Friday, February 17, 2006
Auden and China
My post on Auden last week generated some challenging comments, which provoked me to look a little more closely at the poems Auden wrote after his trip to China.
My goal isn’t to support my original position on irony and ethical concern, though I still think the word “irony” is appropriate to “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” Rather, here I’d like to consider the sonnets for what they are, and offer some tentative readings.
The Sonnets from China were originally included in the book Journey to a War, which was also a prose narrative mostly authored by Auden’s traveling companion, Christopher Isherwood.
[Incidentally, though this was clearly an important period for him personally and as a writer, Auden apparently didn’t love the traveling all that much. Auden’s recent biographer, John Fuller, has the following quote from Auden’s diary from the trip:
This voyage is our illness: as the long days pass, we grow peevish, apathetic, sullen; we no longer expect, or even wish to recover. Only at moments, when a dolphin leaps or the big real birds from sunken Africa veer round our squat white funnels, we sigh and wince, our bodies gripped by the exquisitely painful pangs of hope. Maybe, after all, we are going to get well.
Motion sickness: a great metaphor for a certain kind of traveler’s despair. One could even extend it further, and say that perhaps it’s not just the voyage, but the traveler him or herself that is the “illness.” One gets over the nausea of dislocation when motion finally stops.]
On to the sonnets, which are, as a group, rather tough going. The strongest individual poems in terms of unity of theme and coherence are the first and last, and neither of the two are directly about China. Indeed, it seems quite possible to read them as more about Auden himself than about the place he had visited. Take Sonnet I:
So from the years their gifts were showered: each
Grabbed at the one it needed to survive;
Bee took the politics that suit a hive,
Trout finned as trout, peach moulded into peach,
And were successful at their first endeavour.
The hour of birth their only time in college,
They were content with their precocious knowledge,
To know their station and be right for ever.
Till, finally, there came a childish creature
On whom the years could model any feature,
Fake, as chance fell, as leopard or a dove,
Who by the gentlest wind was rudely shaken,
Who looked for truth but always was mistaken,
And envied his few friends, and chose his love.
The slightly clueless, shifty character at the center of this poem recurs in the first ten or so sonnets. He begins as above—a person who is always slightly off as regards his place in society. I read these lines as autobiographical and for the most part self-deprecating, though there is a glint of Auden’s pride in the gentle phrasing of the last line: “And envied his few friends, and chose his love.” There is perhaps also some pride in being shifty and a little bit awkward in the worlds of business and politics—where everyone knows their “station.” He grows older as the sonnet sequence progresses, becoming depressed and less lovable (Sonnet V: “unwanted/ Grown seedy, paunchy, pouchy, disappointed,/ He took to drink to screw his nerves to muder"), before finally achieving a kind of regeneration with a seemingly symbolic boy-figure (in Sonnet IX).
The China context, hinted at in Sonnet X, only really comes to the fore in Sonnet XI, which also seems to come closest to a kind of Orientalism of the poems in this set. In the vein of many other Auden poems responding to War from the late 1930s, Sonnet XI is a strong injunction to joy and love against the gathering darkness of militarization. Here are the final lines of that sonnet:
History opposes its grief to our buoyant song,
To our hope its warning. One star has warmed to birth
One puzzled species that has yet to prove its worth:
The quick new West is false, and prodigious but wrong
The flower-like Hundred Families who for so long
In the Eighteen Provinces have modified the earth.
The last two lines clearly refer to China (on “Eighteen Provinces,” see Wikipedia, and skip down to “The Term in Chinese”; “Hundred Families” refers, I believe to a medieval Chinese text called The Surnames of a Hundred Families). But theme of venerable Chinese tradition and “the quick new West” is fleeting; I don’t see it recur in the other poems, most of which focus more on the ambivalence of the British presence in China. See, for instance, the opening lines of Sonnet XVI:
Our global story is not yet completed,
Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on,
But, as narrators find their memory gone,
Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated.
Who exactly Auden is referring to when he says “our”? The most obvious first reading is the English nation, but subsequent lines in the poem raise the possibility that he means specifically the overseas British, such as he encountered in the British colony of Hong Kong. As the poem progresses, “we” becomes “they,” whose vision of the world has been rendered obsolete:
their doom to bear
Love for some far fobidden country, see
A native disapprove them with a stare
And Freedom’s back in every door and tree.
“Freedom’s back” is another phrase to puzzle over. A postcolonial reading might focus on the frontal aggression of the stare with which the Englishman is met by the resistant native. But freedom (presumably of the native?) is something he can’t quite access: it turns its back to him, and happens definitionally, outside of his purview.
(There is also a possible gay subtext here: disapproval might also refer to the attitude towards homosexuality he encountered—and I’ll leave the queer implications of “freedom’s back in every door and tree” to the reader’s imagination.)
Several of the more China-themed sonnets invoke war and tragedy, but only Sonnet XII specifically alludes to genocide: “For we have seen a myriad faces/ Ecstatic from one lie/ And maps can really point to places/ Where life is evil now./ Nanking. Dachau.” Note Auden’s invocation of the “lie” of political orthodoxies, as contrasted to the truths of modern war represented by “Nanking” and “Dachau.”
Though there are some memorable lines in these poems, I can’t say that I find a coherent argument to Auden’s Sonnets from China. The sympathy for the Chinese victims of the Sino-Japanese War is real, but hardly central thematically. A general tone of mourning and loss of place prevails, but it’s hard to say whether that loss is Auden’s personal alienation from English life, or a more generalized expression of political dislocation (linked to both British colonialism and its imminent entry into a new world War). It’s quite possibly both.
