The Amity of Influence
The Amity of Influence
“I cannot write objectively about Thomas Hardy because I was once in love with him.” So begins an essay (1940) by W.H. Auden about the first and most enduring influence on his poetry. Among poets who joined that chain of affection was Rachel Wetzsteon, who, in turn, loved Auden.
Wetzsteon gratefully acknowledged Auden’s influence on the subjects and techniques of her poetry. Moreover, she admired Auden’s role as poet and a public intellectual. Yet she did so with a full awareness of the dissonance between the private person Auden and his strategies of persona and occasion.
Auden pointedly says, after all, that he was “once” in love with Hardy, as if his audience breathlessly awaited the latest developments in the affair. Perhaps Auden even winks about whether an “objective” essay about a fellow poet would, or should, be possible. Neither Wetzsteon nor Auden accepted unexamined sentiment or language.
One more general familial tie between Auden and Wetzsteon needs mention before we turn to Influential Ghosts, her book about Auden’s sources and longest scholarly work. Auden’s transformations—away from the political Left and as a poet, playwright, librettist, essayist, and from British to American citizen—were in accord with his antipathy to generalizations, if not all dogma. And his habit of testing ideas about art, persons and politics against intimate understanding of individual artworks, piercing observation of people and skeptical analysis of events, was of a piece with his resistance to lingering in “clubs.”
Wetzsteon's discomfort with orthodoxies led her to challenge the assumptions of some poststructuralist criticism that coins terms and constructs an initiatory and exclusionary code. When Wetzsteon wrote for specialists or for The Village Voice she did so in a jargon-free style similar to that which Auden adopted in literary journalism.
Once More with Feeling
Several scholars have detailed Auden’s affinities with Hardy in exhaustive detail, paying closest attention to obvious parallels between the poets in topics, country settings, verse forms, and diction in Auden’s juvenilia.
Wetzsteon’s contribution to that discussion identifies a deeper lifelong engagement with Hardy in Auden’s poetry. She counts the disagreements between the writers as well as their commonalities as a bond. (To oversimplify, she finds Auden much less dour, pessimistic, bitter about country life and deterministic than Hardy.) Beyond that, her account of Auden’s later shift from love to partial rejection of Hardy leads her to a broader point about poetic influence and allusion that is applicable to many poets. Wetzsteon rejects elements of the theory of the “anxiety of influence,” and its suppositions about relationships between poets:
. . . whereby an ambitious poet wages a lifelong battle against an overwhelming predecessor. But I hope to show that Auden’s ongoing dialogue with Hardy was hardly a battle, and that their relationship serves as a healthy corrective to critics who tell the story of poetic influence as one of bitter rivalry and helpless, involuntary servitude. (IG, 3)
The majority of her chapter about Hardy’s influence illuminates Auden’s borrowings of, commentary upon, and eventual disaffection with a key technique in Hardy—the use of a “hawk’s view.” That technique is to assume a godlike distant perspective on humanity that seduces with all-encompassing grandeur but distorts vision by blurring individual persons and circumstances. Wetzsteon’s requisite attention to particular poems somewhat obscures her larger objection to Bloom’s theory of fraught, jealous, and patricidal rage when young usurpers attack titans.
But we may extract and highlight her case. Most notably, Wetzsteon conceives “influence” and “allusion” generously and broadly. Auden, in essence, took a whole perspective and method of thought from Hardy, not simply verse forms, topics, and language.
A second key insight is that the adoption of the formal technique of a predecessor may be honorific, hostile, parodic, neutral, or something else entirely. But nonetheless, reusing an earlier form presupposes a degree of intimacy and requires long acquaintance that the “anxiety” model does not account for well. Wetzsteon’s even-handedness about what she calls “structural” (large-scale formal) allusion, and the assumption that disagreement yokes poets as forcefully as it creates a rupture between them, is an elemental but rarely made observation.
