War and Peace
What We Can Learn from Auden's Airman
It is unfortunate, especially during this time of war when people are flocking to poetry and art in protest or refuge, that hardly anyone, even among those who love Auden, has read “Journal of an Airman.”
“Journal of an Airman”
by W. H. Auden
In “Journal of an Airman,” W. H. Auden lists “The Airman’s Alphabet,” where “F” is represented by “Flying,” which is defined as “Habit of hawks / and unholy hunting / and ghostly journey.” In the section “The Airman is the Agent of This Central Awareness” (the awareness, we learn in the previous section, is that “of difference—love”), Auden writes, “The aeroplane has only recently become necessary, owning to the progress of enemy propaganda, and even now not for flying itself, but as a guarantee of good faith to the people, frightened by ghost stories, the enemy’s distorted vision of the airman’s activities.”
Those who have read Auden’s more popular, frequently anthologized works will not recognize the Auden they have come to know in these quotations.
You will not find this long, visually engaging poem—which includes verse (the Airman even writes a sestina), prose, pictograms of party tricks and genetic charts, and lists and schedules—in Auden’s Collected Poems. “Journal of an Airman” originally appeared as Book II of The Orators (1932), but contemporary readers will have an easier time obtaining The English Auden (edited by Edward Mendelson) than they will obtaining the volume in which the poem was originally published.
The beauty of “Journal of an Airman” is its cryptic ambiguousness. By defining the polarity of Airman/Enemy, Auden makes it impossible to know for sure who is the ally and who the enemy. The division becomes spliced into one identity: equally trustworthy, equally suspicious and highly schizoid.
The Enemy is a philosopher, a trickster, an observer. Auden tells us, “The enemy’s sense of humour—verbal symbolism. Private associations (rhyming slang), but note he is serious, the associations are constant. He means what he says.” The Airman must be equally sniffed out: “Three signs of an airman—practical jokes—nervousness before taking off—rapid healing after injury.”
While the Airman has his own private alphabet, where each letter enjoys its own tercet definition, the Enemy has a list of qualities that comes in threes. Both the alphabet and the list of qualities are remarkably unlike the “traditional” Auden that Auden lovers have come to admire. Here are some of my favorite qualities of the Enemy:
Three kinds of enemy face—the fucked hen—the favourite puss—the stone in the rain.
The signs of an enemy letter—underlining—parentheses in brackets—careful obliteration of cancelled expressions.
Three signs of an enemy house—old furniture—a room called the Den—photographs of friends.
Three symptoms in convalescence—nail-biting—nightmares—short-sight.
This schism between Airman/Enemy is transferred to the poem itself, where the plot seems to shift between wartime and love story. The Enemy is hunted for love as much as he hunted as per military orders. Of course, this is Auden, so naturally there exists in this war/love story an element of homosexuality, albeit coded and disguised through wartime rhetoric. “There is something particularly horrible,” the Airman writes, “about the idea of women pilots.” And how are we to read the following journal entry from the Airman as anything but a confession of homosexuality and love for the Enemy?:
Again. Always the same weakness. No progress against this terrible thing. What would E say if he knew? Dare I tell him? Does Derek suspect? He looked at me very strangely at dinner. No; no one must ever know. If the enemy ever got to hear of it, my whole work would be nullified. I must be careful to avoid sitting up with E alone to late hours. The signed confession in my pocket shall remain unread, always.
In addition to his militaristic duties, the Airman also has written a work titled “Professional Jealousy,” and near the end of the poem, in a to-do list, the Airman writes that he must “[d]estroy all letters, snapshots, lockets, etc., of E.” “E.” is of course conflated with the Enemy, and the objects here seem to be more in keeping with the trinkets of a love affair than evidence to be used against an enemy of the state.
Lest too much attention be placed on reading “Journal of an Airman” as a homosexual tract, we should remember that in addition to being a clever billet-doux, this is a poem that protests war. What Auden wrote about the British military can easily be applied to America’s actions in Iraq: “The British nation as a whole had no thought or idea of war—and yet in a matter of days it was upon us, and we entered it as thoughtlessly and light-heartedly as we would send off a team for a cricket match.”
What I find most poignant for our current situation is one sentence early in the poem: “Self-regard is the treating of news as a private poem; it is the consequence of eaves-dropping.” So long as fortunate citizens of the world continue to treat news with “self-regard” instead of regard for others, we will remain inactive and with “indifferent ears,” as one BBC World News reporter put it after his report concerning tribal murders in the Republic of Congo.
In 1932, A. C. Brock wrote about “Journal of the Airman” for the Times Literary Supplement, saying that the poem “describes measures of hostility against safe and organized society so reckless, so violent and capricious that they are surely beyond the imagination of any political revolutionary.” Whether the Airman is the poet fighting against society, or the ramblings of a lonely man spiralling inward toward a psychological decline (“What have I written? Thoughts suitable to a sanatorium.”), or a metaphysical aviator who, possessing the gift of flight, has obtained mastery over the mortal and earthly, I think that if any poem is deserving of a revival and retrospection, it is “Journal of an Airman,” which so precisely services our times.
Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.