The Caliban Beneath the Skin: Abstract Drama in Auden's Favorite Poem.
W. H. Auden, The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis?
[. . .] for, in default of the all-wise, all-explaining master you would speak to, who else at least can, who else indeed must respond to your bewildered cry, but its very echo, the begged question you would speak to him about.
W. H. Auden, "Caliban to the Audience"
Is there [. . .] any figure traditionally associated with the stage who could be made to stand for this imaginative faculty? Yes, there is: the actor. Keats' famous description of the poet applies even more accurately to the actor: 'As to the poetic character itself, it is not itself; it has no self - it is everything and nothing.'
W. H. Auden, "Genius & Apostle"
Edward Mendelson concludes the preface to W. H. Auden's Selected Poems (1979) by calling The Sea and The Mirror Auden's masterpiece and the "Caliban to the Audience" section within it as the piece that Auden "preferred to all his others": "It had been the most recalcitrant in conception - he was stalled six months before he could work out its form - and the most pleasurable in the writing; and it confronted most directly and comprehensively the limits and powers of his art, and its temptations and possibilities" (xx). A question arises: what form could possibly challenge Auden, let alone challenge him for six months? Auden was such a master of form, not only of forms such as sonnets and sestinas but of forms such as Englyns and Drott-Kvaetts, that Mendelson's label of Auden as the "most technically skilled" poet of the twentieth century seems an understatement (Early Auden xiii).(1)
The elaborate craftsmanship that generates the memorable quality of Caliban's address convinces us that Auden's genius in this area sets up a sufficient challenge and conquers it. Auden, in fact, emphasized the difficulty - and unusual nature - of the piece by saying, "The whole point about the verbal style is that, since Caliban is inarticulate, he has to borrow, from Ariel, the most artificial style possible, i.e., that of Henry James" (emphasis mine; Carpenter 328). Apart from what this remark seems to suggest, Auden greatly admired James' prefaces, yet he also felt that "there are times when their tone of hushed reverence before the artistic mystery becomes insufferable, and one would like to give them both a good shaking" (Davenport-Hines 225). Insisting on the piece as an homage to James, however, critics continue to ignore Auden's rather startling assertion that the verbal style of the address is spoken by an inarticulate actor (McDiarmid 35).(2) Looking at Caliban as a mere imitation of James has never helped critics to answer such questions as why Caliban speaks the "begged question," the "echo" of the audience's "bewildered cry"; how he, an inarticulate creature, speaks - acting on behalf of the "so great, so dead author"; how, in his "officially natural role," he delivers a message for the late author; and finally how he speaks on behalf of himself and Ariel (Collected Poems 422).(3) To approach the piece as a prose poem written during the time when Auden taught at Swarthmore does not explain how the poem might be related to any unresolved challenge, for as a poet, Auden was always interested in using drama just as a dramatist, he had always been interested in using poetry. Indeed, interested in future challenges, he hoped, in fact, to write in his old age "a great verse drama" (Miller 116).
As in writing poetry, Auden's experiences as a dramatist reveal that rather than allow his writing to be flattened by forms and conventions, he characteristically challenges himself by devising ways to make forms and conventions reflect his artistic goals. This is especially true of his interest in combining poetry and drama. For example, in 1934, he was interested in character, but trying to bring character into poetry Auden learned that poetry "has very little to do with character": that is, it tended to produce rather flat-sounding characters (Plays xxi). By 1938, he realized if left "unalloyed [i.e., without prose] it [poetry] tends, if one is not very careful, to introduce a holy note" (Plays 521). For dramatic characters to speak poetically, to speak memorable speech, without sounding flat, Auden begins with the stock (i.e., flat) characters of the theater and applies poetry in a way that avoids either flat-sounding or holy speeches. According to Auden, the only kind of drama to accomplish that was the "pure West-end drama that is talk without action." Auden's insight into this "high art" aligns with his desire to write what in 1931 he called "abstract drama": a drama of ideas in which all the action is implied (Plays xix). While he wrote The Initiates as an example of a drama that would be impossible to perform, a form that was "very dangerous to touch,"Auden does not believe that the drama of ideas was impossible to bring into poetry (Plays xix, xxi).(4)
Here, then, is Auden's challenge: how to avoid the pretensions of a high art form such as abstract drama - which, as a drama, must by its nature make memorable talk - when using poetry, the very form that flattens dramatic talk. What kind of character could talk in such a fashion, and on what subject could he or she speak? While writing for the theater, Auden knew that the only way he could rise above conventions was to use them. The poet could avoid the pitfalls of conventions and pretensions only if "he is willing to be humble and sympathetic, to accept what he finds to his hand and develop its latent possibilities" (emphasis mine; Plays xxii).(5)
Along these lines, the elaborate rhetorical structure of "Caliban to the Audience" reflects Auden's realization - and mastery - of the latent possibilities in the dog-skin character that he had written in 1935 with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? These possibilities reflect his realization in "Genius & Apostle" that what he has is himself, a poet-dramatist who is slowly becoming aware that the artist-genius can be substituted as the "traditional man-of-action," or a hero (Dyer's Hand 435). In this respect, Auden sees that he writes poetry about his life as an artist. In retrospect, in the 1956 essay, "Hic et Ille," he names it making poetry out of his "ripostes to his reflection" in the mirror (Dyer's Hand 94).
Here he found quite a worthy challenge: how to dramatize the making process. As he observes, "An artist is not a doer of deeds but a maker of things [. . .] so that what makes an artist of interest, his art, [. . .] will have to take place off stage" ("Genius & Apostle," Dyer's Hand 435). Not only must the treatment be indirect (i.e., "off stage"), but the subject must be as well. The facet of the artist that Auden was most interested in dramatizing is the imagination, specifically, the ability that enables him to "imagine anything which is the case as being otherwise" (Dyer's Hand 436). Finding a "figure traditionally associated with the stage" to stand for this "imaginative faculty," Auden turned to Keats's description of the poet: "As to the poetic character itself, it is not itself; it has no self - it is everything and nothing" (Dyer's Hand 436). It is an inarticulate dog-skin or a Caliban - the body that cannot speak for itself unless the imagination gives it a voice. Like the dog-skin, Caliban is a corporeal form whose author is dead, or absent; like the dog-skin, Caliban is a mouth through which the imagination can speak. Caliban represents the human body, which Auden was aware could not speak on its own, and if it could "it would have every right to say, 'Well, who taught me my bad habits?'" ("Balaam and His Ass," Dyer's Hand 132). Like the dog-skin, then, Caliban is a perfect choice for acting as the imagination's spokesperson. Besides the fact that it takes a lot to imagine either of these entities speaking, they are both begged questions about which any audience would like to question any author. Caliban, moreover, is not merely the flesh; finding the dialectic between spirit and flesh too easy, Auden preferred the idea of the "whole physical-historical nature of fallen man" ("Balaam and His Ass," Dyer's Hand 131).(6)
A precursor of Caliban in these respects, the dog-skin is an inarticulate character whose speech stops all action and launches into ideas on the life of the mind. Like Caliban, he serves as a mouthpiece for explaining a behind-the-scenes view, the view of the imagination that speaks to the facets of the self in echo and apostrophe. Like Caliban, he draws our attention to the intrinsically interwoven relationship between how he speaks and who he is. These foci place our attention right where Auden would have it: "Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work? [. . .] What kind of guy inhabits this poem?" (Dyer's Hand 50-51). Offered in his 1956 lecture, "Making, Knowing and Judging," Auden's key questions for reading poetry operate not as mutually exclusive categories but as a fusion of poetry and drama. The way a poem works as a verbal contraption has everything to do with the voice speaking it: the voice draws our attention to the kind of verbal contraption it is. This realization is similar to what Auden had realized of the dramatist's task, of "adapting the kind of speech to the kind of character [. . .] There is a lot to learn in that kind of thing" ("The Future of English Poetic Drama," Plays 521).(7)
This is the challenge of writing Caliban: how to make an inarticulate character speak the most abstract drama of all: the life of the imagination talking to the audience of selves that makes up the artist-genius.
This discussion of the dog-skin's soliloquy in the play The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? will illuminate the aesthetic strategy involved in Auden's use of echo and apostrophe in giving speech to this inarticulate creature Caliban and demonstrate that such devices are germane to incorporating abstract drama into a prose poem. The purpose here will be to delineate the latent possibilities for dramatizing the voice of the imagination speaking through an inarticulate creature in this play for which Auden expressed a "private weakness" (Carpenter 192). Here I will pay particular attention to Auden's use of apostrophe to stop the action of the play in order to dramatize the ideas. I will also delineate his use of echo, demonstrating, in both of these areas the latent possibilities in this early experiment. I will include a comparative discussion of Caliban's address, focusing on the complex interweaving of echo and apostrophe that indicates the success of Auden's indirect treatment. Such interwoven complexity comes from Auden's strategy to dramatize the exchange of ideas between the facets of the self that mysteriously live on after their author has died. This drama of all talk and no action is the drama of a poet-dramatist talking to himself in the most imaginary state of all: after death. A final discussion will argue the benefits of reading Caliban's address in light of Auden's aesthetic strategies, over and against the benefits of readings that use Auden's life to explain this complicated piece of art.
The dog-skin does not appear for the first time in The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? Auden had first used the idea of a disguise for a fugitive on the run in The Enemies of the Bishop (1929). He had then developed this idea into the dog-skin disguise in The Chase (1934). Although Isherwood wrote one version of the dog-skin soliloquy, the dog-skin's soliloquy upon which both Isherwood and Auden ultimately agreed is Auden's.(8) In fact, Mardi Valgemae, like Edward Mendelson, does a meticulous job of sorting out exactly what Isherwood writes and exactly what Auden writes and ascertains that the dog-skin's speech is Auden's (Valgemae 375). One of few critics even to notice the dog-skin's soliloquy, she speculates that Auden's choice of the dog-skin device may have been based on Auden's knowledge of Homer Lane's theory that people are either rabbits or dogs: "[T]hose who fear to die or those who wish to live." She concludes, however, that this possible influence is the only factor that keeps Auden's selection of the dog-skin device from being anything other than "entirely arbitrary" (375).
Given the play's title, such a conclusion seems odd. It is odder still that critics have ignored the dog-skin's soliloquy.(9) Initially, critics responded to what they saw as the play's rather heavy-handed satire of such sanctities as the press, the pulpit, and the English school system. Subsequent critics have focused most frequently on the Vicar's sermon. Such focus may have been even further encouraged when Auden published that piece separately and called it an example of how easy it is for spiritual insight to degenerate into aesthetic performance (McDiarmid 30). Perhaps because the Vicar had been featured more in The Chase, critical interest turned and has remained there instead of turning to the dog-skin.(10)
In terms of dramatizing the voice of the imagination, however, the dog-skin's soliloquy, represents what I believe is a crucial aesthetic experiment for Auden, one filled with latent possibilities and challenges that Auden eventually develops in Caliban. While paying particular attention to the way in which Auden uses the dog-skin's apostrophe to the self to stop the action of the play and dramatize ideas, studying this early experiment with making an inarticulate creature speak for the imagination will reveal Auden's early experiment with dramatizing the life of the imagination to be too direct - and, as a result, rather flat sounding. Nevertheless, writing the piece gives Auden experience in creating a stage-life for an imaginary creature who, by the mysterious nature of its identity, stops the dramatic action (talks "on stage" about a life "off stage") in order to dramatize the imagination's world of making.(11)
The dog-skin's speech is not completely new. It is almost the identical speech that George (as he was called) delivered in The Chase.(12) There is an important difference, however, in the way the speech is dramatized. In The Chase, the dog-skin, George, speaks in cockney as the young man in hiding - until the dog-skin speech, which is spoken in regular English. In the dog-skin play, the creature on stage has appeared from the start of the play dressed as a dog and does not speak before his soliloquy. He sniffs people on stage, laps up whiskey and plays cards, argues in a dumb show with journalists about how to rescue Alan, bites a poet's hand, participates in an operation disguised as a nurse, and in Act III jumps up on Alan, knocking the flowers for Miss Vipond out of his hand, thus receiving a nasty kick from him. Francis, as Alan has renamed the dog, has not yet spoken. Giving him speech in the soliloquy scene, a focus on ideas (instead of on action), emphasizes a previously hidden reality of the dog-skin. It has a life of its own. As it speaks, it discloses several lives and as it speaks makes clear that it is not speaking as Francis, the missing heir who is actually sleeping inside the dog-skin while it speaks.
In achieving these effects, the stage directions are significant: "The bedroom is now completely dark. In the corridor, spotlights suddenly illuminate the chest and the grandfather clock. Beside the chest the Dog is lying with its paws crossed" (Plays 272). The dog-skin begins:
Ticker! Ticker! Are you awake? [The Clock strikes one.] It's only me, the dog's skin that hides that eccentric young man. I hope you admire my accent? I've lived so long with them, I have all the emigre's pride at having forgotten my own. I'm quite deracine, as they say in Bloomsbury. (Plays 272-73)
The "eccentric young man," of course, refers to the stage presence of Francis, the missing heir, and emphasizes that it is not he whom the dog-skin addresses. A turning away from action, the apostrophe is emphasized by the darkness and the spotlight on the dog-skin. The dog-skin addresses Ticker, the name for the clock. Ticker, however, is also an idiomatic term for the heart; the dog-skin having a heart-to-heart with himself.
It is significant that this scene is preceded by Alan's love scene with Miss Lou Vipond, a shopwindow dummy. Alan makes the dummy speak by running behind it and speaking in falsetto. Followed by the strangeness of the dog-skin soliloquy, such transparent pretense dramatizes a contrast: a different way of making or letting fiction happen. Like the dummy, the dog-skin is an inarticulate creature. Unlike the dummy, the dog-skin is not a transparently manipulated mouthpiece for another character on stage. Moreover, this turn in the soliloquy scene to a focus on ideas (instead of on action) emphasizes a previously hidden reality of the dog-skin. The highly fictional nature of the dog-skin that had been emphasized by all of the roles played as a human contrasts sharply with this seemingly unmasked role, which seems a lot more genuine than the previous roles. Unlike "George" in The Chase, whose soliloquy offers yet another fiction and/or disguise, the dog-skin speaking here, although a dog-skin speaking should be seen as the most fictional of all roles, seems instead like the most genuine and natural of all roles.
The dog-skin continues its apostrophe to the clock by talking about some event that happened outside the world of the play. This world is the dog-skin's past: as Caliban might call it, the "original drama which aroused his [the dramatist's] imitative passion, the first performance in which the players were their own audience" (Plays 273). Here we learn of the dog-skin's first role as a poet who had left his native country but keeps his national identity as an Irish Wolfhound: "The odour of a particular arm-chair, the touch of certain fingers, excited me to rash generalisations which I believed to be profound. I composed poems that I imagined highly idiomatic, on the words 'walk' and 'dinner.'" The dog-skin/poet's "dearest ambition" during this phase of life was to be "accepted naturally as one of them." He was earnest about this. He had severed all ties with his past in order to be accepted, but he was soon disillusioned: "To them I was only a skin, valued for its associations with that very life I had hoped to abandon" (Plays 273).
Thus far, this verbal contraption involves such technical devices as one imaginary character speaking to another about a former life as a fiction-maker. The matter is further complicated, however, when the dog-skin next refers to a life that took place even before that: to the "old days" before he became a skin, the days when he was really a dog: the pet of some "very famous author" who talked to him a lot and who, not incidentally, was rather fond of whiskey. One night at "nearly one o'clock in the morning," this author, also a poet, had a talk with "George" (as the dog was called then) about his guilt for being an "invalid" poet during a time of war. This situation offers a latent possibility that Auden develops in Caliban's address: if the dog-skin was at one time really a dog, he was a corporeal form, just as Caliban is and as such he reminds the owner in some way of the owner's limitations. The limitation is left implied in the dog-skin's account that after his owner spoke to him about the war and could not bear to look at the dog and sold him. Caliban, by contrast, announces to his audience that he is the "all too solid flesh" they must "acknowledge as their own" (Collected Poems 433).
Another technical device involves turning back the clock. In the world of the play, the dog-skin begins to speak as the clock strikes one; as the dog-skin's speech progresses, subsequently referring to action outside of the world of the play, it becomes "nearly" one in the story. The dog-skin's owner, whose story the dog-skin is retelling, discusses the German offensive in "March of' 18" (Plays 273). Such references to different times, moreover, actually make us question the dog-skin's relationship to time and his awareness of it. Since it has no sustained sense of time, it seems as if it experiences events either in momentary or timeless fashion. We do not know, for example, if the dog-skin became a poet before or after his owner left, that is, whether the first part of his soliloquy alludes to a time that took place before or after the second part of his speech. Perhaps he learned to be a poet by imitating his original "master," but the issue of when that took place is not important to him. In this respect he is a vivid example of what, echoing the audience, Caliban declares about time in the world of the imagination: "[T]he dramatic mystery is that they [the imagination and her friends] should always so unanimously agree upon exactly how many hours and days and years to skip" (Collected Poems 426).
Part of such talking, moreover, involves echoing what the dog's owner said to it. The dog-skin says, "I'm giving you his own words. Whisky always made him a bit rhetorical" (Plays 273). Here we see a dramatization of what happens when the imagination speaks; such inner dialogue is marked, in part, by echo.(13) Certain words or sentences that mean one thing in one context take on added levels of meaning when repeated; for example, the dog-skin repeats its owner's declaration, "Every time I hear that [guns fired] I say to myself: You fired that shell." Such a declaration already emphasizes the self as both speaker and audience; when repeated by the imagination, however, such a declaration emphasizes a contrast between I and You. In other words, the imagination says to itself, "You [meaning the owner] fired that shell." The imagination thus creates an audience of self listening to the self, a phenomenon of which Auden makes much greater use in Caliban's address.
All of these characteristics of the dog-skin's speech are designed to draw in the audience. The more he talks, the more we wonder how he talks, especially when, at the end of his speech, he declares, "Heavens, it's getting light and you've forgotten to strike! Hurry up! [The Clock strikes six.] I think someone's coming and my lodger is waking up" (Plays 274). At this point, the dog stretches, Francis gets out of the skin and tiptoes out of the room. The audience strongly suspects that, although they are seeing Francis, what they have heard was not Francis because the story that the dog-skin tells does not reflect Francis' point of view. At the end of the play, the audience's suspicion is confirmed when Francis, the missing heir, tells his story.
It is no coincidence that after writing this play Auden became aware of the problem in presenting such a demanding scene. He realized that no one in the audience could "stop and say, 'I would like to have that bit over again'" because a play's action is "continuous and irreversible" (Plays 516).
A poem, however, is a different kind of text; one can read it and go back as much as one desires or needs to; in a piece as complex and indirect as Caliban's address, that is a good thing. As section III of The Sea and The Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest, Caliban's address continues the commentary, offering an inner drama of repeating and recursively reading interwoven ideas. Having listened (in the first two sections of The Sea and The Mirror) to the multiple perspectives coming out of one self, the imagination (re)performs those perspectives to the audience of self that created them. This self, moreover, is a dramatist/poet who addresses himself "off stage" about the nature of making poetry, i.e., about what has taken place "on" stage. In Caliban's address Auden thus achieves, first, what he recognized in 1929 as stage-life ("something which is no imitation but a new thing" [Plays xvi], and, second, the impossible task of presenting a "drama of ideas," a poem that dramatizes how a commentary/poem is made.
Like the dog-skin, who has experienced a physical and historical nature, Caliban has "naturally" picked up an "accent" by hanging around with this strange audience, but unlike the dog-skin, he does not declare the same kind of "emigre's pride." Playing his "officially natural role" in the address' second section, Caliban declares:
If I seem to attribute these powers to you when the eyes, the ears, the nose, the putting two and two together are, of course, all His and yours only the primitive wish to know, it is a rhetorical habit I have caught from your, in the main juvenile and feminine, admirers whose native unawareness of whom they ought properly to thank and praise you see no point in, for mere accuracy's stuffy sake, correcting. (Collected Poems 432)
In speaking for the imagination, as is the case with the dog-skin, Caliban realizes that the only way he can speak - or see or hear or think at all - is because of the real Word, a missing author or "original owner" who, having breathed life into all life, is now nowhere to be found. Unlike the dog-skin's original owner, who was fond of drinking whiskey (a fondness which may or may not be shared by the "so great, so dead author" of Caliban) this original author (the real Word) has no fears about being an invalid poet (Collected Poems 422).
Like this original author, Caliban has seemingly himself been invisible to this audience. Indeed, the most difficult thing for anyone to see is one's physical-historical nature, in short, one's "bad habits." Thus the audience is repelled when Caliban, this "gibbering fist-clenched creature" with whom the audience is all too unfamiliar, looms into view. Caliban retorts, "But where, may I ask, should I have acquired them [the desired traits of poise, and composure, and the like], when, like a society mother who, although she is, of course, as she tells everyone, absolutely devoted to her child [. . .], you have never in all these years taken the faintest personal interest in me?" (Collected Poems 433).
Caliban, though, has been there, and, like the physical-historical nature - and the real Word - has been an ignored but present audience and participant. Caliban has been participating in the first two sections of the commentary and has, as the actor for the imagination, overheard each character's inner, unspoken thoughts about his or her soliloquy on the invisible stage of The Sea and The Mirror. These interjected thoughts have been revealed in the italicized text that follows each character's speech. Prospero's speech is punctuated with three such interjections, the first of which reads:
Could he but once see Nature as
In truth she is for ever,
What oncer (sic) would not fall in love?
Hold up your mirror, boy, to do
Your vulgar friends this.favour:
One peep, though, will be quite enough. (Collected Poems 406)
Hearing such thoughts has given the imagination insight into the audience of self addressed through Caliban. The goal is to echo what has been heard in a way that will draw attention to the contradictions: to the wish for only one peep into their "Native Muse' s" mansion and to the request that "for a few hours the curtain should be left undrawn. [. . .] We most emphatically do not ask that she should speak to us" (Collected Poems 425). In other words, the audience members want to dabble in art, in the parties that take place in the imagination's palace, but they do not want to go overboard, and they clearly resent the author's choice to bring "Him" (the real Word) there.
By his nature (the kind of "guy" who speaks for the imagination addressing the self), Caliban quite naturally uses echo and apostrophe. Auden uses these two forms in order to unfold the drama of a poet's dialogue with himself via his imagination. A mouth for the imagination performing that part, (the only actor left; all other "hired impersonators" have been dismissed [Collected Poems 422] speaking in echo and apostrophe, Caliban thus dramatizes (by virtue of his physical nature externalizes) the inner voice that listens to the poet. In echoing the inner conversations with himself, he repeats them in a way that redirects them as apostrophes to self. The goal is to reach an audience who keeps missing the point, an audience who learns very slowly and, therefore, needs a lot of repetition (Jenkins 72).(14) In fact, somewhere along the line, the goal involves repetition that enlarges the original meaning. The imagination thus speaks in a way that brings through some mysterious mishap the poet into a place where he can overhear, as Caliban puts it, "not the sounds which, as born actors, we have hitherto condescended to use as an excellent vehicle for displaying our personalities and looks, but the real Word, which is our only raison d'etre" (Collected Poems 444).
What audience members hear in Caliban's address, then, is not a falsetto voice that merely repeats their words but a highly original voice offering another kind of repetition, an echoing of their experience in a new context. Their experience is that of Caliban and Ariel, who are "as deeply involved" as any of them (Collected Poems 443). Thus the audience members first hear Caliban echoing their apostrophe to the dead author (for whom Caliban is standing in). Such a technique carries their own words back to them:
Are we not bound to conclude, then, that, whatever snub to the poetic you may have intended incidentally to administer, your profounder motive in so introducing Him to them among whom because He doesn't belong, He couldn't appear as anything but His distorted parody, a deformed and savage slave, was to deal a mortal face-slapping insult to us among whom He does and is, moreover, all grossness turned into glory, no less a person than the nude August elated archer of our heavens. [. . .] But even that is not the worst we suspect you of. If your words have not buttered any parsnips, neither have they broken any bones. (Collected Poems 429-30)
In other words, as a verbal contraption, this echo of an apostrophe becomes an apostrophe (back) to the audience who speaks it. The audience means one thing by it. Much like the dog-skin play's townspeople in Pressan Ambo, they claim to be religious, claim to be unaffected by any accusations against them, and claim to have been good providers (for both Ariel and Caliban). They claim to have worked their fingers to the bone "trying to give you a good home" (Collected Poems 433). Their words, however, speak as well for the real Word speaking through Caliban. Directed to the audience, the same words speak of that audience's snub to the truly poetic - and, in an effort to get through to them, the need to use a parody (Caliban) of Him, in other words, to use a finite object to speak for the infinite. Finally, according to this real Word, the audience's charges have not hurt It (the real Word).
As a verbal contraption, moreover, Caliban's address involves combining echo and apostrophe in a recursively interwoven text that is itself a Mobius strip. There are three sections, framed by a brief, initial statement by Caliban and a postscript by Ariel: Caliban's echo of the audience; Caliban's officially natural role (his address, on behalf of the late author) to would-be artists; and Caliban's address, on behalf of Ariel and himself, to the "major flock," the major portion of the audience. The first section begins by responding to the postscript (to the epilogue spoken by the "personified type of the creative" [Collected Poems 423], which itself responds to the first section, which also responds to the second, and so on. Truly, one might begin reading in any of the sections and find this pattern. It is a text that functions as both prologue to and epilogue to some elusive "original event" (Collected Poems 443).
The address's main argument against the idea that art is merely mimesis makes this looping characteristic become visible.(15) Extracting passages that offer different versions of that theme will highlight this technique. In the first section, speaking as the audience's echo, Caliban declares:
You yourself, we seem to remember, have spoken of the conjured spectacle as 'a mirror held up to nature,' a phrase misleading in its aphoristic sweep but indicative at least of one aspect of the relation between the real and the imagined, their mutual reversal of value, for isn't the essential artistic strangeness to which your citation of the sinisterly biased image would point just this: that on the far side of the mirror the general will to compose, to form at all costs a felicitous pattern becomes the necessary cause [. . .].
(emphasis mine; Collected Poems 428-29)
Here the audience responds to the third section in which, speaking on behalf of Ariel and himself, Caliban declares of the audience:
[N]ow all come together in the larger colder emptier room on this side of the mirror which does force your eyes to recognize and reckon with the two of us, your ears to detect the irreconcilable difference between my reiterated affirmation of what your furnished circumstances categorically are, and His successive propositions as to everything else which they conditionally might be. (emphasis mine; Collected Poems 435-36)
Comparing these passages, in fact, dramatizes how little the audience got of Caliban's point. That they "seem to remember" emphasizes the first section as a response, but their response demonstrates their inability to grasp the idea that there is, if the artist is successful, a necessary gap created in the art, a gap between what they are and what they could be(come).
In the third section, Caliban, in fact, elaborates the way in which they miss this point. He calls their involvement with art a game that keeps them missing the point:
[T]he gap in itself a bridge, your interest in your imprisonment a release, so that, far from your being led by him to contrition and surrender, the regarding of your defects in his mirror, your dialogue, using his words, with yourself about yourself, becomes the one activity which never [. . .] lets you down, the one game which can be guaranteed.