Put in other terms, Wetzsteon does not focus on poetic “debt” or “originality,” a myth of origins, obligations or revolt. Her conception of influence centers on the employment and redeployment of a “gift,” followed by “re-gifting” for different purposes and audiences. Consequently the continuities and affection within the poetic tribe are not treated sentimentally, but they are not misread, strongly or otherwise, as death-matches preceding scorched earth.
Such an approach acknowledges contestation between poets. Wetzsteon grants that there are occasions that fit the “anxiety” model, which was also immensely valuable in reinvigorating debate about allusion and influence. If we turn directly to Wetzsteon’s less melodramatic and expansive analysis as it applies to Auden and Hardy, we’ll come even closer to her main concerns.
The Binds That Tie
For a teenage poet whose first poetic efforts often treat the question of feeling like and genuinely being a poet, what more seductive vantage point than to soar above everyday roles, categories, and fears? Even when writing from a distance of decades, and long after establishing himself as a major poet, Auden explained why he admired Hardy’s ability to look down from afar. He admired the capacity to:
. . . see the individual life from a very great height [as in] the opening chapter of The Return of the Native . . . [and] relate [individual life] not only to the local social life of its time but to the whole of human history, life on the earth, the stars, [which] gives one both humility and self-confidence.” (Auden, Prose 46-7)
Wetzsteon cites a well-known example of such vision put to excellent use in the poem “Consider” which begins:
Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly—look there
At the cigarette-end smoldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year. (CP, 61-2)
The hawk’s perspective, Wetzsteon writes, is “hardly a convenience to take us from one sterile scene to another” but “something that will provide people with a literal overview of their country’s problems and galvanize them into finding solutions.” (IG, 19)
Hardy’s godlike perspective is a means through which Auden can oversee social life, planted fields, combs, and even public-school episodes in which “they gave prizes to the ruined boys” who will soon face killing and death in war. “Consider” proposes that the comfortable guests at the garden party have no escape from the intruding carnage, but must face either an “explosion into mania” or lapse “forever into a classic fatigue.” (CP, 61-2)
Too Far for Comfort
But Auden, Wetzsteon finds, soon came to “explore the various drawbacks and possibilities” of distancing oneself from intimate understanding of individuals to attend to epic problems. Just as inheritance from poet to poet is more complex than a simple passing on, a godlike hawk’s perspective on family life could be “terribly reductive, escapist and misleading.” (IG 19).
In Hardy’s depressing poem “Heredity,” he describes “the family face.” Regardless of the deeper qualities of the wearer of this inherited mask, there will be no better face to meet the faces that it must meet. The hereditary face represents the “eternal thing in man, /That heeds no call to die” (Hardy, 434). For Wetzsteon, the most galling thing to Auden in the poem must have been that the reified faces lingered into “subsequent generations, preventing both choice and change.” Her estimation is that Auden’s later poetry offers visions of choice and change as its chief gift to readers. (IG, 29)
After admiring and imitating Hardy’s magisterial perspective for some time, Auden came to see the need for assurance and certainty that the hawk’s vision represented as a common human longing—but a kind of vision that was as likely to deceive as it was to reveal. This was also conveyed in Auden’s play Paid on Both Sides, in which “ancestral conflict between two families ends with a hopeful prophecy” that someday there will be peace and progeny free of the prejudices and enmity of the ancestors. To return to the poetry, in “Family Ghosts,” Auden wrote, “This longing for assurance takes the form/ Of a vertical stooping from the sky.” (CP, 47)
In his poems of the 50s and 60s, Auden introduced imagery of cameras, telescopes and the moon “as a sort of hawk stand-in . . . with which he can both allude to a superhuman perspective and call it into question.” (IG, 24) After the first moonwalk, a pivotal moment in the arms and space race, Auden found that the ancient poetic symbol of madness, distance and mutability was compromised, if not tamed, by its surrender to technology.
