Thursday, March 31, 2011

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice

Edition: Letters from Iceland
In 1936, Auden and MacNeice went to travel in Iceland, having been commissioned to write a book beforehand. The result was a hodge-podge collage of their own poetry and prose, and textual fragments compiled from other sources, published in 1937. This collage is put together as "chapters." Immediate historical contexts in 1936 included high unemployment rates in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, and Hitler's continuing rise.

The "Letters to Lord Byron," interspersed throughout in four parts form a kind of "central thread," according to Auden. In the second Letter to E.M.A., Auden says that he formulated his idea on the Byron letters while on a bus: "He's the right person, I think, because he was a townee, a European, and disliked Wordsworth and that kind of approach to nature, and I find that very sympathetic. This letter in itself will have very little to do with Iceland, but will be rather a description of an effect of travelling in distance places which is to make one reflect on one's past and one's culture from the outside. But it will form a central thread on which I shall hang other letters to different people more directly about Iceland." The first letter explicitly talks about its form (rhyme royal), and tells Byron why he has been chosen for correspondence. As is the case in the rest of the letters to Byron, the rhyme is intentionally bad as a tribute to Don Juan. The second letter tells Byron of England today; Auden articulates the modern malaise under lives controlled and made comfortable by such things as "antiseptic objects" or "central heating."  Don Juan, he says, would find the century good nonetheless, for the variety enabled by technology: "Indeed our ways to waste time are so many, / Thanks to technology, a list of these / Would make a longer book than Ulysses." Continuing on, Auden tells Byron that they are more socialist, in that "Fortune's ladder is for all to climb," but that the spirit of the people has lost the appreciation for the individual hero. He even muses on whether Hitler is the heir to the Byronic hero--a scary thought, and Auden clearly expresses nostalgia for more colorful and spirited individuals who take the trouble to speak back to authority and establishments. The third letter continues the subject of modern Europe, specifically articulating for Byron the place of the modern artist. Unlike in the past, when an artist had a specific audience or a patron, today's artist didn't really have a place at all. Most occupations have a professional niche and utility, but artists don't belong as such. The fourth and final letter muses on a child from the future, asking "What's / An intellectual of the middle classes?" This becomes Auden's excuse to offer an account of his own life, beginning with information found on his passport, the ancestral lineage of his parents, his early fascination with Icelandic sagas, his dream to become a mining engineer, and finally his career a poet and his literary influences: Layard, Lane, Lawrence, and Gidet are mentioned. He tells Byron of the profession of teaching English at a boarding school, and how those who want to be authors today take this on because it generates enough income for a life independent compared to the "alternative" of occupying "an office stool" all day.

Auden's to Letter to Christopher Isherwood consists of a poem followed by a letter, where the letter answer's Isherwood's queries about Iceland. Some of Auden's thoughts are that the Icelanders are not a particularly ambitious people, that they are fond of satirical lampoons, and are uninhibited sexually. In a word, they seem a people that take life with a certain levity and without the kinds of "neuroses" common to the English: Auden concludes, "Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me."

In a Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, MacNeice writes in verse couplets to answer the question as to why they are in Iceland.  Iceland is simpler, for one, than England: "This complex world exacts / Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus / You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus." At another point, MacNeice offers his own "simple" answer: "Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do." In Iceland there is a sense of rest from the rush and movement of England: "Here is a different rhythm, the juggld balls / Hang in the air--the pause before the souffle falls."

The For Tourists chapter is written as a typical travel guide, offering advice on currency, lodging, food, transportation, language etc. A bibliography includes travel guides, language books, and histories - mostly pertaining to romances and sagas.

Sheaves from Sagaland is probably the most fragmented and heteroglossic "chapter." It begins with categories followed by quotations drawn from a number of authorities (the first is, category "Iceland is Real," followed by "'Iceland is not a myth; it is a solid portion of the earth's surface.'"). The authorities are mostly British but with some French and German ones mixed in as well. The many categories are organized under larger headings- The Country, The Natives, The Tourist, and Home Again. After this section, there is a prose account "The 1809 Revolution" drawn mainly from "Hooker and MacKenzie." In 1809, Jorgen Jorgensen, a Danish traveler/adventurer tried to proclaim himself the new ruler of Iceland after its independence from Denmark. The revolutionary failed, and was taken to prison in London after the Danish government was reinstated. Following this historical account is another one, this time of a volcanic eruption in 1727. This account is in given by a preacher (who is quoted by Mackenzie). At the end of the chapter, there is a quick textual extracts from the Suarbar Parish Register from 1805, listing the names, occupations, ages, status of confirmation, literacy levels, conduct and general abilities of a number of inhabitants. After this, the chapter closes with a "bibliography."

Auden's Letter to R.H.S. Crossman, Esq. is in verse, and also includes some old, textual enclosures: a "Formula of Peace-Making, a Law of Wager of Battle, and The Viking Law

Auden writes two letters to E.M.A., the first describing various sights, scenes, and people. There is also a discussion of Iceland's poetry, particularly the odd circumstance that "any average educated person one meets can turn out competent verse." There seems to be no "modern" influence. Included in this letter is Auden's poem, "A Detective Story," explaining why people read detective stories. The second letter I have mentioned above--in it he describes his idea for the Byron letters. The second letter shares a chapter with a set of strange proverbs that seem translated (e.g., "Ale is another man," "If mending will do, why cut off") and also an old story/legend about a woman troll.

Eclogue from Iceland was written by MacNeice, and in couplets, gives the dialogue between two tourists in Iceland and a ghost they meet. One of the tourists is Irish, and the other is escaping from the Spanish Civil War, suggesting they are representations of MacNeice and Auden. The tourists see Iceland as a kind of escape from Europe. The ghost, however, advises them to struggle on with modern Europe: "Minute your gesture but it must be made--/ Your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of / hate, / Hatred of hatred, assertion of human values, / Which is now your only duty." Escape isn't a permanent answer.

Hetty to Nancy: These are a set of letter written by Macneice, adopting a loquacious female voice to tell of his and Auden's camping adventures with four schoolboys and their schoolmaster. "Hetty" relates the adventures of herself, her friend Maisie, and four schoolgirls and their schoolmistress. Hetty mostly launches complaints about her travel companions, about not having brought enough of her own camping supplies, and about the spartan living conditions of small tents in severe, cold weather. Hetty views the landscape to be inhospitable, and speaks fondly of "civilization" back in England. She writes, "Iceland is a barren land for souvenirs. Of course one can always bring home little bits of lava for one's friends...but I am afraid I have the wrong sort of friends." She doesn't see evidence of anything particularly foreign or romantic about Iceland: "You can't imagine any of them behaving like the people in the sagas." "Hetty" and "Nancy" are apparently codes, respectively, of "straight" and "gay," the letters revealing that Nancy is a lesbian who likes rock-climbing, and Hetty is stereotypically "feminine," holding up things like lipstick and marriage.

Auden's Letter to Kristjan Andresson, Esq. is an account of Iceland which Kristjan had requested from Auden after his travels, wishing to know what Auden's impressions of his own country were. Auden begins with apologies and qualifications on a touristic view of Iceland. He says he won't talk about geography, since impressions on people are really what matters most. This introduction aside, Auden launches unabashedly into his impressions, dividing them into the following categories: Physique and Clothes, Character, Manners, Wealth and Class Distinctions, Education and Culture, and General. Some of the more memorable observations that Auden makes about Icelanders is that they are "very direct, normal, and free from complexes, but whether that is a good or bad thing, I cannot decide." He appreciates Icelanders' wide appreciation of literature, but laments their lack of taste in architecture, drama, painting or music. In thinking through Iceland's future, Auden does not think that Iceland can become a successful capitalist society, because though peasant proprietors are becoming more and more "urbanised," there are not enough of them to "build up a capitalist culture of their own." Socialism might be an alternative. Finally, Auden is ambivalent about cosmopolitanism and Europe's influence on Iceland: "I know the day of self-contained national culture is over, that Iceland is far from Europe, that the first influences of Europe are always the worst ones, and that the development of a truly European culture is slow and expensive. But I am convinced that the cultural future of Iceland depends on the extent to which she can absorb the best of the European traditions, and make them her own."

