Literary Notes: Politics in a different conceptual context

EXPECTING AUDEN to be a kind of political poet has sometimes confounded his readers, who find they have to search quite hard for direct comments on public events. Can it be that the poet who by his own admission barely opened a newspaper until he was 23 was, after all, someone to whom general ideas remained more attractive than particular ones; private mental events taking precedence over public ones? No indeed, but his trick is to put the political into a different conceptual context altogether, in order to make us really think about it.

The early poem that nags at erotic love by pointing out that you might find yourself in love with Hitler is not very different from his later one which claims that his real lover is, in his Jewishness, an embodiment of the Holy Family. At one level, a poet's ideas about the world won't make very much sense. At a deeper level they take all possible worlds, and compel them into something more than sense.

His best purely political line might be the one that ends a 1938 war sonnet with choked despair:

And maps can really point to places

Where life is evil now:

Nanking. Dachau.

Two simple place-names, codes for mass murder. For Auden, the travelling and observing poet, newspapers were not necessary for such a line. Poets have been known to give up poetry forever in despair at the impossibility of using such facts.

Just over five years after writing that line, Auschwitz was liberated. Images of the horror preceded statistics and the images were woven into Auden's long poem of 1947, The Age of Anxiety. In it his Jewish character, Rosetta, claims that the faith of the persecuted recognises the will of God even in the most unbelievable adversity, even as "our bodies are chucked. Like cracked crocks / On to kitchen middens". But the sign of a great poet is not the ability to evoke such a newsreel reaction, nor even to lend a bold eloquence to the feelings of the refugees. It comes with the aforementioned conceptual shift, which in the case of The Age of Anxiety yielded a structural device of extraordinary depth and power.

The heroine of the poem, Rosetta, with three others whom she meets in a New York bar, conducts a spiritual quest for authenticity in a dream landscape which becomes a conceit for the human body. Auden had wanted to write a Dantesque allegory since 1932, and there is Dante aplenty in the poem (and much Kierkegaard) but, in tribute to Rosetta and her real- life original, from whom he had borrowed a book on Jewish mysticism, the symbolism is closely modelled on the Zohar, and suggests the soul's mourning of the body in its preparation for judgement. Rosetta's final speech ends with the Hebrew prayer which translates as "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one", and at the time of the poem's publication Auden was still ready to speculate with friends on what would happen if he were to convert to Judaism.

Elsewhere in Auden the terrible subject of the Holocaust is similarly occluded by the feigning tongue of poetry. For example, in the cabaret sketch "Alfred", the Jews are the cajoled and threatened goose; in "For the Time Being", they are the children over whom Rachel weeps "and would not be comforted because they are not".

It is in the best tradition of poetic indirection that Auden operates. His concern is not programmatic, but organic. Expect no posters or banners. War is the failure of politics; genocide is the failure of war. It may be impossible to write about, but a great poet will tackle it somehow.

John Fuller is the author of `W.H. Auden: a commentary' (Faber, pounds 30)