1When reflecting in 1965 in the Foreword to a re-edition on the three months spent in Iceland from June to September 1936, of which about two were spent in the company of Louis MacNeice, Auden contemplated cutting the final chapter of Letters from Iceland, entitled Auden and MacNeice, Their Last Will and Testament, on the grounds that it seemed “excessively private in its jokes” (10). He finally kept it because, “American friends to whom all the Proper Names are unknown have said that they enjoyed it, so [he] left it as it was” (11). A further edition was published by Faber in 1998, testifying to the enduring appeal of the book as a whole. However, critics have had remarkably little to say about Letters from Iceland, possibly because of the difficulty of double authorship. Humphrey Carpenter gives it short shrift in his biography of Auden, and a review of a 1997 American edition finds it totally lacking in distinction and “elusive”, reserving a special mention for Their Last Will as “veiled salacious gossip about [the poets’] acquaintances in London” (Hart). It is true that the text contains private jokes and displays a vast quantity of proper names, some of which have reached posterity, but of which many are now completely unknown, and it bears little relation to the country the book is supposed to portray. Rather it is a good example of the “flashy songs” so different from Icelandic asceticism, according to MacNeice in his poem ‘Iceland’ in Letters from Iceland:
So we who have come
As trippers North
Have minds no match
For this land’s girth;
The glacier’s licking
Our pride of life,
Our flashy songs […] (226).
2My starting-point for this article is the paradox of this extreme case of the private / public divide: how does a text that is so private as to be only decipherable to a small coterie, and which should logically provoke a reaction of exclusion and rejection (as in the critical comment above), nevertheless attain a wider audience? And not only a wider audience, but one increasingly distant in time. Why did the poets end their book of letters with a text that reverses the pattern used hitherto: instead of being addressed to one specific addressee while intended for the reader at large, this chapter is addressed to a multitude of people, while being actually intended for a happy few? Furthermore, what made a poet – what is more a poet no stranger to obscurity in his verse – think of discarding a piece of poetry on the grounds that it might not be readily understood? Poetry is after all an oblique mode of writing. While seeming to hesitate between two roles, either as a burlesque thirties text, with its array of political, intellectual and artistic shapers of the decade, or as a cliquish quirky farce full of in-jokes, the poem is in fact as MacNeice writes of the whole trip to Iceland “a fancy turn, you know, / Sandwiched in a graver show” (251).
3The phrase ‘a thirties classic’ is used on the back cover of the 1965 edition of Letters from Iceland, which is to place it alongside Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, 1939, Orwell’s Hommage to Catalonia and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), as one of the significant literary testimonies of one of the most compelling and disturbing periods of modern history. Indeed, to set about researching the public figures cited in Their Last Will is to embark upon an enriching historical, intellectual and artistic exploration of the period. The text is a nomenclature loosely sorted into categories, including politicians, church officials and spiritual leaders, academics, educationalists, cultural institutions, essayists, journalists and creative artists, as well as friends and acquaintances. We meet, for instance, a range of prime ministers, heads of state or other politicians of note, including Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Ramsay MacDonald, Lord Craigavon, Eamon De Valera, cabinet secretary Maurice Hankey, diehard conservative Lord Lloyd, fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, to name but a few. As well as shapers of history, many of the legatees are moulders of the mind, including the influential literary critic I.A. Richards, the philosophers Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, Lord Baden Powell the founder of the scout movement, Cyril Norwood the educationalist who promoted the ‘English tradition’, or Tubby Clayton, who was an army chaplain during the First World War and the founder of Toc H, an international Christian movement.
4The authors’ tone is not that of outright political satire though, and the mockery is mostly mild. Thus, Sir Maurice Hankey is left “the Vicar of Bray’s discretion” (231), an allusion to the clergyman’s legendary political opportunism, Winston Churchill is bestowed the “dry harbour” of the small inland Irish town Ballinrobe (231), possibly with reference to a taste for the tipple, General O’Duffy, the Irish general with fascist leanings, is left the cryptic “Harp That Once / Started and somehow was never able to stop” (234), while Oswald Mosley is described as “purulent” but is bequeathed nothing worse than, to rhyme with “stench”, “a rather unpleasant word in French” (237). Each is playfully or maliciously mocked with tongue-in-cheek humour: I.A. Richards is bequeathed “a quiet evening in a boarding-house” / bawdy-house, Wittgenstein’s arcane style is lampooned through a bequest of “all readers who can spare the wits”, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell is bestowed “belief in God” (234), Baden-Powell is bequeathed “a piece of string” – highly useful on a scout camp – (232), Cyril Norwood is left “a new spittoon” and Tubby Clayton some gingerpop as a quip at his teetotalling evangelism (234). Among the artists, musicians and writers cited are Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Clive Bell, and the critic I.M. Parsons who, it is hoped rather spitefully, may “feel at last / A creative impulse” (239).