(Collected Poems 442)
The second section responds to the third - and to the first. Sharing the Janus-headed quality of the other sections, this middle section presents Caliban speaking in his officially natural role, on behalf of the late author, recalling the audience's horror when Ariel refused to be dismissed:
Striding up to Him in fury, you glare into His unblinking eyes and stop dead, transfixed with horror at seeing reflected there, not what you had always expected to see, a conqueror smiling at a conqueror, both promising mountains and marvels, but a gibbering fist-clenched creature with which you are all too familiar.
(emphasis mine; Collected Poems 433)
These passages repeat a point: that in spite of their naive belief that they can use the imagination to reflect only what they want to see (the perfect self), the Narcissistic audience will, nevertheless, be subjected to the unfailing power of art to reflect more, to bring out less-than-perfect qualities the audience would otherwise ignore.
In short, any work of the imagination will ultimately refuse to be a slave, will evade any escapist desire to dwell in a state of refusing to be the self. As what Auden calls a "natural human faculty" ("Postscript: Christianity and Art," Dyer's Hand 459), the imagination will, however, be a servant, helping an individual to recognize his or her "finite limitations" ("Balaam and His Ass," Dyer's Hand 111).(16) In this respect, Caliban's address makes the implicit more explicit in the dog-skin's being sold by his owner after their conversation.
The imagination must be put to work in this way. Leashing Ariel the imagination to Caliban, Auden dramatizes what he calls in the essay "Hic et Ille," how to make an artistic - rather than self-indulgent - use of the "riposte" to his own "reflection" (Dyer's Hand 94). As he puts it in the essay "Balaam and His Ass," this includes making artistic use of only those possibilities that for the poet are both "permissible and real" (Dyer's Hand 133): possibilities that lead the poet to what Auden repeatedly called the "actual self."(17) On this point, the task of the poet rests in paradox. As Auden was keenly aware, the poet must learn not only to hear this other voice but, having heard it, to repeat it, to act as if he or she had become that "actual" self. In this case, the only way in which the poet "can be 'true to himself' is by 'acting,' that is to say, pretending to be what he is not" ("Genius and Apostle," Dyer's Hand 439).
In Auden's greatest apology for the imagination, Caliban is precisely an actor. He is the only one who has heard the "real Word," the only one who has made use of the imagination in this way. As a result, Ariel has fallen in love with him. Revealed in the "Postscript," that action occasions or generates the address to the audience, an event that engenders Ariel's love for Caliban. Caliban thus finds his beginning in his ending - and vice versa. As with the dog-skin, his owner is not present; in Caliban's case, in fact, the owner or dramatist/poet is "dead."(18) While critics have always assumed that the dead author to which Caliban refers is Shakespeare, the continuity between the dog-skin soliloquy and Caliban's address foregrounds the possibility that the dead author is Auden and that it is a feigned death, a dog-sleep for the imagination; the permissible imagination comes to life only when the ego is sleeping or "dead."(19)
Like the dog-skin's soliloquy along these lines, Caliban's address to the present moment (he is keenly aware of the importance of its existence) comes from the timeless realm of recursively interwoven events that refer to the world before and after the world of the "play." When the imagination speaks, Auden seems to be dramatizing, time is suspended. In the imagination's world of recursive echoes, it becomes impossible to tell what is a reply to what. Such echoes are more than mimetic, and it would be impossible to trace them back to the original event. The conscious ego or self is in some sense asleep. But a spokesperson for the imagination, Caliban is wide awake throughout the address: "No, we have not dreamt it. Here we really stand" (Collected Poems 443). What the imagination speaks and the fact that it speaks at all is an actual event. Caliban's assertion is thus the antithesis of Mrs. Hotham, Francis' murderess in the dog-skin play, who in an attempt to console Iris says at the end of Dog-skin, "You must have had a bad dream" (Plays 292).
Caliban is adamant about the importance, the authenticity, of what the imagination can say to the present moment, and he is keenly aware that the audience would rather go back into some golden past they think more empirically real or into some golden, more spiritually real future. As with the dog-skin soliloquy, however, Caliban's address is an apostrophe to time. As an apostrophe, it addresses that absent entity as if it were present, not saying explicitly as the dog-skin, "Ticker! Ticker! Are you awake?" but expressing that urgency in every line; as the individual is caught between foolish longings for either some golden past or some golden future, he or she can easily ignore the necessity of choosing to see the "ungarnished offended gap between what you so unquestionably are and what you are commanded without any question to become," the actual, the genuine self (Collected Poems 442).
With this goal in mind, Caliban dramatizes the negative results of ignoring the present. To those who keep hoping to go back to some more empirically real past, he concludes that such a journey, like the journey around a clock, will come right back to where it began: "[W]here Liberty stands with her hands behind her back. [. . .] Confronted by a straight and snubbing stare to which mythology is bosh" (Collected Poems 439). Those who want to be taken ahead into some more spiritual future will find only an "ever giddier collective gallop" into the "Black Stone on which the bones are cracked" (Collected Poems 441).(20) In other words, either refusal to become the self will lead one into a losing battle with time, a nightmare that is all too real, the unblinking present moment, itself always both prologue and epilogue to life.
Caliban's performance dramatizes such begged questions and renders faithfully such "defects" in the artistic mirror, dialogue with themselves about themselves that reflects something quite unpredictable. Because it has already happened, that something has allowed this text to come into being. The situation looks hopeless. The audience is just not getting it. Although they keep asking what has happened to Ariel (at least their concept of what Ariel should be), they are the ones who tried to dismiss him. At the end of the address, however, Ariel speaks to Caliban and confesses that he has fallen helplessly in love with Caliban's drab mortality. This love becomes the largest begged question: the relationship that enabled the address to take place. Ariel's "falsehood," an entity that knows no bounds and that falls in love with Caliban, conjoined with Caliban's, Caliban an entity that cannot speak, borrowing the language of that which knows no bounds, has brought about the shabby performance in the first place. Ariel has fallen in love with Caliban and has agreed to limit himself to limitations that are both real and possible. In the specific terms of Auden's "private Quicunque vult," the (Primary) imagination has fallen in love with a sacred object:
The sacred is that to which it [the Primary imagination] is obliged to respond; the profane is that to which it cannot respond and therefore does not know. The profane is known to other faculties of the mind, but not to the Primary Imagination. A sacred being cannot be anticipated; it must be encountered. [. . .] The impression made upon the imagination by any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance - an unchangeable quality, an Identity, as Keats said: I-am-that-I-am is what every sacred being seems to say.(21) ("Making, Knowing and Judging," Dyer's Hand 55)
In imagining that Caliban could speak and then letting him speak, Auden found in Caliban a sacred being. This event could not have been planned. It seems as if it is, in fact, that "unpredictable" "unforseen mishap" (Collected Poems 443). Had he used his imagination to retreat into a past or escape into a future, Auden would have become a victim to what Caliban describes:
Everything, in short, suggests Mind, but surrounded by an infinite extension of the adolescent difficulty, a rising of the subjective and subjunctive to ever steeper, stormier heights, the panting frozen expressive gift has collapsed under the strain of its communicative anxiety, and contributes nothing by way of meaning but a series of staccato barks or a delirious gush of glossolalia. (Collected Poems 441)
Caliban, then, is much more aware than the dog-skin, who, in recognizing as well the pervasiveness of mind and ideas, concluded his soliloquy:
Funny thing, Ticker, that we should both be in the same play. They can't do without us. If it wasn't for me, this young man of mine would never be able to get a good night's rest; and if it wasn't for you, he'd never wake up. And look what we do to the audience! When I come on, they start sighing, thinking of spring, meadows and goodness knows what else. While you make them demand a tragic ending, with you they associate an immensely complicated system of awards and punishments. (Plays 274)
Comparing these two speeches reveals an interesting role development. When he writes Caliban's address, Auden writes a more knowing narrator in Caliban than in Dog-skin: one who is, nevertheless, a combination of the dog-skin and Ticker. Caliban knows, moreover, that such a combination by its nature involves the audience (the facets of the self that are also a part of the same play). Like the dog-skin, Caliban does not think very highly of that audience's insight. Caliban sees that they keep getting it wrong, so much so that he finds himself "almost hoping, for your [their] sake, that I have had the futile honour of addressing the blind and the deaf" (Collected Poems 442).
Like Francis, who realizes that he cannot dictate the answer to such a "slow" audience, Caliban realizes that his fate, like Ariel's, lies in the hands of such an audience. Ultimately, their comment on Caliban's address is crucial. In the final section, the audience is warned once they leave this invisible place called "here" in the "land of habit that so democratically stands up for your right to stagestruck hope" (Collected Poems 437) not to choose either Caliban or Ariel: in that place called "there," where the choice has already been made, choosing either Caliban or Ariel, Caliban says, will result in disaster, and neither Caliban nor Ariel will have any choice but to obey the audience's "fatal foolish commands" (Collected Poems 437).
The fact remains; the choice already has been made. As Auden observes in his 1940 essay, "Mimesis and Allegory," art is concerned with what has already happened: "the Muses are the daughters of memory. For if past events cannot be altered, our attitude toward them can" (40). Caliban's address to the audience signifies that this choice has already been made and that as a result Caliban has no choice but to respond, thus giving the audience a chance to re-think its responses.
That Auden creates a Mobius strip text emphasizes the need for re-reading, for re-enforcing that such a choice has, in fact, been made. Like Caliban, the text is also an actor, repeating lines as if unaware of how the story comes out. Such a device emphasizes the drama in this poem and recalls Auden's rejection of determinism. As he said in 1938, "Drama is impossible if you believe that man's life is completely determined and he has no free will at all" (Plays 518). In Caliban's address, Auden dramatizes and thus objectifies his subjective experience of life, specifically the feeling that all choices made by the individual seem to that individual to be inevitable, to be determined by factors beyond that individual's control. Further, that same individual can see that the choices made by his or her friends are made by free will.(22) Even though nothing can erase events that have already happened, the power of the imagination to echo such events and to transform them into "stage-life" engages the individual with choices that help that individual to become what he is not yet ("Balaam and His Ass," Dyer's Hand 111): the moment "Between Shall-I and I-Will" (Collected Poems 403). Words speak for the imagination. Like the imagination, language, Auden believed, resists determinate endings:
Living language always overpowers the thinking of the individual man. It is wiser than the thinker who assumes that he thinks whereas he only speaks and in so doing faithfully trusts the material of language; it guides his concepts unconsciously towards an unknown future. (Secondary Worlds 122)
When Auden came to America in 1939, he faced an unknown future, and like anyone else emigrating to a new country, he had mixed feelings. In a sense, it was as if he had died and, like the audience to whom Caliban speaks, was facing a "new country." The audience members have lost their so great, so dead author. As a result, some wanted to return to a golden past, and some wanted to be taken ahead into some golden future. To the first, Caliban argues, it is not to some more empirically real past where the imagination will take them but to: "the end of your bachelor's journey where Liberty stands with her hands behind her back." (Collected Poems 439). To those who want to be taken ahead into some more spiritual future, Caliban argues, they will find only an "ever giddier collective gallop" into the "Black Stone on which the bones are cracked" (Collected Poems 441).
In this context, it is not difficult to read Caliban's address as a kind of glossary on Auden's life - leaving his bachelor's journey in England and coming to America, America, as Thekla Clark recalls, which was, for Auden, Chester Kallman (95). In the time immediately preceding Auden's work on the poem, moreover, Auden discovered Kallman's infidelity and said, as a result, that he felt like murdering Kallman's lover. Auden also said that he had wrapped his hands around Kallman's throat while Kallman was asleep (Davenport-Hines 222). The name Kallman sounds like the name Caliban, and we might conclude that in the ultimate act of control and/or ownership, Caliban is a corpse speaking for its dead author. We might even quote Auden here to lend credence to this interpretation. In his 1940 essay "Mimesis and Allegory," he observes, "The incantation of a curse is believed to be as practically effective as a stab with a knife, but aesthetics only begins when it is realized that one man curses another precisely because he knows he is unable to murder him" (33). We would ask why such things were on his mind. They must signify that he was thinking (only) of Kallman. According to Auden, there is a hierarchy of reading, however ("Reading," Dyer's Hand 4).(23) Emphasizing social context over artistic context may reflect at least one faction of criticism that is currently popular, but it does not prove its superiority and, more importantly, it ignores Auden's individual, historically specific awareness that he must serve as his own private audience, that poetry was no longer public or private but "intimate" ("Making, Knowing and Judging," Dyer's Hand 54). This awareness resulted in his aesthetic way of talking to himself, that is, talking with the facets of his personality.
For Auden, this aesthetic was founded on a belief in living language. It is not the language of a rhetorically empty aesthetic performance, such as that of the Vicar's in the Dogskin play. Rather, it is a language that by its living nature demonstrates Auden's ability to sit still and listen to his imagination's words find a form that opens the world of the mind and engages the feelings. As Auden told Spender, "As you know, my dominant faculties are intellect and intuition; my weak I must have knowledge and a great deal of it before I can feel anything" (Jenkins 72). It is language, as Caliban argues, that serves the poet in this way and allows him to escape the pitfalls of writing a merely egotistical poetry that is either a "series of staccato barks or a delirious gush of glossolalia" (Collected Poems 441). In other words, a poetry of either short lyrical "barks," as in the dog-skin's early state, composed of favorite words such as "walk" or "dinner" (determinate mimesis) or a poetry of self-indulgent subjectivity (private allegory).
