Auden and the Muse of History
Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb



Against the Big Lie

“Civilization must be saved, even if this means sending for the military, which I suppose it does.”—With this proposition, spoken by Herod the Great in For the Time Being, W. H. Auden presents an exemplary version of what poetry, in his view, can hope to undo: it can defend language against the Big Lie, which begins in the conviction that “civilization”—in Herod’s case, a colonial outpost of the dominant imperial power of the day—is a function of state-sanctioned violence. Concentrating on Auden’s work from the late 1930s, when he seeks to understand the poet’s responsibility in the face of a triumphant fascism, to the late 1950s, when he begins to discern an irreconcilable “divorce” between poetry and history in light of industrialized murder, this study reveals the intensity with which Auden struggled with the meanings of history in both his poetry and his prose reflections. Denying that poetry is in any simple way causally connected to historical events, while simultaneously rejecting the doctrine of “art for art’s sake,” Auden’s engagement with the problem of history distances him from the temptation to conceive of poetry—his own and others’—as an esoteric or sacral occupation that, outside the public view, magically leads to some sort of salvation or Truth that is not available to a public at large. The struggle against the Big Lie cannot be conducted simply through secular argumentation, supported by the armature of the “liberal Aufklärung” (Prose 2:39), nor through its opposite, that is, a return to earlier forms of religious life, including the form of religious life to which Auden was himself returning in this very period. Historically engaged poetry is needed when the Lies grow to such proportions that they are at the core of political life. Such was the case, as Auden saw it, in the late 1930s when this study begins. “The muse does not like being forced to choose between Agit-prop and Mallarmé” (Prose 3:189), Auden writes with characteristic lucidity, and this account of his complex relation to the muse of history seeks to elucidate the probity, humor, and technical skill with which he responds to the reality of history and to show, in turn, how Auden’s work, including a series of poems that has hitherto attracted little critical attention, helps us see dimensions of the struggle against the Big Lie today.

This study comprises two main parts. The first treats principally poems and prose monologues Auden wrote during the Second World War, while the second revolves around poems and prose reflections from the 1950s. The aim of Part I is to describe how Auden develops a literary practice that is genuinely responsible to history, first, by distinguishing historical events from natural processes and social cycles, and then, above all, by recognizing that the forces of fascism that must be defeated, including its rhetoric, are not simply alien elements that have nothing to do with the personal and political lives of those, like Auden, who see themselves as resolutely anti-fascist. Following this first part, an Interlude offers a concentrated analysis of a single poem, “The Fall of Rome” (1947), in which Auden’s confrontation with the legacy of modernist poetry (especially that of Baudelaire, Kipling, Yeats, and Eliot) expresses itself in a multi-temporal image of imperial domination that eerily survives through its seeming demise, opening the way to a vista that stretches beyond human history. Part II is correspondingly concerned with a single volume, Homage to Clio (1960), in which Auden elaborates the complexity of his commitment to creating a poetic practice that understands itself as so fully responsible to history that it begins to question the discipline of historical studies.

Homage to Clio is filled with some little-studied, generally overlooked, often dismissed, yet nevertheless marvelous poems. One of the aims of the ensuing pages is to alert readers to the crisp brilliance of these poems, which may not immediately register as among Auden’s most moving or memorable, but which offer rich rewards to those who are open to the almost intractable perplexities of the problem of poetry’s relation to history. Considered afresh from this perspective, this work invites a reconsideration of Auden’s later poetry, not only by reading poems carefully in isolation but also by showing how they contribute to Auden’s attempt to create a poetry that is “true” to history. Analyzing Homage to Clio as a whole demonstrates that Auden, through the very tenacity of his dedication to the “Muse of the unique / Historical fact” (HC 17), recognizes an estrangement between poet and historian that affects every element in the final poems of that volume, including, as I argue, an “unwritten poem” that would have directly addressed the culmination of a culture of hate, which is to say, precisely the kind of culture in which little lies grow big. The final pages of this study are concerned with the consequence of this absence, as Auden describes his decision to return to the “guilt culture” of his adopted home in post-Anschluss, postwar Austria. Here readers can see the limits of a poetry whose commitment lies in being true to the—multiple, self-divided—muse of history.

