The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Vol. I: 1927-1939. Edward Mendelson (ed), 848 pp, £60. ISBN: 978-0691219295
The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems Vol. II, 1940-1973, Edward Mendelson (ed), 1,120 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0691219301
Reviewing WH Auden’s Homage to Clio (1960) in The Spectator, Philip Larkin opened with a speculative scene as he considered Auden’s achievement to date. “I have been trying,” he wrote, “to imagine a discussion of Auden between one man who had read nothing of his after 1940 and another who had read nothing before.” After his departure to America at the end of 1939 Auden maintained, according to one of his biographers, that “he found literary life in England particularly stultifying because of its ‘family’ atmosphere”. 1940 is the year which separates these encyclopaedic volumes of Auden’s poetry; a bridgehead between the English Auden of his earlier great successes in the Thirties, and the émigré Auden, detached during World War II from his English homeland and living the metropolitan life as a full-time poet in New York. A “mystifying gap would open between” Larkin’s putative readers “as one spoke of a tremendously exciting English social poet full of unliterary knockabout and unique lucidity of phrase, and the other of an engaging, bookish American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving”. Boom-boom.
Larkin’s review is written with a kind of nostalgic hurt (he talks of our “loss” at what he is describing) occasioned by what he sees as Auden’s promiscuous dallying with his technical virtuosity while pandering to an audience more interested in spotting the games and references, showing “how far literature was replacing experience as material for his verse”. Larkin is like a dog with a bone, worrying the theme into a corner: “loss of vividness, a tendency to rehearse themes already existing as literature, a certain abstract windiness”. But is there no way out? “If [Auden’s] poetry could once take root again in the life surrounding him rather than in his reading … then a new Auden might result.” Just as the lights flash green, Larkin goes back on himself because “Auden has not, in fact, gone in the direction one hoped he would: he has not adopted America or taken root there. Instead he pursued an individualist and cosmopolitan path which had precluded the sort of identification so much a part of his previous successes.” His poems became, in Larkin’s mind, “agreeable and ingenious essays”; “their poetic pressure is not high”. Whichever way one goes with Larkin here he clearly no longer holds Auden in the high creative regard he (and his generation) once did, if only as the poet to define themselves against.
But Auden is, surely, the great twentieth century English language poet to set alongside WB Yeats. His particular influence stretches across generations and nationalities. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, was hugely indebted to Auden and wrote tellingly of him in two fascinating essays, republished in Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986). In “To Please a Shadow”, for instance, Brodsky dissents from Larkin’s view when he states that “the tragic achievement of Auden as a poet was precisely that he had dehydrated his verse of any sort of deception, be it a rhetorician’s or a bardic one. This sort of thing alienates one not only from faculty members but also from one’s fellows in the field, for in every one of us sits that red-pimpled youth thirsting for the incoherence of elevation.” Thomas Kinsella’s early and mid-career poems bear the clear imprint of Auden’s tone and formal constructiveness. The same might be said of Derek Mahon’s poems – though Louis MacNeice plays a much larger part there too – as does Auden’s “lighter” and “occasional” verse.
These cross-currents – and there are many more to note in American poetry; figures such as John Berryman, Adrienne Rich and Anthony Hecht come to mind – play like a pinball machine throughout postwar literature, taking the reader into the present period of reassessment of Auden’s mammoth production of poetry, prose, drama, libretti and variations of all of these writing forms. It has fallen to the amazing dedication and scholarly commitment of Edward Mendelson and his team at Princeton University Press to produce such a set of immaculate volumes that a lifetime in the making is now preserved for time immemorial.
Auden was born as the twentieth century was barely under way in 1907 and died in his mid-sixties in 1973. His first volume appeared when he was twenty, his last incomplete book, Thank You, Fog, posthumously. His packed, ebullient, sensual and challenging life of mind and body was lived in various parts of England, America, Italy and Austria and he spent long years travelling into the eyes of various political storms and wars in Spain, China and Germany. (So unlike Larkin, who professed a strong dislike of travelling to foreign places – though he seemed none the worse for so doing.)
Auden was at the heart of an international network of artists, philosophers, intellectuals and cultural innovators, many of whom were his friends, mentors, loves and lifetime associates. And the subjects of some of his very finest poems too, as elegies mapped out ideas as much as emotions. Auden was, somewhat like Yeats, a great poet of friendship and companionship. In the opening to his and Christopher Isherwood’s Journey to War (1939) he dedicates a sonnet to EM Foster which while celebrating the English novelist’s moral and democratic impulses (“You interrupt us like a telephone”) proclaims:
For we are Lucy, Turton, Philip, we
Wish international evil, are excited
To join the jolly ranks of the benighted
Where Reason is denied and Love ignored:
But, as we swear our lie, Miss Avery
Comes out into the garden with the sword.
The references to characters in Foster’s novels merge neatly with another formal note of English poetry’s traditional propensity for personification just as we head to into the Japan-China war zone.
Auden eventually settled into a sort of retreat in Oxford towards the end of his years and in his beloved Austrian hideaway in Kirchstetten (“the lane in which his house stood had now been renamed ‘Audenstrasse”’, as one of his biographers tells us). Yet he was also much in demand as a reviewer and editor, and on the poetry-reading circuit in Europe and the US. He was a star turn with his rumpled suits, famously rutted face, chain-smoking and tot of gin and tonic; with the unmissable accent of Middle England. Though dated, and clear as a bell, his voice was as seditious of establishment values and self-importance as when he was first finding his feet in the late 1920s.
Of the poems gathered in these magnificent two volumes, there are dozens, dozens, which define the achievement of English poetry’s ability to open out to the physical, moral and emotional realities of modern life. Brave poems often full of wit and smart reverberations but also songs about where people, ordinary people, find themselves as well as the more studied and dramatic addresses to Auden’s large network of friends and fellow artists (often one and the same) and those thinkers and literary figures who influenced his own life.
Larkin’s declaration that “Auden no longer touches our imaginations” leads him to a final observation: “My guess is that the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened [Auden’s] talent in a way that nothing else has, or that once ‘the next War’ really arrived everything since has seemed to him an anti-climax. But these are only guesses. Something, after all, led him to write ‘A poet’s prayer’ in New Year Letter: ‘Lord, teach me to write so well that I shall no longer want to.”’
In the sixty years since Philip Larkin made that statement, it looks like he has been proven wrong because Auden sounds to this reader all the more of our here and now, as this wondrous Collected Works shows without a shadow of a doubt.
Balancing Acts: Conversations with Gerald Dawe on a life in poetry, edited by Frank Ferguson will be published in spring 2023 by Irish Academic Press.