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Auden’s Search for Fulfillment: The Rake’s Progress

Mar 14, 2017 4:04:29 PM
By Brian Kellow

I’ve lost count of all the people I know who have difficulty warming up to The Rake’s Progress. Even Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing, who presented the opera’s U.S. premiere in 1953, dismissed it in his memoir: “I must admit I absolutely hated the work, both the words and the music. I do not consider myself a prude, but a woman with a beard I think goes too far.” Partly because of a complex and somewhat problematic second act, The Rake’s Progress is a challenging work to pull off onstage. At the end, when we see beleaguered Tom Rakewell reduced to a pitiable state in a madhouse, we may be surprised to find ourselves so deeply moved, since its creators so often seem determined to keep us at a steady emotional distance. At the time Rake was composed, it had been years since Stravinsky had written overtly expressive music. He had mostly been writing in the neoclassical idiom— Romanticism be damned. And with The Rake’s Progress, he found the ideal collaborator in W.H. Auden.

auden 1.jpg
The inspired suggestion of Auden as librettist came from Stravinsky’s neighbor, Aldous Huxley. Auden had been an opera lover for years, a passion he shared with his devoted-yet-fickle lover Chester Kallman, whom Auden brought on as co-librettist. Kallman’s contribution was sprung on Stravinsky when Auden delivered the first act of the libretto in January 1948, and despite some initial misgivings, Stravinsky admired Kallman’s contributions and grew to like the man himself. Rake was, for the most part, a very happy collaboration.

Nevill Coghill, the poet’s onetime tutor, recalled that Auden once explained that “to ‘understand’ a poem was not a logical process, but a receiving, as a unity, a pattern of coordinated images that had sprung from a free association of sub-conscious ideas, private to himself.” And The Rake’s Progress seems, in its elusive, free-wheeling way, a brilliant illustration of that principle.

Auden was celebrated as a poet in both England and the U.S., where he immigrated in 1939, just as Britain was on the brink of war—a decision that brought him and his close friend Christopher Isherwood under critical attack in the U.K. But Auden responded to the violent upheaval of the world with such sublime contributions to poetry that public animosity toward him was mostly assuaged. In his poems, Auden plumbed highly complex moral and social issues—but reason and a rigorous intellect adroitly contained his passion. By temperament, he was not inclined to melt the heart with the same rhapsodic magic of fellow modernist W.B. Yeats. Take the final lines of Yeats’ devastating 1902 poem “Adam’s Curse,” which describes a very particular failure of love:

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears;
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet, we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

This theme of ideals disappointed, of an imbalance in the relationship, comes up in what is perhaps Auden’s best-known poem, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” in which the narrator laments that:

Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral.

But here, and in so much of his work, Auden’s restraint carries the day. The sense of regret is held in check, and the poet delivers a sense of hope, quite unlike Yeats’ wistful melancholy.

auden 2.jpgPerhaps it was Auden’s own wanderlust that allowed him to breathe life into the character of Tom Rakewell. While Auden’s Christian faith gave him an anchor in his life that poor Tom could never hope to find, the poet did lead quite a peripatetic life. Although he was gay, he had a serious romance with at least one woman, Rhoda Jaffe. He volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, where he wound up broadcasting radio propaganda; visited Japanese-invaded China in 1937; left England at the outbreak of World War II to come to the U.S. in 1939, settling into an intoxicating Brooklyn household that at various points included Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers and Paul and Jane Bowles. At the end of the war in Europe, he served in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany. It was a remarkably packed-in existence by any standards.

One of the most powerful themes in The Rake’s Progress— although Auden never states it directly—is the pitiless march of time. We watch Tom squander each of his opportunities, consistently making the wrong choices. We know the day is coming when he will have to face the bitter consequences of his bargain with Nick Shadow. This failure to conquer the advances of time is a potent recurring theme throughout Auden’s canon. In his 1937 poem, “As I walked out one evening,” the narrator sings jubilantly and confidently of a never-ending love. In his meticulously dispassionate way, Auden tell us that such suspended moments of the perfect illusion of happiness do not last:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.”

The most famous excerpt of The Rake’s Progress is Anne’s first-act aria, “No word from Tom.” But as she hits the glorious high C that concludes the aria, confidently singing of “an ever loving heart,” we begin to understand that Tom is not the only character in the opera grappling with delusions. “No word from Tom” brings to mind Auden’s brilliant meditation on the condition of humanity at the dawn of World War II, “September 1, 1939,” in which he observes:

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

As we follow Tom’s persistently elusive search for fulfillment in The Rake’s Progress, we may recall that some of Auden’s poems portray the dangers of such a quest, which may yield “gradual ruin spreading like a stain.” For in Auden’s work, time and the world are almost always implacable forces, ready to render our most frantic and inchoate yearnings hopeless. Take the last stanza of “As I walked out one evening”:

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.

In Auden’s work, the deep river is always running on. Or, as he writes in “If I Could Tell You”:

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.


Brian Kellow has contributed articles to Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, BBC Music Magazine, Opera, Travel & Leisure, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. His most recent book, Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent, was a New York Times Culture Best Seller and was named one of the Top Ten Arts Books of 2015 by Booklist and one of Entertainment Weekly’s Top Pop Culture Books of the Year. Kellow’s 2011 biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and appeared on the Best of the Year lists published by The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, Booklist and Entertainment Weekly. Other works include Ethel Merman: A Life, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, and Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell.


Images, from top: Auden and Kallman in Venice, 1951; Plaque at Auden’s former home in Brooklyn Heights.

This article originally appeared  in the spring 2017 issue of Coda magazine.


March 12 - 19 at Emerson / Cutler Majestic



Topics: BLO, #BLO40, #RakesBLO, Auden

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