5The bequests range from trivial objects of everyday life such as an explorer’s cap or a cider mug, through buildings or architectural works such as a Martello tower, the Shell Mex House on the Strand or the Albert Memorial, to natural scenery and landscapes in England or Ireland and immaterial benefits such as “a constant grudge”, “the falling birth-rate” or “a passionate affair”. However quirky or incongruous, the bequests fall loosely into two metonymical groups, one associated with traditional English life, landscape and values, the other with modernity. In the list above, for instance, “the falling birth-rate” is a sign of the times and so is “a passionate affair”, as the thirties were a psychoanalytical decade that, in the wake of Freud and D.H. Lawrence, had discovered the libido. The text thus comprises a sort of portrait, or rather an extensive travelling shot, of a period of transition, to which testify also the numerous educators and schoolteachers concerned with the problem of transmission at such a time, advocating nostalgic or progressive didactics.
6Formally the poem is a parody of a legal document, and adopts a mock-formal syntactical structure, “Item….item…item”. Within this legal framework comedy quickly arises in the opening lines with the mock-solemnity and incongruity, whether images and metaphors, unpronounceable Icelandic names or the exaggerated feminine rhymes typical of light verse:
We, Wystan Hugh Auden and Louis MacNeice,
Brought up to speak and write the English tongue
Being led in the eighteenth year of the Western Peace
to the duck-shaped mountainous island with the Danish King,
At Melgraseyri in Isafjördardjup
Under the eaves of a glacier, considering…etc etc.
Do set down this, our will and testament (1-7).
7There is considerable theatricality here and the testament is not a document to be read, but one that is declaimed from an imaginary stage as a sort of dual soliloquy, in which the poets speak now singly, now together, with different tones and registers succeeding each other but without ever fracturing the overall unity. For instance, Louis MacNeice’s lines devoted to his Irish home and family, in simple language and a frank tender tone, are followed by the witty urbanity of the political satire, whose levity, likewise, is tempered with gravity when a sombre tercet is inserted among the more light-hearted quips: “And I to all my friends would leave a ration / Of bread and wit against the days which slant / Upon us black with nihilistic passion” (239). One of the fascinations of Letters from Iceland is indeed its combination of fun and foreboding, and Their Last Will is likewise haunted by the sound of marching jackboots. The poem opens and closes on an image of weeping, first at the impending European demise: “The autumns, personal and public, which already creep / through city-crowded Europe, and those in want / Who soon must look up at the winter sky and weep” (228); then from despair at ever making the world a better place: “And to the good who know how wide the gulf, how deep / Between Ideal and Real, who being good have felt / The final temptation to withdraw, sit down and weep” (250). These images set a sombre tone that chimes with the paralysing anxiety of the build-up to the Second World War.
- 1 Perec’s La Disparition, for example, advocates, le “le primat du significant”.
- 2 “Auden, éternel ‘exmatrié’ en quête de ce que Desnos, dans Corps et Biens, appelle la ‘mammemonde’. (...)
8A more recent text that speaks for a generation while displaying formal similarities with Their Last Will is French author Georges Perec’s succession of fragments in Je me souviens (1978), an elegiac inventory composed of hypnotic anaphoric repetitions that tap into memories both personal and public. Their Last Will is, moreover, a somewhat Oulipian piece of writing, with its demanding stanzaic form, its hypertrophic expansion of a staple feature of oral epics, the inventory, and the heavy bias towards the signifier.1 The fact that any inventory of names more nearly concerns the namers than the named is a staple of the psychoanalytical method, and Auden likewise writes in his essay ‘Words and the Word’: “Give me a list of the names in your life and I will tell you who you are” (SW 107). Pascal Aquien has shown how Auden disseminates his name through his choice of signifiers and proper names, noting the recurrence of the consonantal cluster /st/ found in his first name Wystan, for instance, and of the near-homophones of Auden such as Aidan and Odin. Their Last Will is no exception to this rule2 and the first lines devoted to political figures, in particular, annotated “W. L.” to indicate double authorship, contain a dense concentration of proper names morphologically or phonetically related to Auden’s name, including Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Randolph, Sir Maurice Hankey, Gran Chaco, Balkan Conscience, Hambro’s Bank, Austen Leigh, Stanford in B flat, Protestant Deacon… Moreover, the poem’s would-be unpoetic legal structure serves, by contrast, to enhance the pleasure that is to be found in lists (a pleasure particularly intense where Auden was concerned (Beekman Taylor 231, passim), and in the physical properties of names for their own sake: "words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves" (Auden, SW 103-127). In both generational texts, Perec’s and Auden/MacNeice’s, the catalogues of diverse fragments are bound together musically and rhythmically so as to transcend the particularities of the sixties on the one hand, the thirties on the other, thus brushing the robes of pure poetry.
