BEGAN Charles Miller's Auden: An American Friendship expecting the worst: probably someone trying belatedly to cash in on a slight acquaintance with Auden, I thought, and very likely making dubious "revelations." I am delighted to report that Miller is not like that at all. He takes great pains to get his facts right and to supplement his recollections by checking with others, and he is fully appreciative of all Auden's virtues. He is not blind to Auden's faults, but does not exaggerate them; his aim is not to make sensational disclosures, but to paint a true portrait. Most important, he has something unique to contribute: an account in real depth of the period when he lived with Auden in daily intimacy and of their occasional meetings during the next 30 years, in a relationship marked by affection and respect on both sides.
Miller was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan when Auden came there to lecture in 1940. A midwestern farm boy, he was an aspiring writer and a great admirer of Auden's poetry. He was also an accomplished cook, and when Auden returned to spend the academic year 1941-42 in Ann Arbor, he invited Miller to live in his house in return for doing the cooking:
" 'Now, Charles, you must know that I'm a homosexual!' he announced sternly, biting his lower lip, giving me a severe glance. 'Hmmm, I dare say you don't know much about homosexuality, for most Americans don't. You may suppose you're not safe around me? Aa-aa-act-ual-lee, I've been in love with just one man for several years, and I don't want to go to bed with any other person. Here! Let me lend you this Freud volume on aberrations. Freud points out, correctly, that a homosexual may be normal in nearly every way, except the sexual. I-I-I, uh, am not interested in you sexually! And I am normal in most ways, as you've no doubt noticed.' "
The arrangement lasted for only four months; after Pearl Harbor and Christmas vacation Miller went to live on a farm in accord with his pacifist convictions, and thereafter saw Auden only on his occasional visits to town. About half of his book deals with 1941-2, the rest with subsequent occasional meetings over the next three decades. Though Miller is no Boswell--who is?--he resembles him in two important respects: both make maximum use of what was actually a rather short time of intimacy with their subjects, and both excel in reporting their subject's conversation--not merely recording it, but artfully setting the stage and identifying the characters, giving context and background. (Like Boswell, Miller kept a journal at the time.)
Within its self-imposed limits, Miller's portrait of Auden seems to me perhaps the best we have so far. Isherwood, Spender, and many others knew him vastly better than Miller, of course, and many of them have written invaluable pieces about him. But these are snapshots, not portraits extended through time. Auden's two biographers so far (Charles Osborne and Humphrey Carpenter) seem curiously superficial, however much they may reveal about his homosexuality. But Miller was a dedicated writer (though, he says, a failed one) and a man of conviction (though as pacifist, vegetarian, and anarchist, he held beliefs very different from Auden's). Perhaps because they were so utterly different in background, temperament, and beliefs, while sharing this common ground, Auden seems to have talked to him on a deeper level than to most people over the years. Miller sounds a little naive at times, but his candor and freshness are a relief from knowing preconceptions about Auden.
If I followed Auden's precept that reviewing bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character, I would not review Edward Callan's Auden: A Carnival of Intellect. But, though I am afraid Auden is right morally, I don't share his belief in the infallibility of natural selection in the book world. Furthermore, the chief interest of reviewing arises from the fact that no book is every wholly good or wholly bad; the reviewer's concern is, or should be, to discriminate between the two in every book, not to deal in absolutes. And a book may be bad as well as good in ways that are interesting and instructive. Though Callan's book seems to me to be bad, it is by no means without its virtues and uses; and hence I am willing to risk moral corruption by discussing it briefly.
Callan undertakes to survey Auden's whole career--which, he carefully specifies, lasted exactly 50 years and resulted in 30,000 lines of verse as against Yeats' 14,000 and Eliot's 5,500--in some 299 pages. He professes to be selective, but in fact has something to say about most of Auden's writings, with emphasis on ideas and beliefs. The danger in such an approach is superficiality, and Callan does not escape it. The selectivity is so lacking in rigor that he can summarize for us Auden's father's letters to The Times (of London), with annotations, and offer an utterly irrelevant explanation of just what Yeats' Steinach operation was. Introducing a quotation from Sir Christopher Wren, he says: "Wren, in answer to whose questions on aesthetic form Newton wrote the Principia, set out an eighteenth-century credo in Parentalia." In the first place, Parentalia is not a work by Sir Christopher Wren, but a collection of manuscripts by and documents about him and other members of the Wren family made by his son (hence the name) and published by his grandson. In the second place, historians of science will be interested to learn that they have been wrong in thinking that Halley, whose inquiries were not esthetic, had the chief role in provoking Newton's great work. One is irrestibly reminded of Housman's scholar "who, when he has acquired a scrap of misinformation, cannot rest until he has imparted it." Similarly intrusive and gratuitous comments are, for example, saying that the Airman's enemy in The Orators is "philistine middle-class society whose homes have names like 'The Hollies' or 'The Mimosa' as Auden's first home in Birmingham did: 'Apsley House'," and, speaking of the invocations to inns and pubs in the same work, "The George in the final invocation could be either an inn or a king."
Callan describes his book's central theme as "Auden's fear of the dangers of our intellectual inheritance from Romanticism both in politics and literature, and his rejection of its one-sided Platonist presuppositions in favor of a Christian regard for the unity and coherence of nature and spirit." Its focal point, he says, is the chapter called "Disenchantment with Yeats: From Singing-Master to Ogre." The theme itself seems to me to be a good one, though it is oversimplified and pounded home relentlessly; and it is certainly true also that Auden renounced Yeats as a model in poetry. But to identify Yeats as straw-man Romantic, Gnostic, esthete, crypto-fascist, domestic tyrant, and hence as the figure behind Auden's references to any of these matters, seems to me a gross distortion of Yeats himself and of Auden's opinion of him. The chief evidence for Auden's having come to regard Yeats as an ogre is the opera Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), in which the "artist-genius" Mittenhofer, according to Callan, stands for Yeats. But he assumes it rather than proving it: after stating that the opera "satirizes Yeats and his entourage" and that it "was Yeats who provided the chief model for Mittenhofer," he qualifies his assumption by saying that Auden himself "in his earlier Byronic phase is the butt of his own satire" in the opera, "as to some degree Wagner and Ibsen are also; but Yeats seems to be the primary target." No doubt Yeats was one of the figures Auden had in mind; but to argue that he was the sole or primary target, in the face of examples like Wagner and Goethe, seems to me absurd. (Callan's case is not strengthened by his argument that Mittenhofer's entourage correspond to Lady Gregory, Caroline Newton, and Oliver St. John Gogarty!) Auden, in fact, never ceased to praise Yeats; as late as 1948, in an essay often reprinted, he proposed "Yeats as an Example" for the modern poet and did full justice to the greatness both of his poetry and of his influence. He said later of Yeats that "through no fault of his, he has become for me a symbol of my own devil of unauthenticity"; but this is very different from ascribing to him the role of ogre.
Callan's title, linking together Carnival and Intellect, seems at first appropriate in suggesting two of the main attractions of Auden's poetry. But Carnival, as Auden defined it, is only one of the three aspects of life, the others being Work and Prayer; its mark is belly laughter, "not to be confused with the superior titter of the intellect." Auden also remarks that, being unable to enjoy crowds and loud noises, he can't stand carnival in the traditional sense. The title does not, then, seem very meaningful as a description of his work.
Lest I be tempted to further moral degeneration, I will say no more of the book's deficiencies. Callan is better than any other commentator on the geography and topography of Auden's poems; every place-name is explained. His book contains some new and relevant information and some useful comments.