“It’s such a pity Wystan never grows up.”
—Auden, Letter to Lord Byron
“I shall only ask you to apply to the work of the deceased a very simple test. How many of his lines can you remember?”
—Auden, “The Public v. the Late Mr. W. B. Yeats”
In June 1994, shortly before Princeton University Press brought out its edition of W. H. Auden’s juvenilia, The New Criterion published a handful of those apprentice poems from the mid-to-late 1920s. While working on a brief introduction to accompany the selection, I happened to have a conversation with a visiting English critic whose work I admire. I told him I was writing something about Auden’s juvenilia. Without missing a beat he said, “It’s all juvenilia, isn’t it?”
I joined him in a laugh. But his comment did take me aback. W. H. Auden, perhaps the most accomplished poetic craftsman since Yeats—the man who once claimed to have written poems exemplifying every form discussed in George Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody (three volumes)—a lifelong purveyor of juvenilia? Surely not. Auden was one of the most urbane and insightful essayists of the twentieth century. That much is indisputable. But his poetic stature?
There seem to be two main schools of thought. No one denies the prodigious skill, the cleverness, the wide if quirky erudition on display in Auden’s poetry. And very few would deny the strength of many—well, anyway several—poems published between 1930, when his first volume appeared, and around 1940, the year after he emigrated (his enemies said “fled”) to the United States. These were the years of most of Auden’s anthology pieces: “The Secret Agent,” “Lullaby,” “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” and one or two others. Opinion has long been divided about Auden’s later work, especially his work after 1945. And since 1973, when Auden died at the age of sixty-six, opinion has also been increasingly divided about the larger question of what his poetic achievement really adds up to. Does it rival or even surpass that of Yeats or Eliot, say? Or has the discipline of posterity made it seem less capacious, less vital, less necessary?
Auden’s champions include many distinguished and articulate figures: poets like Joseph Brodsky, Richard Wilbur, and John Fuller, whose recent reference work, W. H. Auden: A Commentary, is a meticulous labor of love and scholarship. A much-expanded and revised version of his 1970 Reader’s Guide to Auden’s poems, the new Commentary attempts “to say something useful about every original poem, play, or libretto of his written in English that has so far reached print (with the exception of most of the juvenilia … ).” Among Auden’s other commentators, the palm must go to Edward Mendelson, the poet’s literary executor, chief editor, bibliographer, and most devoted critic. In Early Auden (1981), Professor Mendelson distinguished between the traditions of “civil poetry” and “vatic poetry,” locating Auden firmly in the former. “He had no wish to achieve an imaginative triumph over common reality,” Professor Mendelson wrote in his introduction. “His poems were not visionary autonomous objects, exempt from the practical and ethical standards appropriate to all other human works. They were made to be judged both for their art and their truth.” What Auden wanted, Professor Mendelson wrote later in the book, was “poetry that reflected the formal and linguistic lessons of modernism yet could still serve the public good. The art he wished to create was intent less on autonomy and stasis than on enlightenment and action.”
Early Auden followed its subject’s career through the eve of his emigration to the United States, in January 1939, with his friend, sometime lover, and occasional collaborator Christopher Isherwood. Later Auden picks up the story from there, providing a history and interpretation of Auden’s work from 1939 through his death in 1973.
Later Auden is a scrupulous and inviting piece of literary-critical scholarship, crisply written and full of the quiet authority that comes with intimate mastery of a subject. Indeed, I doubt whether anyone can claim greater mastery of the Auden corpus than Professor Mendelson. He began with a doctoral dissertation on Auden. In 1970, when Auden was thinking about putting together a collection of his book reviews and review essays, he found he was unable to remember exactly what he’d written or where. But Professor Mendelson, who had met Auden while working on his thesis, had amassed photocopies of virtually everything. Auden—who was spectacularly disorganized himself—was duly impressed by this display of order (and doubtless by the homage it implied) and entrusted the selection of the volume that became Forewords and Afterwords (1973) to him. In 1972, Professor Mendelson was appointed Auden’s literary executor (joining William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears), and he has devoted himself to Audeniana ever since. In addition to his critical studies, he is a founding member of the Auden Society. He has also edited almost all of Auden’s posthumous works: the last collection of poems, entitled Thank You, Fog (1974), Collected Poems (1976), The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939 (1977), and the ongoing Complete Works of W. H. Auden, of which three volumes (plays, libretti, and prose to 1938) have thus far appeared from Princeton University Press. All of which is to say that there is precious little about Auden’s work that Professor Mendelson doesn’t know.
