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Ernst Toller and Ada Doom

Auden's 1939 string of elegies and farewellings – 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', 'In Memory of Ernst Toller', 'September 1, 1939', and 'In Memory of Sigmund Freud' – contain some curiously discordant notes, as if there were some anarchic or nihilistic principle in them struggling against the ostensible protocol of solemnity.

For example, the Yeats elegy is filled with some fanciful Tennysonian echoes, which seem to hint at an odd analogy between the Irish poet and the Duke of Wellington. And the gravely preoccupied and anguished 'September 1, 1939' (so much in the news recently; I suppose, given that Auden said he finished the poem on 3 September 1939, one could say that the poem was completed 70 years ago today) begins with evocations of Ogden Nash's insouciant poem, 'Spring Comes to Murray Hill'.

I noticed another freakish note, this time in 'In Memory of Ernst Toller'. In that poem, written in May 1939, after Toller, whom Auden knew fairly well, had hanged himself in a New York hotel, Auden ponders the possible reasons for Toller's suicide. He wonders whether some early trauma was the ultimate cause: 'Did the small child see something horrid in the woodshed | Long ago?'

What is strange about this is that the question in this very depressed, subdued poem is couched in terms provided by a flagrantly comic novel of the period. Cold Comfort Farm, published by Stella Gibbons in 1932, is the story of the orphaned Flora Poste's stay with her relatives the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. The novel relates Flora's attempts to help the inhabitants of this strange outpost of madness in the heart of the English countryside become just slightly less eccentric.

One such inhabitant is the malevolent Aunt Ada Doom, 'the curse of Cold Comfort', who has been locked away upstairs for 20 years. Aunt Ada, Gibbons writes, became deranged as a result of an incident in childhood: 'When you were small – so small the lightest puff of breeze blew your little crinoline skirt over your head – you had seen something nasty in the woodshed.' The phrase 'something nasty in the woodshed' (with which Auden's 'something horrid in the woodshed' in the Toller elegy is virtually interchangeable) becomes something of a comic refrain in the later part of Cold Comfort Farm.

What? A phrase from a famous Stella Gibbons satire of the agricultural novel in a poem by Auden about a German émigré? Can it mean anything? It must. Borrowings are never innocent, sterilized or inert in lyric poetry. Language cannot be recycled without bringing some memory of its original use and context into the new poetic setting. Here, glancingly, Auden hints through his use of a phrase from Gibbons's satiric novel at a relationship between the inner world of Toller, the hyper-sophisticated, male, left-wing activist and playwright and that of a splenetic old woman who has sat for two decades in a room in Sussex obsessed by a terrible moment from her childhood.

My guess is that Auden himself would have offered a brilliantly odd psychoanalytic rationale for the comparison, justifying his move as a species of what Lukács called in a haunting phrase a 'looking beyond the palpable'.

There is probably much to be said for such an explanation. But, when this linguistic moment is set alongside other similarly outré, bizarre or counter-logical notes, such as those I briefly described earlier, which sound in Auden's poems of 1939, then it seems right to add that some other point – a point about poetry itself – is being made simultaneously with a point about the psyche. In the year when the Second World War began, Auden's poetry keeps returning in varying fashions to this 'monstrous' mode of yoking dissimilarities (Yeats and the Duke of Wellington, Toller and Aunt Ada) violently together without attempting to synthesize or harmonize the dissonances.

I see in these moments within Auden's poems something dialectical, even a bit libertarian in play. In 1939 poets may no longer pose as the tyrannical presences systematizing and co-coordinating into a single, unified 'Gleichschaltung' the society of their poems. In every verbal world some visible or audible token of non-participation or anti-commitment to the serious goal the work seems intent on enacting must be present. Just at the moment when, especially at the moment when, the poet appears engaged on the most serious of tasks, then where socially engaged Ego was, there shall poetic Id be.

Nicholas Jenkins's picture
Nicholas Jenkins writes about and teaches 20th-century culture and literature, especially poetry. After receiving his B.A. from Oxford, Jenkins came to the United States as a Harkness Fellow. He did postgraduate work at Columbia and was then employed as an editor and writer at ARTnews magazine in New York. He received a D.Phil. from Oxford and, after teaching in the Harvard English Department for two years, he joined the Stanford English Department in 1998. Jenkins is currently completing two projects: a critical edition of W.H. Auden's The Double Man (1941) and a book, under contract to Harvard University Press, called The Island: W.H. Auden and the Making of a Post-National Poetry. Jenkins has edited a Lincoln Kirstein Reader and co-edited and contributed to three volumes of Auden Studies. He is Series Editor of the Princeton University Press's "Facing Pages" translation series, and he regularly contributes essays and reviews to periodicals that include the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the Yale Review. A recepient of fellowships from the ACLS and from the Stanford Humanities Center, Nicholas Jenkins is Co-Chair of the W.H. Auden Society and Literary Executor of the poet, scholar and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein.