In “Spain 1937” the early W. H. Auden (1945: 185) famously (and infamously) concluded that “History, to the defeated / May say Alas, but cannot help or pardon.” In the “Coda” to one of his final poems, “Archaeology” (1973), the later (or last) Auden (1976: 663) ended with verses much less familiar, though they expressed his by then characteristic disavowal of poetic invocations of history:

What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.

What happened over the years between is the subject of Auden and the Muse of History, in which Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb explores “the intensity with which Auden struggled with the meanings of history in both his poetry and his prose reflections” (1). This struggle played out in reaction against what he came to see as the easy and dangerous glibness with which “Spain 1937” had harnessed a Marxist idea of history in its refrain: “But to-day the struggle” (Auden 1945: 182). From the late 1930s through the 1950s, culminating in Homage to Clio (1960), Gottlieb argues, his poetry and prose enacted a struggle to grapple with history while resisting the temptation to reduce it to conclusive, finished narratives. Much of the challenge, for Auden, was the impossibility of turning one's back on a history that now included the Holocaust and the Bomb. If, as he declared in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939), “poetry makes nothing happen” in history and should not try to, neither could Auden (1945: 48) ignore it and retreat into art for art's sake. “The muse,” as Gottlieb quotes him writing in “Of Poetry in Troubled Greece” (1950) “does not like being forced to choose between Agit-prop and Mallarmé” (2).

So, too, this learned, demanding book, ever mindful of double binds, aware like Auden of when silence must take the place of summation: to read it is to be immersed in the densities of his own arguments with what he saw as the “dubious” deployments of history as “justification, explanation, rectification, or expiation” (32). By the time he had completed Homage to Clio, he had endorsed the necessary “estrangement between poet and historian” as a condition of the modern age, but, as Gottlieb observes, we nevertheless see “the very tenacity of his dedication to the ‘Muse of the unique / Historical fact’ ” (3).

Gottlieb builds on the work of Edward Mendelson, Lucy McDiarmid, Carolyn Steedman, and others who have explored Auden's career as an ethically charged engagement with modernism, modern thought, and twentieth-century history. And, it should be added, with himself: with what his own poetry during and after World War II could and could not, should and should not, say. Among the many things Gottlieb adds to existing scholarship is careful attention to the now relatively obscure historians that most impressed him in the late 1930s and 1940s: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Denis de Rougemont, Charles Norris Cochrane. This attention undergirds her argument for how a poem like “Voltaire at Ferney” (1939) evinces not just Auden's thinking about history and the Enlightenment but the parallels and divergences between his own views and those of two contemporaries, Horkheimer and Adorno, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Elsewhere, Gottlieb brings Auden's work into dialogue with a range of other voices and schools of Critical Theory influential in the academy today. Caliban's address to the audience in The Sea and the Mirror (1943), she observes, foreshadows the very question Gayatri Spivak asks in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (111); Herod's soliloquy in “For the Time Being” (1942) anticipates by decades Edward Said's seminal argument for how Enlightenment thought structures the relationship between Occident and Orient in Orientalism (110); “The History of Truth,” in Homage to Clio, should be seen as a response to Nietzsche's “The History of an Error” that stands in stark contrast to Heidegger's, published one year earlier, in “Die Frage nach der Technik” (216). And Auden's skepticism toward historical narratives, whether Marxist, liberal, or reactionary, Gottlieb argues, foreshadows Jean-François Lyotard's now touchstone definition of the “post-modern condition” as “one of incredulity toward metanarratives” (22).