Against Grand Narratives, While Gleaning Insights from a Few of Them

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden writes in his 1939 “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” This negative affirmation is as well-known as any line of twentieth-century English verse. Many similarly resonant lines emerge from the pages of Auden’s Collected Poems. Even as critics have often seen him as a fundamentally apolitical poet—or, more exactly, a poet who first adopted and then, in the late 1930s, abdicated the role of political poet—lines from his poetry appear to be just as often invoked in moments of both personal and political crisis. With respect to personal crises, it is doubtless impossible to verify this claim, although the first chapter of this study analyzes a scene in late twentieth-century popular culture where Auden’s words reverberate with profound personal crises that, through their expression, become a small yet far from insignificant element of a major change in law and therefore in public life. With respect to political crises per se, however, sufficient evidence for the claims of Auden’s voice can be found by recalling the renewed attention to “September 1, 1939” prompted by the events of September 11, 2001. It was not simply the coincidence of dates, nor simply that Auden situates his poem about the first day of the Second World War in one of Manhattan’s “dives.” It was, above all, his conviction that his voice freely had to respond to historical events. For Auden, the emotions occasioned in one of the dives on this particular day must find poetic expression; otherwise, the war that “officially” began on September 1, 1939, would already be lost—with the Nazis victorious. From this perspective, there can be little doubt why certain lines from Auden’s poetry tend to be evoked during critical moments, whether personal, political, or both at the same time: such moments are what much of his poetry is “about.” A cursory review on Twitter of #Auden on the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War leaves no doubt that this day, September 1, is remembered in the English-speaking world less for the invasion of Poland than for Auden’s poem. Long before Twitter and Facebook feeds existed, Auden worried about the alacrity with which some of the lines of his early poetry lent themselves to every sort of political program—with the concluding stanzas of “Spain, 1937” as the last and most chilling example. Something approaching the opposite characterizes much of his later poetry: even as certain lines continue to direct themselves toward critical moments and historical themes, the poems as a whole exhibit an aversion to making poetry into a vehicle of anything that could be mistaken for propaganda. Of course, no words can be fully protected from use as propaganda, including modern techniques of advertisement. Nevertheless, Auden sought to make it difficult for his poetry to be used for such purposes, going so far as to excise “September 1” from his Collected Poems for this reason. For him, the anti-slogan, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” remained valid.

The starting point for this study, then, is this: Auden’s poems resonate with moments of both personal and political crises because his poetry is always in a certain state of crisis—precisely the crisis that derives from its interrogation of the function of poets who, as Hölderlin wrote, find themselves “in destitute times.” In a passage from a 1955 BBC broadcast that became the nucleus of his prose collection The Dyer’s Hand, Auden borrows the lexicon of the Eleatic sages of ancient Greece that existentialists like Sartre had recently revitalized: “Essentially poetry is an affirmation of Being, and the main negative motive for writing it [is] a dread of non-being. . . . For [the Poet], therefore, anything which has a history, which changes, contains an element of non-being, which resists poetic expression. His very medium, language, is ill-fitted to describe becoming” (Prose 3:541). Yet, as Auden notes in the same section of that 1955 radio broadcast, “What Is Poetry About?,” the ancient Greek conception of the poet’s function is no longer viable. This “no longer,” which is emblematic of historical change, contains both a fact and an imperative. Despite his unwavering contention that poetry affirms Being, Auden resolutely refuses to affirm what this implies: that poets should affirm the status quo. Poetry changed as a result, losing its earlier function; but this change does not help the poet find a new function. This, for Auden, is a major perplexity: the premise is right, while the conclusion is wrong. Change is not only possible; it is necessary whenever and wherever conditions are oppressive.1 All of this is said, of course, in highly abstract prose, which Auden often repeated with slightly different formulations, particularly in his later essays and reviews. The poet is there to affirm Being. So says the prose writer. Yet Being as it currently stands, the status quo, wracked as it is by injustice, must be changed. This the prose writer says, too. Yet again—as both the poetry and prose writer say—poetry makes nothing happen. The prose writer sometimes finds a solution, while the poet tends to intensify the perplexity. This study concentrates on the poet, even as it often refers to the prose writer, because the perplexity is an existential matter for the poet alone.

