W.h. auden

Cheerful meanderings: Caret, by Adam Mars-Jones, reviewed

The novelistic tube or nozzle through which experience is squeezed in order to be bletted on the page in words, and in turn create the illusion of experience in the reader, is a slender one. Novelists have often perversely focused on the narrowest of lives. Xavier de Maistre wrote an entire travelogue in the 1790s about 42 days spent in his room, while Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s debut novel in 1985 was about a character refusing to leave his bathroom.  Should undertakers ever have suntans? And when does ‘mummy’ become ‘mum’ as a form of address? These spectacular exercises in technique present a parallel to what has always been the case, the

Andrew Motion pays tribute to his poetic mentors

Andrew Motion has previously published a memoir of childhood, In the Blood (2006), but this new book focuses on his becoming a poet, his search for mentors and subsequent writing life. Motion, a country boy, has a Words-worthian bent, and talks about the pull of evocative recollections, already hardening when he entered adulthood, as ‘equivalent to the songs of the Sirens’, explicitly ‘spots of time’. He is, as one might expect, good on poetry’s general appeal – ‘ it prizes compression and distillation in a world of deliquescence’ – and perceptive on the root cause of its lure for him. The appeal of ‘falling in love with a dead man’

The pacifists of the 1930s deserve greater understanding

As I’ve occasionally come to think is the case with The Spectator, this book is perhaps best begun at the back. Otherwise it might be taken for niche history – applied historical moral philosophy, say, or an aspect of ‘the people’s war’ usually overshadowed by the manifest imperative to defeat the unparalleled evil of Nazism. That evil, concludes Tobias Kelly, professor of political and legal anthropology at Edinburgh, has indeed ‘become the frame through which we seem to assess all evils’; but ‘the spectre of appeasement has also reared its head too often’. As a result, ‘we have been quick to get carried away with the virtue of war when

Britten at war

‘I feel I have learned lots about what not to write for the theatre…’ There’s a prevailing idea that the ever-precocious Benjamin Britten was an operatic natural — a composer whose gift sprang fully formed with the première of Peter Grimes in 1945. But that’s not strictly true. Go back just a few years to 1941 and you’ll find Paul Bunyan — the oversized skeleton in Britten’s musical closet. Rewind those few years and Britten, darling of post-war England, was all but a national pariah. A pacifist who had escaped conscription by travelling to America, he was forced to take work wherever he could find it. ‘Simple, marketable works’ was

The obsession with diversity in theatre risks spoiling Shakespeare

Twelfth Night launched at the National Theatre this week, with Malvolio turned into Malvolia. ‘We’ve definitely upped the gender-bendedness of the play,’ says Phoebe Fox, who is acting Olivia. Otiose, one might think, since the original is gender-bent to perfection. But Shakespeare did not have to wrestle with the strict controls now demanded in the subsidised theatre. In the same feature in which Phoebe Fox speaks, Ben Power, the deputy director of the National, tells the Sunday Times, ‘There are agendas we are aware of now, and we have targets in terms of gender and ethnicity, because we want to be as diverse as possible, speaking to our audiences, reflecting

What you learn when you learn a poem by heart

I’ve just learned by heart another poem — my first in nearly 30 years. The one I chose was A.E. Housman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’, not for any special reason other than that it’s part of the canon and that it happened to be in an anthology conveniently to hand by the bath when I decided to embark on this new venture. When I started, it was purely for the mental exercise. (I mean, nice though it is to be able to quote lines of verse, I can’t conceive of many circumstances when I’ll be able to wheel out a phrase like ‘When Uricon the city stood’ and be congratulated for

Putting Germany together again

The purpose of Lara Feigel’s book is to describe the ‘political mission of reconciliation and restoration’ in the devastated cities of Germany after 1945 (though no politicians were directly involved). The chief needs of the shattered population at the time were, of course, practical: food, water, sanitation and the reconstruction of buildings. But a vital supplementary effort was made to address what was left of German culture and history after the crimes and falsifications of the Nazis. The idea was that the arts should revive an alternative, peaceful and civilised way of life in the ruins of the country. It is surprising that no mention is made of the reform

A life well lived

‘I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one,’ wrote David Hume on the eve of his death in 1776, under the title, ‘My Own Life’. It is with this same title that, accepting the inevitable progression of metastatic cancer in his liver at the age of 81, Oliver Sacks paid tribute to his favourite philosopher. Like Hume, the charge of vanity was not unfamiliar to Sacks when writing about his achievements and the shapes of his inner life. In a way rare for a doctor, Sacks was prepared to admit that vanity is part of

Casual, funny, flirtatious, severe

When The Waste Land first appeared, there were rumours that it was a hoax. It seemed so strange: 400 lines in many languages, and even the sections that were in English looked as if the author was only teasing. ‘Twit twit twit’ ran one line: ‘Jug jug jug jug jug jug.’ Eliot’s long poem was published first in Criterion in October 1922, and then in an American magazine the following month. Eliot had also sold the rights to publish it as a book, but his publishers feared that the poem alone was too short. To make it a little longer, Eliot added half a dozen pages of sporadic notes. The

Lines of beauty | 24 September 2015

David Jones (1895–1974) was a remarkable figure: artist and poet, he was a great original in both disciplines. His was an art of ‘gathering things in’ that engaged imaginatively with history and myth, with his Welsh heritage and the Christian religion. But art also comes out of conflict, and the tension between the two sides of Jones’s creative nature was the motive force that powered so much, both visual and written. Thus it can be misleading to separate his writing from his painting, for they form and express a single vision. However, Jones is presently most celebrated for his writing, particularly his first world war epic poem, In Parenthesis. Before

The mean, bullying maestro is extinct – or should be

W.H.Auden once wrote: ‘Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue’ — which puts those who aspire to be artists in a bit of a quandary. Is it a measure of one’s success as a ‘real artist’ that one is not a nice person? Is it in fact possible to be a real artist and a nice person? And, if it is not, is it better to be a real artist or a nice person? Auden, who was speaking from first-hand experience, implies that it must be one or the other. By the time he wrote this, Auden was

Why is Tippett’s King Priam so difficult to love?

The difference between lovable, likable and admirable is perhaps more significant in the operatic world than in other artistic spheres — and is often, alas, translatable directly into all-important box-office receipts. The most ambitious production in English Touring Opera’s spring season provides an opportunity to see where Michael Tippett’s second opera, King Priam, fits on the spectrum. Premièred in Coventry in 1962, one day before Britten’s War Requiem, it’s rarely staged but often spoken of in tones of hushed awe; and it is undoubtedly a remarkable work: spare, concise, fierce and often irresistible in its conviction. After the strange, sprawling, socks-and-sandals allegory of Tippett’s first opera The Midsummer Marriage, the

What would Auden have deemed evil in our time? European jingoism

‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno’ was the first Auden poem that Alexander McCall Smith read in his youth. He discovered it in an anthology, and it puzzled him because he had not then visited Italy. A little later, Smith found Auden’s elegy to Sigmund Freud, and was enthralled by its promise that psychoanalysis frees people ‘to approach the future as a friend/ without a wardrobe of excuses, without/ a set mask of rectitude or an/ embarrassing over-familiar gesture.’ When Smith began his careful, systematic reading of Auden while living under civil war conditions in Belfast, he found the hostility, menace and anxiety of Auden’s pre-1939 poems attuned to his environment. The