Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Review: The Dyer's Hand (1962) by W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden

The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays

Random House, Hardback, 1962.
8vo. xii+527 pp. Foreword by the author [xi-xii].

First published, 1962.



I. Prologue

II. The Dyer's Hand
Making, Knowing and Judging*
The Virgin & The Dynamo
The Poet and The City

III. The Well of Narcissus
Hic et Ille
Balaam and His Ass
The Guilty Vicarage
The I Without a Self

IV. The Shakespearean City
The Globe
The Prince's Dog
Interlude: The Wish Game
Brothers & Others
Interlude: West's Disease
The Joker in the Pack
Postscript: Infernal Science

V. Two Bestiaries
D. H. Lawrence
Marianne Moore

VI. Americana
The American Scene
Postscript: Rome v. Monticello
Red Ribbon on a White House
Postscript: The Almighty Dollar
Robert Frost
American Poetry

VII. The Shield of Perseus
Notes on the Comic
Don Juan
Dingley Dell & The Fleet
Postscript: The Frivolous & The Earnest
Genius & Apostle
Postscript: Christianity and Art

VIII. Homage to Igor Stravinsky
Notes on Music and Opera
Cav & Pag
Translating Opera Libretti (Written in collaboration with Chester Kallman)
Music in Shakespeare

* An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 11 June 1956.


This attempt for a review is gratefully dedicated to Steve (aka j.a.lesen) who first inspired me to explore Mr Auden's mind.

A collection of 34 essays running to more than 500 pages altogether and exploring the foundations of human nature itself, The Dyer’s Hand is a formidable book that takes time and effort to get through. It’s worth it. It has been my first encounter with Mr Auden’s writing, and so auspicious has it proved that it certainly won’t be the last one. I had thought that I would be introduced to his work by The Mirror and the Sea, where he might just finish what Shakespeare started four centuries ago, or by The Age of Anxiety, because I am deeply fascinated with Leonard Bernstein’s eponymous Second Symphony for Piano and Orchestra, but it so happened that Mr Auden’s prose came first.

I don’t know about his poetry, but Mr Auden certainly writes magnificent prose. My only complaint is his slight propensity to use obscure words such as “numinous”, “manichean” or “pelagian”. But that’s probably my own fault; I should expand my meagre vocabulary. Apart from this minor detail, Mr Auden’s prose is beautifully crafted, compulsively readable and immensely stirring on multiple levels. It’s a rich, direct, vigorous, elegant, and melodious prose, with vast yet precise vocabulary and masterful use of punctuation. The truly priceless thing is that this versatile weapon – for a writing style, no matter how outstanding, is but a means – is backed up by a most fascinating mind, a rare combination of powerful intelligence and emotional involvement. Add to this remarkable candour and a subtle sense of humour, and you are in for the most compelling read imaginable – as clear from the very first paragraph of this book:

It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it. All the poems I have written were written for love; naturally, when I have written one, I try to market it, but prospect of a market played no role in its writing.

On the other hand, I have never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand by others for a lecture, an introduction, a review, etc.; though I hope that some love went into their writing, I wrote them because I needed the money.

The word “criticism” may be a little misleading. It implies something dry, academic, confused, altogether boring to the extreme: this is precisely what Mr Auden’s writing is not. He may well be opinionated, high-handed and on occasion even dogmatic, but he has good reasons to think as he does, and he usually states them with utmost clarity. And what a pleasure, what a privilege to disagree with such a fine mind!

Further in this one-page long preface, Mr Auden remarks that the problem with such commissioned pieces is that the relationship between form and content is arbitrary. A lecture must be so-and-so minutes long, a review must be so-and-so words long, and there is no guarantee that it will fit the subject well; sometimes the author has to “omit or oversimplify arguments”, sometimes he has to “pad as inconspicuously as possible”. He finishes with a most revealing paragraph worth quoting:

A poem must be a closed system, but there is something, in my opinion, lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism. In going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises. The order of the chapters, however, is deliberate, and I would like them to be read in sequence.

The remark about notebooks accords well with Mr Auden’s generous review of Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook (1949), an insightful collection from the kitchen of another great creative writer. I might as well warn you that comparisons – or, rather, parallels – with Maugham will occur frequently in the following paragraphs. As for the abridgment, it appears to be quite true. Some of the finest essays in the book – “Reading”, “Writing”, “Hic et Ille”, “The Poet and the City” – do consist of separate notes. They range in length from a single sentence to a half page, seldom longer, and make the reading easier without diluting the message.

I have to admit to some cheating as regards the order of reading. The first time I jumped to the Shakespearean Part IV having not yet finished Part III; nor did I read everything from the next three sections before the last one, Homage to Igor Stravinsky. On re-reading I followed conscientiously the order chosen by the author. I have found, not surprisingly, that Mr Auden does have a point. Though each piece is entirely self-sufficient, and almost embarrassingly rich in food for thought, the book on the whole does benefit from reading without skipping of pieces.

Before going into a fairly appalling detail about some personal highlights, it is useful to bear several caveats in mind.

First and most important of all, Mr Auden’s essays, though they deal with pretty much everything under the sun, are mostly concerned with authors and literature, especially but not only poets and poetry.  Therefore they require readers of vast and varied reading experience. Well, this certainly disqualifies me. I have read but a single short story by D. H. Lawrence or Henry James, and not even a single line of verse by Robert Frost or Marianne Moore. The name of Byron is mostly familiar to me in its adjective form, Byronic. I know absolutely nothing of Kafka. I have never heard the name of Anzia Yezierska, the authoress of Red Ribbon on a White House.

Above all, one should be familiar with a good deal of Shakespeare. It doesn’t make much sense reading “The Joker in the Pack” and “Brothers & Others” without intimate knowledge of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, respectively. The whole book is peppered with numerous Shakespearean references, some of which are pretty substantial. For example, “Balaam and His Ass” includes an extensive discussion of The Tempest. The number of casual references to a play, a character or a sonnet is enormous. It’s probably safe to assume that Mr Auden knew the Shakespeare canon by heart; he certainly gives that impression. The numerous links with the Bard are invariably intriguing, to say the least. But if one doesn’t know the works in question really well, they will fly high above one’s head, sadly unnoticed (as no doubt happened many times with me).

(By the way, this reminds me of the book’s only one and purely technical defect: a short index would have been immensely helpful; despite the fine thematic organization of the contents, cross-references, with Shakespeare and not only, abound in all pieces.)

But great writers are nothing if not great inspirational forces. As a matter of fact, Mr Auden was one of the main reasons for my finally overcoming a solid dose of Shakespearean fears. “The Joker in the Pack” and Verdi’s Otello combined forces until I was compelled to read the tragedy of the Moor, no matter how difficult I found the language. What a momentous event! A few plays later I was convinced that Shakespeare would be a lifelong project of great fascination and huge benefit. I owe this largely to Mr Auden and I am grateful for it. I have little doubt that there will be other similar experiences in the future. The Dyer’s Hand is the rare kind of book that gets better and better with the reading of other books, especially by authors discussed in detail by Mr Auden.

Last and least, the reader should be warned that the book is full of quotations, and quite a few of them are in foreign languages. Mr Auden was apparently something of a polyglot. The language of Shakespeare is more or less English, but quotes from Wagner’s libretti or Goethe’s Faust are always given in the original German; Dante’s Inferno is usually quoted in Italian, and most of Paul Valery’s thoughts are in French. This is all for the better as every translation is inevitably accompanied by a certain loss of rhythm, sound and even meaning, especially when it comes to poetry. But occasionally it’s a little taxing for the reader, all the more so if your knowledge of foreign languages is as poor as mine.

Now, finally, let’s look seriously inside this stupendous book. It is not only respect, but also common sense, to do so in the order suggested by Mr Auden. I have the irreverent intention to supply some highly irrelevant speculations about the symbolic meaning of the order as well as of the titles of the separate sections.

It is not for nothing that “Reading” and “Writing” form the Prologue of the book. These two essays present the reader with a vivid impression of Mr Auden’s singular personality: a perfect preparation for the rest of the volume. They are the most fragmented, the most epigrammatic and most quotable pieces in the book. I make no apology for the extensive selection of quotations which follows. They are the best possible review. Besides, there is a great deal of wisdom between these lines. Consider the following excerpts from “Reading”:

In relation to a writer, most readers believe in the Double Standard: they may be unfaithful to him as often as they like, but he must never, never be unfaithful to them.

To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.

As readers, most of us, to some degree, are like those urchins who pencil mustaches on the faces of girls in advertisements.

Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

We cannot read an author for the first time in the same way that we read the latest book by an established author. In a new author, we tend to see either only his virtues or only his defects and, even if we do see both, we cannot see the relation between them. In the case of an established author, if we can still read him at all, we know that we cannot enjoy the virtues we admire in him without tolerating the defects we deplore. Moreover, our judgment of an established author is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to any literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested. He is not only a poet or a novelist; he is also a character is our biography.

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. […] When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.

If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult of acquire. It is far easier to say – “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” – than to say – “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”

There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics.

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1)     Introduce me to authors and works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2)     Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3)     Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4)     Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5)     Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6)     Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, to economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The first three of these services demand scholarship. A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others. One would not call a man who knew the Manhattan Telephone Directory by heart a scholar, because one cannot imagine circumstances in which he would acquire a pupil. Since scholarship implies a relation between one who knows more and one who knows less, it may be temporary; in relation to the public, every reviewer is, temporarily, a scholar, because he has read the book he is reviewing and the public have not. Though the knowledge a scholar possesses must be potentially valuable, it is not necessary that he recognize its value himself; it is always possible that the pupil to whom he imparts his knowledge has a better sense of its value than he. In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments.

The last three services demand, not superior knowledge, but superior insight. A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions in What Is Art?, but, once one has read the book, one can never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises.

The one thing I most emphatically do not ask of a critic is that he tell me what I ought to approve of or condemn. I have no objection to his telling me what works and authors he likes and dislikes; indeed, it is useful to know this for, from his expressed preferences about works which I have read, I learn how likely I am to agree or disagree on works which I have not. But let him not dare to lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose to read is mine, and nobody else on earth can do it for me.

The critical opinions of a writer should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are manifestations of his debate with himself as to what he should do next and what he should avoid. Moreover, unlike a scientist, he is usually even more ignorant of what his colleagues are doing than is the general public. A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.

Very few of us can truthfully boast that we have never condemned a book or even an author on hearsay, but quite a lot of us that we have never praised one we had not read.

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

One cannot blame the reviewers themselves. Most of them, probably, would much prefer to review only those books which, whatever their faults, they believe to be worth reading but, if a regular reviewer on one of the big Sunday papers were to obey his inclination, at least one Sunday in three his column would be empty. Again, any conscientious critic who has ever had to review a new volume of poetry in a limited space knows that the only fair thing to do would be to give a series of quotations without comment but, if he did so, his editor would complain that he was not earning his money.

Reviewers may justly be blamed, however, for their habit of labeling and packaging authors. At first critics classified authors as Ancients, that is to say, Greek and Latin authors, and Moderns, that is to say, every post-Classical Author. Then they classified them by eras, the Augustans, the Victorians, etc., and now they classify them by decades, the writers of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, etc. Very soon, it seems, they will be labeling authors, like automobiles, by the year. Already the decade classification is absurd, for it suggests that authors conveniently stopped writing at the age of thirty-five or so.

A writer, or, at least, a poet, is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.

Let me here interrupt Mr Auden’s elaborate yet graceful prose to inject a tiny amount of modern perspective. What is the relevance of his words fifty years after they were printed in this book?

Well, to my mind every word from the above quotes is violently relevant today, perhaps even more so than in the old, pre-Internet times, when information was less accessible but genuine knowledge (as opposed to sham showing off) was more common.

Take for example Mr Auden’s remarks about condemning books and authors on hearsay, attacking bad books by showing off, or labeling authors year by year. How many people have condemned Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code on hearsay, I wonder? Until not so long ago it was the latest fashion. Even if we grant some of the more detailed, if vitriolic, reviewers that they have actually read at least part of the book, how much of their “reviews” is nothing but mere showing off how knowledgeable about the history of Christianity they are? Far too many people never could comprehend that better research does not necessarily make a better novel, or vice versa, and they are barking up the wrong tree. Nor have they often shown the common sense to judge a book within its genre.

Nothing of this stupefying nonsense is a modern invention. Far from it. The chances are that the phenomenon is as old as literature itself. But it may be argued that today it is stronger than ever before, partly because it is relatively easy to obtain a global perspective. Equally relevant are Mr Auden’s amusing, but also saddening, thoughts on “labeling and packaging” of authors. Enormous amount of fiction is produced each and every year – only to be forgotten on the next one; none of the wise fellows who select “Best Novel of 2012” ever give a thought what chances it has to survive one year more. Nowadays we also have greater-than-ever separation into genres and subgenres, one more inane than the other, all of them as ephemeral as the morning dew. Then again, if they flourish, if there is a public big enough to support them, we deserve them.

We have been slow to take Mr Auden’s hint.

But these are fairly trivial matters (or are they?), and I am doing Mr Auden an injustice by spending too much time on them. His analysis of critics and reviewers, his speculations about the “daydream” of every author, his reflections about writers being parts of our own biography: all these, and many others, are nuggets, pieces of pure gold. The last paragraph above, far from being “a silly answer”, is a profound statement which reaches the bottom of the seemingly bottomless well of literary creation. As for the compelling idea about established authors and our lives, it holds true for our favourite authors and our characters as well. Every new writer one starts exploring is an adventure of the spirit. It may just prove to be of paramount personal importance.