Although it is half again as long as its predecessor, Later Auden does not come with the same kind of interpretative scaffolding. In Early Auden, by arguing for the merits of what he called the “civil tradition” of poetry, Professor Mendelson challenged the prevailing critical climate that gave precedence to the Romantic-Modernist tradition with its emphasis on the isolated individual and the autonomy of the work of art. His detailed discussion of Auden’s early development was at the same time a brief for the view of poetry—and by implication, the view of society and man’s place in it—that Auden came to represent. At bottom, it is an eighteenth-century view, according to which the purpose of art is to delight and instruct.
In Later Auden, such larger arguments are more implicit than explicit. In his introduction, Professor Mendelson lays out various oppositions—between myth and parable, between “the Ariel-dominated poet and the Prospero-dominated poet,” between the poem as “verbal contraption” (Auden’s phrase) and moral artifact—with which Auden’s poetry contended. But the text proper is a tightly focused, sometimes almost abrupt, tour of Auden’s work from the elegy for Yeats, which was written a few weeks after he arrived in New York, to the “concluding carnival” of his last, chatty poems. As in his earlier volume, Professor Mendelson quietly punctuates his critical narrative with aptly chosen biographical details. While no substitute for a full-fledged biography, this procedure does provide readers with a kind of precis of Auden’s movements, activities, and infatuations. Those interested in a fuller account of Auden’s life may consult the excellent biography by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin, 1981) and the briefer, more thematic life by Richard Davenport-Hines (Pantheon, 1995).
Early Auden argued for Auden’s surpassing greatness (“the most inclusive poet of the twentieth century, its most technically skilled, and its most truthful”); Later Auden assumes it. It is revisionist in that it places Auden’s later work on a par with, or even ahead of, his early work. Professor Mendelson is far from uncritical; about some poems from the early Forties, for example, he writes that “the contemplative saints briefly but disastrously took over much of his work, and they ruined every poem they touched.” But such local criticisms occur in the context of presumed greatness. They tend to underscore the boldness of Professor Mendelson’s arresting claim that “much of [Auden’s] most profound and personal work was written in the last fifteen years of his life,” that is from 1958 on. “Personal” of course it may be; any doodle might be personal. And in fact Auden, who famously declared that he did not want a biography written about him, often noted that his poems were full of coded autobiographical references. “For a poet like myself,” he wrote, “an autobiography would be redundant since anything of importance that happens to one is immediately incorporated, however obscurely, in a poem.” The task of identifying such references has kept scholars busy for years and is one of the things that makes John Fuller’s Commentary so valuable. Among other things, he is almost always able to provide the relevant biographical correlative: “Auden wrote this poem while staying at the new Pennsylvania home of Caroline Newman, his patron,” “Auden spent the night of 19 January in Paris, en route with Isherwood for Marseilles,” “The circumstances of this early poem to [his lover, Chester] Kallman are,” etc.
But by “profound” Professor Mendelson means artistically significant: not only technically accomplished but also (given Auden’s understanding of art) morally wise and aesthetically compelling. Professor Mendelson argues this case passionately and intelligently; whether he argues it convincingly is another matter. There are many ways in which one can trace Auden’s poetic development. The road from existential bafflement to religious affirmation charts one course (in 1940, at the age of thirty-three, Auden began “in a tentative and experimental way” to return to the Anglo-Catholic faith of his youth). The movement from lyric isolation to deliberate didacticism marks another. A third path has to do with what we might call diminishing poetic tautness. I do not mean a loss of prosodic virtuosity. Auden’s astonishing technical mastery never left him; if anything, he became more facile with age. His stupendous example helped make us more aware of the ways in which technical facility can be the precondition of poetic achievement. It may also have encouraged us to neglect the fact that technique, uncatalyzed by sensibility and subject matter, can be the enemy of poetic achievement. In any event, for Auden technical fluency sometimes resulted in poetry that seemed to proceed on verbal autopilot.
