While Partisan Review published poems and stories that belong to the 1930s poetic archive as modernist explorations and ones that aimed to present ‘proletarianised’ poetics of everyday lives of oppression, the most searching and lyrically polemical texts were written by the Auden circle in England. These poems, however were not particularly ‘proletarian,’ not entirely Modernist, and only a few of its circle were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The group was comprised of Louis McNiece (1907-1963), C. Day Lewis(1904- 1972) Steven Spender(1905-1999), and, as Fred Dupee writes in his evaluation of the ‘English Literary Left,’ (Partisan Review, Vol. V, No.3, August-September, 1938), “In the centre of the Auden circle, looking both ways, is W.H. Auden(1907-1973) himself.”
They were all men who had been educated at Oxford and they were all linked one way or another, to the Communist Party, some through friendships made at University, some as fellow-travelers; they floated in a literary community of poetry, politics, and cultural privilege. McNeice, for example, had a long friendship with Anthony Blunt, one of the “Cambridge Spies” who had long been Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.
This was no clique of CCNY or Columbia Jewish students.
But then, our essayist, F.W. Dupee wasn’t either Jewish or working class — born in Chicago, both he and his father had been graduates of Yale, where he became friends with Dwight Macdonald, and then found his way as a bohemian, writing, travelling in Mexico, and arriving in New York, to re-start his literary life with Macdonald, where they had founded a short-lived magazine, The Miscellany. Along the way, he grew closer to the left, as so many did in 1930s New York, London, San Franscisco….and he joined the CPUSA in the mid-1930s, becoming an organiser for the Longshoreman’s Union. He began writing for The New Masses, but when the Moscow Trials started in 1937, Dupee moved to the Trotskyist Left and soon became an Editor of Partisan Review.
SO what does Dupee do with the “Literary Left” in his essay on the Auden Circle? Well, his argument is dialectical, or maybe its simply divided — the Auden people are very good poets — and they have the distinction or the curse of emerging from an underlying literary tradition “that was aristocratic; it was, moreover, still comparatively vigorous. And the young English poets glanced back towards that tradition as often as they looked ahead towards any other.”
There is certainly a lot of that in Auden, and his nativism is marked as well. But when you look at poems where Auden borrows most from native tradition — in particular, the ballad stanza — he uses its phatic functions of repetition and rhyme to make them appear distorted because they are concrete and particular; it’s impossible to avoid the poem’s contemporary redesign as a new architecture: here is an example from “As I walked out one evening…..”
……‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
Dupee is proud that American left-wing literature is cleaner and more honest that that of the Auden circle, more ‘proletarianised’: “Politically [the Auden circle] falls short of the specifications for a leftwing group, and in a literary sense they tend to exceed [the Americans]. In fact, the CPUSA, Dupee claims, had a clear field ahead for planting an American proletarian literature, because “it was working in a cultural vacuum.”
There wasn’t a significant Modernist movement in England, Dupee argues, though there were certainly plenty of fascist enthusiasms in the world of art and literature. It was Left-wing Modernism that England didn’t have to hand; and that meant the 1930s was only partially fuelled by exploratory modernism. So, he writes,
“With its shifting points of view and its incredible contradictions, the world of the New Poetry seems a veritable fantasia of modern art and ideology. In addition to the task of erecting on English soil the technical machinery of modernist literature, it has had the mission of enlightening benighted Britain on sex.”
Really? I’m not convinced that that task has succeeded and its 2017 now, though Freudian mythic method still operates here. Bloomsbury’s affair with Freud has long been blended on the Left with Marxism, and Dupee argues that:
“In England, the belated reformers were faced, not only with a neurotic family life, but with a prostrated society. Hence they could not be satisfied to derive from the new psychology not merely a literary program and a bohemian ethic. The Freudian perspective was raised to a social gospel, sometimes competing with the historical perspective of Marxism, but more often simply melting into it.”
This was true again in the 1970s and 1980s, when British intellectuals thought the problem facing Marxism was how to negotiate between psychoanalysis and historical materialism. Here in the 21st century, the problem is vestigial, and is left mostly to literary critics, while Leftists have recovered the position that the problem facing Marxism is how to get rid of capitalism.
Dupee’s analysis of Stephen Spender’s CP poetics makes him a bourgeois liberal linked to Fabian socialism: “The social democracy on which the older Fabians had leaned was now discredited; the new Fabians discovered the Comintern. And at the same time, of course, the Comintern began to seek out the Fabians [AJ: the program of popular frontism, etc.] English reformism thus acquired what it had badly needed; the tradition of a successful revolution; and Stalinism possessed itself of a respectable facade for its adventures in class collaboration. For Spender the emergency manoeuvres of the Soviet foreign office became the norms of socialist action; the People’s Front of Spain and France he accepted as full-fledged socialist governments; and the injustices, the tyrannies, the crimes of the Soviet regime were put down as misdemeanours which the new ‘democratic constitution’ would correct.”
So Spender is a Stalinist, and next to go will be Auden: Dupee characterises his contemporary Auden as a man who has retreated into the psychologism of his fellow-poets, into individualism, and who responds by making a new image — the Healer — which Dupee tells us was a symbol given to him by two German psychiatrists. ” In any case, the Healer is a kind of psychiatric saint or redeemer.”
“It is hardly necessary to point out that the militant period of Auden and Spender corresponded to the years of hope and struggle in the revolutionary movement itself. But as the movement deteriorated, sowing reformist manoeuvres and reaping disasters, so there emerged once more that vast vague Atlantis of idealist illusion on which, so long as it is visible, the intelligentsia will set their hopes.”
As I keep saying, its that summer of 1938…and things are going to get worse.