Now back to Mr Auden and his reflections on “Writing”. I have allowed myself the impertinence to insert some personal remarks in square brackets, mostly referring to some (at least to me) interesting (dis)similarities with Maugham:

Literary gatherings, cocktail parties and the like, are a social nightmare because writers have no “shop” to talk. Lawyers and doctors can entertain each other with stories about interesting cases, about experiences, that is to say, relate to their professional interests but yet impersonal and outside themselves. Writers have no impersonal professional interests. The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers reciting their own work at each other, an unpopular procedure for which only very young writers have the nerve.

No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.

Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.

[Awesome argument against the universal appeal of great art. Highbrow, cynical or snobbish, call it what you will, but don’t refuse to consider it. Leaving aside, for the sake of simplicity, the profound differences between Western and Eastern cultures, even the most universally admired creative forces that the Western civilization has ever produced, together with some of their finest works, have had their merciless detractors. Tolstoy denounced King Lear in particular and Shakespeare in general, Stravinsky was scathing about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Glenn Gould about his Appassionata, for Joseph Kerman Tosca is a “shabby little shocker”, and so on and so forth. It’s easy to dismiss these as “blind spots”. But since the examples can easily be multiplied, maybe there is more in them than that. And maybe there isn’t.]

How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judge solely by his peers and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier writes a letter to the press complaining about the incomprehensibility of Modern Mathematics and comparing it unfavorably with the good old days when mathematicians were content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs without closing the waste pipe.

All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work “comes” to him. Among those works which are failures because their initial conceptions were false or inadequate, the number of self-commissioned works may well be greater than the number commissioned by patrons.

[Cf. Maugham’s defense of patronage as expressed in the essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” from the collection The Vagrant Mood, 1952.]

The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.

It is true that when he is writing a poem, it seems to a poet as if there were two people involved, his conscious self and a Muse whom he has to woo or an Angel with whom he has to wrestle, but, as in an ordinary wooing or wrestling match, his role is as important as Hers. The Muse, like Beatrice in Much Ado, is a spirited girl who has as little use for an abject suitor as she has for a vulgar brute. She appreciates chivalry and good manners, but she despises those who will not stand up to her and takes a cruel delight in telling them nonsense and lies which the poor little things obediently write down as “inspired” truth.

[Here is one example of casual, Audenesque insight into Shakespeare, thrown in out of the blue, as if by pure chance. Only a man fully immersed in the Bard can make it. We should be grateful. Aren’t you going to read Much Ado with a slightly different mind next time, keeping in mind this beautiful comparison between Beatrice and the Muse?]

To keep his errors down to minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon, and even, perhaps, hated by all others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life or of the work. (Yeats.)
This is untrue; perfection is possible is neither. All one can say is that a writer who, like all men, has his personal weaknesses and limitations, should be aware of them and try his best to keep them out of his work. For every writer, there are certain subjects which, because of defects of his character and his talent, he should never touch.

[Maugham could not have agreed more. Cf. “But [writing] is a profession that has disadvantages. One is that though the whole world, with everyone in it and all its sights and events, is your material, you yourself can only deal with what corresponds to some secret spring in your own nature. The mine is incalculably rich, but each one of us can get from it only a definite amount of ore. Thus in the midst of plenty the writer may starve to death. His material fails him and we say that he has written himself out. I think there are few writers who are not haunted by the fear of this. […] I have continued with increasing assiduity to try to write better. I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them.”, The Summing Up, 1938.]

The integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his social conscience, his political or religious convictions, than by appeals to his cupidity. It is morally less confusing to be goosed by a traveling salesman than by a bishop.

[Cf Maugham’s comments on (mis)using fiction as propaganda in, for example, “The Art of Fiction”, the opening essay in Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954. As for the writer’s cupidity, see his unflinching defence of writing for money – which, it can’t be repeated too often, is an entirely different thing than compromising one’s integrity for money – in The Summing Up, 1938: “One of the minor sages of Chelsea has remarked that the writer who wrote for money did not write for him. He has said a good many wise things (as indeed a sage should) but this was a very silly one; for the reader has nothing to do with the motive for which the author writes. He is only concerned with the result. Many writers need the spur of necessity to write at all (Samuel Johnson was one of them), but they do not write for money. It would be foolish of them if they did, for there are few avocations in which with equal ability and industry you cannot earn more money than by writing. […] It may be that Shakespeare, Scott and Balzac did not write for the minor sage of Chelsea, but it looks as though they did write for after ages.” Judging by his very first words in The Dyer’s Hand, I surmise Mr Auden was of the same opinion.]

Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. There is certain kind of person who is so dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to test those around him by tiresome behavior; what he says and does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, but because it is his remark, his act. Does not this explain a good deal of avant-garde art?

[Cf. Maugham: “Subtlety is a quality of the mind, if you have it you show it because you can't help it. It's like originality: no one can be original by trying. The original artist is only being himself; he puts things in what seems to him a perfectly normal and obvious way: because it's fresh and new to you you say he's original. He doesn't know what you mean.”, A Writer’s Notebook, 1949. Mr Auden’s provocative insight into the avant-garde mentality is charming. Could it be that this “desire to be loved” stems from genuine and dimly realised artistic sterility?]

Every work of a writer should be a first step, but this will be a false step unless, whether or not he realize it at the time, it is also a further step. When a writer is dead, one ought to be able to see that his various works, taken together, make one consistent oeuvre.

[Since I suffer from completism, a surprisingly rare disease among booklovers, I find this passage very thought-provoking. When I am deeply fascinated by a certain author, I want to read all of his works. I want to explore his best and his worst, to have a clear and accurate idea of his personality as expressed in his writings (which does not necessarily coincide with the one in his private life, for which I couldn’t care less), of his command of the English language, of his quirks, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. It’s amazing, and that’s not putting too strongly, how revealing about a writer’s mind different parts of his oeuvre may be. So far the completist method pays off handsomely indeed!]

[Maugham, as so often happens, is the supreme example. This may be because he is the only author with whose (nearly) complete works I am fairly well familiar, but it may also be because he was somewhat preoccupied with the pattern of his life and indeed knew his mind extraordinarily well. So his oeuvre is remarkably organized and, given its size and diversity, very consistent. Be that as it may, if one wants to know Maugham intimately, one needs to read substantial portion of his novels, short stories, plays and essays, including Don Fernando (1935), The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer’s Notebook (1949), his most personal non-fiction volumes.]

[My experience with other writers, though less complete, points out in the same general direction. Only Arthur Clarke and Oscar Wilde, both of them powerful and personal if very different masters, have I read extensively so far, and their respective outputs definitely include masterpieces in many different genres, all of them very much worth reading. Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare are in the process of being read complete, but these are huge projects that will take many years to complete (even the first round). Nevertheless, the hazy outlines do already indicate high probability of obtaining reproducible results. (What a sentence!)]

[In short, the most comprehensive, the most accurate, the most important, the most revealing – in short, the best – (auto)biography of a great writer is his oeuvre. When we are talking of such intensely personal writers, there is no such thing as “the real man behind his works”. The real man is contained within the works themselves. What others, including his family and closest friends, saw from the outside may or may not be the same man. That doesn’t matter.]

[I am not quite sure what Mr Auden means by “consistent”, but I surmise one thing he doesn’t mean is consistency of opinion. Surely no one can expect this in a lifetime of active living. Nor does it seem common among great writers. Some of Maugham’s views hardly changed after his student years, that is true, but some of them did change a good deal, in a few cases out of recognition. Bertrand Russell frankly admitted that many of his opinions had changed since his youth, and was proud of that. Arthur Clarke made no secret of his own “failures of imagination”. Yet there is a certain, if fanciful, kind of consistency in the writings of all these great men. Opinions may change, but the fundamental yearnings to understand human nature, our past, present and future, remain the same.]

In theory, the author of a good book should remain anonymous, for it is to his work, not to himself, that admiration is due. In practice, this seems to be impossible. However, the praise and public attention that writers sometimes receive does not seem to be as fatal to them as one might expect. Just a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.

When a successful author analyzes the reasons for his success, he generally underestimates the talent he was born with, and overestimates his skill in employing it.

[Cf. Maugham: “I have more character than brains and more brains than specific gifts.”, The Summing Up, 1938. Did Maugham underestimate the “talent he was born with”? Perhaps. It may also be that character and brains – character especially – are gifts by birth, not acquired post-natal skills.]

It takes little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ.

The greatest writer cannot see through a brick wall but, unlike the rest of us, he does not build one.

[Cf. Maugham: “Most people cannot see anything, but I can see what is in the front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating.”, A Writer’s Notebook, 1949. The “brick wall” is a fascinating example of the overwhelming importance of the context. With the first part of the sentence Mr Auden seems to say exactly the opposite of Maugham. But when the second part is added, both statements come to pretty much the same thing – because “things mostly do, you know”, as Andrew Wyke from Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth might have replied.]

[Another example of similar context-orientated riddle is concerned with Maugham and Hemingway: the former said writing is a whole-time job, the latter said it is not. Yet both of them – probably – meant the very same thing. Maugham certainly meant that a writer writes, not only when he is at his desk, but all the time while living his life. I am not sure what Hemingway meant, but I surmise he thought that one must gain experience of life in order to write something meaningful about it, an opinion Maugham would have agreed wholeheartedly with.]

Only a minor talent can be a perfect gentleman; a major talent is always more than a bit of a cad. Hence the importance of minor writers – as teachers of good manners. Now and again, an exquisite minor work can make a master feel thoroughly ashamed of himself.

[Cf. Maugham’s first person narrator: “It is very difficult to be a gentleman and a writer.”, Cakes and Ale, 1930.]

[Maugham’s opinion on talent and how it differs from genius was fascinatingly inconsistent. “Genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated; genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects.”, Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954. “I do not believe that genius is an entirely different thing from talent. I am not even sure that it depends on any great difference in the artist’s natural gifts. For example, I do not think that Cervantes had an exceptional gift for writing; few people would deny him genius. Nor would it be easy in English literature to find a poet with a happier gift than Herrick and yet no one would claim that he had more than a delightful talent.”, The Summing Up, 1938.]

[Maugham also thought minor writers to be important; but for a different reason, as a kind of “window in time”. “It has sometimes seemed to me that if posterity wants to know what the world of today was like it will not go to those writers whose idiosyncrasy has impressed our contemporaries, but to the mediocre ones whose ordinariness has allowed them to describe their surroundings with a greater faithfulness. I do not mention them since, even though they may be assured of the appreciation of after ages, people do not like to be labelled as mediocre. But I think it may be admitted that one gets the impression of a truer picture of life in the novels of Anthony Trollope than in those of Charles Dickens.”, The Summing Up, 1938.]

A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E. M. Forster – “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.

[This is strikingly relevant to Shakespeare! Compare the dazzling verbal acrobatics in his early plays – up until and including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with the much higher concentration in the great tragedies and the mature comedies, and finally with the austerity of The Tempest. I also wonder, as regards Somerset Maugham and Bertrand Russell, if the fling with purple patch they did have in their youth played some part in their complete mastery over simplicity later. This is probably simplifying the matter too much; but it’s worth a thought.]

My language is the universal whore whom I have to make into a virgin. (Karl Kraus.)
It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes. In modern societies where language is continually being debased and reduced to nonspeech, the poet is in constant danger of having his ear corrupted, a danger to which the painter and the composer, whose media are their private property, are not exposed. On the other hand he is more protected than they from another modern peril, that of solipsist subjectivity; however esoteric a poem may be, the fact that all its words have meanings which can be looked up in a dictionary makes it testify to the existence of other people.

The difference between verse and prose is self-evident, but it is a sheer waste of time to look for a definition of the difference between poetry and prose. Frost’s definition of poetry as the untranslatable element in language looks plausible at first sight but, on closer examination, will not quite do. In the first place, even in the most rarefied poetry, there are some elements which are translatable. The sound of the words, their rhythmical relations, and all meanings and association of meanings which depend upon the sound, like rhymes and puns, are, of course, untranslatable, but poetry is not, like music, pure sound. Any elements in a poem which are not based on verbal experience are, to some degree, translatable into another tongue, for example, images, similes and metaphors which are drawn from sensory experience.

Owing to its superior power as a mnemonic, verse is superior to prose as a medium for didactic instruction. […] Verse is also certainly the equal of prose as a medium for the lucid exposition of ideas; in skillful hands, the form of the verse can parallel and reinforce the steps of the logic. Indeed, contrary to most people who have inherited the romantic conception of poetry believe, the danger of argument in verse – Pope’s Essay on Man is an example – is that verse may make the ideas too clear and distinct, more Cartesian than they really are.

“The unacknowledged legislators of the world” describes the secret police, not the poets.

The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: “For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,” what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: “You are to sing the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can’t or won’t, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines.” And the poor patient in his delirium cries: “Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona.”

[Cf. Maugham: “Notwithstanding, when men in millions are living on the border-line of starvation, when freedom in great parts of the inhabited globe is dying or dead, when a terrible war has been succeeded by years during which happiness has been out of the reach of the great mass of the human race, when men are distraught because they can see no value in life and the hopes that had enabled them for so many centuries to support its misery seem illusory; it is hard not to ask oneself whether it is anything but futility to write plays and stories and novels. The only answer I can think of is that some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must. There may be other things in the world that more pressingly want doing: we must liberate our souls of the burden of creation. We must go on though Rome burns. Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration thrills us and charges our mind with phrases.”, The Summing Up, 1938.]

The Dyer’s Hand opens with one of the longest and most substantial pieces in the book. “Making, Knowing and Judging” is some thirty pages long, ostensibly an inaugural address, but really a magisterial essay about a poet’s formative years. Surely, however, you don’t have to be a coming-of-age versifier in order to enjoy Mr Auden’s reflections. I may even be so bold as to suggest that his conclusion about the most auspicious moment in the life of any young poet is actually relevant to any art and those who practice it as a vocation. Note that we meet again our old friend, the Censor:      

We must assume that our apprentice does succeed in becoming a poet, that, sooner or later, a day arrives when his Censor is able to say truthfully and for the first time: “All the words are right, and all are yours.”

His thrill at hearing this does not last long, however, for a moment later comes the thought: “Will it ever happen again?” Whatever his future life as a wage-earner, a citizen, a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.” In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.  

The essay is one of the most autobiographical in the whole book. There are many personal touches, all of them offered with Mr Auden’s charming modesty and humour. For instance, the first “Master” he adopted was Thomas Hardy, “a good poet, perhaps a great one, but not too good”. Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry were among his “strongest, most lasting influences” ever since he attended a lecture given by Prof Tolkien; the only thing he remembered was a magnificent recitation of a long passage from Beowulf by the professor. One Christmas he was presented with De la Mare’s Come Hither, an anthology which thought him “at the start that poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good.” Especially revealing are Mr Auden’s remarks on the confusing issue that “to be worth attacking a book must be worth reading”:

The greatest critical study of a single figure that I know of, The Case of Wagner, is a model of what such an attack should be. Savage as he often is, Nietzsche never allows the reader to forget for one instant that Wagner is an extraordinary genius and that, for all which may be wrong with it, his music is of the highest importance. Indeed it was this book which first thought me to listen to Wagner, about whom I had previously held silly preconceived notions. Another model is D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. I remember my disappointment, when, after reading the essay on Fenimore Cooper which is highly critical, I hurried off to read him. Unfortunately, I did not find Cooper nearly as exciting as Lawrence had made him sound.

Well, this is the perfect recommendation to read Nietzsche’s critique on Wagner, a book about which I hold some “silly preconceived notions” myself. The only way to know just how silly those notions are is to read the thing. The most fascinating among Mr Auden’s autobiographical revelations are those about music, a vast topic which will be discussed in detail later. Until then keep in mind this telling reference to Italian opera (and note the subtle merging of personal memories with reflections of universal import):

Fashion and snobbery are also valuable as a defense against literary indigestion. Regardless of their quality, it is always better to read a few books carefully than skim through many, and, short of a personal taste which cannot be formed overnight, snobbery is as good a principle of limitation as any other.

I am eternally grateful, for example, to the musical fashion of my youth which prevented me from listening to Italian Opera until I was over thirty, by which age I was capable of really appreciating a world so beautiful and so challenging to my cultural heritage.

The defense of snobbery is timeless; so, to a lesser extent, is the point about the relationship between age, opera and cultural background. The latter I can corroborate from personal experience. I was introduced to opera fairly late – when I was about twenty – yet it was much too early. Being a bit slow-witted myself, a full decade had to pass before I could even begin to appreciate Italian opera, not to mention German or Russian one. And I am still in the very beginning of an endless quest, and one in which snobbery (= the self-conscious limitation to works I could fully respond to) is very desirable. As for opera as cultural challenge, this is an immense subject, stirring on a number of levels, which is way beyond the present piece, not to mention my capacity.

There is only one essay in the book which I find consistently dull. This is “The Virgin and the Dynamo”. An epigraph by Virginia Woolf about a square and an oblong sets the tone; I am sure it’s full of meaningful symbolism, but to my mind it is ridiculous nonsense. It is by no means untypical of Mr Auden to venture boldly into the metaphysical, producing complex passages that require concentration from the reader, but he generally remains marvellously lucid. Not so here. When he discourses on the two “real worlds”, the “Natural World of the Dynamo, the world of masses, identical relations and recurrent events” and the “Historical World of the Virgin, the world of faces, analogical, relations and singular events”, Mr Auden lost me. When he added the two “Chimerical Worlds”, the “magical polytheistic nature created by the aesthetic illusion” and the “mechanized history created by the scientific illusion”, he lost me completely. But this piece, I repeat, is the sole exception in an otherwise uncommonly consistent book. And even here, among lots of obscure ramblings, there are several shrewd observations that give me pause:

Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; without Science, we should always worship false gods.

In those who profess a desire to write poetry, yet exhibit an incapacity to do so, it is often the case that their desire is not for creation but for self-perpetuation, that they refuse to accept their mortality, just as there are parents who desire children, not as new persons analogous to themselves, but to prolong their own existence in time. The sterility of this substitution of identity for analogy is expressed in the myth of Narcissus.

“The Poet and the City” might have been titled “The Artist and the Society”; this lacks the brevity of the original, but it reflects its vast scope more accurately. Unfortunately, there is no way to convey this scope here – except, perhaps, by quotations. Historically speaking, Mr Auden’s eclectic interests, quite diverse yet interrelated, range from Ancient Greece to his own times; thematically, he discusses everything from the subtle difference between worker and labourer, or between crowd and public, to party politics.

In accepting and defending the social institution of slavery, the Greeks were harder-hearted than we but clearer-headed; they knew that labor as such is slavery, and that no man can feel a personal pride in being a laborer. A man can be proud of being a worker – someone, that is, who fabricates enduring objects, but in our society, the process of fabrication has been so rationalized in the interests of speed, economy and quantity that the part played by the individual factory employee has become too small for it to be meaningful to him as work, and practically all workers have been reduced to laborers. It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way – the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes – should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artists works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal, something nearly all human beings, by virtue, not by some special talent, but due to their humanity, could do if they tried.

This is a compelling and powerfully expressed argument. And strikingly relevant to Maugham’s views as expressed in The Summing Up. “The artist is the only free man.”, he stated bluntly, because it is only the artist, and perhaps the criminal, who can make his own pattern in life; all other vocations offer only predestined patterns, full of dreadful rules and limitations which all but take one’s freedom away. Maugham would also have agreed that the notion of artistic creation being something universal is nothing more than a popular delusion – often with tragic consequences: 

Youth is the inspiration. One of the tragedies of the arts is the spectacle of the vast number of persons who have been misled by this passing fertility to devote their lives to the effort of creation. Their invention deserts them as they grow older, and they are faced with the long years before them in which, unfitted by now for a more humdrum calling, they harass their wearied brain to beat out material it is incapable of giving them. They are lucky when, with what bitterness we know, they can make a living in ways, like journalism or teaching, that are allied to the arts.

Neither would Maugham have disagreed about the perils of employment. Unlike Mr Auden, Willie didn’t distinguish between labour and work, but he was certainly against the glorification of either. In some of his early notes, jotted down around 1896 when he was but 22 years old, Maugham was quite uncompromising:

We hear much of the nobility of labour; but there is nothing noble in work itself. [...] The fact is simply that men in their self-conceit look upon their particular activity as the noblest object of man.

Work is lauded because it takes men out of themselves. Stupid persons are bored when they have nothing to do. Work with the majority is their only refuge from ennui; but it is comic to call it noble for that reason. It requires many talents and much cultivation to be idle, or a peculiarly constituted mind.
[A Writer’s Notebook, 1949.]

So much for parallels with Maugham. I really mean it. There have been so many so far that I might be giving the utterly false impression that Mr Auden’s prose can’t stand alone. Let’s get back to “The Poet and the City”.

I cannot agree with Mr Auden that “in the purely gratuitous arts, poetry, painting, music, our century has no need, I believe, to be ashamed of its achievements”. I believe the opposite. I don’t know about poetry, and the situation with prose is perhaps not that bad, but as far as painting and especially music are concerned, the last century has seen the most atrocious examples since the Dark Times between the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Mr Auden certainly agrees about architecture and some other utile arts: “No previous age has created anything so hideous as the average modern automobile, lampshade or building, whether domestic or public. What could be more terrifying than a modern office building?” That said, the author doesn’t seem to endorse his own point of view about most of the gratuitous arts. He has some especially persuasive arguments why art is not what it used to be, although he formulates them in a rather obscure way.

There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe.
2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena.
3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in.
4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds.

Fortunately, these four points are explained with beautiful lucidity in the paragraphs which I shamelessly reduced to “[…]”. This doesn’t mean they are particularly easy to understand or imagine, nor that one should agree with them. I have my own doubts about any of the four counts. But they at least provide a plausible, if controversial, explanation why so much of the so called avant-garde has been so dismal. The disaster may have been inevitable, largely function of the insanely unstable zeitgeist. No one, I believe, would deny that the last century saw by far the most extraordinary scientific and technological progress in human history. Art might have been the price to pay for that. Harsh saying, perhaps, but not altogether groundless. Let’s have a closer look at Mr Auden’s four points, again using mostly his own words.

1) is largely self-evident. Mr Auden thinks that man might never have become an artist had he not had before his eyes the apparently everlasting world. For human life is obviously transitory and at least one of the artist’s aims is to outlast it with his creations. But science, especially “physics, geology and biology have replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process”, and the artist no longer has a permanent model; so he is “more tempted to abandon the search for perfection as a waste of time and be content with sketches and improvisations.” I find this argument rather weak. Only a pathologically imaginative artist would be bothered by the end of the universe, or even our tiny Solar system, after time periods well beyond the minds of more or less all people.

2) is a more powerful argument. Again science is the guilty party, because it “has destroyed our faith in the naïve observation of our senses”. Therefore, an artist can be true only to his own, purely subjective sensations and feelings; and there is no guarantee that these are of any value, much less universal one. Compelling as it is, there is something fishy about this argument, too. Surely, the data obtained by our senses, dismally personal as it may be, is no more ambiguous than the words of a language. Even music, sculpture or painting, admittedly more emotional and less intellectual arts than literature, that is more dependent on the senses, could hardly be affected so much by sensory subjectivity as to perish into the hideousness of the twentieth century. Much like the first point, this one appears to be a little too concerned with pathological cases.

3) is another matter. Here Mr Auden argues that the “ever-accelerating transformation of man’s way of living” makes it impossible to imagine what life will look like just a few decades from now. This is startlingly prescient. It is the fact that our society has been transformed with an “ever-accelerating” speed ever since Mr Auden penned these lines that makes this argument disturbingly relevant. Otherwise the net effect on the arts in the same, stultifying one. In the author’s words:

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Of course there is something to be said against this argument as well. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to affect the productivity of the artists; for another, it seems to me that at least great art, the one destined to become “classic”, should deal with the basics of human nature, and these change little. But it remains to be seen whether anything produced today would be considered valuable in half a century. Who knows if by that time half of today’s classics wouldn’t be forgotten.

4) proposes that, since the public and private life has been reversed since the ancient Greeks, “the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds”. This is highly unconvincing and may account, at best, for the decline of a very small portion of the arts. Even the greatest statesmen, no matter how public their deeds, are just human after all. There is no reason why art shouldn’t deal adequately with them, even though the social aspect would of course be more difficult in our relentlessly globalising world.

Rather more tantalising is the question about the gratuitous and utile component of art. What is art, really? Somerset Maugham maintained that art is an emotional language that all may understand and that the artist should create for the sole reason of disembarrassing his soul. Bernard Shaw couldn’t disagree more. He considered art as an intellectual weapon of pure propaganda, designed and performed for one reason only: to change people’s minds. Tolstoy’s What Is Art? I haven’t read yet, but now that Mr Auden has mentioned it, I certainly will. Of course the truth is somewhere in the middle. But where exactly? This is a difficult question. I should like to believe it’s an important one as well. At any rate, Mr Auden is stimulating on the subject:

A poet, painter or musician has to accept the divorce of his art between the gratuitous and the utile as a fact for, if he rebels, he is liable to fall into error.

Had Tolstoi, when he wrote What Is Art?, been content with the proposition, “When the gratuitous and the utile are divorced from each other, there can be no art,” one might have disagreed with him, but he would have been difficult to refute. But he was unwilling to say that, if Shakespeare and himself were not artists, there was no modern art. Instead he tried to persuade himself that utility alone, a spiritual utility maybe, but still utility without gratuity, was sufficient to produce art, and this compelled him to be dishonest and praise works which aesthetically he must have despised. The notion of l’art engagé and art as propaganda are extensions of this heresy, and when poets fall into it, the cause, I fear, is less their social conscience than their vanity; they are nostalgic for a past when poets had a public status.

Unfortunately, but perhaps wisely, Mr Auden doesn’t give his own opinion what art is. The question may very well be one of those to which no ultimate answer is possible. It certainly has been asked too many times, and too many wildly divergent answers have been given. My own views on the subject are pretty confused. I believe art, especially in the early stages of one’s experience of it, is a primarily emotional phenomenon. Yet it would be ridiculous to deny that, especially in later stages, it also has a considerable intellectual appeal. Is sheer escapist entertainment a valuable form of “spiritual utility”? I should think so, yes. But what exactly is art? I haven’t the least idea. Is it right to use art as propaganda? I don’t think it is. But who would dare deny that some of Shaw’s best plays, no matter how blatantly propagandistic, are also genuine works of art, whatever the definition?

The trite conclusion of all this is that one should experience art, rather than write about it. That said, I am grateful to Mr Auden that he wrote so much about it. To finish with his reflections on the subject, here is another searing observation about the troublesome relationship between art and society:

Some writers, even some poets, become famous public figures, but writers as such have no social status, in the way that doctors and lawyers, whether famous or obscure, have.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the so-called fine arts have lost the social utility they once had. Since the invention of printing and the spread of literacy, verse no longer has a utility value as a mnemonic, a devise by which knowledge and culture were handed on from one generation to the next, and, since the invention of the camera, the draughtsman and painter are no longer needed to provide visual documentation; they have, consequently, become “pure” arts, that is to say, gratuitous activities. Secondly, in a society governed by the values appropriate to Labor (capitalist America may well be more completely governed by these than communist Russia) the gratuitous is no longer regarded – most earlier cultures thought differently – as sacred, because, to Man the Laborer, leisure is not sacred but a respite from laboring, a time for relaxation and the pleasures of consumption. In so far such a society thinks about the gratuitous at all, it is suspicious of it – artists do not labor, therefore, they are probably parasitic idlers – or, at best, regards it as trivial – to write poetry or paint pictures is a harmless private hobby.

