I used to be something of a W. H. Auden skeptic. On first encountering his poetry as a teenager, I enjoyed “As I Walked Out One Evening” and a couple of his other anthology pieces, but I didn’t “adopt” him in the avid way young readers do with favorite writers. His political subjects flew above my head, and his handling of meter struck me at times as clumsy or deliberately perverse. Of course, I soon realized it was my ear, not his, that needed tuning.
By my mid-twenties, I had come to admire Auden very much, but I still found his signature political poems excessively didactic. Ten years later, “September 1, 1939” and “The Shield of Achilles” rank not only among my favorite political poems but among my favorite poems of any kind. What was my younger self thinking? In fact, what was Auden thinking when, a quarter century after writing “September 1, 1939,” he denounced it as “infected with an incurable dishonesty”?
Two years ago, in an essay for Poetry Foundation, I wrestled with both questions. In the end I sided firmly with the Auden who’d composed the poem, not the Auden who disowned it. The catalyst for my later essay was the 2016 presidential election, which—in my judgment then and now—installed a raving authoritarian in the White House. By 2016 I had come to respect and even love “September 1, 1939”; after the election, for the first time, I found that I needed it. Its portrait of the dictator who spouts “elderly rubbish… To an apathetic grave”; its scorn for “the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky”—these phrases, and the ominous rhythm they swing to, seemed to capture the unfolding national disaster as well as anything else in art. What I’d once seen as sentimentality—alongside critics such as Samuel Hynes, who wrote of the poem in 1982 that it “sentimentalizes loneliness…sentimentalizes the role of the artist (what good will his voice do in a world war?)…sentimentalizes the idea of affirmation itself”—now looked like desperate courage even as Hynes’s condescension looked cheap. What I’d seen as hectoring turned out to be a moral urgency I hadn’t grasped, because nothing in my experience had prepared me to grasp it.
My Auden piece was also sparked by Stephanie Burt’s post-election essay on Yeats for Boston Review—a model of rereading as self-examination. As Burt grapples with the rise of the new regime, she confesses that it has changed her understanding not only of American history but of American poetry:
It is the American moderns…who might be called writers of liberalism, to whom I feel especially close—[Marianne] Moore, [Elizabeth] Bishop, Randall Jarrell, late James Merrill, early Gwendolyn Brooks, even Frank O’Hara (to name only the dead)—and who are the hardest for me to read right now. I have the feeling that they, and I, got something deeply, sadly wrong.
I wouldn’t have said “wrong,” exactly, but I know what Burt means. When politics turns ugly, we seek out those writers who confront ugliness most trenchantly and directly. I understand why Burt set aside moderation and turned to Yeats; since 2016 I’ve turned more often to Yeats also, and to Auden and Brooks (early and late) and Adrienne Rich, Brecht and Baldwin and Orwell.
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Recently I found myself teaching Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946) to a class of undergraduates. Until I selected it for my syllabus, I hadn’t revisited the essay in eight or ten years. I remembered mainly the famous conclusion, which compares good prose to a windowpane and writing a book to a long bout of illness. I remembered, too, a forthright statement of political intention that I had once thought awkward. After all, literary writers have a professional investment in remaining enigmatic. Ambiguity keeps the critics and scholars intrigued. Why had Orwell shown his cards? Why had he pledged his whole project so explicitly to a cause—to a campaign slogan, almost: “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”? Couldn’t he have implied this without saying it outright?
As I reread the essay, I realized how much I had forgotten or overlooked. I understood for the first time how reluctant Orwell’s turn toward political writing had been, how he felt conscripted into it by historical circumstance. To judge by his own account, he might gladly have become a “purple” prose writer or cloistered nature poet if the same terrible era that transformed Auden hadn’t upended his own artistic priorities. I was moved in particular by the wistfulness of this passage:
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. … But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. … It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
Of course, a less politically driven Orwell might have been a less successful Orwell. And no era forces every writer to become public-minded (witness Emily Dickinson, whose radical inward turn coincided with the American Civil War). Still, the passage implies that the Orwell we know best was not the only or inevitable Orwell. A different sort of voice survived inside him, effaced by political commitments. Tellingly, Orwell itself was a pen name, a public mask adopted by the private man named Eric Blair. And John O. Lyons has linked the aims expressed in “Why I Write” with the “flatness,” the constrained simplicity, of Orwell’s fictional characters: “Like the writer of detective stories, [Orwell] may not wish to create any but stereotypes… because all of the characters are suspect of grave spiritual crimes perpetrated in a flat, two-dimensional world.” There were aspects of human character, including his own, that Orwell found impossible to integrate into his art.
Yet in an era when writers again face pressure to be “relevant,” I admire not only Orwell’s determination to fulfill that duty but also his insistence on leaving room in his work for the “irrelevant.” Even the most public-minded writer needs the freedom, sometimes, to be idiosyncratic and irresponsible. “To suppress that side of [ourselves]” would be to do the authorities’ work for them. Besides, Orwell’s concessions to aesthetic pleasure have kept his satires alive far beyond their period, and there’s no more effective satire than an enduring one.
In fact, the “irrelevant” and idiosyncratic were more closely bound up with Orwell’s political vision than “Why I Write” lets on. In a 2005 essay on Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939)—his last novel before Animal Farm—Annette Federico frames the book as the output of a man who, on the cusp of WWII, treasured the occasional breather from geopolitics:
His essays on a pint of beer in the perfect pub (“The Moon Under Water”), the ritual of making tea (“A Nice Cup of Tea”), or the spawning of toads, which signals springtime (“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”), display his delight in the rites and rituals of daily life. Writing about them…attests to their coexistence with institutional practices, and reminds us of their irrepressibility. So writing about the pleasures of fishing in Coming Up for Air gives fishing cultural space between the ideological battles being waged in Europe in the 1930s. … He took great satisfaction in the reflection that certain kinds of private pleasures—reading a novel, fishing, taking a walk—keep going on behind the backs of political and social authorities, those “important persons who would stop me from enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t.”
The novel’s title itself suggests a desire to play at the surface for a while after nearly drowning in “ideological battles.” Its paean to fishing reflects Orwell’s sense that his “private pleasures”—which were often characteristically English: pubs and tea and toads—were the things in life worth battling for. He “gives…cultural space” to them, as Federico puts it, but rejects the fantasy of taking refuge in them (war looms throughout the novel). Still, the strictness of the rejection shows the strength of the fantasy. Throughout Orwell’s work from the eve to the end of World War II, the entangled impulses toward duty and escape, public service and private fulfillment, set the author almost at war with himself:
When Porteous [in Coming Up for Air] reads aloud Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” George enjoys the sounds of the words, although he does not take in their meaning. But the year is 1938 and he has just come from an anti-Fascist lecture. Self-aligned with the millions of “ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere, chaps I run across in pubs, bus drivers and travelling salesmen for hardware firms,” he feels the world is coming apart at the seams. “I just felt that this was all bunk. Poetry! What is it? Just a voice, a bit of an eddy in the air.” While ordinary chaps “have got a feeling that the world’s gone wrong,” Porteous, the guardian of high art, does not think Hitler matters. He merely intones.
Orwell had common people’s lives on his mind very much in 1939 and 1940. He recognized that they were not being helped much by protest literature or leftist poetry, by high art that seemed inaccessible and silly, or by frightening anti-Fascist rhetoric. In “Inside the Whale,” his essay on Henry Miller published in 1940, Orwell cites with approval E. M. Forster’s description of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock (1917) as “‘a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble… He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing-rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage.’”
The novel’s protagonist—named George, of course; Orwell admitted that “my own character constantly intrud[es] on that of the narrator”—surely does not speak for the author in proclaiming that Keats is bunk. But he speaks to an anxiety that gnawed at Orwell: the fear of craven irrelevance, of becoming a foppish aesthete who seals himself off from common concerns. In reaction against this fear, Orwell fashioned himself into the useful public writer. Even so, according to Federico, he worried that no writing or art was “help[ing] much” in the face of the Fascist threat. “Protest literature or leftist poetry,” “high art that seemed inaccessible,” and “frightening anti-Fascist rhetoric” encompass a wide range of possible responses, but none of them satisfied Orwell or, in the end, prevented war.
The essay Federico quotes above, “Inside the Whale” (1940), is itself a marvel of ambivalence. Commenting in it on the engagé poetry of “the Auden-Spender group,” Orwell sniffs: “In other words, ‘purpose’ has come back, the younger writers have ‘gone into politics.’” Incredible that Orwell, of all people, should have put these terms in scare quotes—irony doesn’t get much more defensive. Incredible, too, that he took this dig at Auden at the exact moment when Auden was most eloquently uncertain about the political value of literature. “Inside the Whale” appeared in the same year as Another Time, the volume in which Auden struggles to “show an affirming flame” against “negation and despair” (“September 1, 1939”) and frets, in his elegy for Yeats, that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Another Time also contains “Spain 1937,” a poem that Orwell both praises and competitively savages later in his essay. To sum up: the Orwell of the early WWII years admired and scorned Auden, looked askance at Keats’s nightingale and mourned the nature poet he himself might have been, took arms against totalitarianism and admired the drawing-room “protest” of Prufrock, wanted to make political writing an art and just wanted to go fishing.
If these contradictions are confusing, it’s because Orwell was richly confused. Rereading “Why I Write” once more in light of all the above, I suspect that its mission statement is an attempt to cover doubt with a veneer of unitary purpose. It’s a postwar attempt to burn away the “fog of war” in all its fierce complexity. But the Orwell we most admire was formed out of that fog. His mixed feelings about political writing were Auden’s; his mixed feelings about Auden were his mixed feelings about his own work. For both authors, these tensions were irresolvable but tremendously generative, seeding the most fertile stretches of their respective careers.
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The insights I’ve discussed so far involve political awakenings, but the act of rereading can alter our politics in subtler ways as well. Even for readers who are as politically aware as it’s possible to be, revisiting familiar texts can shore up old convictions and open new expressive outlets.