Auden often remarked on his fondness for the Oxford English Dictionary. In later life, it provided some of his favorite reading matter and indeed was the source of many of the lexical curiosities that increasingly—bedizened his poetry. Humphrey Carpenter notes that the most prominent object in the workroom of Auden’s house in Kirchstetten, Austria (where he summered from 1958 to the end of his life), was the OED. The set, Carpenter writes, would always be “missing one volume, which was downstairs, Auden invariably using it as a cushion to sit on when at table—as if (a friend observed) he were a child not quite big enough for the nursery furniture.” Auden’s raids on the lexicon resulted in some bewildering rarities. In a review of Epistle to a Godson (1972), one critic lists “blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle, cagmag, hoasting, drumbles,” among others. How many do you know? How many were chosen because the poet felt he had stumbled upon the one absolutely right word for the thought or feeling he was trying to express? How many did he adopt because he happened to pick them up from yesterday’s trip through the dictionary and they filled a metrical hole? Auden regularly described poetry as a verbal puzzle, akin to a crossword. Well, it is and it isn’t. Not all poems are verbal puzzles—not even all good ones—and it should go without saying that not all verbal puzzles are poems. These are distinctions that some of Auden’s later poetry elides.
In 1936, Auden said that “the first, second and third thing in . . . art is subject. Technique follows from and is governed by subject.” Possibly he later changed his mind; he certainly changed his practice. Auden’s love of complicated verse forms and unusual words was doubtless partly an expression of a poet’s delight in the resources of language and his ability to manipulate it skillfully. It may also have been an attempt to compensate for the diminishing tautness I mentioned: an effort to inject arbitrary verbal complexity to distract readers—and even, perhaps, himself—from the lack of genuine poetic density that characterizes so many of his later poems. In this regard, it seems significant that the word “cosy” came to loom large in Auden’s vocabulary in later years.
These features of Auden’s poetry have not gone unremarked. Already in 1940, reviewing Another Time, Randall Jarrell complained that, unlike Auden’s early “oracular” verse, the present poems seemed “moral, rational, manufactured, written by the top of the head for the top of the head.” Although he was full of generalized compliments about Auden’s talent, Jarrell also wrote that “the poems say often now, ‘Be good.’ They ascend through moral abstractions, gnomic chestnuts, to a vaguish humanitarian mysticism.” And this was only 1940. By 1955, when he reviewed The Shield of Achilles, Jarrell was resorting to sarcasm: “non-Euclidean needlepoint, a man sitting on a chaise longue juggling four cups, four saucers, four sugar lumps, and the round-square: this is what great and good poets do when they don’t bother even to try to write great and good poems.”
One of the most devastating reflections on Auden’s development—or decline—was Philip Larkin’s review of Homage to Clio in 1960. Entitled “What’s become of Wystan?” (a play on Anthony Powell’s novel What’s Become of Waring), Larkin begins by praising Auden’s pre-1940 poetry and proceeds to describe his later verse as “too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving.” Larkin readily acknowledges Auden’s large ambition and poetic virtues—“the wide-angled rhetoric, the seamless lyricism, the sudden gripping dramatisations”—but he insists that “almost all we value is still confined to the first ten years” of his career. Auden, he wrote, had “become a reader rather than a writer” with the result that his poetry suffered a “loss of vividness” and “a certain abstract windiness.” The “rambling intellectual stew of ‘New Year Letter,’ ” Larkin wrote, “was hardly more than a vamp-till-ready.” The poems in Homage to Clio were “agreeable and ingenious” but their “poetic pressure is not high.” Too often, he mused, readers find “a wilful jumble of Age-of-Plastic nursery rhyme, ballet folk-lore, and Hollywood Lemprière served up with a lisping archness that sets the teeth on edge.” As an example, Larkin quotes this bit from “Plains” (1953), part of Auden’s sequence Bucolics:
Romance? Not in this weather. Ovid’s charmer
Who leads in quadrilles in Arcady, boy-lord
Of hearts who can call their Yes and No
Would, madcap that he is, soon die of cold
Their lives are in firmer hands; that old grim
Who makes the blind dates for the hatless
Creates their country matters.
Tough as Larkin’s review was, it exhibited disappointment as much as hostility. It was with sadness, not malice, that Larkin concluded that Auden, “never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one” who “no longer touches our imaginations.” It speaks extremely well of Auden that, a few months after this review appeared, he wrote about Larkin’s first book The Less Deceived and, as Professor Mendelson notes, “praised it without reservation.”