So much for art for writing’s sake.

Last but not least, the title of Part II as well as of the whole book probably comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 111:

O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand:
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisell 'gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

I have the outrageously fanciful notion that the staining of the dyer’s hand is a visual symbol of the communication with a great mind through literature. It’s a strange experience, curiously one-sided and passive, at first glance, yet in many ways more active, multifarious and stimulating than many a conversion with friends and acquaintances. One’s nature may not be “subdued”, but it is bound to be enriched and “renewed”, perhaps even improved. What the sonnet might mean in the context of Mr Auden’s life and poetry I dare not suggest. This will have to wait until I am familiar with The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson, six volumes published so far (1988-2010), two more to come.

The Well of Narcissus, as one might guess from the title, deals with things like mirrors, reflections and the self. It certainly opens with a bang. “Hic et Ille” is a very amusing collection of (mostly very short) notes, some uproariously hilarious, some deliciously funny, some terribly serious. Consider the opening and one naughty passage about the cute guy from the title:

Every man carries within him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow.

A parlor game for a wet afternoon – imaging the mirrors of one’s friends. A has a huge pier glass, gilded and baroque, B a discreet little pocket mirror in a pigskin case with his initials stamped on the back; whenever one looks at C, he is in the act of throwing his mirror away but, if one looks in his pocket or up his sleeve, one always finds another, like an extra ace.


Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

“After all,” sighed Narcissus the hunchback, “on me it looks good.”

The contemplation of his reflection does not turn Narcissus into Priapus: the spell in which he is trapped is not a desire for himself but the satisfaction of not desiring the nymphs.

“I prefer my pistol to my p…,” said Narcissus; “it cannot take aim without my permission” – and took a pot shot at Echo.

But such flippancy is truly exceptional. Mental mirrors are indeed a very serious subject. And Mr Auden knows it. As obvious by the very first lines, he is not concerned with Hamlet’s famous description of acting “as 'twere the mirror up to nature”, nor with the different personalities which reportedly co-exist, harmoniously or not, in the minds of some people but of which mostly artists are terribly conscious. It is our own self-mirrors, those that are part and parcel of every human being, that are discussed here. It’s an ever-fresh subject of universal appeal. One doesn’t need to be pathologically self-conscious to grasp the deep and far-reaching implications. I can do no more here than merely outline them by pertinent quotations, starting with one of Mr Auden’s most famous aphorisms (given here, like almost nowhere else, with some of its context):

Every autobiography is concerned with two characters, a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self. […] If the same person were to write his autobiography twice, first in one mode and then in the other, the two accounts would be so different that it would be hard to believe that they referred to the same person. In one he would appear as an obsessed creature, a passionate Knight forever serenading Faith or Beauty, humorless and over-life-size; in the other as coolly detached, full of humor and self-mockery, lacking in a capacity for affection, easily bored and smaller than life-size. As Don Quixote seen by Sancho Panza, he never prays; as Sancho Panza seen by Don Quixote, he never giggles.

An honest self-portrait is extremely rare because a man who has reached the degree of self-consciousness presupposed by the desire to paint his own portrait has almost always also developed an ego-consciousness which paints himself painting himself, and introduces artificial highlights and dramatic shadows.


Literary confessors are contemptible, like beggars who exhibit their sores for money, but not so contemptible as the public that buys their books.


Anxiety affects the Body and the Mind in different ways: it makes the former develop compulsions, a concentration on certain actions to the exclusion of others; it makes the latter surrender to daydreaming, a lack of concentration on any thought in particular.


A daydream is a meal at which images are eaten. Some of us are gourmets, some gourmands, and a good many take their images precooked out of a can and swallow them down whole, absent-mindedly and with little relish.


The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.


We can imagine loving what we do not love a great deal more easily than we can imagine fearing what we do not fear. I can sympathize with a man who has a passion for collecting stamps, but if he is afraid of mice there is a gulf between us. On the other hand, if he is unafraid of spiders, of which I am terrified, I admire him as superior but I do not feel that he is a stranger. Between friends differences in taste or opinion are irritating in direct proportion of their triviality. If my friend takes up Vedanta, I can accept it, but if he prefers his steak well done, I feel it to be a treachery.

When one talks to another, one is more conscious of him as a listener to the conversation than to oneself. But the moment one writes anything, be it only a note to pass down the table, one is more conscious of oneself as a reader than of the intended recipient.

Hence we cannot be as false in writing as we can in speaking, nor as true. The written word can neither conceal nor reveal so much as the spoken.

[I don’t believe the last statement is entirely true. To my mind, the written word is much truer, much more revealing, than the spoken one, or at least it is capable of being so. Only with great writers, whose complete writings are confessions, am I sure that this is the case. An ordinary journalist, a shallow propagandist, a vending machine for trashy thrillers, or the other folk with hidden agendas, which usually are quite obvious, do not fall in this category.]

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both partners run out of goods.

But if the seed of a genuine disinterested love, which is often present, is ever to develop, it is essential that we pretend to ourselves and to others that it is stronger and more developed than it is, that we are less selfish than we are. Hence the social havoc wrought by the paranoid to whom the thought of indifference is so intolerable that he divides others into two classes, those who love him for himself alone and those who hate him for the same reason.

Do a paranoid a favor, like paying his hotel bill in a foreign city when his monthly check has not yet arrived, and he will take this as an expression of personal affection – the thought that you might have done it from a general sense of duty towards a fellow countryman in distress will never occur to him. So back he comes for more until your patience is exhausted, there is a row, and he departs convinced that you are his personal enemy. In this he is right to the extent that it is difficult not to hate a person who reveals to you so clearly how little you love others.

One last point about “Hic et Ille”. It demonstrates with rare eloquence Mr Auden’s passion for clarity and precision. If The Dyer’s Hand is anything to go by – and I’m pretty sure it is! – this is something highly characteristic of the author. No hazy definitions, no fuzzy descriptions, no obscure reflections. Consider Mr Auden’s discourse on vanity and pride, one of the wisest passages in the whole book as far as I am concerned:

He who despises himself, nevertheless esteems himself as a self-despiser. (Nietzsche.)
A vain person is always vain about something. He overestimates the importance of some quality or exaggerates the degree to which he possesses it, but the quality has some real importance and he does possess it to some degree. The fantasy of overestimation or exaggeration makes the vain person comic, but the fact that he cannot be vain about nothing makes his vanity a venial sin, because it is always open to correction by appeal to objective fact.

A proud person, on the other hand, is not proud of anything, he is proud, he exists proudly. Pride is neither comic nor venial, but the most mortal of all sins because, lacking any basis in concrete particulars, it is both incorrigible and absolute: one cannot be more or less proud, only proud or humble.

Thus, if a painter tries to portray the Seven Deadly Sins, his experience will furnish him readily enough with images symbolic of Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Anger, Avarice, and Envy, for all these are qualities of a person’s relations to others and the world, but no experience can provide an image of Pride, for the relation it qualifies is the subjective relation of a person to himself. In the seventh frame, therefore, the painter can only place, in lieu of a canvas, a mirror.

“Balaam and His Ass” is a sheer masterpiece. Had it contained nothing else, the book would have been well worth having for this essay alone. It is a powerful analysis of the curious relationship between master and servant as an ingenious device of self-revelation in literature. Yet again I am knocked down by jaw-dropping awe when I am confronted with Mr Auden’s vast scope. And I mean vast. This is the list of the major master-servant couples he deals with in the course of this essay (few others, which he mentions only briefly, are omitted for the sake of sanity):

Prospero – Caliban/Ariel (Shakespeare, The Tempest)
Lear – The Fool (Shakespeare, King Lear)
Tristan – Kurvenal, Isolde – Brangane (Wagner, Tristan und Isolde)
Don Giovanni – Leporello (Mozart/da Ponte, Don Giovanni)
Don Quixote – Sancho Panza (Servantes, Don Quixote)
Faust – Mephistopheles (Goethe, Faust)
Fogg – Passepartout (Verne, Eighty Days Around the World)

It is useless to even try to summarise this essay, let alone analyse it, not least because I am reasonably familiar only with the first four master-servant couples. It is long and intricate piece, separated into nine parts yet continuous (no convenient fragmentation to notes), full of multilingual quotations and epigraphs, fascinating cross-references and provocative observations. I will limit myself to quoting Mr Auden’s admirable justification why the master-servant relationship is of such great importance. It is not for nothing, surely, that some of the finest works for the page and the stage have explored it in great detail:

To present artistically a human personality in its full depth, its inner dialectic, its self-disclosure and self-concealment, through the medium of a single character is almost impossible. The convention of the soliloquy attempts to get around the difficulty but it suffers from the disadvantage of being a convention; it presents, that is, what is really a dialogue in the form of a monologue. When Hamlet soliloquizes, we hear a single voice which is supposed to be addressed to himself but, in fact, is heard as addressed to us, the audience, so that we suspect he is not disclosing to himself what he conceals from others, but only disclosing to us what he thinks it is good we should know, and at the same time concealing from us what he does not choose to tell us.

A dialogue requires two voices, but, if it is the inner dialogue of human personality that is to be expressed artistically, the two characters employed to express it and the relationship between them must be of a special kind. The pair must in certain aspects be similar, i.e., they must be of the same sex, and in others, physical and temperamental, polar opposites – identical twins will not do because they inevitably raise the question, “Which is the real one?” – and they must be inseparable, i.e., the relationship between them must be of a kind which is not affected by the passage of time or the fluctuations of mood and passion, and which makes it plausible that wherever one of them is, whatever he is doing, the other should be there too. There is only one relationship which satisfies all these conditions, that between master and personal servant.

It may be pointed out in conclusion that “Balaam and His Ass” is the perfect “sequel” to “Hic et Ille”, another telling proof that the order of the contents is carefully chosen and not without a sense of drama. After all, the master-servant relationship is the next stage in character development after the self-mirror. For my part, the best thing I can say about this essay is that it has changed my next revisiting The Tempest, King Lear, Don Giovanni and Tristan und Isolde. Even better than this, it has inspired me to read for the first time Verne’s Fogg’s adventures and Goethe’s version of the most famous, if not the most original, barter ever which has consigned Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to a nearly complete oblivion.

“The Guilty Vicarage” and “The I Without a Self” are the “disappointing” pieces in Part III. The quotation marks are important for at least two reasons. First, the essays are disappointing only by the sky-high standards of “Balaam and His Ass”, perhaps inevitably so as they discuss somewhat less exalted subjects. Second, the disappointment is at least partly due to my own failure of appreciation, for I am complete stranger to detective fiction and Kafka respectively. Nevertheless, both pieces are entertaining and stimulating. “The Guilty Vicarage”, which deals, among other things, with such legendary detectives as Sherlock Holmes, Inspector French and Father Brown, is an excellent companion piece to Maugham’s “The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story”, which concentrates on the hard-boiled masters Hammett and Chandler. As for Kafka’s disturbed mentality, Mr Auden makes an excellent case that his works are worth checking out. I hope it won’t happen like D. H. Lawrence and Fenimore Cooper is his, Auden’s, case.

For my money, The Shakespearean City is the finest part of the book. Excluding the two interludes and the postscript, because all of them are something of an off-topic, the rest four essays range from masterpiece to supreme masterpiece.

“The Globe” is a perfectly fascinating comparative analysis of Greek and Shakespearean drama. I must say Mr Auden does not inspire me to do something about my profound ignorance of the former. He argues that Elizabethan drama was “an attempt to synthesize [Greek tragedy and morality plays] into a new, more complicated type.” More specifically, he opines that there are three things – Time, Choice and Suffering – whose significance has been greatly altered since ancient times. Only the first one do I find of suspicious relevance. What does the time frame of a play really matter? Whether the action is confined to the time of playing only, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or extends from the mythological past to the distant future, as in Back to Methuselah, a play must stand or fall because of more important matters than that. Choice and Suffering fit the criteria:

In a Greek tragedy everything that could have been otherwise has already happened before the play begins. It is true that sometimes the chorus may warn the hero against a course of action, but it is unthinkable that he should listen to them, for a Greek hero is what he is and cannot change. […] But in an Elizabethan tragedy, in Othello, for example, there is no point before he actually murders Desdemona when it would not have been possible for him to control his jealousy, discover the truth, and convert the tragedy into comedy. Vice versa, there is no point in a comedy like Two Gentleman from Verona at which a wrong turning could not be taken and the conclusion be tragic.
To the Greeks, suffering and misfortune are signs of the displeasure of the gods and must therefore be accepted by men as mysteriously just. One of the commonest kinds of suffering is to be compelled to commit crimes, either unwittingly, like the patricide and incest of Oedipus, or at the direct command of a god, like Orestes. These crimes are not what we mean by sins because they are against, not with, the desire of the criminal. But in Shakespeare, suffering and misfortune are not in themselves proofs of Divine displeasure. It is true that they would not occur if man had not fallen into sin, but, precisely because he has, suffering is an inescapable element in life – there is no man who does not suffer – to be accepted, not as just in itself, as a penalty proportionate to the particular sins of the sufferer, but as an occasion for grace or as a process of purgation. Those who try to refuse suffering not only fail to avoid it but are plunged deeper into sin and suffering. Thus, the difference between the Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies is not that the characters suffer in the one and not in the other, but that in comedy the suffering leads to self-knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, love, and in tragedy it leads in the opposite direction into self-blindness, defiance, hatred.