“Ode to Gaea” (1954) still “hails this new culture of the air” and admits that “the spell of high places will haunt us/ long after our jaunt has declined” (CP, 423-5) but Auden “fills the poem with instructions about what lowly earthbound people must do: cultivate good manners, preserve order, and perform other terrestrial functions.” “Homage to Clio”, written a year later, “constitutes a powerful critique of the hawk’s vision: Clio, ever attentive to life’s particulars, cares for one person at a time,” and Auden casts Clio as “nursing a baby or mourning a corpse.” (IG, 27) Even the Muse of history prefers an intimate connection to human beginnings and ends to a remote view of the process of change.
Amity and Truce
In tracing the adaptation and revision that Auden made of a whole perspective and idea from Hardy, Wetzsteon makes a strong case that the later poet treated the technique of the long-view, the panoramic camera sequence, as a means to very different ends. But her discussion is characteristically thorough about exceptions to and limitations of her argument. She notes “in several poems written during the thirties [Auden] treats a superhuman perspective as neither a helpful thing (as in ‘Consider’) nor a destructive one (as in ‘Summer Night’), but simply another way of viewing and describing the world.” In particular, Wetzsteon cites “Dover,” in which both a distant moon and soaring airplanes make appearances and “serve the function of dwarfing human beings without actually judging them.” (IG, 21)
Broad Consequence, Intimate View
The enduring relationship between these two poets lays the ground for Wetztsteon’s full discussion of “structural allusion” later in a brilliant chapter on Auden’s wholesale appropriation of poetic forms to his own ends. Her insights include a delightful discussion of how Auden turned the sometimes inert, sometimes frenzied emotions of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” to fit his own conclusions in “Get There If You Can.” (EA, 48)
Stealing Tennyson’s octameter couplets, Auden substitutes sound advice to stay home and face reality for the “nostalgic stupor” of Tennyson’s speaker and his “ill-advised fantasies of an idealized home and escape.” Wetzsteon suggests that Auden’s poem, in a verse form that evokes the past, enacts by its very structure and decision to redress the past a kind of answer to the problems of decline and betrayal that torment Tennyson’s speaker. She writes that Auden’s poem demonstrates as well as argues that “One changes history and poetry . . .by working subtly and craftily within their rules, not welcoming them uncritically or perilously bidding them farewell.” (IG, 41) T
The independence and confidence Auden showed in such thefts enabled him to affect a dramatic reformulation of praise and mourning in the tradition of British elegy. Similarly, Auden could take anguish over faith, and the concepts of Dread and Absurdity from Kierkegaard. Yet, just as he had rejected the obsession with doom in Hardy, Auden could use those very terms to offer a poetic enactment of his own more optimistic conception of faith. Those topics—the interconnected conventions of elegy and faith—are adeptly discussed in two separate chapters of Influential Ghosts.
If Wetzsteon’s respect for the varied purposes to which technical and intellectual gifts can be applied sounds politically conservative in an age of hawk-eyed theory, so much the worse. For the confidence to reverse deeply held loyalties after long and careful thought, which Auden abundantly possessed, is a much more radical move than to challenge the past or its masters with anxiety or fury as the impetus.
Wetzsteon’s scholarship, which enacts respect and affection, assumes the same qualities in the relationship between poets. She shifts discussion of allusion and influence from patricide to mentorship, from sanguinary patricide to postmodern professionalism. In that spirit she might give a younger scholar, Aidan Wasley, whom she quoted approvingly in Influential Ghosts, the last word. She agreed with Wasley that originality is “achieved not through the agonistic sublimation and overthrow of influences, but through the conscious and professional acknowledgment, deployment, and utilization of them.” (IG, xiv)
Auden, W. H., Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, (New York: Vintage). 1991.
___________, English Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson, (London: Faber). 1978.
____________, Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, (Vol. 1) in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 1996.
Hardy, Thomas, The Complete Poems, ed. James Gibson, (New York: Macmillan). 1982.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord, Tennyson: A Selected Edition. ed. Christopher Ricks, (Berkeley: University of California Press). 1989.
Wasley, Aidan R. “Postmodern American Poetry and the Legacy of Auden,” Yale University dissertation, 2000.
Wetzsteon, Rachel, Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden’s Sources. (London and New York: Routledge). 2007.