The tweeness that Larkin discerned in Auden’s verse was always a temptation for Auden; it was a temptation he gave into more and more as the years went by. Hence the increasing levity and campiness of Auden’s poetry. This was something that Christopher Ricks registered with deadly precision in his review of About the House (1965). Professor Ricks begins by describing the “disarming” quality that much of Auden’s poetry displays; he then goes on to note that it is “harder to pinpoint the moment at which such a word has to be said accusingly rather than thankfully.” Consider, for example, the prominence of the word “silly” in Auden’s poetic vocabulary (e.g., from the elegy on Yeats: “You were silly like us.”) As Professor Ricks points out, Auden doubtless expected his readers to recall the etymology of “silly” (“blessed,” “fortunate”), but the line depends mostly on the word’s deflationary effect: a confidential, homey effect that can easily be overplayed. Increasingly, Auden did overplay it. Consider the lines that Professor Ricks quotes from “Grub First, Then Ethics” (1958):
surely those in whose creed God is edible may call a fine omelette a Christian deed.
At best, this is silly in the modern sense: “showing a lack of good sense,” “frivolous.” The fact that Auden wrote not to ridicule but out of professed commitment to Christian doctrine makes the poem in even more questionable taste.
Taste is the lodestar of art, the inner principle that accounts for the decorum of the appropriately said. Increasingly, Auden’s faculty of taste functioned accurately only in a risible or mocking mode. Given the right subject and the right form, he could be very funny. He was, for example, a master of the clerihew: “No one could ever inveigle/ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel/ Into offering the slightest apology/ For his Phenomenology.” Or: “Mallarmé /Had too much to say: / He could never quite/ Leave the paper white.” But he had difficulty purging his poetry of that superciliousness. As Professor Ricks points out, this shows itself with lamentable consequences in his habit of irregular capitalization: “A Major Prophet taken Short,” “a Perfect social Number,” etc. The effect is unsettling, and ultimately unserious. Exactly how, Professor Ricks asks, does it differ from A. A. Milne’s procedure with Winnie the Pooh: “A Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others”?
This family of criticisms is broached even by some of Auden’s most stalwart admirers. In the 1940s and 1950s, Edmund Wilson became a staunch booster of Auden. He concluded his long tribute, “W. H. Auden in America” (1956), by describing him as “a great English poet who is also . . . one of the great English men of the world.” Nearly twenty years earlier, however, Wilson put his finger on another dimension of Auden’s sensibility: “W. H. Auden has presented the curious spectacle of a poet with an original language . . . whose development has seemed to be arrested at the mentality of an adolescent schoolboy.” There is no doubt that Auden’s poetry developed; the question is whether it can really be said to have matured. The quality that, in their different ways, Wilson, Jarrell, Larkin, and Ricks dilate on has to do with a precociousness that never outgrew itself. In later years, Auden took to referring to himself as “mother,” especially in relation to the monumentally irresponsible Chester Kallman. (Although they were lovers only briefly, Auden supported Kallman for the rest of his life and the two periodically lived together.) More telling and finally more appropriate was the nickname Auden acquired at Oxford: “The Child.” The coyness and prolixity that characterize Auden’s later poetry are emblematic of what happens when the desire for perpetual adolescence fails to outgrow itself: it becomes seedy. It is shocking, as one looks back over Auden’s poetic oeuvre, to note how early the seediness set in.
Auden memorably defined poetry as “memorable speech.” How well does his own poetry do by this criterion? Auden certainly said and wrote some memorable things. His comment that Rilke was “the greatest lesbian poet since Sappho” may be described as unforgettable. Likewise his comment that his face, which in later years was ravaged by the thick furrows of Touraine-Solents-Gole syndrome, was “like a wedding cake left out in the rain.” The widely memorable lines from his poetry are almost exclusively from poems written, as Larkin observed, from the first decade of his career. They also tend to be fragmentary: a line here, two or three lines there. “Lay your sleeping head my love/ Human on my faithless arm” from “Lullaby” (1937); “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters” from “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938); “In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise” from the Yeats elegy (1939), which also appears as the epitaph on Auden’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey; “sad is Eros, builder of cities,/ And weeping anarchic Aphrodite” from the elegy for Freud (1939).
It is ironical that what is probably Auden’s single most famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” was one that he disavowed and even, as he put in 1957, came to “loathe.” Nevertheless, the poem contains some of Auden’s most memorable poetry, from the ominous opening lines,
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-Second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade
to the famous end of the eighth stanza: “We must love one another or die.” As Professor Mendelson points out, “this line was more widely quoted and admired than perhaps anything else” in Auden’s work. E. M. Forster said that because Auden had written it, “he can command me to follow him.” Which doubtless tells us a lot about Forster.