Mr Auden may not be especially inspiring about Greek tragedy, but his insight into Shakespeare is unsurpassed. His note on the difference between comedy and tragedy is a piece of priceless wisdom, and a very fine explanation why the former is every bit as important a genre as the latter. The author goes much farther than that. He starts with Dr Johnson’s famous remark that Shakespeare’s tragedy “seems to be skill, his comedy instinct”, a somewhat likely statement considering that the Bard’s early plays were predominantly comedies; against this claim counts the fact that his best comedies and tragedies were written, roughly, at the same time, at the turn of the seventeenth century. In any case Mr Auden has another fish to fry. He contends that, if Shakespeare excelled in comedies better than in tragedies, this is because comedy gave him a greater scope to build upon the ancient limitations within the limits of his own society. I admit I do not understand Mr Auden’s first remark about Christian society that does not believe in the relation between suffering and guilt (I should think it is exactly the opposite: no other society cares more about it), but his reflections are hardly less interesting for that:

It seems to me doubtful if a completely satisfactory tragedy is possible within a Christian society which does not believe that there is a necessary relation between suffering and guilt. The dramatist, therefore, is faced with two choices. He can show a noble and innocent character suffering exceptional misfortune, but then the effect will be not tragic but pathetic. Or he can portray a sinner who by his sins – usually the sins have to produce crimes – brings his suffering upon himself. But, then, there is no such thing as a noble sinner, for to sin is precisely to become ignoble. Both Shakespeare and Racine try to solve the problem in the same way, by giving the sinner noble poetry to speak, but both of them must have known in their heart of hearts that this was a conjuring trick. Any journalist could tell the story of Oedipus or Hippolytus and it would be just as tragic as when Sophocles or Euripides tells it. The difference would be only that the journalist is incapable of providing Oedipus and Hippolytus with the noble language which befits their tragedy, while Sophocles and Euripides, being great poets, can.

But let a journalist tell the story of Macbeth or Phedre and we shall immediately recognize them for what they are, one a police court case, the other a pathological case. The poetry that Shakespeare and Racine have given them is not an outward expression of their noble natures, but a gorgeous robe that hides their nakedness.

This is taking a most unfair advantage of Shakespeare. Admittedly, Macbeth is a difficult tragedy to cope with, mostly because the protagonist is a criminal. (For the same reason many do not consider Richard III to be tragedy at all.) The Scottish general is obsessed with such horrifyingly intense ambition, and already in the middle of the play he is so much “in blood steeped”, that it’s not always easy to realize why one should care for his downfall at all, let alone view it as a tragedy. On such grounds Macbeth may even be considered to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem” or “unpleasant” plays. Yet it is surely one of the most popular and best loved among all of his plays. What other reason could there be for such reception but the fact that enormous number of people are able to identify with Macbeth or his Lady?

(Well, there is at least one other reason, but it’s so appalling that I don’t want to consider it at all. This is the Hype Hypothesis. In simple words, this means that people do not identify with Macbeth because they are not involved in the play at all: they are led by the nose, and by the hype. Though I am pretty sure there are many such biorobotic mannequins, politely but inaccurately called human beings, even I am not cynical enough to propose that Macbeth’s evidently everlasting fame rests on their moronic mentalities.)

Besides, Macbeth is quite an exception among Shakespeare’s great tragic characters. One may find a lot to dislike in Lear’s folly and wrath, Hamlet’s weird mixture of indecision and impulsiveness, or Othello’s perplexing proclivities for self-aggrandizement and self-humiliation, but none of them is even remotely as criminal as Macbeth. There is something inherently noble in their natures, something that makes their suffering truly tragic, as far removed from pathetic as possible. Mr Auden quotes complete the famous poem of D. H. Lawrence about the triviality of Shakespeare’s characters and thinks it is “not altogether unjust”. I think it tells much more about Lawrence’s pathological bitterness than about Shakespeare’s characterization:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
that such trivial people should muse and thunder
in such lovely language.

Lear, the old buffer, you wonder his daughters
didn't treat him rougher,
the old chough, the old chuffer!

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folks' whoring!

And Macbeth and his Lady, who should have been choring,
such suburban ambition, so messily goring
old Duncan with daggers!

How boring, how small Shakespeare's people are!
Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.

At least it’s funny, if nothing else.

On the other hand, Mr Auden maintains that in Christian society, due to its passion for sin and forgiveness, Shakespearean comedy is greater in breadth and depth than the classical one. Since according to Christianity all people are sinners, everybody can be subject of comedy, and since punishment is largely substituted with forgiveness, the Christian comedy ends with laughter both on the stage and in the audience; the classical one ends with tears on the stage and laughter in the audience. Mr Auden finishes with the startling statement that Shakespeare’s comedies are Christian, unlike those of Ben Jonson which are classical. These passages will receive their re-evaluation when I am better familiar with the Bard’s comedies.

Especially perceptive are several passages about Shakespeare’s development, more specifically his apprenticeship as a writer of chronicle plays. In short, the Bard was born in the right time, when such plays could be produced in the theatre effectively, and the exigencies of their complicated plots and ambiguous characters were invaluable in his learning both the dramatist’s craft and the subtleties of human nature. The longer version is, of course, the better one:

As a dramatic historian, Shakespeare was born at just the right time. Later, changes in the conventions and economics of the theatre made it an inadequate medium, and feigned histories became the province of the novelist. Earlier, dramatic history would have been impossible, because the only history which was recognized as such was sacred history. The drama had to become secularized before any adequate treatment of human history was possible.


The link between the medieval morality play and the Elizabethan drama is the Chronicle play. If few of the pre-Shakespearian chronicle plays except Marlowe’s Edward II are now readable, nothing could have been more fortunate for Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist  than his being compelled for his livelihood – judging by his early poems, his youthful taste was something much less coarse – to face the problems which the chronicle plays poses. The writer of a historical play cannot, like the Greek tragedians who had some significant myth as a subject, select his situation; he has to take whatever history offers, those in which a character is a victim of a situation and those in which he creates one. He can have no narrow theory about aesthetic propriety which separates the tragic from the comic, no theory of heroic arete which can pick one historical character and reject another. The study of the human individual involved in political action, and of the moral ambiguities in which history abounds, checks any tendency towards a simple moralizing of characters into good and bad, any equating of success and failure with virtue and vice.

Mr Auden is no less enlightening in a musical digression on Bernard Shaw. He summarises the style of the pugnacious Irishman as “mixture of perspicacity and polemical exaggeration” – which may well be the finest description of so complex a thing in so short a space. There is a fairly long quote from Shaw’s 1898 preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession, one of his early “Plays Unpleasant”, which is such a gem that is worth quoting in toto:

The drama can do little to delight the senses: all the apparent instances to the contrary are instances of the personal fascination of the performers. The drama of pure feeling is no longer in the hands of the playwright: it has been conquered by the musician, after whose enchantment all the verbal arts seem cold and tame. Romeo and Juliet with the loveliest Juliet is dry, tedious and rhetorical in comparison with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, even though Isolde be both fourteen stone and forty, as she often is in Germany… There is, flatly, no future now for any drama without music except the drama of thought. The attempts to produce genus of opera without music (and this absurdity is what our fashionable theatres have been driving at for a long time past without knowing it) is far less hopeful than my own determination to accept problems as the normal material for drama.

At this point Mr Auden inserts a footnote which contains brilliant insight into the musical quality of Shaw’s plays, in some aspects so akin to opera. He finishes with these wise words which no admirer of Shaw can afford to neglect:

For all his claims to be just a propagandist, his writing has an effect nearer to that of music than most of those who have claimed to be writing “dramas of feeling.” His plays are a joy to watch, not because they purport to deal with social and political problems, but because they are such wonderful displays of conspicuous  waste; the conversational energy displayed by his characters is so far in excess of what their situation requires that, if it were to be devoted to practical action, it would wreck the world in five minutes. The Mozart of English letters he is not – the music of the Marble Statue is beyond him – the Rossini, yes. He has all the brio, humor, cruel clarity and virtuosity of that master of opera buffa.

Life-long worshipper of Mozart and certainly not devoid of keen appreciation of Rossini, Shaw would have agreed with this estimation wholeheartedly. He would have been the first to admit that the finale of Don Giovanni, ''beyond all comparison the most wonderful of the wonders of dramatic music'' is his own words, is indeed beyond him. Nothing to be ashamed of. It has been beyond quite a few great composers.

Needless to say, Mr Auden completely disagrees with Shaw. What a clash of titans! Achilles and Hector pale in comparison! In a nutshell, the poet charges the dramatist with misunderstanding of their great Elizabethan colleague as somebody only interested in the private and emotional worlds of his characters, not enough concerned with thoughts, ideas and other such niceties. Let Mr Auden explain the rest:
In actual fact, however, the revolt of Ibsen and Shaw against the conventional nineteenth century drama could very well be described as a return to Shakespeare, as an attempt once again to present human beings in their historical and social setting and not, as playwrights since the Restoration had done, either as wholly private or as embodiments of the social manners of a tiny class. Shakespeare’s plays, it is true, are not, in the Shavian sense, “dramas of thought,” that is to say, not one of his characters is an intellectual: it is true, as Shaw says, that, when stripped of their wonderful diction, the philosophical and moral views expressed by his characters are commonplaces, but the number of people in any generation or society whose thoughts are not commonplace is very small indeed. On the other hand, there is hardly one of his plays which does not provide unending food for thought, if one cares to think about it.
Last but not least, this essay is remarkable because of some thoughts on Romeo and Juliet, a play which Mr Auden seldom mentions and, so far as I can remember, never discusses anywhere else in the book. He draws attention to the neglected social background. The “star-crossed lovers” have become such a glorious symbol of consuming passion, that they are often supposed to inhabit some mythological setting of no importance. Unlike Tristan and Isolde, the runners-up in the “Greatest Love Story” competition, they don’t:

Romeo and Juliet, for example, is by no means merely a “drama of feeling,” a verbal opera about a love affair between two adolescents; it is also, and more importantly, a portrait of a society, charming enough in many ways, but morally inadequate because the only standard of value by which its members regulate and judge their conduct is that of la bella or la brutta figura. The disaster that overtakes the young lovers is one symptom of what is wrong with Verona, and every citizen, from Prince Escalus down to the starving apothecary, has a share of responsibility for their deaths.

Though I do recognise the importance of the social context, I don’t quite agree with its being more important than the personal matters. Nor do I, at least for now, see the point of the figura-standard, but that is neither here nor there. The passage will stay with me next time I am reading Romeo and Juliet.

“The Prince’s Dog” belongs to the huge pile of “to-be-re-read-with-greater-profit-in-the-future” essays. The reason is that it’s dedicated mostly to Falstaff, reportedly the greatest comic character in literature, but one which unfortunately I have yet to encounter personally. The same goes for other characters – Richard II, Prince Hal – which are discussed in some detail in this engrossing piece. For my part, the most fascinating passages are the musical ones. Mr Auden, in his deliciously direct way, maintains that Falstaff has, first, no place in Shakespeare’s history plays, and, second, he is out of place even in his comedies, because he actually belongs to the world of opera buffa, or rather to the one of Verdian music drama:

If it really was Queen Elizabeth who demanded to see Falstaff in a comedy, then she showed herself a very perceptive critic. But even in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff has not and could not have found his true home because Shakespeare was only a poet. For that he was to wait nearly two hundred years till Verdi wrote his last opera. Falstaff is not the only case of a character whose true home is the world of music; others are Tristan, Isolde and Don Giovanni.

Leaving aside the obvious century-slip in the years (there are of course nearly three hundred years between Shakespeare and Verdi), putting Falstaff in the exalted company of Tristan, Isolde and Don Giovanni is yet another strong recommendation to read those plays in which the “fat, cowardly tosspot” appears. Verdi’s last work, called Falstaff but based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, has always been regarded as a “connoisseur’s piece”. In plain English this means “not especially popular with the general audience, but highly esteemed by the intellectuals”. Since I am not, never have been and in all probability never will become, a connoisseur, this music drama is bound to remain outside of my musical experience.

At the end of the above quote there is a most interesting footnote which claims that the main reason why Verdi’s Macbetto “fails to come off” is that “the proper world for Macbeth is poetry, not song; he won’t go into notes.” I am not sure this is correct. The main reason for the failure is, I think, that Verdi composed the opera much too early in his career, around 1847, that is some forty years before he came to create Otello and, six years later, Falstaff. True, he did revise it as late as 1865, but not nearly as thoroughly as generally presumed. Macbeth and his Lady may not be suitable for “song”, but opera is a great deal more than that. It also includes, among other things, dramatic recitatives and symphonic orchestra, both of great dramatic power. But the long and very provocative subject of Mr Auden’s relations with opera will be discussed later.

