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THESE two books show that Mr. Auden's poetic talent is still prolific, but its direction is as confused as ever. The first is a play, the prose passages of which are written by Mr. Isherwood, a young British author who has won some fame as translator of Bandelaire's journals and as the creator of one of the nastiest characters in contemporary fiction. Despite the high rhetoric of the verse, and the crisp, business-like tone of the prose, the play is essentially unsuccessful, at least in the study. Whether it may act well is another question, which one may be disposed to doubt. The chief character is Michael Ransom, a young archaeologist, who is hired by the British Government to explore the peak of a mountain called F6 by the geographers. Ostensibly the reason is the advancement of archaeology, but we are shown, not so clearly as might have been that the reason is imperialist. Empire is to advance, a tribal nation is to be suppressed as the part of a programme. All the subsidiary characters are caricatures of English upper class types: there is the inevitable newspaper magnate, a very unreal person despite his peerage and suggested kinship to Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook. Because the characters do not convince the reader of their realty, the play fails to come to life, and one's memory of it is likely to be confined to certain passages good for declaiming at verse-speaking contests.
Mr. Auden's new poems are dedicated to his wife, Erika Mann, the daughter of Thomas Mann, and the dedicatory lines set the tone:
"Since the external disorder, and extravagant lies,
The baroque frontiers, the surrealist police;
What can truth treasure, or heart bless, But a narrow strictness?"
In other words, Mr. Auden's verse is becoming more intense by concentration upon political symbolism, but its intensity does not penetrate the consciousness of the mass of readers because his syntax is still involved, his imagery still "metaphysical" in the XVIIth century sense. Nevertheless, there is vast improvement in communication over previous volumes. One can understand these poems. The poetry of Auden is no longer the Chinese puzzle it was when it first began and when an aristocratic damsel in his "literary senate" gave her applause in those incomparable words, too funny to be other than apocryphal: "I feel Mr. Auden's poetry even though I do not understand it."
The barriers between the reader and Mr. Auden are being diminished. Such a passage as the following from the Prologue is simple when contrasted with the Orators:
"And make us as Newton was, who in his garden watching.
The apple falling towards England, became aware
Between himself and her of an eternal tie."
At the same time, the bond which once linked him with Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender has almost been severed, for both have taken the road to overt political action as advocates of the Popular Front in Great Britain. Will the bond finally snap? Or will it be repaired and will the three be joined again as the triumvirate of English poetry searching for "new country" of political and social experiment as well as of literary discipleship to masters like G. M. Hopkins, Yeats, and Eliot?
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