The Auden Generation
'The duty of the artist,' Spender writes in his opening paragraph, 'is to remain true to standards which he can discover only within himself.' In his art he will seek to analyze modern life, and if he is a true realist, and an artist, that analysis will be revolutionary, because it will reveal the sickness of society. But the artist himself may be a reactionary (Spender takes admiring note of Rilke, Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence). 'What is important is the analysis, and not the means of achieving the change, which is not the primary concern of art.'
The analysis need not, then, be socialist. It cannot be proletarian, for there are no proletarian writers, and will be none until there is a working-class audience and a working-class tradition. In the meantime, bourgeois writers will have to go on analyzing what they know, that is, their own bourgeois world. On this point Spender attacks Caudwell, who had written in Illusion and Reality that the writer's only hope was to join the communist movement and identify himself with the interests of the working class. Spender rejects this notion entirely, and in so doing rejects the entire left-wing political commitment of his generation, including his own; the passage reads like a farewell to the hopes and illusions of the mid-decade, the years when action seemed possible:
Writers who have attempted to throw off their bourgeois environment to enter a revolutionary one, have only succeeded in uprooting themselves, in getting killed, or in ceasing to be writers and becoming politicians. Ashamed of the environment to which they are accustomed, they have not been able to acquire a convincing knowledge ofany other. This is particularly true of those who have not been able to take the final plunge, but have merery immersed thernselves in every kind of committee meeting and agitation. They have sacrificed a life of which they did after all know something, and entered a whirlwind where nothing is tangible.Caudwell appears again a few pages later, as the antagonist in another, related argument. In Studies in a Dying Culture he had called writers like Shaw and Wells pathetic becuause, though they were disillusioned with bourgeois culture, they were unable to wish for something better. Spender responds with a defence of such divided men:
The fundamental weakness of Caudwell's position is in assuming that the writer who is in a divided position is not in a position to portray historic truth. Surely, the fact that he derides, the 'illusionment' that makes these writers 'pathetic,' is precisely that thing in their historic situation which makes them interesting and valuable. The divisions between their interests is a fact, and one of the most significant facts in the history of our time.The point is the one that Spender had arready made: that the artist's function is not to change the world, but to analyze and understand it. But in personal terms it means that the artist accepts his inability to alter reality, and makes that inability his subject. It is, therefore, another aspect of that view of life which starts from the sense of human limitation—that is, the tragic view.
This separation of art from action is, like so many of Spender's utterances, a personal as well as a theoretical statement: it is a renunciation of his militant years, a confession of the failure of such effort. But it is also, more positively, a renewed commitment to art, not as an instrument, of political change, but as a human value. This confessional note is especially clear in the final paragraph of the essay, in which Spender pleads for a new kind of criticism which would judge writers by the truth of their anarysis rather than by their stated opinions.
It would follow from such a critical approach that we judged writers by the amount of life felt in their works, rather than by their political actions and opinions. In practical affairs this would mean that instead of appearing on political platforms and writing about aspects of life of which they know nothing, writers would write about the kind of life they knew best, learning as much about it as possible and saying what they believe to be true of it, without airing too much their opinions. Far too many writers and artists have been driven away from the centre of their real interest towards some outer rim of half creating, half agitation. A great deal is said about saving culture, but the really important thing is to have a culture to save.Spender called this position 'The New Realism,' but it was not new for him; it was rather a return to the position that he had taken in 'Poetry and Revolution' in 1933. And so this later essay seems a judgment, at the decade's end, of all the activist effort of the intervening years; poetically speaking, it had all been a mistake, a wasteful diversion of energies from the creative centre of his life to the political rim.
That image of centre and perimeter appears also in The Still Centre, the book of poems that Spender published in the same month in which The New Realism appeared. It was Spender's first collection since Poems in 1934, and he put into it all the work that he wished to preserve from the intervening five years; it therefore amounts to a record of Spender's ideas and concerns through those years, and is a parallel in poetry to the account of his career that he gives in The New Realism. The book is divided into four parts, which are roughly chronological: Part One contains the earliest poems, continuous in manner with Poems—emotional, high-pitched, full of unspecified feeling; Parts Two and Three are the occasional poems of the political years, including poems concerned with the Spanish War. Coming after these poems, the fourth part makes a dramatic contrast, a contrast which Spender was at pains to emphasize in his manifesto-like Foreword:
I think that there is a certain pressure of external events on poets today, making them tend to write about what is outside their own limited experience. The violence of the times we are living in, the necessity of sweeping and general and immediate action, tend to dwarf the experience of the individual, and to make his immediate environment and occupations perhaps something that he is even ashamed of. For this reason, in my most recent poems, I have deliberately turned back to a kind of writing which is more personal, and I have included within my subjects weakness and fantasy and illusion.He had chosen, as a conscious alternative to the earlier, more public, committed poetry, to write the kind of poetry that he had defended against Caudwell—the poetry of the divided man.
The first poem of this final section, 'Darkness and Light,' is about this choice; it begins:
To break out of the chaos of my darknessbut continues in the second stanza:
Into a lucid day is all my will;
Yet, equally, to avoid that lucid dayDay and darkness, the objective world and the self, are also imaged as the centre and circumference of a circle—the antithetical impulses toward and away from subjectivism, which are equally part of human identity. The resolution of the poem is an acceptance of both in the whole circle of the self:
And to preserve my darkness, is all my will.
The world, my body, binds the dark and lightThe relation of this poem to Spender's expressed intention is obviously very close; it is a programmatic poem, a demonstration of his turn back to the personal.
Together, reconciles and separates
In lucid day the chaos of my darkness.
'Darkness and Light,' and the poems that follow it, are most interesting for what they exclude: there are no suffering poor here, no exiles, no heroes, and no politics. Spender takes his body as the world, and self as the whole subject. There are poems of chitdhood and of lost love, and introspective self-examinations, and even a poem entitled 'The Human situation' is entirely concerned with subjective experience.