“Brothers and Others”, despite excessive and somewhat tedious quoting of ecclesiastical authorities (including such luminaries as St. Ambrose, St. Bernard of Siena, St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Deuteronomy), is a thought-provoking dissection of The Merchant of Venice. To begin with, Mr Auden offers a provocative explanation why it should be regarded as one of Shakespeare’s “Unpleasant Plays”, which I take puts it in the category of the so-called (sometimes) “problem plays”, namely Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, none of which, alas, I have read so far. But after three readings and three movie versions I know The Merchant rather well. Mr Auden’s argument is compelling and certainly worth considering; note also the important reference to the “Falstaffian” piece before:
In Henry IV, Shakespeare intrudes Falstaff, who by nature belongs to the world of opera buffa, into the historical world of political chronicle with which his existence is incompatible, and  thereby, consciously or unconsciously, achieves the effect of calling in question the values of military glory and temporal justice embodied in Henry of Monmouth. In The Merchant of Venice he gives us a similar contrast – the romantic fairy story world of Belmont is incompatible with the historical reality of money-making Venice – but this time what is called in question is the claim of Belmont to be the Great Good Place, the Earthly Paradise. Watching Henry IV, we become convinced that our aesthetic sympathy with Falstaff is a profounder vision than our ethical judgment which must side with Hal. Watching The Merchant of Venice, on the other hand, we are compelled to acknowledge that the attraction we naturally feel towards Belmont is highly questionable. On this account, I think The Merchant of Venice must be classed among Shakespeare’s “Unpleasant Plays”.
Perhaps Mr Auden’s most revealing single sentence on The Merchant is that, if you remove Shylock and Antonio, “the play becomes a romantic fairy tale like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though I think this fairy-tale world is slightly more complex and ambiguous that the author gives it credit for, he is definitely right that it is far less problematic than Venice’s intensely mercantile society – which, in turn, is a great deal more complicated, but also more prosperous, than the feudal one in England of the history plays. Much of the essay is indeed concerned with social issues, most notably with different attitudes to usury; rather a dry subject, but one of paramount importance for the plot. More interesting is Mr Auden’s decidedly pro-Shylock and anti-Antonio case, which is almost – but not quite – the same as pro-Venice and anti-Belmont. Significantly, he doesn’t go out of his way – as Harold Goddard does – to make a noble hero out of Shylock, but he is quite convincing that neither Antonio nor Portia, as symbols of the best Venice and Belmont can produce respectively, are any better than the Jew. In the process he also supplies some revealing details about Shakespeare’s sources and what changes he did introduce to them. A long quote will illustrate the point better than any words of mine:

Had Shakespeare wished to show Shylock the usurer in the most unfavorable light possible, he could have placed him in a medieval agricultural society, when men become debtors through misfortunes, like a bad harvest or sickness for which they are not responsible, but he places him in a mercantile society, where the role played by money is a very different one.

When Antonio says:

I neither lend nor borrow
By taking or by giving of excess

he does not mean that, if he goes into partnership with another merchant contributing, say, a thousand ducats to their venture, and their venture makes a profit, he only asks for a thousand ducats back. He is a merchant and the Aristotelian argument that money is barren and cannot breed money, which he advances to Shylock, is invalid in his own case.


Shylock is a Jew living in a predominantly Christian society, just as Othello is a Negro living in a predominantly white society. But, unlike Othello, Shylock rejects the Christian community as firmly as it rejects him. Shylock and Antonio are at one in refusing to acknowledge a common brotherhood.
In addition, unlike Othello, whose profession of arms is socially honorable, Shylock is a professional usurer who, like a prostitute, has a social function but is an outcast from the community. But, in the play, he acts unprofessionally; he refuses to charge Antonio interest and insists upon making their legal relation that of debtor and creditor, a relation acknowledged as legal by all societies. Several critics have pointed to analogies between the trial scene and the medieval Processus Belial in which Our Lady defends man against the prosecuting Devil who claims the legal right to man’s soul. […] But the differences between Shylock and Belial are as important as their similarities. The comic Devil of the mystery play can appeal to logic, to the letter of the law, but he cannot appeal to the heart or to the imagination, and Shakespeare allows Shylock to do both. In his “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech in Act III, Scene I, he is permitted to appeal to the sense of human brotherhood, and in the trial scene, he is allowed to argue, with a sly appeal to the fear a merchant class has of radical social evolution:

You have among you many a purchased slave
Which like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,

which points out that those who preach mercy and brotherhood as universal obligations limit them in practice and are prepared to treat certain classes of human beings as things.

Furthermore, while Belial is malevolent without any cause except love of malevolence for its own sake, Shylock is presented as a particular individual living in a particular kind of society at a particular time in history. Usury, like prostitution, may corrupt the character, but those who borrow upon usury, like those who visit brothels, have their share of responsibility for this corruption and aggravate their guilt by showing contempt for those whose services they make use of.

It is, surely, in order to emphasize this point that, in the trial scene, Shakespeare introduces an element which is not found in Pecorone or other versions of the pound-of-flesh story. After Portia has trapped Shylock through his own insistence upon the letter of the law of Contract, she produces another law by which any alien who conspires against the life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his goods and places his life at the Doge’s mercy. […] Shakespeare, it seems to me, was willing to introduce what is an absurd implausibility for the sake of an effect which he could not secure without it: at the last moment when, through his conduct, Shylock has destroyed any sympathy we may have felt for him earlier, we are reminded that, irrespective of his personal character, his status is one of inferiority. A Jew is not regarded, even in law, as a brother.


Shylock is a miser and Antonio is openhanded with his money; nevertheless, as a merchant, Antonio is equally a member of an acquisitive society. He is trading with Tripoli, the Indies, Mexico, England, and when Salanio imagines himself in Antonio’s place, he describes a possible shipwreck thus:
…the rocks
Scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks.
The commodities, that is to say, in which the Venetian merchant deals are not necessities but luxury goods, the consumption of which is governed not by physical need but by psychological values like social prestige, so that there can be no question of a Just Price.


Neither of them is capable of enjoying the carefree happiness for which Belmont stands. In a production of the play, a stage director is faced with the awkward problem of what to do with Antonio in the last act. Shylock, the villain, has been vanquished and will trouble Arcadia no more, but, now that Bassanio is getting married, Antonio, the real hero of the play, has no further dramatic function. According to the Arden edition, when Alan McKinnon produced the play at the Garrick theatre in 1905, he had Antonio and Bassanio hold the stage at the final curtain, but I cannot picture Portia, who is certainly no Victorian doormat of a wife, allowing her bridegroom to let her enter the house by herself. If Antonio is not to fade away into a nonentity, then the married couples must enter the lighted house and leave Antonio standing alone on the darkened stage, outside the Eden from which, not by the choice of others, but by his own nature, he is excluded.


Portia we can admire because, having seen her leave her Earthly Paradise to do a good deed in this world (one notices, incidentally, that in this world she appears in disguise), we know that she is aware of her wealth as a moral responsibility, but the other inhabitants of Belmont, Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo and Jessica, for all their beauty and charm, appear as frivolous members of a leisure class, whose carefree life is parasitic upon the labors of others, including usurers. When we learn that Jessica has spent fourscore ducats of her father’s money in an evening and bought a monkey with her mother’s ring, we cannot take this as a comic punishment for Shylock’s sin of avarice; her behavior seems rather an example of the opposite sin of conspicuous waste. Then, with the example in our minds of self-sacrificing love as displayed by Antonio, while we can enjoy the verbal felicity of the love duet between Lorenzo and Jessica, we cannot help noticing that the pairs of lovers they recall, Troilus and Cressida, Aeneas and Dido, Jason and Medea, are none of them examples of self-sacrifice or fidelity. […] Belmont would like to believe that men and women are either good or bad by nature, but Antonio and Shylock remind us that this is an illusion; in the real world, no hatred is totally without justification, no love totally innocent.

I may add that Portia we can admire only until the middle of the Trial Scene. Because of her bringing the law against Shylock’s wealth and even against his life – even if we gloss over the fact that, since Shylock is a Venetian, it’s a blatantly anti-Semitic law – she fails to confer upon the Jew the very mercy she had been asking from him just a few minutes earlier. How Christian! And what a powerful indictment against the good, old, virtuous Belmont! What’s more, in the same stupendous scene, it is Antonio who suggests conversion to Christianity as part of Shylock’s punishment; and this, also, is the final and perhaps most serious evidence against his sham saintliness. This is the last nail in the Christian coffin so carefully prepared for the Jew. Although Shylock does care for his daughter at least as much as Bassanio for Portia, it is his wealth and his religion that are of the highest importance to him. Portia and Antonio rob him from both.

Some think Shylock only gets what he deserves. I think he is treated unjustly and with an abominable lack of charity. Against the Christian background of both Venice and Belmont, he almost amounts to a genuine tragic character. Almost. Mr Auden appears to express a qualified agreement with this:

Recent history has made it utterly impossible for the most unsophisticated and ignorant audience to ignore the historical reality of the Jews and think of them as fairy-story bogeys with huge noses and red wigs. An Elizabethan audience undoubtedly still could – very few of them had seen a Jew – and, if Shakespeare had so wished, he could have made Shylock grotesquely wicked like the Jew of Malta. The star actors who, from the eighteenth century onwards have chosen to play the role, have not done so out of a sense of moral duty in order to combat anti-Semitism, but because their theatrical instinct told them that the part, played seriously, not comically, offered them great opportunities.

Need I add that my first post-Auden read of The Merchant of Venice will be one with a difference?

“The Joker in the Pack” is the superstar of Part IV. It offers an interpretation of Othello – or, to be more precise, of Iago’s notoriously tangled motivation – that is extremely controversial yet uncommonly convincing. Only Isaac Asimov, so far as I know, has had the audacity to express similar opinion about the malevolent Ancient.

This monumental piece opens with a shrewd and subtle distinction between ”the villainous character”, such as Don John in Much Ado, Edmund in Lear, Richard III, Iago, of course, and perhaps Iachimo in Cymbeline, and “the merely criminal character”, such as Antonio in The Tempest, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Claudius in Hamlet and Macbeth. The explanation of the profound difference between them is best left in Mr Auden’s razor-sharp prose:

The criminal is a person who finds himself in a situation where he is tempted to break the law and succumbs to the temptation: he ought, of course, to have resisted the temptation, but everybody, both on stage and in the audience, must admit that, had they been placed in the same situation, they, too, would have been tempted. The opportunities are exceptional – Prospero, immersed in his books, has left the government of Milan to his brother, Angelo is in a position of absolute authority, Claudius is the Queen’s lover, Macbeth is egged on by prophesies and heaven-sent opportunities, but the desire for a dukedom or a crown or a chaste and beautiful girl are desires which all can imagine themselves feeling.

The villain, on the other hand, is shown from the beginning as being a malcontent, a person with a general grudge against life and society. In most cases this is comprehensible because the villain has, in fact, been wronged by Nature or Society: Richard III is a hunchback, Don John and Edmund are bastards. What distinguishes their actions from those of the criminal is that, even when they have something tangible to gain, this is a secondary satisfaction; their primary satisfaction is the infliction of suffering on others, or the exercise of power over others against their will. Richard does not really desire Anne; what he enjoys is successfully wooing a lady whose husband and father-in-law he has killed. Since he has persuaded Gloucester that Edgar is a would-be parricide, Edmund does not need to betray his father to Cornwall and Regan in order to inherit. Don John has nothing personally to gain from ruining the happiness of Claudio and Hero except the pleasure of seeing them unhappy.

Such a cornucopia of casual Shakespearean insight! This is a hallmark of the truly great writers only. They mention just by the way, as a kind of “digression”, things that hurl you into complete re-evaluation of characters, scenes, even whole plays. Take as a fine example Mr Auden’s speculation about Richard’s motives for wooing Anne. I have reached the same conclusion myself, but I could never have put in the context of other villains that well. Richard’s lack of desire for Anne was marvellously explored in the 1995 movie  with Ian McKellen and Kristin Scott Thomas. Now back to Iago and co.

This line of interpretation naturally leads to Coleridge’s unjustly famous “motiveless malignancy”. Unlike his famous predecessor, however, Mr Auden endorses this explanation only to some extent. Moreover, he explains it better and develops it further:

Coleridge’s description of Iago’s actions as “motiveless malignancy” applies in some degree to all the Shakespearian villains. The adjective motiveless means, firstly, that the tangible gains, if any, are clearly not the principal motive, and, secondly, that the motive is not the desire for personal revenge upon another for a personal injury. Iago himself proffers two reasons for wishing to injure Othello and Cassio. He tells Roderigo that, in appointing Cassio to be his lieutenant, Othello has treated him unjustly, in which conversation he talks like the conventional Elizabethan malcontent. In his soliloquies with himself, he refers to his suspicion that both Othello and Cassio have made him a cuckold, and here he talks like the conventional jealous husband who desires revenge. But there are, I believe, insuperable objections to taking these reasons, as some critics have done, at their face value.

Bold, daring and audacious, but, as we shall see presently, eminently well-argued and persuasive case. Mr Auden is quick to recognise that, if Iago’s desire is to supplant Cassio, his plan is thunderously unsuccessful. Othello’s “now thou art my lieutenant” in Act III, Scene 3, surely doesn’t refer to the post itself but to the “private and illegal delegation of authority”, namely the secret murder of Cassio. Mr Auden’s arguments why Iago’s jealousy and lust for revenge shouldn’t be taken seriously as motives are controversial, certainly, but I venture to suggest that they are very well worth-considering:

As for Iago’s jealousy, one cannot believe that a seriously jealous man could behave towards his wife as Iago behaves towards Emilia, for the wife of a jealous husband is the first person to suffer. Not only is the relation of Iago and Emilia, as we see it on stage, without emotional tension, but also Emilia openly refers to a rumor of her infidelity as something already disposed of.

Some such squire it was
That turned your wit, the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.

At one point Iago states that, in order to revenge himself on Othello, he will not rest till  he is even with him, wife for wife, but, in the play, no attempt at Desdemona’s seduction is made. Iago does not encourage Cassio to make one, and he even prevents Roderigo from getting anywhere near her.

