With Your Crown On: Auden’s Light Verse

My first name, Wystan,
Rhymes with Tristan,
But – O dear! – I do hope
I’m not quite such a dope.

W. H. Auden, Academic Graffiti
Illustration to Auden’s clerihew on himself in Academic Graffiti

There’s a lovely clip of W. H. Auden and Stevie Smith singing together in the pub in 1965. Both Auden and Smith are performers of their poetry, and when they perform they often present funny or whimsical selections. But while Smith resisted the designation of ‘light verse’, Auden defended the genre. He edited an anthology of light verse, writing in the introduction: ‘Light verse can be serious’.

Edward Mendelson suggests that Auden chose to write in accessible, ‘light’ styles because they ‘allowed him to write about emotion and experience that more difficult and obscure styles would falsify or distort.’ This is light verse with a purpose, and though Auden is often bitter or satirical, maybe Mendelson’s claim is too large for the variety of short, often funny pieces which Auden wrote. There are his clerihews in Academic Graffiti:

Charles Dickens
Could find nothing to say to chickens,
But gossipping with rabbits
Became one of his habits.

Auden also wrote ‘shorts’, aphoristic in tone:

Man would be happy, loving and sage
If he didn’t keep lying about his age.

And limericks.

Said the Queen to the King: ‘I don’t frown on
The fact that you choose to go down on
My page on the stairs
But you’ll give the boy airs
If you will do the job with your crown on.’

I love the limericks, though his clerihews are a bit off; there’s something wrong in the relationship between the first and second lines. But Auden’s good at these, by and large.

These are light verses, though, which are interested in being quick, neat, witty. Despite Auden’s vulgarity – and Smith, with a very few exceptions, draws her humour not from vulgarity but from a drawing-room idiom – I get the sense that he embarrasses easily. In the clip, you can see Auden growing a bit awkward as Smith waves her arms around and carols ‘Amen’.He likes to finish without excess and move on to the next; Smith over-extends a bit far for him.

And this manifests in the poetry. Auden’s form is tight (and when it wobbles, it’s not, I fear, a deliberate wobble). His light verse avoids excess. With its short last lines of each stanza, ‘Under Which Lyre’ has a biting and disconcerting humour:

Among bewildering appliances
For mastering the arts and sciences
They stroll or run,
And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne.

The point is hammered home, with a force we might find alienating or schoolboyish; the reader’s ears are left ringing. In contrast, Smith tends towards the overlong line endings which she stole from Crashaw.

O happy dogs of England
Bark well as well you may
If you lived anywhere else
You would not be so gay.

O happy dogs of England
Bark well at errand boys
If you lived anywhere else
You would not be allowed to make such an infernal noise.

Auden would have cut that last line short: he would have skewered those dogs and no mistake. But Smith opens up the line; she lets it dribble to a close. Who’s the target here? The happy dogs of England, or the grumpy objector? Auden strikes with a force which sometimes feels disproportionate. Smith’s short, humorous poem spends itself before it can strike home.

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