He was an enthusiastic appreciator and a genial, candid critic: ‘I am not sure what this is about. The Norse Invasions?’
Circa 1946PHOTO: JERRY COOKE/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES
In a 1960 review of books of poetry by Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill, W.H. Auden remarked: “To write about a poet for others who have not yet read him is not criticism but reviewing, and reviewing is not really a respectable occupation.” The remark sounds wry, a bit tongue-in-cheek in the typical English manner. After all, by 1960 Auden had been pursuing this disreputable occupation for more than 30 years. But in fact he was being serious. For if a reviewer “praises a bad book—time will correct him—but if he condemns a good one the effect may be serious, for the public can discover his mistake only by reading it and that is precisely what his review has prevented them from doing.” This is a cautionary note that Auden sounded more than once in almost 50 years of reviews and essays. For all his exuberant playfulness (not always as conspicuous in his prose as in his poetry), Auden was a moralist. Accuracy of expression was not only an aesthetic virtue but an ethical one. For him the celebrated mot juste of Flaubert meant the just word as well as the right one. This genial scrupulosity lifts his best reviews far above those of most of his contemporaries. As he put it himself, rather presciently, in his early poem “Letter to Lord Byron”: “In setting up my brass plate as a critic, / I make no claim to certain diagnosis, / I’m more intuitive than analytic, / I offer thought in homeopathic doses.”
The fifth and sixth volumes of Auden’s collected prose, which appear this year, bring to a conclusion a project that began in 1996 under the meticulous editorship of Edward Mendelson. It is hard to find superlatives adequate to the accomplishment. The successive volumes, spaced roughly by decades and each running from some 600 to over 800 pages, include lively and detailed introductions, which end up forming a kind of literary biography of Auden as essayist. Moreover, as Mr. Mendelson notes, the various articles, lectures and reviews illumine many of Auden’s poems and sometimes serve as glosses on them; thus the several articles on A.E. Housman make it clear that Housman represented an enigmatic bête noire for Auden, as irritating as he was admirable, and this leads one to reread Auden’s famous sonnet on Housman in a new light.
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF W.H. AUDEN: PROSE (VOLS. 1-6)
Edited by Edward Mendelson Princeton, 4,504 pages, $511.50
More intriguingly, taken as a whole, the prose also constitutes a kind of intermittent, almost surreptitious autobiography: Auden’s tastes are on full display but so are his quirks, his peculiar combination of diffidence and authority. And he can sometimes be very direct and open about himself, as when he speaks of his parents and his upbringing in York or his youthful fascination with metallurgy and mining (a lifelong interest) or his initiation into poetry under the influence of that superb but sadly forgotten poet and anthologist Walter de la Mare (to whom he pays tribute in three essays in the present collection). Usually the life must be inferred from the texts themselves, as in his commonplace book “A Certain World” of 1970, included in Vol. 6, in which the passages quoted, and commented on by Auden, form a vivid portrait of his own complex sensibility.
Mr. Mendelson’s edition appears to be exhaustive. He has identified and tracked down virtually every recorded prose piece, often comparing Auden’s original text with their edited versions, as well as the texts of broadcasts, occasional lectures, public letters, jacket liners, book-club notes and blurbs. Each essay or review is precisely dated with its place of publication. Even “lost and unwritten work” is registered. To add to the pleasures of editorial precision, the volumes themselves have been beautifully produced. Each dust jacket bears a photograph of Auden from the corresponding period, and they are all striking; we witness him moving from brash youth to sagging middle age to the final cragginess of his last decade. Auden’s aged face was famously described as looking like “a wedding cake left out in the rain,” but to me his final features, with their weathered furrows and arroyos of wrinkles, look more like an outcropping of battered rock, “a secret system of caves and conduits” (as he put it in his 1948 poem “In Praise of Limestone”).
It is impossible to list here all the writers and subjects dealt with in this massive and monumental set. The writers range from Housman, Byron, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Yeats to Kafka, Cavafy, Marianne Moore and, of course, Shakespeare. But he also lavishes attention on Freud,Kierkegaard, M.F.K. Fisher, and Dag Hammarskjöld, as well as on such composers as Benjamin Britten and Stravinsky (with both of whom he collaborated), Mozart, Berlioz, Paul Hindemith and, above all, Richard Wagner.