Finally, one who seriously desires personal revenge desires to reveal himself. The revenger’s greatest satisfaction is to be able to tell his victim to his face – “You thought you were all-powerful and untouchable and could injure me with impunity. Now you see that you were wrong. Perhaps you have forgotten what you did; let me have the pleasure of reminding you.”

When at the end of the play, Othello asks Iago in bewilderment why he has thus ensnared his soul and body, if his real motive were revenge for having been cuckolded or unjustly denied promotion, he could have said so, instead of refusing to explain.

This certainly makes sense of Iago’s enigmatic, not to say ominous, last words: “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: / From this time forth, I never will speak word.”

Another highlight – in a piece that contains virtually no “lowlights” – is Mr Auden’s penetrating analysis of the role of Roderigo, a “headache” from a stage director’s point of view, an inconveneint stage convention who neither speaks to nor is spoken to by anybody but Iago. Roderigo has no analogue in Cinthio’s tale from which the Bard borrowed many elements. Iago could easily do everything – tell Brabantio the bad news about his daughter, provoke the drunken Cassio and later kill him – for which he relies on the perfectly incompetent Roderigo. Why would Shakespeare introduce at all a character who, in Mr Auden’s memorable words, “makes Iago as a plotter someone devoid of ordinary common sense”? Quite a puzzle, isn’t it?

What’s more, again as pointed out by Mr Auden of course, Iago has “the pleasure of making a timid conventional man become aggressive and criminal.” This is an important detail which is quite often overlooked. Roderigo may be a fool, but he is not, at least in the beginning, an immoral person. Entirely under Iago’s influence, thanks to his constant brainwashing, Roderigo becomes a would-be seducer of wives, a participant in drunken brawls and, finally, a candidate-murderer of innocent man. Unlike Iago’s using him as his “purse”, the transformation of Roderigo is, not just immoral, but completely irrational. Iago has no grudge against him. In no way does he profit from his moral degradation. One excellent explanation of this conundrum leads us to the heart of the matter:

Why should Iago want to do this to Roderigo? To me, the clue to this and to all Iago’s conduct is to be found in Emilia’s comment when she picks up the handkerchief:

My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it… what he’ll do with it
Heaven knows, not I,
I nothing but to please his fantasy.

As his wife, Emilia must know Iago better than anybody else. She does not know, any more than the others, that he is malevolent, but she does know that her husband is addicted to practical jokes. What Shakespeare gives us in Iago is a portrait of a practical joker of a peculiarly appalling kind, and perhaps the best way of approaching the play is by a general consideration of the Practical Joker.

Mr Auden goes to a good deal of trouble to explain the nature of the Practical Joker and his deeds; neatly enough, these consist entirely of practical jokes. The matter is entirely serious, however, and I couldn’t for the life of me put it in a better way than Mr Auden did fifty years ago:

Practical jokes are a demonstration that the distinction between seriousness and play is not a law of nature but a social convention which can be broken, and that a man does not always require a serious motive for deceiving another.

Two men, dressed as city employees, block off a busy street and start digging it up. The traffic cop, motorists and pedestrians assume that this familiar scene has a practical explanation – a water main or an electric cable is being repaired – and make no attempt to use the street. In fact, however, the two diggers are private citizens in disguise who have no business there.

All practical jokes are anti-social acts, but this does not necessarily mean that all practical jokes are immoral. A moral practical joke exposes some flaw of society which is hindrance to a real community or brotherhood. That it should be possible for two private individuals to dig up a street without being stopped is a just criticism of the impersonal life of a large city where most people are strangers to each other, not brothers; in a village where all inhabitants know each other personally, the deception would be impossible.


All practical jokes, friendly, harmless or malevolent, involve deception, but not all deceptions are practical jokes. The two men digging up the street, for example, might have been two burglars who wished to recover some swag which they knew to be buried there. But, in that case, having found what they were looking for, they would have departed quietly and never been heard of again, whereas, if they are practical jokers, they must reveal afterwards what they have done or the joke will be lost. The practical joker must not only deceive but also, when he has succeeded, unmask and reveal the truth to his victims. The satisfaction of the practical joker is the look of astonishment on the faces of others when they learn that all the time they were convinced that they were thinking and acting on their own initiative, they were actually the puppets of another’s will. Thus, though his jokes may be harmless in themselves and extremely funny, there is something slightly sinister about every practical joker, for they betray him as someone who likes to play God behind the scenes. […] The success of a practical joker depends upon his accurate estimate of the weaknesses of others, their ignorances, their social reflexes, their unquestioned presuppositions, their obsessive desires, and even the most harmless practical joke is an expression of the joker’s contempt for those he deceives.

The whole thing, as you could see, started innocently enough: the example with the diggers is more suitable to hidden camera show than to Iago. But then it developed, gradually yet inexorably, into chilling stuff that fits our “honest hero” like a glove. Better actually: like a skin. Mr Auden may, perhaps, be gently accused of putting the cart before the horse, for his general description of the practical joker is an almost too accurate portrait of Iago. But this doesn’t make his reflections less relevant, especially when the Ancient is directly referred to or even quoted:

But, in most cases, behind the joker’s contempt for others lies something else, a feeling of self-insufficiency, of a self lacking in authentic feelings and desires of its own. The normal human being may have a fantastic notion of himself, but he believes in it; he thinks he knows who he is and what he wants so that he demands recognition by others of the value he puts upon himself and must inform others of what he desires if they are to satisfy them.

But the self of the practical joker is unrelated to his joke. He manipulates others but, when he finally reveals his identity, his victims learn nothing about his nature, only something about their own; they know how it was possible for them to be deceived but not why he chose to deceive them. The only answer that any practical joker can give to the question: “Why did you do this?” is Iago’s: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.”


The practical joker despises his victims, but at the same time he envies them because their desires, however childish and mistaken, are real to them, whereas he has no desire which he can call his own. His goal, to make game of others, makes his existence absolutely dependent upon theirs; when he is alone, he is a nullity. Iago’s self-description, I am not what I am, is correct and the negation of the Divine I am that I am. If the word motive is given its normal meaning of a positive purpose of the self like sex, money, glory, etc., then the practical joker is without motive. Yet the professional practical joker is certainly driven, like a gambler, to his activity, but the drive is negative, a fear of lacking concrete self, of being nobody.

Among the many things that make Mr Auden’s treatment of Iago unique is The Scientific Connection. (This sounds almost like “The French Connection”. Remember this cool 1971 noir masterpiece with Gene Hackman?) This is, to my prejudiced mind, well-nigh spellbinding. It has completely revolutionised my perception of Iago’s character. I consider it a fortunate coincidence – well, as I have mentioned many, many paragraphs ago, it wasn’t exactly a coincidence – that my first readings of Othello happened at the same time as those of “The Joker in the Pack”. The whole play opened like a giant box full of presents. It was an amazing experience. Unfortunately, it was next to impossible to re-capture it, and it’s happened but seldom with other works; it’s a fortuitous event indeed. Anyway, towards the end of his essay Mr Auden launches The Scientific Connection (my term, of course, not his) and somewhat abridged it sounds like this:  

As Nietzsche said, experimental science is the last flower of asceticism. The investigator must discard all his feelings, hopes and fears as a human person and reduce himself to a disembodied observer of events upon which he passes no value judgment. Iago is an ascetic. “Love” he says, “is merely a lust of the blood, and a permission of the will.”


Iago’s treatment of Othello conforms to Bacon’s definition of scientific enquiry as putting Nature to the Question. If a member of the audience were to interrupt the play and ask him: “What are you doing?” could not Iago answer with a boyish giggle, “Nothing. I’m only trying to find out what Othello is really like”? And we must admit that his experiment is highly successful. By the end of the play he does know the scientific truth about the object to which he has reduced Othello. That is what makes his parting shot, “What you know, you know,” so terrifying for, by then, Othello has become a thing, incapable of knowing anything.

And why shouldn’t Iago do this? After all, he has certainly acquired knowledge. What makes it impossible for us to condemn him self-righteously is that, in our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. […] We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to realize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” – to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can live up to – that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral. But, in that case, who are we to say to Iago – “No, you mustn’t.”

Indeed! Iago is an epitome of the what is generally called “basic research”. I don’t think anybody has ever described it more eloquently than Homer Adkins (1892 – 1949): “Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, painting a target.” Iago explores a previously uncharted field and without any preliminary data. He has, at best, a vague idea of the final results, and certianly no way to predict them. At the same time, his impartiality and objectivity, not to mention intelligence and common sense, are in themselves admirable qualities, indispensable for every scientist and not to be despised in the rest of mankind. By no means are they enough to live a full life! But it is nonetheless obligatory to have them, and to cultivate them, if we are not to descend to the level of our ape ancestors.

Mr Auden’s tremendous investigation of Iago’s multifarious mind, bringing out psychological, social and philosophical issues many Shakesperean scholars have never thought of, is one of the finest tributes to his unique mind and superb pen in the whole book.

Though Iago is the prima donna of the essay, and Mr Auden never lets you forget this, his comments on the other characters are pointed, racy, funny and scarcely less insightful. Consider several arrows shot through the hearts of Cassio and Desdemona:

Cassio is a ladies’ man, that is to say, a man who feels most at home in feminine company where his looks and good manners make him popular, but is ill at ease in the company of his own sex because he is unsure of his own masculinity.
Cassio is a ladies’ man, not a seducer. With women of his own class, what he enjoys is socialized eroticism; he would be frightened of a serious personal passion. For physical sex he goes to prostitutes and when, unexpectedly, Bianca falls in love with him, like many of his kind, he behaves like a cad and brags of his conquest to others.

[One cannot but appreciate Iago’s judgment of Cassio. It is stunningly accurate. It will be remembered that Iago provokes him to boast about his affair with Bianca in the hidden presence of Othello who makes all the wrong conclusions. Now let’s strangle Desdemona in print. Mr Auden’s hands are every bit as powerful as Othello’s:]

Everybody must pity Desdemona, but I cannot bring myself to like her. Her determination to marry Othello – it was she who virtually did the proposing – seems the romantic crush of a silly schoolgirl rather than a mature affection; it is Othello’s adventures, so unlike the civilian life she knows, which captivate her rather than Othello as a person. He may not have practiced witchcraft, but, in fact, she is spellbound.

Then, she seems more aware than is agreeable of the honor she has done Othello by becoming his wife.
Before Cassio speaks to her, she has already discussed him with her husband and learned that he is to be reinstated as soon as it is opportune. A sensible wife would have told Cassio this and left matters alone. In continuing to badger Othello, she betrays a desire to prove to herself and to Cassio that she can make her husband do as she pleases.
Though her relationship with Cassio is perfectly innocent, one cannot but share Iago’s doubts as to the durability of the marriage. It is worth noting that, in the willow-song scene with Emilia, she speaks with admiration of Ludovico and then turns to the topic of adultery. Of course, she discusses this in general terms and is shocked by Emilia’s attitude, but she does discuss the subject and she does listen to what Emilia has to say about husbands and wives. It is as if she had suddenly realized that she had made a mésalliance and that the sort of man she ought to have married was someone of her own class and color like Ludovico. Given a few more years of Othello and of Emilia’s influence and she might well, one feels, have taken a lover.

I completely concur – except for the first sentence. I cannot bring myself to pity Desdemona because I intensely dislike her nagging submissiveness. All the same, I must admit that I have recently developed certain respect for her deceptively weak character and mighty manipulative powers.

Othello, of course, also enjoys a wealth of Audensque insights. These include intriguing parallels with jealous husbands from Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale as well as with the social ostracism of Shylock (yes, it pays to know “Brothers and Others” in advance). For my part, his best shot is the one on the nature of Othello’s love for Desdemona, yet another moment in this play epically suitable for conflicting interpretations. (Come to think of it, Othello may well be as full of these as Hamlet, the golden standard in the “genre”.) Mr Auden bets on the spiritual side and, if I may add, so do I:

If Othello had simply been jealous of the feelings for Cassio he imagined Desdemona to have, he would have been sane enough, guilty at worst of a lack of trust in his wife. But Othello is not merely jealous of feelings which might exist; he demands proof of an act which could not have taken place, and the effect on him of believing in this physical impossibility goes far beyond wishing to kill her: it is not only his wife who has betrayed him but the whole universe; life has become meaningless, his occupation is gone.

This reaction might be expected if Othello and Desdemona were a pair like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra whose love was an all-absorbing Tristan-Isolde kind of passion, but Shakespeare takes care to inform us that it was not.

When Othello asks leave to take Desdemona with him to Cyprus, he stresses the spiritual element in his love:

I therefore beg it not
To please the palate of my appetite
Nor to comply with heat, the young affects
In me defunct, and proper satisfaction,
But to be free and bounteous in her mind.

Though the imagery in which he expresses his jealousy is sexual – what other kind of images could he use? – Othello’s marriage is important to him less as a sexual relationship than as a symbol of being loved and accepted as a person, a brother in the Venetian community. The monster in his own mind too hideous to be shown is the fear he has so far repressed that he is only valued for his social usefulness to the City. But for his occupation, he would be treated as a black barbarian.

A little earlier, while analysing the scene with the Venetian Senate, Mr Auden makes the significant remark that the rest of the senators do share Brabantio’s negative attitude. The reason for their not expressing it openly is sheer hypocrisy, additionally stimulated by their astute judgment of the current situation. The danger of the Turkish fleet is imminent and far from negligible. Venice needs Othello’s military prowess here and now. So it’s much better not to offend him, but, on the contrary, rather defend him against Brabantio’s invective. The thought of Venice using Othello like that for many years, praising his abilities as a warrior but never really admitting him into the inner circle of Venetian nobility, is among the most disturbing consequences of the play (and Mr Auden’s writing, of course).

