence, but genuine questions over the value of things.
McCall Smith’s new book, slight as it is, and full of anecdotal diversions as it is, and despite the fact that it takes a while to get going, and hasn’t huge amounts to say about the poetry itself (and to be fair, he’s not trying to), makes the point, much as Edward Mendelson does, that Auden can help us to steer an admittedly crooked path through ethical problems (here of course we see why McCall Smith’s character Isabel Dalhousie quotes Auden), especially when we are faced with choices over what John Bayley, writing on Auden, calls the “fabrication” of poetry versus honesty, or public versus private, or participation versus observation, or myth versus parable.
McCall Smith writes that he is something of a determinist, much like Auden, finding that our capacity for steering our moral course is severely limited by all the influences on us: genetics, our history and the like. Fair enough. But for Auden this meant a kind of moral isolationism, which Terry Eagleton neatly critiques in his book How To Read a Poem. In a poem such as ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ Auden observes the indifference of the world to individual human suffering (something he also does, but in ironic fashion in ‘In Memory of W B Yeats’). But Eagleton rightly points out that the world’s indifference, and in particular we might mean here the natural world’s, does not have to mean that we human beings have to be indifferent. For Auden, we can make small, personal moral choices, but are helpless in the face of larger tragedies. Is this really true? Here we see the perennial argument between those who want to change the world for the better and those who think the world will always be the same. Eagleton, as a Marxist, of course sides with the first option, but that is not a reason to blithely dismiss his critique.
More on Auden here: