The Power of Revision

W.H. AudenThe study of manuscripts reveals many things about an author’s work, but the revisions the author made on the rough draft can be especially telling. William Wordsworth took the art of revision very seriously, spending over 50 years perfecting his longest poem, The Prelude (1799-1850), fragments of which can be seen in letters, notebooks and other manuscripts in the holdings of the Wordsworth Trust. Revisions and omission in later drafts reveal Wordsworth’s changing emphases and political views.

This sort of revision, when seen on a manuscript, can give valuable insight into the poet’s developing conscience and politics. But revision does not just mean the alteration of lines or passages, it can also mean the suppression of anything from phrases to whole poems. W.H. Auden often revisited his work, toning down politically inflammatory phrases and sometimes omitting poems from collections as his politics and moral outlook changed.

Auden repeatedly went back to his poem Spain, a meditation on the Spanish Civil War, to undertake this kind of revision. The original poem, published in 1937, is a politically charged examination of the destructive power of war, and the struggle for a future free from fascism. It is a complicated poem, and one with which Auden became uncomfortable, first changing some lines to soften the political themes and then suppressing the whole poem (along with ‘September 1, 1939’). Edward Mendelson writes, ‘He did not drop these poems because he disagreed with their politics – vaguely Marxist in the first poem, even more vaguely idealistic in the second – but because he distrusted their power to convince his readers that he and they were on the right side of the great struggles of the age’.

george-orwell[1]Auden’s distrust in his poem may have arisen from an essay George Orwell wrote called ‘Inside the Whale’ (1940). Orwell had long harboured an overt distain for Auden and his peers such as Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender, branding them the ‘pansy poets’ and calling Auden ‘a sort of gutless Kipling’. ‘Inside the Whale’ contains a continuation of this line of attack against ‘Auden and Spender and the rest of them’, and is spectacularly ill-tempered. Orwell takes particular exception to the poem ‘Spain’, writing, ‘But notice the phrase “necessary murder”. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word’.  He continues, ‘Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot’.

Orwell’s criticism of Auden is unfair and motivated not from an analysis of the poetry, but by a disgust of the perceived politics of a group of poets he had already dismissed as ‘the pansy left’. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why Auden began revising the work, and eventually suppressing it all together. Auden’s revisions show a developing political and social conscience in his work, an eye on the possible ways a poem could be interpreted by readers.

russ1l[1]His poem ‘September 1, 1939’ was also suppressed by the poet. In a letter written in 1967, Auden goes some way to explain his feelings: ‘The reason (artistic) I left England was precisely to stop me writing poems like “Sept 1, 1939”, the most dishonest poem I have ever written’. The poem, written at the start of the Second World War from his new home in New York, shows Auden’s despair at the rise of fascism in Europe, but it also hints at a faith in the poet’s power to ‘Show an affirming flame’ despite the time’s turbulence. The poem was first published in the New Republic in October 1939 and published with different revisions throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Its final sanctioned appearance, along with four other poems, was in Poetry of the Thirties (1964), although Auden insisted that the editor made it clear that ‘Mr W.H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written’.

Despite Auden’s intentions to suppress this poem, it gained a new popularity after the terrorist attacks in September 2001. Lines such as ‘The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night’, and ‘Where blind skyscrapers use/Their full height to proclaim/The strength of Collective Man’ suddenly had a new context and Auden’s poem seemed prescient. Yet even in this new life, when the poem was read on National Public Radio after the attacks, it was in yet another revised form, this time by the broadcasters. What Auden would have made of this twist is hard to guess, but the fact that his poem continues to have relevance shows what a complex and important work it is.

For the scholar, Auden’s revisions and self-censorship do not just reveal an evolution of the poetic work, but also the mind of the poet. Auden’s work has, as Joseph Warren Beach writes, ‘a core of moral earnestness, a wish to be right with himself and with whatever principle of ethical significance there may be in the world’. If he had left his work alone, there would be no record of this developing morality, and no clear sense of Auden’s own poetic point of view maturing.

Examining revisions, both pre-publication and post-publication, is a powerful way of unlocking a text, and the preservation work undertaken by archives and libraries allows us all to learn more about our own literary heritage and the artistic and political motivations of important writers throughout history.