James Baldwin describes such an experience in his 1964 essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” This brief but powerful sketch links Baldwin’s changing relationship to the English language, including its most famous playwright, with the maturation of his outlook as a dissenting writer in a hostile culture. Where he had once “condemned [Shakespeare] as one of the authors and architects of my oppression,” he forged “a new relationship” with the plays in France, where he had found some respite from his native country. “Shakespeare’s bawdiness became very important to me,” he writes, as did Shakespeare’s curiosity about human nature, his apprehension of the bonds between individual and society:
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love—by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it—no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably con¬nected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer—to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not—I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
“Responsible” in what way? Baldwin isn’t asking that art be topical or moralistic, only that it tell the truth. Unlike Orwell with his explicit mission, Shakespeare kept his political commitments (if any) as vague as his religious beliefs (ditto). Yet few writers hold more sway over the collective political imagination. His political project in a sense was his art: its deep inquiry into history and psychology and social relations, its translation of vast swaths of human experience into language. Rediscovering that language, which to Baldwin’s ears had something in common with black American vernacular—“its candor, its irony, its density, its beat”—clarified Baldwin’s own literary ambitions. It clarified his political vision, too. As he analyzes the murder scene in Julius Caesar, its “blood and necessary folly,” we hear echoes of the mid-20th-century civil rights struggle, in which problems of violence and nonviolence, revolutionary fervor and state recalcitrance, weighed constantly on Baldwin and fellow activists.
The title of Baldwin’s essay is mildly sardonic: this is not a piece about “Why I Started Loving Shakespeare.” Baldwin has dropped his early condemnation of the Bard but has not become a starry-eyed Bardolator. Reverence isn’t the point; understanding is. He has achieved reconciliation with a long-dead poet, and in the process, with a bygone version of himself: “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” This reconciliation carries pain as well as wonder—it’s not a resolution. As the literary scholar Kevin Birmingham illustrates, it didn’t quell Baldwin’s struggle against the culture that produced Shakespeare and the global culture in which he is now received:
When W. E. B. Du Bois famously declared in The Souls of Black Folk, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” his point was that even when a society draws a color line, a culture line does not follow. For Baldwin, however, it does follow. … In [No Name in the Street, 1972], he extended the image of the cultural “conquerors” he drew years earlier: “The South African coal miner, or the African digging for roots in the bush, or the Algerian mason working in Paris” can have “no honorable access” to Shakespeare’s plays “once these monuments intrude on their attention.” To read them is “to bow down” to the history of a colonizing civilization. When Baldwin sits with Shakespeare, it is Baldwin who winces. Importantly, Baldwin’s resentment of the culture lines drawn before his birth did not lead him to reject the values contained within those lines. That is, the ascendancy of Chartres and Shakespeare meant that the South African coal miner had been “robbed” of the playwright’s value, not that his cultural value was fabricated.
If reading is an intimacy, rereading is a deepening and complication of that intimacy. It can kindle love, but it can also spark quarrels, including political quarrels. Even those quarrels that diminish over time have after-echoes. We’re always positioning our changing selves against the static text, measuring our view of life beside the author’s. Baldwin’s disparate comments on Shakespeare in 1953 (in the essay “Stranger in the Village”: “The most illiterate among [these Swiss villagers] is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo”), in 1964 (“Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”), and in 1972 (No Name in the Street) measure the shifts and expansions of his literary and social vision. As Birmingham points out, Baldwin made his own mid-career move toward “increasingly blunt, polemical essays and fiction”; but this “radicalism descended directly from his aesthetics,” as I have argued it did with Orwell.
All this is to say that rereading, like rewriting, is a mode of revision—revision of the self. A few years from now, in a different political climate, I expect I will reread the authors to whom I’ve tried to do justice here and recognize everything I’ve gotten gawkily, embarrassingly wrong.
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Is rereading, in itself, a political act? A poet reconsidering his own poem, a critic reconsidering a body of literature, a writer-in-exile reconsidering his relationship with language: all are conducting an internal discourse that may have political overtones. But in our age of wrecked attention spans, such gestures mean something more. Amid the mass media vortex and the grind of the American work week, they represent an endangered mode of learning.
We’re not supposed to have time to think, much less think again. The citizen who revisits already-consumed “content” and reevaluates her prior response isn’t consuming (or producing) new content. She’s veering from consumption into criticism. She’s defying a social order shaped by “fundamentalists” who have never finished their own scriptures; CEOs who have barely glanced at the books published under their names; politicians who never read briefings once, much less twice. Recall Federico’s comment about Orwell relishing the “private pleasures… [that] keep going on behind the backs of political and social authorities”: one of these pleasures was “reading a novel.” By that standard, rereading must count as a double victory. As each day bombards us with ephemeral, disingenuous speech, immersing ourselves in well-wrought language becomes a small subversion. Retrieving wisdom from the texts that formed us becomes a modest reclamation. Rereading verges on resistance.