W. H. Auden

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 W. H. Auden took up Empson’s quirk. Auden and Empson were friends, of course, and almost exact contemporaries–less than six months separated them in age. In the winter of 1939 Auden lent Empson some money to enable him to travel back to England after the outbreak of the Great War, which was a truer indicator of their relationship than might be deduced from Empson’s 1940 satiric poem titled “Just a Smack at Auden.” 1 Empson’s smack made mild fun of Auden’s leftist politics and the Marxist concept of historical determinism: “What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? / No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end” (Collected 62).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Unfazed by such ribbing, Auden tried on Empson’s signature form shortly after the appearance of The Gathering Storm. He published two villanelles in journals early in 1941: “But I Can’t” (also known as “If I Could Tell You”) and “Are You There” (also known as “Alone”). 2 Both are iambic pentameter. “Are You There” is distinctive in that it is the first villanelle (but by no means the last) to substitute repetend for refrain, with only the end-words “own” and “alone” recurring in the refrain lines. For this reason Auden’s commentator John Fuller calls the poem a “pseudo-villanelle” (393). The use of repetend rather than refrain in the villanelle would not become popular for several decades; most of the mid-century villanelles still maintain uniform or only slightly varied refrains. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” not Auden’s “Are You There,” surely initiated the current proliferation of repetend-villanelles–although it is likely that Bishop herself was highly influenced by Auden and the experimental formalism of the mid-century poets.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Auden used the villanelle form again two or three years later in his long work The Sea and the Mirror (1944), a sustained reflection on the relationship between life and art as embodied in dramatic monologues spoken by the characters of The Tempest. 3 The Sea and the Mirror (like much of Auden’s early work) is a pastiche that is thematically concerned with art, form, style; therefore tortuous Sebastian speaks in a sestina, the lover Ferdinand in a sonnet, and materialist Stephano in a ballade. Caliban, finally, ends the piece with a discourse in ironically elaborate Jamesian prose. Miranda, the innocent maiden, speaks in a villanelle:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely,
As the poor and sad are real to the good king,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Up jumped the Black Man behind the elder tree,
Turned a somersault and ran away waving;
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The Witch gave a squawk; her venomous body
Melted into light as water leaves a spring,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 At his crossroads, too, the Ancient prayed for me;
Down his wasted cheeks tears of joy were running:
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 He kissed me awake, and no one was sorry;
The sun shone on sails, eyes, pebbles, anything,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 So, to remember our changing garden, we
Are linked as children in a circle dancing:
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea. (Sea 25-6)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “Miranda’s Song,” as this lyric is usually called, is the only villanelle from the mid-century period that may reflect some awareness of the villanelles of the preceding century. Miranda’s vision of love is that of the ideal Victorian woman as venerated by Austin Dobson. Naïve, narrow, and narcissistic, she lives only for love; that her Dear One is hers is the beginning and end of her knowledge. She imagines that all nature collaborates with her love and that its power defeats monsters such as the Black Man and the Witch. Prospero, elsewhere in The Sea and the Mirror, calls Miranda a “silly lovesick little goose,” and this judgment is implicit in the fruitless stasis of Miranda’s imagination (Sea 9). The only landscape she envisions is the high green hill sitting always by the sea, and the only future she envisions for herself is to sit always by her lover. Miranda is a mirror in herself, and so is Ferdinand: they reflect each other and nothing else in an infinitely lonely infinite regress. Auden reshapes the villanelle’s expected rhymes in “Miranda’s Song,” just as he had reshaped the villanelle’s expected refrains in “Are You There”; innovatively and appropriately, the rhymes in “Miranda’s Song” are light rhymes, insubstantial but stubborn.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Empson and Auden shared an intellectual approach to the villanelle; for both poets, the form presented certain possibilities in and of itself apart from any previous incarnation. In contrast to the more explicit and factional admiration of the form exhibited by nineteenth-century post-Romantics, Empson and Auden seem merely to have experimented with the form in an almost hypothetical way. Dylan Thomas would eventually do the same.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Notes:

  1. 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  2. See Humphrey Carpenter, W.H. Auden, a Biography, 1st American edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981) 279.
  3. “Are You There [Alone].” Harper’s Bazaar (1941 March 15); “But I Can’t [If I Could Tell You].” Vice Versa (1941 Jan-Feb): 19. Both are reprinted in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (NY: Random House, 1945).
  4. Arthur Kirsch reports that “The poem was written from 1942 to 1944, in the midst of World War II” (Sea vii). Auden, controversially, was living as an expatriate in the United States at that time.
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