There would be no discord between prose writer and poet if the poet found a function for poetry from within the general concept of history propounded by the prose writer. Such might be said of Auden’s early work, when he tentatively allied himself with Marxism, although, of course, the relation of Auden’s poetry to his political allegiances was vexed from the very beginning of his career as a poet. This study begins with poems written after he departed Marxism. Auden did not inaugurate or consummate this departure by writing a critique of Marx or a condemnation of Marxism. The absence of a vociferous “reckoning” with Marx and Marxism can be explained from two perspectives: first, his commitment to Marxist politics was always tenuous at best, and second, he continued to believe that on certain crucial matters, Marx was unquestionably right.2 More to the point, Auden remained faithful to certain elements of Marx’s understanding of history, even as this faithfulness required that he depart from Marxism as it was known to his contemporaries. One of these elements can be found in the famous opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where Marx emphasized that historical events do not take place only once and thereafter disappear into the irreality of the past: on the contrary, occurrences become historical because they are entangled with previous ones; historical events are thus characterized by their topicality, happening “now,” just as much as in the past, which is itself changed as a result of its mingling with the emergent moment.3 Auden can be seen to apply the latter element of Marx’s work to the former one and to draw a conclusion that stands in conflict with classical forms of Marxism: history, as such, can never be a matter of laws. To represent historical events in law-like terms is to deny their inherent density, and reduce them to the unidimensional plenitude of Being, even when Being is identified with matter and the resulting materialism is given a dialectical spin.

One further aspect of Marxist historiography remained very much a part of Auden’s thought: its appreciation of small changes in the forces of production, including, for instance, “Methods of dry farming” (HC 7), to quote from the short poem that prefaces Homage to Clio. In drawing attention to changes in farming methods, Auden practices something like “microhistory,” before that approach became a scholarly ethos.4 And this practice derives at least in part—but perhaps in full—from his exodus from the grand narrative of Marxism, whereby human beings finally achieve their freedom from the “iron laws” of history when the proletarian revolution eliminates all traces of social classes and thus class conflict. For the Auden under study in this volume, there are no laws of history; history is, rather, that strange thing which is lawless yet not therefore chaotic or simply inchoate. In the late 1930s, searching for this “thing,” Auden began to look far afield from Marxism for historians who conformed with his basic conviction that history had to be distinguished from nature, even if human beings are always also natural beings who discover, for instance, more efficient methods of farming in slowly drying climates.

Only rarely does Auden express interest in academic historiography, and so far as his reviews are concerned, he avoided popular histories that emphasized either “great men” and “decisive battles” or—doubtless worse—secret agreements and hidden forces. As for grand historical narratives that attracted a wide-scale readership, Auden was noticeably unmoved. Reminiscing in the 1950s about the decline in Otto Spengler’s popularity, Auden noted that “most of my generation read The Decline of the West” (Prose 4:129); but the evidence suggests that he was among those who did not. As for Spengler’s popular post–First World War counterpart, Arnold Toynbee, Auden wrote the following in an undated letter to Elizabeth Mayer: “Am starting to read A Study of History (six volumes). So must you if you haven’t. It is a major work, I think.”5 Not a single word, however, can be found referring to A Study of History in any of his published writings.6 This indicates at the very least that his hesitation was well grounded: here is a grand narrative, to be sure, but grand narratives as such do not sustain his interest.

With scant attention to academic historiography and little regard for many of the histories that attracted popular attention, Auden turned his attention in the late 1930s and early 1940s to a few grand narratives, each of which was incompatible with the others. What attracted him were not these narratives per se but, rather, their ability to identify certain overlooked or underestimated events that began a tradition whose consequences express themselves in contemporary crises. One of these projects belonged to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, whose Out of Revolution made a strong impression on Auden as soon as it appeared in the late 1930s. Another project was undertaken by Denis de Rougemont, whose Love in the Western World began to inform Auden’s conception of post-classical European civilization when it was first published in the early 1940s. And a third was Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, which Auden reviewed in 1944, concluding with an explicit appeal to the topicality of the principal event under examination, namely Augustine’s reconceptualization of the social order: “Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism” (Prose 2:231). In Rosenstock-Huessy’s work, Auden discovers the inception of a revolutionary tradition in the events surrounding the eleventh-century Investiture Controversy, whereas in de Rougemont, he discovers the beginning of romantic love in the new genre of song invented by twelfth-century troubadours. The novelty of these events derives in part from the fact that none of the relevant agents meant to do what they could be seen in retrospect to have accomplished: Pope Gregory VII did not want to begin a revolutionary tradition when he fought for his right to name local bishops without imperial interference, and the troubadours of Provence had no intention of creating a kind of love that was unknown to classical and early-Christian civilizations alike. Thus did a group of poets make something happen: they inaugurated a new epoch of love, our own—but without intending to do so.

The obscurity of such historians as Cochrane, de Rougemont, and Rosenstock-Huessy is doubtless one of the reasons why the ideas of history that Auden began to explore in the late 1930s have generated little critical attention. Most of the other scholars in whose work he could be said to discover “history” are similarly neglected in the early twenty-first century. This is perhaps not altogether accidental, for, even though the scholars whose work attracted Auden’s attention had sometimes acquired a broad reputation at the time—this applies to de Rougemont, less so to Cochrane and especially to Rosenstock-Huessy—he nevertheless recognized the strangeness or, perhaps better said, the sheer indigestibility of their work. Like Edward Casaubon in Eliot’s Middlemarch, they rode their hobbyhorses to death, or at least rode them to the point where even their most sympathetic readers, Auden included, become exhausted. Rosenstock-Huessy, for instance, wrote history backward: Out of Revolution begins with the Bolshevik Revolution and concludes with the Investiture Controversy. Cochrane, for his part, proposed a ponderous, tripartite, quasi-dialectical schema whereby “Reconstruction” leads to “Renovation,” which, in turn, results in something called “Regeneration.” The indigestibility of the work from which Auden began to develop his own ideas of history guaranteed that, far from coalescing into a method of historical research or a grand narrative that would supersede all previous ones, these ideas would remain his own, bound up with the memory of a few cherished authors, whom he preferred to keep for himself, as he openly admits in reference, first, to Rosenstock-Huessy (who is still largely unknown) and, then again, to Hannah Arendt (who definitely is not).7

The point of collecting such cherished books, however, is the very opposite of esotericism or “secret histories.” There is nothing hidden about the insights that can be teased out of Love in the Western World, Out of Revolution, or Christianity and Classical Culture. Nor does Auden aim to make himself into one of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” on the basis of the historical works he holds dear: “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world,’” he writes in The Dyer’s Hand, “describes the secret police, not the poets” (Prose 4:474; cf. Prose 2:348). Far from straightforwardly affirming the assortment of historians who, as it were, replaced Marx, Auden disentangles a few of their claims from the explanatory arguments and apologetic purposes out of which they emerged, so that they can be seen for what they are: flashes of insight that help to illuminate where we are now.