Letter to William Coldstream, Esq begins as a "little donnish experiment in objective narrative," where Auden narrates what happens to them in third person. This is followed by a free-verse poem talking about the writing and publication of this work. This chapter ends with a poem, "Iceland" by MacNeice.

Auden and MacNeice's Joint "Last Will and Testament" end the work. The two of them bequeath many abstract concepts to people, communicated often via humorously enjambed lines like MacNeice's "And to my stepmother I leave her rich / Placid delight in detailed living who adds / Hour to hour as if it were stitch to stitch." Auden appoints Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood "my join executors / To judge my work if it be bad or good." Together they also "leave" things that are not theirs to leave, like "the false front of Lincoln Cathedral" to the P.M. Baldwin, or "National character and strength of will" to Winston Churchill Ballinrobe's dry harbour." The tone is irreverent; the bequeathals often make fun of contemporaries. One of the more cutting moments is what they "leave" I.A. Richards:  "Item, to I.A. Richards who like a mouse / Nibbles linguistics with the cerebral tooth / We leave a quiet evening in a boarding-house." Towards the ending, however, their bequeathals become more serious: they leave, "[t]o all the dictators...the soft wind from the sweeping wing / Of madness, and the intolerable tightening of the mesh / Of history." And finally, near the very end, they end on a hopeful note: "We leave the unconceived and unborn lives / A closer approximation to real happiness / Than has been reached by us, our neighbours, or their wives."

MacNeice's Epilogue dedicated to Auden in a way summarizes what they have (not) seen in Iceland: "In that island never found / Visions blossom from the ground, / No conversions like St. Paul / No great happenings at all." Iceland's attraction, however, owes to its barrenness, in comparison to modern Europe: "Better were the northern skies / Than this desert in disguise--/ Rugs and cushions and the long / Mirror which repeats the song."

Auden returned to Iceland in 1965, and wrote a foreword to the 1966 edition of Letters from Iceland (by then MacNeice had passed away). In this foreword, Auden traces his lifetime relationship with Iceland: "In my childhood dreams Iceland was holy ground; when, at the age of twenty-nine, I saw it for the first time, the reality verified my dream; at fifty-seven it was holy ground still, with the most magical light of anywhere on earth." He returns to the themes of Iceland as a place somehow untouched by "modernity," and the "only really classless society I have ever encountered." Though Iceland could never really be an "escape" for Auden facing the challenges of two world wars and massive historical and cultural shifts, it manages to retain a kind of magical hold on him in its perceived exemption from the complications of the modern world.

James Wilson's reading of Letters from Iceland's hodge-podge form argues that the work follows the high modernist treatment of art and fragment with some important departures from modernist canonical texts like Eliot's The Wasteland. Like The Wasteland, Letters is "polyglot" and hence fragmented: various in genre, in allusions, textual extracts, and finally, dual authorship. At the same time, the literary work itself as a whole is a "hermetically sealed" whole: in Wilson's summary of this high modernist tenet: "Art is always art, rather than something else, but everything else can always be absorbed within its integral form." For Letters, the integral form which brings together fragments is the travel account, whereas in The Wasteland it's the poem. Where Letters departs from The Wasteland is in its rejection of Eliot's seriousness. Letters takes up Byron as a father-figure, and particularly, such a humorous, irreverent work as Don Juan. Wilson suggests that while Eliot and Auden/MacNeice all seek to form something integral and communal in the fragmented modern era via the power of literary form, the latter achieves this through a comedic spirit which is an alternative to Eliot's serious religiosity.

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