It is a language that engages its audience in seeing again - as if for the first time - that in which they have already participated, seeing what they have not yet lived as if they have already lived it. In this respect, the language is both prologue and epilogue to the life not yet lived and prologue and epilogue to the life already lived. As an actor speaking for the imagination to and on behalf of the sacred object or human being, Auden consistently makes poetry out of such prologues and epilogues. For the imagination, whose relationship to this human creature is either momentary or timeless, "no consistent plot is possible" ("Genius & Apostle," Dyer's Head 441). One cannot demonstrate the imagination in the act of creating. By necessity, then, Auden's poetry is abstract drama, all action only implied. This stance, however, forms the consistency in Auden's oeuvre. Like Caliban's address, the Collected Poems form themselves an amazingly interwoven, encyclopedic range of echoes: echoes that come from this technique of echoes, not ideological theme.(24) Like prologues and epilogues, the poems are echoes of the same "play." They are echoes of apostrophe: of a poet using his imagination to address the audience of himself, echoing back his thoughts into apostrophes to the self and for the self.
True to himself, Auden was thus committed to revising his poetry, committed to growing as an artist, to using his art in order to become his actual self. Doing so was the result of reading himself, of being his own primary audience. Doing so, he could travel into the dangerous territory of dramatizing the making of poetry and the making of a poet, for himself first and then for others. Finding an art that focused in these dangerous ways on himself, he found a way of speaking for the imagination as apostrophe to self, talking to himself.
"Poetry," he declared in his 1939 elegy for Yeats, "makes nothing happen" (Collected Poems 248). This is its dramatic doing: to make Auden's imagination happen - that which we could not otherwise see or hear. In making nothing happen, Auden makes a dog-skin talk and then Caliban: these inarticulate entities served as mouthpieces for the imagination and helped Auden to see himself, "Mortal, guilty," yet "entirely beautiful" (Collected Poems 157). Moreover, this way of seeing the sell' is not in the Narcissistic fashion that Auden describes, "'After all,' sighed Narcissus the hunchback, 'on me it looks good'" ("Hic et Ille," Dyer's Head 94). Rather, it is seeing the self in a way that helps him to realize that it was not in spite of his limitations but because of them that he was blessed (Collected Poems 444).
To return to the idea of Auden's awareness of the too serious nature of James' prefaces, finally, this way of happening is not without comedy; its life-affirming quality comes through comedy. As Auden declared, "What no critic seems to see in my work are its comic undertones. Only through comedy can one be serious" (Osborne 339). Like Shakespeare's Touchstone, Caliban is a preposterously comic and crucially insightful figure, a character who works for uniting the members of society. For Auden, those facets include Caliban, Ariel, and the audience, who represent the different facets of Auden's personality. As Auden writes in "The Virgin & The Dynamo," a poem is comprised of a"crowd of recollected occasions of feeling, among which the most important are recollections of encounters with sacred beings (Dyer's Hand 67). In this case, the sacred object is Caliban, the mortal self that speaks for the real word. The poet "attempts to transform" his feelings for this object into a "community by embodying it in a verbal society" (Dyer's Hand 67). Auden's ability to use comedy in this way demonstrates that he met the greatest challenge of all: to make poetry that was neither public nor private but intimate, "the speech of one person addressing another" ("The Poet & The City," Dyer's Hand 84). Auden makes poetry out of the interior dialogues between the facets of himself and his imagination. He thus accepts rather than bemoans poetry's marginalized status. Not adding to that status by undermining poetry's ability to say anything lasting, he affirms poetry's ability to find an artistic way of happening: a way of surviving in the autobiographical valley of its own making.
1 Writing from the practicing poet's point of view in "Making, Knowing and Judging," Auden mentions these forms as he discusses what kind of critic he would trust; the critic would have to "like and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle" such things as "long lists of proper names such as Old Testament genealogies" (Dyer's Hand 47). The Englyn and Drott-Kvaett (actually the Drottkvaett) are both metrically complicated, Skaldic forms. In his essay, "The World of Sagas," Auden defines the Drott-Kvaett and gives an example of one that he wrote (Secondary Worlds, 67).
2 In Auden's Apologies for Poetry, Lucy McDiramid offers a partial list of book-length studies that have included interpretations of Caliban's address as the result of Henry James's influence on Auden. These include Edward Callan's Auden: A Carnival of Intellect; John Fuller's A Reader's Guide to W. H. Auden; Monroe Spears's in The Poetry of W. H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island. Without explaining why, she argues that Callan and Fuller call "the style of Caliban's talk 'Jamesian' McDiarmid insists on the necessity of explaining how Caliban's address is Jamesian, however, by specifying that it is because the language exudes James' written style (33). In attempting to demonstrate Auden's deliberate turn, in 1939, to undermining art, her focus on this written style aligns the language in Caliban's address with the language in the Vicar's sermon from the Dogskin play. She notes that Auden specifically calls the Vicar's sermon an example of how easy it is for spiritual insight to degenerate into merely aesthetic performance. To align Caliban's address with the language of the Vicar's sermon thus forces a connection that completely ignores Auden's aesthetic alignment of the dogskin's soliloquy with Caliban's address.
3 In Reading Auden: The Returns of Caliban, John Boly argues that Caliban is a highly inappropriate choice for a spokesman, that it should be Ariel (192).
4 This piece ended up in The Orators (Plays xix). Studying the relationship between this preface and Caliban's address makes a strong case for using Auden's work in order to explain his artistic development.
5 Mendelson notes that Auden's view here is quite opposite from Eliot's, that Auden's sense that the public will "stand, nay even enjoy a great deal of poetry" if the artist in fact would develop the latent possibilities in high-brow drama is a deliberate rebuttal to Eliot's assertion that Elizabethan drama "was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry." Mendelson further notes that when Eliot returned to drama in the 1930's, "he borrowed much of his dramatic method from Auden" (Plays xxii).
6 Auden thus bases his definition on what "the Gospels and St. Paul intended." He goes on to comment that the spirit-flesh division may have become popular because it appeals to "our passion for reproving and improving others instead of examining our own consciences" (Dyer's Hand 131). See also Auden's discussion of the Word becoming Flesh in the essay, "Words and the Word" (Secondary Worlds 136).
7 Auden delivered this speech in 1938, in Paris, at the end of his decade of writing for drama.
8 It is interesting that writing to Auden about the play, Isherwood sees that the scene should be staged by having on the chair an empty, folded dog skin speaking to the clock (Plays 363).
9 According to Mendelson, Isherwood and Auden had given the name Where is Francis? to their revision of The Chase. Everyone involved with the play shortened the title to Dogskin (Plays xxiii). Either Rupert Doone or Robert Medley suggested using The Dog Beneath the Skin as a "spoof" on the phrase "the skull beneath the skin" in T. S. Eliot's poem, "Whispers of Immortality." With such a rich title, it would be difficult to ignore what Auden does in the dog-skin soliloquy. In fact, as I am arguing, in Dogskin he only begins to plumb the possibilities of the dog-skin as an actor for the immortal imagination. It is no coincidence that years later Auden bases his definition of the imagination on such a connection, naming it that "natural human faculty" through which we prehend the sacred (Dyer's Hand 459-60).
10 The Vicar's sermon (featured in The Chase as the Gramaphone's "sermon") is frequently compared to Caliban's address. The comparison lends itself quite well to critical approaches such as that of Lucy McDiarmid. She argues that just as the Vicar's sermon shows the emptiness of aesthetic argument, so Caliban's address illustrates how Auden uses such emptiness to undermine art's ability to be anything more than frivolous play (30).