Conjunctions like these exemplify Gottlieb's larger effort to embed Auden in a rich, complex history of post-Enlightenment thinking very much alive today in the academy. But this effort is grounded in scrupulous close readings of his poetry and prose. Among the former are Gottlieb's analyses of “Voltaire at Ferney,” “The Fall of Rome,” and (most impressively) the poems that make up Homage to Clio. Her meticulousness extends to Auden's prose: not just book reviews, essays, and lectures but the extraordinary prose pieces he incorporated into larger poetic works: “Sermon of an Armaments Manufacturer” (first published in 1934, but later under several different titles) as well as the soliloquy of Herod in “For the Time Being,” Caliban's address to the audience in The Sea and the Mirror, and “Dichtung und Wahrheit (An Unwritten Poem),” positioned precisely at the center of Homage to Clio. Gottlieb's readings are informed by an astute ear for phonetic and prosodic patterns, tonal subtlety, and etymological nuance. One comes away with a sense that Auden's reputation is secure as the most prosodically gifted English-language poet of the twentieth century, but also that his gifts—however playfully exercised—served complex, serious intellectual ends. Particularly in the second part of the book, devoted to Homage to Clio, one learns just how much Auden's later poetry—including (or especially) poems that don't make it into anthologies—carry out engagements with history that take place at levels only available to a reader deeply attentive to poetic form. Gottlieb's book is something of a rejoinder to denigrators of “later Auden” for having wasted his skills or declined in his powers. But there is another implication of this book for “later Auden.” At risk of oversimplifying: we see how thoroughly and often Auden's later work blurred genre distinctions between history, intellectual history, poetry, and prose. When questions about “history” are implicitly addressed in his manipulation of rhyme scheme or meter, what is the difference between prosody and history?

Such genre crossings, it might be said, occur in Auden and the Muse of History itself, though only multiple readings might elucidate them all. One of the most apparent is suggested by Gottlieb's very deliberate arrangement of its contents. Following the introduction, part 1 consists of three chapters on the personal and the historical in Auden's poetry from the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is followed by the twenty-nine-page “Interlude: The Falling Empire,” devoted to “The Fall of Rome” (1947), which emerges as a poem obliquely but importantly engaged not just with the end of the Roman Empire but with the end of the British Empire, as well as with the poetic history of Tennyson, Baudelaire, Kipling, Eliot, and Yeats. Part 2 consists of three chapters devoted to Homage to Clio, which, Gottlieb argues, marks the culmination of Auden's two decades of struggle with the meanings of history, not just in how those meanings are explored as ideas in this volume but in the extraordinarily intricate patterns of sonic and thematic echoes and inversions that reverberate within words, between verses, and across the volume as a whole. Gottlieb closes with a coda meditating on Grace Nichols's poem “Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman's head while having a full bubble bath” (1984), which both echoes and repurposes two poems from Homage to Clio: “Bathtub Thoughts (c. 500–c. 1950)” and “Dame Kind.” The ideologically and racially fraught opening word of the latter—“Steaptygous”—Nichols repeats as the first word in each of the lines that comprise her opening and closing quatrains.

Gottlieb has structured her own book, in other words, to echo the organization of Homage to Clio, which consists of two groups of poems, separated by an interlude—“Dichtung und Wahrheit (An Unwritten Poem)”—with the volume as a whole concluding with the poem “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno.” Although she does not call it that, in substance her analysis of this poem reads it as Auden's “Coda” to Homage to Clio—a final look back on a landscape, culture, and body of historical concerns that ended for him in the late 1950s. The end of that poem exemplifies the intricate tonal and emotional elements found so often in later Auden: “though one cannot always / Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was” (235). It is a quiet way to end a poem and a book. For some readers, the absence of a resounding conclusion for Gottlieb's argument about Auden's engagements with history will disappoint. But any such thing would be, Gottlieb implies, a literary-historical “Big Lie,” different in scale but not in kind from all too many Big Lies that animate the history “made, as it is, / by the criminal in us.” In its structure as in its refusal to find in Auden a resolution to the problems of history with which he playfully wrestled in Homage to Clio, this book of “literary criticism” is also a “homage” to a book of “poetry.”

So: no resolution, but there remains “the unique / Historical fact.” Both “September 1, 1939,” and “Funeral Blues,” Gottlieb's first chapter shows, have had afterlives that Auden could not have predicted, including the US Supreme Court's “historic” 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges confirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Still, such an event is not a matter of Auden's poems making anything “happen” but of their reverberations in later times: not causation but echoes. (And of course, 2015 hardly marked an end to the contested history of sexual politics in the United States.) More broadly, Gottlieb invites us to recognize the contemporary import of Auden's critiques of dishonest history-making—above all in his self-retractions and his gestures toward poems that cannot be written, whether about the Shoah or as a self-verifying expression of “I love you.” What she has made, herself, is a work that may be called “academic literary criticism” but whose form and argument pay homage to other genres as well: poetry, of course, but also music, whose muse is not Clio at all.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H.
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The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden
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New York
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Random House
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Auden, W. H.
1976
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Collected Poems
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London
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Faber and Faber
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