John Dickinson is the son of the writer Peter Dickinson. He spent 17 years in the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office and NATO before becoming a writer himself. His published works include The Cup of the World, a fantasy with two sequels, The Lightstep, a historical novel set in Germany during the French Revolution, and WE, a dystopian science fiction story set on a frozen moon at the very edge of the solar system. John is currently writing some humourous little books about angels and devils and schoolchildren. His website and blog are here. In this post he discusses W.H. Auden's The Orators.
John Dickinson on The Orators by W.H. Auden
My daughter is studying narrative poetry as part of the A Level English Literature course. This is good news. The bad news (for her) is that they've picked some poems that her father likes. Of course father knows that he should leave alone and let teacher and daughter get on with it, but somehow he can't. So he goes striding up and down the kitchen spouting bits of Tennyson while daughter cringes and covers her face with her hands. This sort of thing does happen in our house.
Included on the syllabus are two poems from Auden's 1930s work The Orators. I have to say my jaw dropped when I saw them on the list. They're teaching that to A Level students these days? I'd heard they were dumbing down these exams, but maybe that was a myth. There's nothing dumb about Auden. And The Orators is...
Well, it's hard to say quite what it is, really.
It's part prose, part poetry. But some of the prose is still poetry when you look at it closely. Other parts are in the form of a journal, which breaks into verse now and again and also includes diagrams. The central theme (according to Auden himself) is the failure of a heroic figure. Auden also said, at various times, that he was very dissatisfied with the work, that he couldn't recognize himself as the writer and that it was far too obscure. Critics and scholars have had a lot of fun unearthing the different influences in it. And there seem to be many: the rise of Fascism, the malaise of England, Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Auden's own circle of friends and the Anglo-Saxon Book of Exeter. Each critic or scholar puts their own spin on the significance of what they find. But they can all agree on one thing. It is obscure.
It's a scrapbook of individual pieces, each beautifully written, but the flow of story from one to the next barely exists. The opening is a speech given to a school prize day. 'What do you think about England,' the speaker asks, 'this country of ours where nobody is well?' By the end of the address, and with only the slightest change in the speaker's voice, the schoolboys have become a lynch mob and men are being murdered.
It moves through passages so cryptic that they are like dreams, offering glimpses of the hero but no explanations. There is a letter written in the privacy of a quiet room, not to another person but to a secret wound. There is the journal of the hero himself, known only as 'the airman', who is struggling against a hidden enemy and his own shameful weakness. He turns to suicide as a cure for both. After that there's a sequence of six odes, some of which seem to recall Auden's own experiences as a schoolmaster. The last of these opens with a prayer:
further do prolong
Our necessary defeat;
Spare us the numbing zero hour,
The desert-long retreat...
And the Epilogue – a famous little poem – speaks of people departing into danger, their fate only a little less certain than that of the fearful ones they leave behind.
In politics and philosophy, The Orators is past its sell-by date. England's defeat was not necessary and it did not happen. The things Auden loathed in Fascism did not prevail. And every generation can interpret Freud and Lawrence according to their need. What, then, is there to love in a piece that is so much less than the sum of its parts? Because I do love it, in a bewildered sort of way. It does things to me that I want to put into books. But the feelings it evokes are elusive. The spirit is too hard for me to capture.
The very obscurity of it is fascinating. It's like a bit of Nostradamus. You sense there is a meaning, but it's just beyond your grasp. Or you can see exactly what the lines are saying - they have a fevered clarity - but still they leave you puzzled. 'Far too many monks in Sinclair Street.' Why is that a bad thing? Because it clearly is bad. Are the monks the enemy in disguise, or is the writer slipping into madness? Both could be true.
The words are rhythmic, the images dream-like. 'The face lit up by the booking-clerk's window.' That's all you get of that scene - one, fleeting impression. Who did he see, on some railway platform at night - friend, enemy or stranger? What did it mean? You aren't told, and maybe the writer himself does not know. Lines jump out at you in paranoid whispers. 'Candidates must write on three sides of the paper.' Long after you have put the book down they remain, a succession of mental pictures, a powerful voice speaking of sickness and doom.
Summon. And there passed such cursing his father, and the curse was given him.
Indeed. It was my father who introduced me to Auden, as it happens. I do not curse him for that. (Though my daughter may think differently of hers.)
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]