9However, none of this begins to account for the real interest of this text, which is, I suspect, elsewhere. What is the role of this final chapter of Letters from Iceland which, although composed of letters in diverse styles and very funny, is also, undoubtedly, a piece of helpful and informative travel writing? Apart from a few allusions, such as the place names in the opening lines and the stones of the Kaldidalur desert that the poets bequeath to Iceland’s Hambro’s bank, Their Last Will has nothing to do with Iceland and everything to do with England. Furthermore, the chapter also contrasts with the preceding ones in its form; terza rima is a rare, very exacting form comprising 3 lines of iambics with an interlocking rhyme scheme, whereby the middle rhyme provides the first and third-line rhyme of the ensuing tercet, so that the rhyme scheme is: aba, bcb, cdc and so on. Why take the trouble of writing 202 stanzas of terza rima (plus a closing quatrain) if merely to cock a facetious snook at the establishment and share some jokes with their friends? It is true the middle-line rhyme is not a full rhyme but a half-rhyme or consonance, which makes the constraint less demanding and the tercets more flexible, and the unorthodox light-verse rhymes also distort the rhythm. Indeed, Monroe Spears, underlines the rarity of terza rima in Auden’s oeuvre and cites a passage from The Sea and The Mirror, not mentioning the “Last Will and Testament” at all. (52). Yet the fact that the two poets chose this form, thereby foregrounding the distinct character of the text within Letters from Iceland and within their own poetic practice, is intriguing as well as impressive – especially when the effect obtained is comic. So far my remarks have concerned both poets, but I will now focus Auden, as the poem clearly draws deeply on Auden’s poetic worlds, as we shall see.
- 3 “La langue va où elle veut, mais elle est sensible aux suggestions de la littérature. Sans Dante, i (...)
10The answer to this enigma lies, I suggest, in the links of the text with a hidden hypotext: one of the principal modernist references hailed as one of the founding European literary works, and also part of Auden’s personal Parnassus, Dante’s Commedia Divina. It can be no coincidence that terza rima is the verse form used in this poem. Contemporary poet James Fenton observes: “Whenever in English poetry three rhyme-words are needed, there are problems, and there are problems with terza rima because it is so associated with Dante, and therefore not likely to be funny” (IEP 61). Terza rima was in fact invented by Dante on the occasion of the Divine Comedy, and it was also with this poem that he forged his “vulgate”, his man-in-the-street’s Italian, which, henceforth, would be increasingly widely used and become, according to Umberto Eco,3 the instrument of national unity. As well as a courtly lover whose love for Beatrice, first unrequited and then frustrated by her death, elevated his soul, Dante was also active in Florentine politics and, for political reasons, banished into exile. All these elements are relevant to the thirties poets; Auden, in particular, who after Iceland went to combat fascism first in Spain after the outbreak of the civil war, then in China (this time as an observer) against the Japanese, and who, in 1939, removed himself from Europe and settled in the United States. In his case homosexuality was also perhaps experienced as a form of exile; indeed Auden was a constitutive exile, as Pascal Aquien argues in De l’Eden perdu au jardin des mots, who sought in leaving England both existential and linguistic rootlessness (Jenkins 75-97). Written at a time of temporary exile prior to the more permanent one, Their Last Will, as its title suggests, does indeed announce a kind of demise or at least a withdrawal, and the poem can be read as a farewell gesture, a Goodbye To All That. Looking back thirty years later on the play he wrote with Christopher Isherwood just before leaving for Iceland, The Ascent of F6, Auden said in an interview:
F6 was the end, I knew I must leave [England] when I wrote it… I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a member of the British establishment (Carpenter 195).