On the lighter side, he had a special fondness for Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” seen as an epic “Quest” (a theme he also discovers in Kafka). When he discusses the Welsh poet and artist David Jones’s maddeningly difficult poem “The Anathemata,” another epic work he admired enormously, Auden is honest enough, amid a detailed analysis, to remark of one section, “I am not sure what this is about. The Norse Invasions?” Nobody else is sure either, as it happens, but I cannot recall any critic, and certainly not one of Auden’s authority, making such a candid admission of bafflement, and it is refreshing. Of Jones’s fabled obscurity, Auden quips that Jones “is only trying to give him [the reader] fun” and compares deciphering the poem to solving a crossword puzzle. Auden thought obscurity an “aesthetic vice,” but mere difficulty, as in Jones’s poem, was something bracing, something any lover of poetry had to work through.
Such blunt comments reveal Auden’s more rigorous aspect as a critic, frequently on display here alongside his unfailing affability. Fun was important to Auden; even in his serious essays it is never far beneath the surface. One of the masterpieces included here is Auden’s 1952 essay on the inimitable Sydney Smith (1771-1845), one of his favorite figures, an Anglican clergyman, indomitable social reformer and outrageous wit. (It was he who defined heaven as “eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets.”) This, like his essays on Eliot or Yeats or Louis MacNeice or Stravinsky, or his generous and admiring comments on Robert Graves, stands out with particular luster among the more routine assignments; the reader can feel Auden’s pleasure in the writing, which is always poised but just as often infused with a sense of fun; we sense that such essays were prompted not only by admiration but by deep affection. His fondness for “light verse” and nonsense poetry is well known and well-represented here too in several splendid articles.
In reading through the essays, reviews and forewords, as well as the whole books included here, we get the sense—rare enough in literary discourse—that we are listening to a thoroughly honest voice. Even when we disagree with Auden’s judgments—his reservations about Emily Dickinson, for example, or Camus’s “The Rebel” (a “maddeningly woolly and verbose essay”)—or when he suddenly (and uncharacteristically) turns pedantic, as in the dry and turgid lecture “Nature, History and Poetry,” delivered at Fordham University in 1950, we are never in doubt as to his honesty or seriousness of purpose (though we can’t help missing the sense of fun). I noted only one occasion, in his response to the sordid kerfuffle over the award of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound,when he adopts a strangely weaselly tone. His response is a masterpiece of evasion—but then, few came out of that sorry imbroglio with their integrity unscathed.
In a letter to Mr. Mendelson written in his last year, and excerpted here, Auden stated that “I won’t review a book unless I basically like it.” This may account for the genial tone of his prose. Even so, there are some delicious exceptions. In a 1933 review of Winston Churchill’s “Thoughts and Adventures,” he writes that “no one reading this book or indeed any by Mr. Churchill can credit him with having thought long or deeply about anything, but he is equally ready to write on any subject, the Quantum Theory, Cézanne, or the Old Testament, and except for the title you will not be able to tell which is which.” But even in this case geniality keeps breaking in, and he goes on to concede that “the old humbug can write.” This, and a truly ferocious attack on the literary historianVan Wyck Brooks (who had rated Joyce, Proust and Eliot, among others, as “secondary writers”) and on the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, are the only harsh reviews to be found in these thousands of pages. There is a charming parody of Gertrude Stein that accurately captures her wacky tautologies, but it is clearly a whimsical exercise rather than an attack.
Since most of the prose here—five of the six volumes—was written in the 30 years or so after Auden’s arrival in the U.S. in 1939 (he became an American citizen in 1946), it is tempting to wonder what influence America may have had on his manner and style. Not much, I would say. In fact, residence here appears to have sharpened his Englishness. He is very astute, for example, on the different ways in which Americans and Europeans regard nature; more than once he engages in perceptive comparisons of “Huckleberry Finn” and “ Oliver Twist” to illustrate this difference, but these are, of course, exclusively literary, not drawn from his own observation of a new landscape. The keen eye he turned on Iceland or on China in earlier books is not much in evidence later on.
America may not have inspired Auden directly, but it made it possible for him to work. And if he was at times a bit condescending about his new compatriots, he was also grateful. This is clear from his late poem “On the Circuit,” in which he sardonically but affectionately evokes his mad scramble to fly from one venue to the next all over America for readings or lectures:
Another morning comes: I see, Dwindling below me on the plane, The roofs of one more audience I shall not see again.
God bless the lot of them, although I don’t remember which was which: God bless the U.S.A., so large, So friendly, and so rich.
—Mr. Ormsby’s most recent book of poems is “The Baboons of Hada.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."