Auden ends the sequence with a move towards Edwardian Liberalism and E.M. Forster: “Yes, we are Lucy, Turton, Philip: we/ Wish international evil, are delighted/ To join the jolly ranks of the benighted/ Where resason is denied and love ignored.” (Incidentally, John Fuller, in his 2000 book on Auden, argues that Auden probably meant “intentional,” not “international” evil—following a line in Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread—and that this may have been an error of the compositor.) Against loveless spite Auden posits an ethos of human decency, personal intimacy, and friendship. But if that is Auden’s point, one wonders about the real value to us of these sonnets today; perhaps he said it better elsewhere?
Further reading: One scholar who has been working quite a bit on Auden’s experiences in China as well as the China sonnets is Stuart Christie, of Hong Kong Baptist University. He has an essay called “Orienteering,” which is available here (PDF). I find it helpful. A more recent essay appeared in the October 2005 issue of PMLA (for those who have university subscriptions). I think the earlier essay is the better of the two.
Amardeep, I think you have created a “character” where Auden did not. These sonnets enact a kind of history of humanity: the first one is Auden’s Creation narrative, the the “childish creature” is the first human. Thus the first line of sonnet II, which obviously concerns the Fall: “They wondered why the fruit had been forbidden.” What follows is a telling of history through the description of various human vocations or achievements. So in VII you have the poet; in the brilliant sonnet X you have the consequences of what Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” what amounted (says Auden) to the mere transfer of threat and danger from the external world to the internal one:
The vanquished powers were glad
To be invisible and free; without remorse
Struck down the silly sons who strayed into their course,
And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.
Also: Auden didn’t enjoy traveling very much, I think, because he was not especially interested in going to any of the places (Iceland, China, Spain, even the U. S.) he visited. What he wanted was to get the hell out of England so he could think. The enormous pressures placed on him by his fame—the phrase “the Auden generation” started appearing in print before he even turned thirty—made it impossible for him to see his intellectual path clearly. His admirers drowned out his own thoughts. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that when he goes to China he writes very little about China and instead tries to sort out his view son the Bigger Questions of epistemology, human achievement, the meaning or pattern of History, etc.
Hey, thanks for making the effort to go back to these sonnets with me. It’s always a little dicey to post on things that aren’t readily available on the internet. [But I gather you’re an Auden scholar...]
I think I’m getting the idea of the autobiographcial character from sonnets I, IV, V, VII, and VIII—though it’s especially strong in I and V. I saw a man who grows up, achieves fame without ever actually achieving personal growth. He then grows corrupt and jaded, and finally seeks spiritual restoration at a moment when the world seems to be falling apart. Around Sonnet X, “he” disappears.
But I certainly see the creation narrative; perhaps they’re interwoven somewhat? This interweaving would seem absurdly egotistical if we were too put too much pressure on it. It might make sense to see it, if you also accept there is any shade of the autobiographical, as a somewhat loose framework.
I do think it isn’t quite right to see the sonnet sequence as only a modern English version of the Biblical Fall, partly because there is frequent reference in these opening sonnets to an extant society. It is the story of a man who rises in social esteeem to the point where he is almost deified (sonnet IX), though perhaps inwardly he has only grown corrupt. (Do you think it might make sense to also see this as a kind of loose allegory of totalitarianism?)
What do you make of the reference to the “they” who “left” (sonnet II) and “he” who “stayed” (sonnet IV)? I read the he who stayed as referring to Auden.
I like your reading of Sonnet X… Can you think of any way to transition from that opening arc of the sonnets to the second half, which invokes History’s grief, and thematizes Nanking as well as Nazi Germany? I’ve been struggling to find a single argument that holds the set together.
Hey, it’s fun to talk about poetry. I like the big Holbovian Theoryposts as well as the next guy, but the Valve needs to remember the pleasure and wisdom of verse from time to time.
Sorry for any unclarity: I meant to say that the second sonnet only concerns the Fall—after that the different vocations and acts come in. I think, Amardeep, that you should reconsider your assumption that the same person is referred to throughout the sequence. Each of the first eleven sonnets is about a “he,” but not, I think, the same “he.” E.g., we are told of the subject of IV that “the poet wept and saw in him the truth,” but in VII the subject is clearly a poet ("Their feeling gathered in him like a wind / And sang"). III seems to be about the Hunter, IV the Farmer, VI the early Scientist or “natural philosopher,” etc.
As for transition, here are the key points:
1. The first eleven poems speak always of “he” and are in the past tense;
2. The twelfth poem (completing the sequence’s first part) concerns the “invisible powers” that have been released to work destruction;
3. In the thirteenth poem (the first of the second part) Auden replaces “he” with “we” and the past tense with the present tense. Having recounted what History was Auden now asks us to think about what it is, and situates “us”—who seem to be, as the sequence moves on, the whole human family—in the midst of war and suffering. “Yes, we are going to suffer now.” “Nanking. Dachau.” It’s worth remembering that Auden’s original title for the sequence was not “Sonnets from China” but “In Time of War.”
The major question put before the reader is how the poem’s history of vocation—especially artistic and intellectual vocation, which is clearly the emphasis of sonnets III-XI—connects with the tragic events of mid-20th-century warfare. I’m sure that was what Auden was asking himself; I am not sure the poem enacts an answer.
(I hope I don’t sound too assured here—I am an Auden scholar, I guess—my first book was about him and he is central to my thinking—but such long intimacy can turn a really nice guy like me into a pedant.)