11The object of this withdrawal is the “primary world”, to cite Auden’s borrowing from J.R. Tolkien in his essay ‘The World of Sagas’; that is to say, “the given world outside ourselves into which we are born, live, love, hate and die” (SW 41). However, if we step back and consider the poem within Letters from Iceland – which although a travel account is nonetheless a modernist collage comprising disparate, voices, styles, languages etc. – as a sort of mythic mise-en-abyme, as a journey in a journey, to neither Iceland nor London but to the land of the dead or dying, it bears a close resemblance to the “secondary”, numinous world of imagination of The Divine Comedy, in particular the Inferno. Indeed, as in Dante’s Inferno with its catalogue of famous names from Antiquity or public figures of Medieval Florence or Rome, we move, as we have seen, through different circles, the spheres of power inhabited by politicians, businessmen, men of the church, London’s literary circles and so on, on to the private circles of friends and acquaintances. Some, we could say, are sinners bequeathed their just deserts, some are in purgatory and their gifts whether bane or boon it is hard to say, and some are in Paradiso and receive generous gifts. All have their share of responsibility in the general disaster, as the opening lines make clear:
Believing man responsible for what he does,
Sole author of his terror and his content.
The duty is to learn, to make his choice;
On each the guilt of failure, and in each the power
To shape, create and move, love and rejoice (228).
12The text thus shares with The Divine Comedy the notion of individual responsibility, and there are further parallels.
13In his article ‘The Divine Comedy of Auden’, Monroe Spears divides Auden’s oeuvre into three parts, with the pre-1939 poems corresponding to a contemporary Inferno in which punishment is replaced by psychosomatic illness:
One way of juxtaposing Auden and Dante is to consider Auden’s oeuvre as falling into three stages corresponding to the three realms of the Commedia. The early poems (through 1939) constitute an Inferno, in which the inhabitants of “this country of ours where nobody is well” reveal their spiritual faults through physical appearance and posture (54).
14In Auden’s early poem ‘Miss Gee’, for instance, who dies of cancer, illness is ascribed to frustrated desires or neurosis: “Childless women get it, / And men when they retire; / It’s as if there had to be some outlet / for their foiled creative fire” (CSP 111). In Their Last Will the Dantean system of “contrapasso”, whereby the sinners are condemned eternally to carry out their particular sin in reverse, is paralleled by certain bequests that constitute a logical consequence of immoral or perverse behaviour, such as when an aircraft manufacturer thought to be selling arms to Romania is bequeathed a guilty conscience and insomnia:
To Vickers the Gran Chaco (for agents must be paid),
The Balkan conscience and the sleepless night we think
The inevitable diseases of their dangerous trade (232).
15And just as Virgil invites Dante to learn from his journey through Inferno from the recognition and the rejection of sin, so the comic bequests, with varying degrees of severity and subtlety, mock human behaviour and activity ranging from the most pernicious, such as when Rome is bequeathed “all the lives by Franco gently stopped” (232), to the quaintly eccentric and harmless, such as when Beverley Nichols, a writer known at the time for his gardening books, is left the lower half of the statue of Peter Pan, a composition of flowers and woodland animals that stands in Kensington Gardens.
16Similarly, the journey in Inferno passes through concentric circles of increasing sinfulness until the poets reach Satan himself, and Their Last Will begins in the public realms the furthest from the poets, progresses through the more familiar circles of educators, artists and writers, followed by acquaintances from all walks of life, before focusing on the poets’ own bodies and minds, whose parts and attributes are distributed to such beneficiaries as the “Home / for Lost Dogs and Cats” or “the Birmingham Hippodrome” (247). Towards the end of the poem the tone becomes more solemn and the inhabitants – or inmates – of this world are divided into “the lost” (Dante’s “perduta gente”) and “the good” (250). Behind the final quatrain with its prayer for the common good, a better society however imperfect, it is tempting to picture the two poets alone and in exile, physical and existential, having given everything they possess away piecemeal, from their exceptional talents for seeing and saying right down to their bodily parts, and to read the closing prayer for the good as a prayer for themselves:
We pray the power to take upon themselves the guilt
Of human action, though still as ready to confess
The imperfection of what can and must be built,
The wish and power to act, forgive, and bless (250).
- 4 “Valéry and Stravinsky prefer the formal to the happy-go-lucky, an art which disintoxicates to an a (...)
17Both Dante and Auden, moreover, were involved in the search for a poetic language with didactic or healing powers; just as the journey through Inferno was intended to bring the poet-hero to a “recognition and rejection of sin”, so Auden sought a poetic art that through the solitary mind could heal the body politic, preferring, as he wrote of Paul Valéry and Igor Stravinsky, “an art which [disintoxicated] to an art which would bewitch”.4 “The three greatest influences on my own work have been, I think, Dante, Langland, and Pope,” he wrote (CMS 132), all of whom were “public” poets concerned with the welfare of society. Comparing Auden’s Dante with Eliot’s, Nicholas Jenkins argues that the former’s was “an explorer not a mystic, a pragmatist not a dogmatist” (90), and that, with relation to Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ in which the psychoanalyst is compared with the poet:
For Eliot, Dante was the point of origin of European vernacular literatures, the poet of total orthodoxy and of the ‘still centre’. Conversely, Auden’s Dante is in motion here: an explorer, a traveller, a disenchanter, an empiricist(89).
