Doubly subversive, the poet as spy
March 7, 2007
He once said that "alienation from the collective is always a duty." Those sound like the words of a dissident and in many ways he was.
He also said "poetry makes nothing happen." Yet, in subtle ways, his words undercut that claim.
One hundred years after his birth, W.H. Auden is a ranking member of the dead poet society, considered to be one of the greatest of his century. But his reputation does not rest in peace.
At the end of his life, the lines etched deep in his face resembled a road map of Europe and its troubles, though he had chosen to be an American. That choice and its timing contributed to the mixture of admiration, envy and loathing he appears to have provoked in the literary establishment of his first country — Britain.
"He was a coward, a bully, a lecher and many other dreadful things, according to his critics." That would be Auden, 100 this winter if he had lived, and the quote was the first sentence in an article in a British newspaper marking the anniversary.
Adding to the tableau of iniquity, came this belated birthday bombshell: A few days after the commemoration of his century, the British National Archives released a series of documents that revealed Auden had been peripherally but murkily involved in the biggest British spy scandal of the 20th century.
A friend of spies
The British security service, MI5, believed Auden played a part in the dramatic escape of two larger-than-life spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, to Moscow in 1951. These men were the first of the so-called 'Cambridge Five' — young idealists recruited when students at Cambridge University in the 1930s to spy for the Soviet Union.
One, Kim Philby, eventually rose to become the head of the Soviet division of the British secret service. In his double role, he is believed to have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of agents. A second, Anthony Blunt, became the purveyor of the Queen's pictures and was, before his secret was discovered, knighted for his services to the Crown.
Auden, too, went to Cambridge and was a good friend of Burgess, who had become a diplomat and fed secrets to Moscow. As for Maclean, Auden had been at the same school.The day before both men fled, Burgess phoned the house in London where Auden was staying and asked for him. The next day Auden himself left Britain for Ischia in Italy, where he had rented a house. When interviewed there, he denied all knowledge of the call but admitted he had invited Burgess to stay with him in the summer.
The secret life
This was a kinder, gentler time, at least where police and poets were concerned. The FBI desperately wanted to have Auden interrogated. But this was no reprise of his vision of the fall of Rome: "Agents of the fisc pursue/Absconding tax defaulters through/The sewers of provincial towns."
Rather, in the Cold War world of 1951, the FBI handed off to MI5 who in turn called on the Italian police to go around and have a talk with Auden. Very civilized. Up to a point.
Auden was no spy and there was no evidence that he had ever helped Burgess in his nefarious activities. But, like Burgess, he was a homosexual, and this was enough to keep the FBI files open and churning on him for the next two decades.
His 'crime' in Britain was to have left the country just before World War II to begin a new life in New York. Thus the accusations of cowardice, which were rather absurd. In the years just before 1939 he had travelled to Spain and to China to report back, in his poems, on the wars in those countries. Yet the mud encrusted his reputation.
Now, 35 years after his death, his words have infiltrated the public consciousness in unexpected ways. The popular film Four Weddings and a Funeral showcased his poem, Stop all the clocks.
As a result, he became his admirers, as one of his poems put it, and his admirers, thanks to the success of the film, were suddenly legion. For example, anonymous mourners, seeking thoughts more honed than their own, pencilled the poem on cards and left them at the gates of palaces in the mass hysteria that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
They were not alone. Speechwriters for politicians plundered his lines. American presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush the First were made to sound more eloquent than their audiences could often believe. Bush invoked "a thousand points of light" in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1988. It was a lightly-cloaked steal from Auden's poem September 1, 1939 where the poet writes: "Ironic points of light/Flash out wherever the Just/Exchange their messages."
A poet's premonition
The poem itself, with its evocation of fear and resolution ("as the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade") at the outbreak of a great war, took on a second life in the wake of September 11, 2001. Many Americans exchanged it as their message on the internet following the attacks. The lines, especially these — "The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night" — seemed premonitory.
In writing of another great poet (W.B. Yeats), he had foreseen this second coming as well when he wrote "the words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living."
His words stole into book titles and the names of plays such as The Haunted Wood, ironically a history of Soviet spying. And The Normal Heart, a play by Larry Kramer; and The Shield of Achilles, a recent bestselling analysis of war and diplomacy by Philip Bobbitt.
Bobbitt begins his book with a long extract from Homer in which the Greek poet recounts the story of Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, who hammers out the shield for the warrior who will lead the armies in the capture of Troy. He finishes with Auden's modern meditation on war, called The Shield of Achilles. The tone is bleak; the poet saw more clearly than the politicians. A friend to spies but not a spy, more of a seer:
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.