Now that Mr Auden has mentioned betrayal by the whole universe and the meaninglessness of life – so wonderfully expressed in Othello’s words (to himself): “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!” (III.3.) – he made me think about the profound pessimism of Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth. They all, for one reason or another, reach similar conclusions, though the intensity and the details may differ greatly. It has sometimes been suggested – by musicologist Deryck Cooke, for example – that among the “Big Four” Othello alone lacks a metaphysical dimension, a deeper meaning beyond the domestic tragedy. Well, this may not be the case. Indeed, if Mr Auden’s conclusions in this essay, or at any rate most of them, are accepted, the metaphysical superficiality of Othello can no longer be sustained.

Not that I agree with everything in “The Joker in the Pack”. Indeed, I may disagree with Mr Auden more often than I have indicated so far, or will indicate later. As a rule, only the more productive disagreements are mentioned. There are several here as well.

For example, I don’t understand why one of Iago’s goals should be self-destruction. I wish Mr Auden had elaborated a little bit more on that. One of his chief reasons seems to be Roderigo’s part which, as already mentioned, is redundant and endagers Iago’s plots rather than help them. But I think this is pretty tenuous. Perfectly plausible reason for Roderigo’s awkward meddling with the plot, including the greater danger, is that he makes it much more exciting. Not only Shakespeare, but Iago as well, no mean dramatist himself, would hardly fail to appreciate this. It is true that once the Moor and Desdemona are destroyed Iago would be out of job, but I don’t see what prevents him from finding another occupation. There is, certainly, no need to postulate that he aims at “nothingness” and suffers from suicidal inclinations. I am inclined to think that in this case Mr Auden extrapolated – or rather the reverse, what is the opposite of extrapolation? Intrapolation? – a little too much from his general description of the professional practical joker.

I don’t agree with his musical connection, either, no matter how fascinating it seems at first glance. At one place the author suggests a highly contentious link with Otello, namely that Iago’s “I am not what I am” receives its “proper explanation” is the “Credo” from Act II of Verdi’s music drama. Mr Auden quotes an abridged version of Boito’s text which omits the central part, but retains the essence:

 Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato
Simile a se, e che nell'ira io nomo.
Dalla viltà d'un germe o d'un atomo
Vile son nato,
Son scellerato
Perchè son uomo:
E sento il fango originario in me
E credo l'uom gioco d'iniqua sorte
Dal germe della culla
Al verme dell'avel.
Vien dopo tanto irrision la Morte.
E poi? La Morte è il Nulla.

In the 1993 translation by Avril Bardoni for DECCA this becomes:

I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his own image
and who in fury I name.
From the very vileness of a germ
or an atom, vile was I born.
I am wretch because I am a man,
and I feel within me the primeval slime.
And I believe man the sport of evil fate
from the germ to the cradle
to the worm of the grave.
After all this mockery then comes Death.
And then?... And then?
Death is nothingness

To my mind, this is more far-fetched than convincing. Such self-consciousness makes Iago look like something dangerously close to caricature. Who can take so blatant a villain seriously? Despite Verdi’s extraordinary music, this “Credo” always leaves me disappointed – especially after I became familiar with Shakespeare’s vastly superior original. Nowhere in the play does Iago refer to his being vile, and I am pretty sure he doesn’t think he is. Much less does he mention sheer nonsense like “evil fate” or “cruel God”. This counts very much to Shakespeare’s credit.

I can’t say I agree with Mr Auden that “it cannot be said that the practical joker satisfies any concrete desire of his nature”. Iago sure does. He certainly derives enormous pleasure from his practical jokes. This is no mean desire, indeed it is the most important one. Iago may well be seen as the supreme hedonist. That his pleasures are antisocial and misanthropic, that is another story. The main point remains valid.

Nor do I agree that those who deal with the play “must be primarily occupied, not with its official hero but with its villain”. It may be true that “all the deeds are Iago’s” (Mr Auden’s emphasis), and he does have plenty of soliloquies, but Othello is every bit as complex and vividly drawn as the villain of Venice. True, he is a little short on soliloquies, but all of his scenes, above all those with the Venetian senate, Iago and Desdemona, are as powerful as anything ever put on the page or the stage. If people in general are more concerned with Iago, this is because they are more Iago-like themselves. Such nobility and honesty as Othello’s is indeed rare in this world, far rarer than his gullibility which often, and unjustly, takes the upper hand.

By the way, to finish where we started, in the beginning of the essay Mr Auden gives an excellent reason why he concentrates on Iago. I don’t quite agree, as I don’t see why, if one does feel compassion for Othello, it should outweigh the aesthetic respect one is compelled to have for Iago. But I do see his point, and he is certainly stimulating about the peculiar one-man-show nature of this tragedy, although it is simply not true to say that Iago is the sole agent of the fall from grace. He can always count on Othello’s collaboration.

In most tragedies the fall of the hero from glory to misery and death is the work, either of the gods, or of his own freely chosen acts, or, more commonly, a mixture of both. But the fall of Othello is the work of another human being; nothing he says or does originates with himself. In consequence we feel pity for him but no respect; our aesthetic respect is reserved for Iago.

Modern Shakespearean scholars don’t seem to take Mr Auden very seriously. They seldom mention him in their “Further Reading” sections, especially when they firmly disagree with him. Kenneth Muir has, in the New Penguin edition of Othello, made an impressive case that professional envy and personal jealousy are perfectly plausible motives for Iago’s vile machinations. To my mind, the omission of “The Joker in the Pack” is a serious fault in Mr Muir’s suggested reading. On the other hand, Peter Holland, in the current Penguin Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice, does mention “Brothers and Others, calling it “typically intriguing and quirky” and even mentioning The Dyer’s Hand as its first publication in book form. Other Shakespearean colleagues of his should follow the example.

[Parts V - VII: Under construction]

Homage to Igor Stravinsky is the part where I most often find myself in sharp disagreement with Mr Auden. It would be idle to pretend that I have found his reflections on music and opera anywhere near as compelling and illuminating as those on literature.

But I am pleased to report that Mr Auden is evidently a great opera fan. This is not so often the case among great writers, or if it is they sure keep silent about it; with the obvious exception of Bernard Shaw, I can’t recall another notable writer of fiction who was that fascinated with opera. It is strange, however, that Mr Auden virtually never mentions anything about lieder. I should have expected that he, as a poet, would be rather fonder of a genre in which, by common agreement, great music is more often allied to great poetry than it is in opera. Rather to the contrary, Mr Auden is the first writer in my experience who takes seriously the libretto of Mozart’s last opera, Die Zauberflöte, the classic example of inane and incoherent text set to glorious music. Well, as it turned out, it’s not quite as inane and incoherent as it seems.

Nevertheless, there are certain points in “Notes on Music and Opera” which I cannot but disagree with. Most notable among them is the following passage:

The paradox implicit in all drama, namely, that emotions and situations which in real life would be sad or painful are on the stage a source of pleasure becomes, in opera, quite explicit. The singer may be playing the role of a deserted bride who is about to kill herself, but we feel quite certain as we listen that not only we, but also she, is having a wonderful time. In a sense, there can be no tragic opera because whatever errors the characters make and whatever they suffer, they are doing exactly what they wish.

This is one of the very few places in the book where Mr Auden comes dangerously close to writing pure nonsense, especially the claim that “in a sense, there can be no tragic opera”. What sense does that make? By the same logic there can be no such thing as tragic art, including theatre and literature. Whether one accepts the artist as a superior craftsman or as an inspired superman, all artists are “doing exactly what they wish”. Surely Mr Auden didn’t expect the soprano singing Violeta to drop dead in the end of La Traviata? Or a fine production of Hamlet to be crowned with four corpses on the stage? To dismiss in this way any relevance to the tragic part of our existence which art might have is, to put it mildly, high-handed. But let’s take Mr Auden at his word and see if his claim can be justified specifically about opera. To begin with, I wonder about his operatic experience.

I am told that since 1939 Mr Auden lived mostly in America, yet spent a great deal of time in Europe also, and died as late as 1973. This means that he lived through some glorious for the art of opera times. During the 1950s and the 1960s he must have had ample opportunity to attend performances which are today treasured as the golden standard and which, though they may possibly have been surpassed in the early twentieth century, have never been equaled ever since. I wonder if he ever saw and heard Boris Christoff as Philip II and Boris Godunov, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi as Tosca and Scarpia, or Mario del Monaco as Otello. If he did, he should have known that tragedy does have a place on the opera stage.

Also in the above passage, Mr Auden greatly exaggerates the pleasure of opera. Of course he does have a point. Everybody who has ever sung a single note – on the opera stage or under the shower, no matter – would hardly deny that there is a distinct sensual element in singing. It is indeed undeniable. It is the same kind of physical exhilaration that sport gives you. But singing improves considerably on that because, if you are at least a little sensitive to music (not all singers are!), you can add to the physical sensation the all-important emotional response. Please note that this is an entirely different phenomenon that the purely physical response akin to sport. This is something psychological, aesthetic, or spiritual if you like. Since opera is by far the most strenuous form of singing, and there are numerous passages of great beauty and/or dramatic impact, it would seem that Mr Auden’s point is a valid one after all. I don’t think it is, but to make my point a short digression is necessary here.

“Opera” is a vague term that covers vast diversity of musical works for the stage. Some operas consist of separate musical numbers and spoken dialogues in between that have nothing to do with singing (hence described in German as Singspiel). The classic example is Mozart’s Zauberflöte (1791), but it is often forgotten that the original version of Bizet’s Carmen, composed nearly a century later, was very similar in construction. Mozart’s “Italian” operas have the so-called “secco recitatives” instead, something between singing and speech but closer to the latter. During the nineteenth century recitatives became more and more elaborate until they finally gave rise of the Wagnerian music drama; Verdi’s last two works and Puccini’s most famous “operas” are music dramas in all but name. Even among many “conventional” operas there are numerous subtle differences: the vocal feast from the mature works of the bel canto masters (Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti) is a very different animal than the middle Verdi (Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore), not to mention his later works, where the music is servant to the drama, not vice versa.

The best I can say is that Mr Auden carried the art of generalization a little too far. It cannot be denied that the vocal splendour of the bel canto masters – or even the early Verdi on occasion – is often at the expense of both physical and psychological drama. In this case it is indeed difficult to take opera seriously, as an art form capable of saying anything significant about the human condition, for the singers quite obviously relish singing their heads off even when their characters are broken-hearted or dying. But this is not the whole of opera.

Take as an example Violetta, “La Traviata” (“The Fallen Woman”) from Verdi’s eponymous masterpiece, so mind-numbingly famous that it is seldom appreciated as the great tragedy it actually is. The contrast between “Sempre libera”, her brilliant first-act cabaletta that reflects the frivolous and superficial lifestyle as a party-loving courtesan immune to any serious relationship, and “Addio del passato” from the last act, a poignant tribute to her mature and meaningful happiness with Alfredo, cannot have been greater; it is so great that very few sopranos have ever been able to do equal justice to both arias. But the characterisation is nonetheless masterful for that. I believe such characters and such music do have a genuine tragic import and they do say something profound about ourselves that we ought to know.

This is but one example. It can easily be multiplied: Rigoletto, Tosca and Cavaradossi, Butterfly, Otello, Wotan, Philip II, Boris Godunov, all these are tragic characters of superb accomplishment. The same degree of importance, though in a very different way, is true of the great comic characters in opera: Figaro, Falstaff, even Don Giovanni and Hans Sachs, both of whom defy completely such shallow labels. The fact that there are and have always been singers who degrade these parts in the name of self-indulgent and show-stopping display, or that a distressingly large proportion of the people who attend opera and buy recordings have no idea what it’s all about, is by no means an argument against the art itself. It is against the artists and the public. But that’s another story.

Another note of Mr Auden’s which leaves me nearly speechless is his preposterous comparison of Puccini’s two most famous works. It is not the comparison per se that I object to, although it is pretty pointless, but Mr Auden’s argumentation for thinking as he does:

Again, I find La Boheme inferior to Tosca, not because its music is inferior, but because the characters, Mimi in particular, are too passive; there is an awkward gap between the resolution with which they sing and the resolution with which they act.

Such statement shows an almost complete lack of understanding what opera is all about. La Boheme is a meltingly lyrical piece of drama, exclusively concerned with the love story – and the inevitable conflicts – between Mimi and Rodolfo, two completely ordinary creatures from the bohemian quarters of Paris. It is unimaginably different than the brutal and violent world of Tosca, which exists against a well-defined political background and in which the main conflict – note the difference! – is not between Tosca and Cavaradossi, but between both of them and the villain Scarpia. Of course the characters in La Boheme would be more passive. But I for one do not sense any “awkward gap” between their music and their feelings. To the contrary, they support one another marvellously. Those two operas, instead of being victims of such comparisons, should be used as a fine illustration of Puccini’s amazing versatility, something he is seldom given credit for.

All that said, there are moments in “Notes on Music and Opera” as full of Audensque wisdom as anything in The Dyer’s Hand. These include an epigraph from Goethe which is just about the finest description of dramma per musica in a single sentence: “Opera consists of significant situations in artificially arranged sequence.” This hits the bullseye! People who are never tired of telling you how improbable and inane opera really is are actually missing the point in a grand style. I hasten to add that I have been guilty of this crime myself; but this was in my distant youth only. The first thing to do in order to appreciate opera is to accept its stupendous artificiality. This is merely the entertainment package consciously designed by composer and librettist. When you open it, there are inside many “significant situations”. Goethe well knew what he was talking about.

[To be continued...]

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