18Indeed Their Last Will is a sort of taking stock, a realist’s appraisal of the state of things. As if echoing Dante’s celebrated “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate” ("Abandon here all hope, ye who enter here"), Auden seems to despair of disintoxicating his audience, of finding an antidote to bewitchment of all kinds, and thus of ever rebuilding the fallen city.
19It is as if the many pressures, public and private, had proved too much of a strain. First the international situation, with a more urgent sense of foreboding now that the news of the civil war in Spain had reached the two poets in Iceland, “Down in Europe Seville fell, / Nations germinating hell”, wrote MacNeice (LI 251): the impending European disasters and the demise of civilisation. Secondly the experience of Iceland and the poets’ observation that the long dead heroes of the sagas were part and parcel of the life and landscape: “Corrugated iron / Farms inherit / The spirit and phrase / Of ancient sagas”, MacNeice again (‘Iceland’, CP 70); that poetry therefore had not become estranged from the people, that that vital link had not been severed by the elitism which, in England, had pushed a wedge between poetry and its natural audience (Beekman Taylor). The English class structure, moreover, pervades Their Last Will through the predominantly elitist background of the people mentioned. This is, after all, the poet who, with reference to his Oxford Book of Light Verse (which he would have preferred to call The Oxford Book of Light and Popular Verse), stressed the importance of popular writing because he believed that,
even more than serious poetry, [it] demonstrates clearly the differences between the sensibilities of different ages of civilisation, since it usually reflects not one man’s taste so much as the taste of his audience. (Carpenter 231).
- 5 “The marriage in each of us, whether as writers or readers, between the Historian (the will-to-trut (...)
20The discovery likewise that the world of sagas had preserved in its mythic-realism the perfect combination of the desire to know the truth about “the given world outside ourselves”, and the desire to “make new secondary worlds of our own or, if we cannot make them ourselves, to share in the secondary worlds of those who can”.5 Thirdly, the weariness with a stifling society composed of infernal circles of all kinds: literary, artistic, educational, cultural and homosexual, providing riches and rootedness but lacking air to breathe or sky to fly in. It is as something had given, as if illusions of all kinds – public and private, political and aesthetic – were lost, and all that can be done is to withdraw from the public role assigned to the poets as members of “the Auden generation”, to withdraw from responsibility, from the effort of salvaging what could be saved of Western civilisation. This seems particularly true of Auden, who in Iceland has caught a glimpse of the proto-poet he dreamt of being and, finding him, has lost; not unlike that other poet who quietly withdrew to outlive himself in a new identity, Arthur Rimbaud, presented here in a sonnet by Auden:
The nights, the railway arches, the bad sky,
His horrible companions did not know it;
But in that child the rhetorician’s lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.
Drinks bought him by his weak and lyric friend
His five wits systematically deranged,
To all accustomed nonsense put an end;
Till he from lyre and weakness was estranged.
Verse was a special illness of the ear;
Integrity was not enough; that seemed
The hell of childhood: he must try again.
Now galloping through Africa, he dreamed
Of a new self, a son, an engineer,
His truth acceptable to lying men (CSP 126).
21Fortunately for us, Auden did not break as radically with his past as Rimbaud, and continued writing poetry. Their Last Will nevertheless marks a turning-point in his life as man and writer and the poem seems to encapsulate an in-between moment of existential alienation: despite having given England the slip, history and the hell of society have caught up with him and the poem presents England as a stifling huis clos composed of elitist circles and coteries.
22Finally, the poem illustrates what Auden would later define as the “two atlases”: one “the public space where acts are done”, the other “the inner space /Of private ownership” (“New Year Letter”, CP 180); the political and the personal, the public and the private, the primary and the secondary worlds, the thirties classic and an existential pause. In accordance with the expression “Humour is the politeness of despair”, Auden and MacNeice thus write their incongruous antiphrastic poem as a sort of elegant, erudite decoy – a strategy reinforced, moreover, by the awkward question of dual authorship; transferring their endowments to worthy people such as their poet alter egos:
To our distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence
Of the European heritage […] (238),
23they quietly, unobtrusively, bow themselves out.