English-born American Poet, Essayist and Playwright
W. H. Auden, fully Wystan Hugh Auden
English-born American Poet, Essayist and Playwright
A writer ? is always being asked by people who should know better: ?Whom do you write for?? The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don?t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other?s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.
All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work ?comes? to him.
Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, ?I know what I like,? he is really saying ?I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,? because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.
Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.
Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.
Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, meaning authenticity, is, however, or ought to be, a writer?s chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, whether something he has written is authentic ? in his handwriting ? or a forgery.
Sincerity is like sleep. Normally, one should assume that, of course, one will be sincere, and not give the question a second thought. Most writers, however, suffer occasionally from bouts of insincerity as men do from bouts of insomnia. The remedy in both cases is often quite simple: in the case of the latter, to change one?s diet, in the case of the former, to change one?s company.
The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.
The interests of a writer and the interests of his* readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.
To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.
To read is to translate, for no two persons? experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.
When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over.
Who on earth invented the silly convention that it is boring or impolite to talk shop? Nothing is more interesting to listen to, especially if the shop is not one's own.
Young people, who are still uncertain of their identity, often try on a succession of masks in the hope of finding the one which suits them — the one, in fact, which is not a mask.
Within these breakwaters English is spoken; without is the immense, improbable atlas.
Without a quickening of the heart.
Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; without Science, we should always worship false gods.
When I look back at the three or four choices in my life which have been decisive, I find that, at the time I made them, I had very little sense of the seriousness of what I was doing and only later did I discover what had seemed an unimportant brook.