Traveling, Silence

History, for Auden, was not simply a matter of reading historiographical investigations that could be clearly distinguished from his own experiences. Like the Dionysus-inspired poets to whom Hölderlin refers in “Bread and Wine” when he describes his friend’s answer to the question of what poets are for “in destitute times,” Auden found himself “drawn from land to land” from the late 1920s onward. Unlike the poets invoked in Hölderlin’s poem, however, his journeys led him away from sacred fervor—and any trace of the thought that poets retain a hidden cultic function. In the late 1920s he entered into the tumultuous world of Weimar Germany, coming into contact with the work of its cultural icons, which resulted in such Brechtian ballads and Weill-like cabaret songs as “Miss Gee,” “James Honeyman,” and “Victor.” Beyond the poems that specifically reflect his experience in the strife-torn streets of Berlin, he regularly included in his poems of the 1930s names of places and persons that were closely linked with the conflicts and events of the period—names such as Hitler, Mussolini, Nanking, and Dachau. After a brief trip to Portugal to visit Christopher Isherwood and a much longer journey to Iceland with Louis MacNeice in 1936, Auden traveled to Spain in 1937, where he worked as an ambulance driver and propaganda broadcaster on the Republican side. In early 1938 he also traveled to China, which was engaged in a fierce war against the invading Japanese Imperial Army, where he saw, photographed, and recounted in verse and prose certain events of the war. Both trips occasioned major poems, “Spain” in the first case, and his sonnet sequence, “Sonnets from China,” in the second. Writing to his friend E. R. Dodds about the rationale for his dangerous trip to Spain, he announced the credo that gave direction to his travels for a time: “I am not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be directly political, but in a critical period such as ours, I do believe that the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events.”8 Beyond the publication of “Spain” as a pamphlet, the proceeds of which were donated to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (an international organization supporting the anti-Franco cause), Auden was silent about what he had seen during his time in that country. And by 1940 he began to reevaluate the credo he had so confidently expressed in his letter to Dodds, writing the following in a review of Alvah Bessie’s memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Men in Battle: “In the Munich crisis I listened to the radio with happy excitement, secretly hoping there would be a war, a hope for which I found excellent political reasons. This September, whenever I listened to the radio I started to cry. My attitude had changed because the personal problem which in 1938 was still unsolved and which in despair I was looking to world events to solve for me, was solved this year” (Prose 2:41).

In 1945 Auden returned to Germany, this time as a Bombing Research Analyst in the absurdly named Morale Division of the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey. His job was to interview German civilians about the effects of Allied bombing on their morale.9 About this morbid business Auden said little and wrote nothing. Despite an agreement he had made with his friend James Stern to write a book about the scenes of devastation they witnessed together, he kept his silence in both prose and poetry—and, so it seems, in personal conversations as well. It is as though the silence that unexpectedly descended upon him as he reflected on his experience in Spain grew more resolute in response to the catastrophes of the World War: “During these months,” Stern wrote, “we were continually together, under circumstances about which I was to write a book but of which Wystan in the years to come could very rarely be persuaded to speak. He did, however, while awaiting my arrival, write to Tania [Stern’s wife] in May 1945: ‘The work is very interesting but I am near crying sometimes. . . . The people . . . are sad beyond belief.’ The main purpose of this letter, I should add, was to ask Tania, whom Wystan had entrusted with power of attorney, to send a cheque for $100 to the sick wife of . . . a refugee who was in Dachau.”10

The silence that descended on Auden in conjunction with his work with the Morale Division of the Strategic Bombing Survey affected the basic character of his subsequent travels. He continued to undertake journeys, to be sure; yet none of their destinations could be readily described as the sites of “major political events” or, indeed, places where the word historical would generally apply, except of course in microhistorical terms. And this is at least in part because Auden had begun to alter his idea of history—not drastically, to be sure, but in subtle manner, as he further developed the lines of thought that led him to discover an event of the utmost importance in, for instance, the Investiture Controversy. Even a focus on an event of this kind, however, became suspect in his view, for the event could still be localized—in this case, localized in Pope Gregory VII’s cloister, which begins the “Post-Vergilian” section of “Memorial for the City”—but only because it opens up a crevice in social-political space in which two conflicting domains split apart a cloistered room, one associated with “home,” the other with “Rome.” As early as 1941, and in response to objections about his move to the United States at a “destitute time” for his British homeland, Auden rejected any suggestion that history belongs to a particular locale. In a letter to his friend Stephen Spender, he described a maturation of perspective that renders deliberate pursuits of so-called historical sites dubious at best, evil at worst; for the desire to see such sites suggests that they harbor a magical power of attraction: “You are too old a hand to believe that History has a local habitation any more” (MY, 76–77).