11 In this respect, writing the play demonstrates Auden's ability to create what in 1929 he called "stage life, something which is no imitation but a new thing" (Plays xvi).
12 In The Chase, the dog-skin initially refers to the "vulgar little boy" who hides in the dog-skin. Although the soliloquy ends-without saying that the "lodger" is waking up, the dog-skin does say it in the Dogskin play (Plays 156, 272).
13 I am not suggesting a comparison between the imagination's activity and that of echolalia: the pathological repetition of other people's words.
14 This emphasis highlights Auden serving as his own primary audience in Caliban's address. In a letter to Stephen Spender, Auden declares, "People imagine that I absorb things easily and quickly; this is true only in the most superficial way. On the contrary I am really someone who has to grow very slowly" (72).
15 Auden's essay "Mimesis and Allegory" reveals much about his thinking in this area. Delivered in 1940 to the English Institute, its argument is based on Auden's acute awareness that technology had far surpassed metaphysics, that society was out of balance. Realizing that the role of art - however marginal - needed to be based on a "sound aesthetic" in such times, Auden considers the metaphysical nature of art's role in relating to life (33).
16 Just as Ariel serves Caliban, so Caliban serves the dramatist/poet. As a servant, Caliban illustrates what as the relationship between master (author) and servant (Caliban) Auden defines in "Balaam and His Ass":
It is possible for a master to have not the faintest inkling of what his servant is really like [...]. but it is impossible for a servant, whether he be friendly, hostile, or indifferent, not to know what his master is like, for the latter reveals himself every time he gives an order. (Dyer's Head 139)
17 One such key reference appears in the conclusion of The Enchafed Flood:
More remarkable is the realisation by some of them [Romantic artists] that the artist is not, as he had thought, Don Quixote, the Religious Hero, but only Ishmael, the explorer of possibility for whom the Button Moulder and the Boojum are waiting at the next crossroads where they will be asked to prove whether or no (sic) they have become their actual selves. (149)
18 Auden's "Balaam and His Ass" draws an implicit but highly deliberate comparison between Caliban and Balaam's ass. Balaam's ass refers to the Old Testament (Numbers 22) story of the prophet-for-hire, Balaam, someone who, so to speak, was selling his talent to the highest bidder. It is his ass, however, who responds to the "real Word," an angel of God standing in the way.
19 On a very literal level it is Auden who writes the commentary, The Sea and The Mirror, Auden, in preparation for writing the piece, who reread all of Shakespeare's plays, in their historical order. The last of the plays is The Tempest, and his commentary on that play is this latest production (Carpenter 328).
20 In his biography of Auden, Richard Davenport-Hines premises his argument of Auden on this "Black Stone": "This biography of Auden is an account of a traveller who thought his goal was the black stone" (l). Although I agree that Auden did, in fact, drive himself hard, I must question Davenport-Hines' use of this metaphor. As Caliban asserts, this black stone awaits those who, in an effort to avoid themselves as they exist in the present moment, focus instead on some illusory self in some supposedly more spiritual future.
21 Caliban's address is thus an example of art responding to an artistic event that had already taken place in the poem "Lullaby" (1937), for example. In "Lullaby," the speaker expresses love for the "mortal, guilty" but to him "entirely beautiful" (Collected Poems 157). In Caliban, it is as if Auden realizes the latent possibilities for loving himself already expressed in his earlier poem. It is an event that, through his imagination, he knew would have to take place; as he wrote in "Legend" (1933), a poem that became a part of the dog-skin play:
Enter with him
These legends, Love;
For him assume
Each diverse form,
To legend native,
As legend queer;
That he may do
What these require,
Be Love, like him
To legend true. (Collected Poems 73)
22 This emphasis is seemingly reiterated in Auden's teaching at Swarthmore at the time. He had his students describe the "previous day's events backwards" (Carpenter 329).
23 In this respect, my reading of Auden differs greatly from, say, the approach of Richard Bozorth. In fact, Bozorth's way of reading Auden by setting the poems in the "social context of their production" prompted me to articulate another way of reading Auden. Setting the poems in the aesthetic context of their production, my focus aligns quite centrally with Auden's preferred way of reading - to identify the verbal contraption and the kind of "guy" speaking within it. As I hope is apparent, in setting Auden's poetry in the aesthetic context of its making, I am not, like Bozorth, offering a way of reading Auden primarily as a gay poet (emphasis mine, 709, 710). Auden's own rejection of focusing on an artist's sexual orientation is evident in his essays on Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, for example. Beginning with a writer's sexual orientation and moving from there to the poetry ignores the aesthetic strategies. It is possible, of course, to find homosexual coding in Auden's poetry, but that is only one level of meaning. In his essay, "Reading," Auden speaks of a hierarchy of readings: "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" (Dyer's Hand 4). Given his continued attention to aesthetic strategies, it seems reasonable to conclude that he placed such at the top of the hierarchy (that is, we have to understand the verbal contraption first in order to understand who is speaking in the poem)u As Carpenter notes, for Auden, reading was an activity that through the art could throw light on the life. Auden objected, by contrast, to any biography that tried to use the life to throw light on the artist's work (xvi).
24 In his study of Auden, John Boly argues that scholarship on Auden functions (still) on the thematic framework set up and critiqued in Randall Jarrell's 1945 review of Auden. Boly asserts, "Until that framework is challenged, the question of Auden's social commitment remains at an impasse" (42). Boly admits that he cannot break free of thematics. Viewing Auden's aesthetic strategy as one that produced a poetry of no consistent (thematic) plot enables us to understand that what appears to be a question of finding something to say and to keep on saying it is actually what Auden achieves in bringing drama into poetry. By his own example, he shows how to take drama, a public medium, and bring it into poetry, which for his time was neither public or private but "intimate": "the speech of one person addressing one person, not a large audience" (Dyer's Hand 84).
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Osborne, Charles. W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet. New York: M. Evans and Company Inc., 1995.
Spears, Monroe K. The Poetry of W. H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.
Valgemae, Mardi. "Auden's Collaboration with Isherwood on The Dog Beneath the Skin." Huntington Library Quarterly 21 (August 1968): 373-83.
Jo-Anne Cappeluti (email@example.com) earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside and is a part-time lecturer at California Slate University, Fullerton. She is searching for a full-time position in her area, Romantic to Modern, American and British Poetry. She has published articles in several journals, most recently, "Reaching Out of - Or Into - Speech: The Stylistics of Voice in T. S. Eliot and M. M. Bakhtin" (Yeats/Eliot Review 15.2, Spring 1998) and "Thank You, Fog: W. H. Auden as Presiding Genius" (Renascence 2.4, Summer 1997). Her essay, "The Reality of Poetry: Wallace Stevens and C. E. M. Joad," is forthcoming this Spring in The Wallace Stevens Journal.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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