The desire to go to locations where History is happening is based on a paradoxical demand over which Auden gradually gained control: the locations were specific, but History (capital H) is general, and because History was the purpose of the journeys, the specificity of the places was reduced to variables in equations that were supposed to express the historical form of an era. Auden’s participation in the Morale Division of the Strategic Bombing Survey must have confirmed his growing doubts about the rationale for his trips to Spain and China—a rationale perhaps never more perfectly and thus more disgracefully expressed than in a remark he made to Christopher Isherwood eight years earlier when they were first contemplating their trip to China: “We’ll have a war all of our very own.”11 Auden came to reject the appalling foolishness of such pronouncements. It is one thing to say of Rosenstock-Huessy that he wants to keep his works for himself, but it is something altogether different to say this of a war. Even if the remark to Isherwood is accorded a generous interpretation and understood as nothing more than an expression of a desire to draw the attention of English-speaking audiences to the horrors of Imperial Japan’s aggression, it nevertheless operates with the presumption that such attention would confer a reciprocal benefit on them, the travelers whose discovery of a major historical event would be akin to discoveries in the natural sciences, as on a trip to the North Pole, for which credit can be claimed. This goes against the spirit of what draws Auden into the study of history. And he soon turns away from anything of the kind—so much so that no trace of either that tone or the underlying sentiment can be found in the writings that follow upon his demoralizing experience with the Morale Division.

The outstanding quality of “our native Muse” (CP 423), according to Caliban, is her universality, more precisely, her all-embracing non-exclusivity. She welcomes everyone and everything into her realm, which can be seen as both the particular theater in which the performance takes place and the globe at large. It soon becomes apparent, however, that in a certain sense, this muse to whom Caliban appeals insists on a principle of exclusivity, after all, for she radically separates herself from another power, a “rival” whom she refuses to call by her “real name” (CP 424), presumably because this name is somehow related to a reality that would immediately implode the space of the theater. “Our native Muse” understands the power of her “rival” as a mirror image of her own magic, for she is called “that envious witch,” and she is emphatically exclusionary: “not sympathizing, not associating, not amusing” (CP 424). As if he were seeking to extend the drama beyond its formal conclusion, Caliban thus suggests the possibility of a new conflict that would give rise to a spectacular sequel—a conflict, this time, between two muses, one of whom is specifically recognizable as a muse and makes everything amusing through the all-embracing magic of representation, while the other is not and does not.

Caliban, for his part, has a special position in relation to “our native Muse,” for, unlike everyone else in the recently completed play, he is native to the island represented on stage, and therefore, when he speaks of nativity in this context, the conflict gains a new degree of concretion: the audience’s muse may differ from his. Indeed, by turning to the audience at the end of the play, Caliban “himself” could be identified with this other power but for one restraining condition: his breach of the “fourth wall” may itself be nothing more than a theatrical gesture that sustains the audience in its own “native” state of amusement. Not only is it impossible to present this conflict of the muses as such, it cannot be resolved either through the victory of one over the other or with the establishment of some measure of balance. The two powers are too different from each other. Nevertheless, even as the conflict’s outcome remains uncertain, its origin is not. The conflict comes about only because Caliban, while native to the island, invokes “our native Muse” in echoing the unspoken thoughts of his audience. In other words, the experience of historical oppression is its origin, not the general condition of being a finite rational creature endowed with the capacity to represent things in speech.

Does all of this mean that the other muse-like power—the one whom Caliban, expressing the anxieties of his otherwise amused audience, refuses to identify by name—should be called “the muse of history”? This is the question around which this book revolves. If the title of this scholarly study were written in the interrogative mode, it might therefore be called Auden and the Muse of History? Soon after Auden’s death, Derek Walcott wrote an essay titled “The Muse of History.”27 Walcott does not punctuate his title with a question mark, yet its presence becomes legible as soon as he begins to discuss the figure of Caliban:

New World poets who see the “classic style” as stasis must see it also as historical degradation, rejecting it as the language of the master. This self-torture arises when the poet also sees history as language, when he limits his memory to the suffering of the victim. Their admirable wish to honor the degraded ancestor limits their language to phonetic pain, the groan of suffering, the curse of revenge. . . . Their view of Caliban is of the enraged pupil. They cannot separate the rage of Caliban from the beauty of his speech when the speeches of Caliban are equal in their elemental power to those of his tutor.28

An “elemental power” is trans-historical, and in some sense, Walcott argues strenuously in favor of the elemental over the historical—but only if “historical” is understood in such a way that it comes to restrict the possible range of language. Thus, in the conclusion to his essay, as he addresses his ancestors in their radical absence, he identifies the specific elements of that “idea of history” upon which he has cast doubt: “I say to the ancestor who sold me, and the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you whisper ‘history,’ for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive.”29

Auden’s situation is doubtless far different from Walcott’s, and yet the conclusion of “The Muse of History”—which makes some of their differences particularly apparent—captures precisely those elements of the idea of history that Auden finds equally dubious: history, first of all, as the justification of the status quo; history, furthermore, as the explanation in causal terms of why things are as they are; and history, finally, as the rectification of errors or the expiation of sins in accordance with a process that must always be repeated, as each attempt at rectification or expiation generates the need and demand for another. The question, then, is whether there is an idea of history that has nothing to do with justification, explanation, rectification, or expiation. The answer from the perspective of the poems and prose texts analyzed in this volume is: “yes, there is such an idea, and indeed more than one.” These ideas emerge from the conflicts presented in the texts, each of which is akin to the conflict Caliban begins to represent when he speaks of “our native Muse” and the members of his audience begin to suspect that the muse of which he speaks may be different from one whom they represent to themselves.


1. An exemplary form of a condition that must be changed, as Auden notes in an essay from the 1940s titled “Mimesis and Allegory,” can be found among sharecroppers in the American South, Black workers who are systematically denied what justice demands (Prose 2:85). That he is attentive to an especially oppressive mode of production like sharecropping demonstrates a certain continuity with Marxism; that this mode of production plays at most a marginal role in formulations of revolutionary change among then-current forms of Marxism indicates a degree of distance from his earlier commitment. And his reference to the condition signaled by the term “sharecropping” brings the perplexity of his own situation as a poet to a boiling point. He can identify the value of a scientific inquiry into sharecropping—it is proportionate to “its power to change conditions”—and the aesthetic value of a book about sharecropping—proportionate to “its power to help sharecroppers endure with understanding these conditions until they are changed” (Prose 2:85)—but he immediately adds a caveat that suggests that endurance-with-added-understanding is not enough: “Naturally enough, these two values often do not coincide” (Prose 2:85).

2. See the remarks about Harold Laski at the beginning of Chapter 3.

3. The canonical place in Marx’s writings where the topicality of history comes under discussion is the opening section of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963).

4. See especially Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It,” trans. John and Anne Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20 (1993): 10–35.

5. Undated letter (except for the single word “Tuesday”) to Elizabeth Mayer (Manuscript box: To Goethe: a complaint. Typescript draft of poem n.d. With his: 69 ALS [autographed letter signed], etc. to Elizabeth Mayer [Berg Collection, New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts]).

6. For further elucidation of Auden’s ambivalence about Toynbee, see Carolyn Steedman’s Poetry for Historians; or, Auden and History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), 164–67. Steedman’s study has a wealth of information on Auden’s relation to a variety of historians, as well as reflections on the value of Auden’s work for historiographical research.

7. See the opening paragraph of Auden’s review of Arendt (Prose 4:184), which I discuss extensively in Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb, Regions of Sorrow: Anxiety and Messianism in Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

8. Quoted in Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 207.

9. For a detailed analysis of the operations of the Morale Division, including its questionnaire, see Claire Seiler, Midcentury Suspension: Literature and Feeling in the Wake of World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 104–10.

10. James Stern, “The Indispensable Presence,” in Auden: A Tribute (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), 126. For a copy of the letter, see W. H. Auden, “In Solitude for Company”: W. H. Auden after 1940 (Auden Studies 3), ed. Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 94.

11. Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind: A Memoir, 1929–1939 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 289.