In any event, Auden soon had misgivings about the poem. In 1944, he abandoned the celebrated eighth stanza partly because he believed that in the context of the poem (“Hunger allows no choice/ To the citizen or the police”) the line about love reduced what should be a voluntary act to an instinctual drive like hunger. In 1964, Auden’s dislike of the poem hardened into revulsion when an advertising consultant for Lyndon Johnson misappropriated the line in an infamous campaign commercial. As Richard Davenport-Hines reports in his biography, the commercial featured a little girl counting the petals of a flower; suddenly, she is interrupted by a stern male voice counting down from ten to zero, at which point the girl is replaced by the flash of an explosion and a mushroom cloud. Then Johnson’s voice intoned: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must love each other or we must die.” Auden bitterly responded, “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.” When he prepared his Collected Shorter Poems for publication the following year, he omitted the poem and later gave instructions that it was not to be reprinted in his lifetime.
Most readers will be able to cite a few other lines or poems—“At the Grave of Henry James” (1941), for example, with the beginning of its stern last stanza: “All will be judged.” But after around 1940, most readers will find that the gems are fewer and farther between. It is sad that among Auden’s later poems, one of the most memorable is the last verse he ever wrote, an often-reproduced haiku:
He still loves life but O O O O how he wishes the Good Lord would take him.
(As Professor Mendelson points out, the “O”s need to be elided to keep the haiku to the requisite seventeen syllables; but should they be read as three syllables, as he says, or two, as I suspect?) In the end, Auden’s poetry has produced relatively faint echoes. He was a remarkable mimic; he did marvelous impersonations of seriousness; but his continual worries about the authenticity of his poems show that even in his own mind he did not transcend impersonation. In comparison, say, to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Auden’s poetry lacks density. His example has meant a great deal to several poets who came after him; his techniques are preserved in the practice of some of the best. But Auden’s poetry has left indifferent traces on the sensibility of our epoch. It is accomplished, not ineluctable. Reverberations from “Prufrock,” The Wasteland, “Gerontion,” and The Four Quartets are everywhere: the meter and the matter of those poems are part of the poetic metabolism of the age. Auden wrote nothing that has entered our pulses so thoroughly.
The permanent Auden is found elsewhere, above all in the scintillating and companionable essays of The Dyer’s Hand (1962), Forewords and Afterwords, and some of his lectures, especially The Enchafeñd Flood (1949) and parts of Secondary Worlds (1968). He was always penetrating on literary subjects. His essay on Trollope in Forewords and Afterwords is a masterpiece. So is his essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets. As in the scenario he described in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” his essays hail the triumph and consolation of the ordinary in the face of the extraordinary. In the poem, “the expensive delicate ship” saw “something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” but it had somewhere to go and “sailed calmly on.” One of Auden’s most salutary services was to remind us of the importance of sailing calmly on.
Auden wrote often and well about the contradictory desire to find in art both an escape from and a revelation of reality. In an essay on Robert Frost, he observed that “we want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” Auden was especially effective in his admonitory mode, warning about the hubris of art absolutized. “Poetry,” he wrote in The Dyer’s Hand, “is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” Later on in that volume, he expands on this thought. The effect of formal beauty, he writes, is “evil to the degree that beauty is taken, not as analogous to, but identical with goodness, so that the artist regards himself or is regarded by others as God, the pleasure of beauty being taken for the joy of Paradise, and the conclusion drawn that, since all is well in the work of art, all is well in history.” Poetry, Auden said in the elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Many of his essays expatiate on the mischief of trying to have it otherwise.
Auden’s essays are rich and endlessly rewarding. Yet in them, too, there is a large element of impersonation. In “Reading,” the opening essay of The Dyer’s Hand, Auden remarks that “in literature, as in life, affectation, passionately adopted and loyally persevered in, is one of the chief forms of self-discipline by which mankind has raised itself by its own bootstraps.” This is undoubtedly true, though not necessarily reassuring. It is also true, as Auden remarks a few pages later, that “some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” Authenticity and affectation are not opposites, exactly, but if they can co-exist, they must do so uneasily. Auden never really resolved such tensions; he exploited them. The beguiling urbanity of Auden’s essays depends partly on his native brilliance and erudition, partly on what we might call his air of easygoing religious seriousness. He never simply reviewed a book, he made it part of an existential project. He managed to do this whether he was writing about Kierkegaard, migraines, or M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating.
Auden was fond of quoting Yeats’s line about being forced to choose between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. He early on chose the latter. “Charade” is too strong a word. But there is a startling disjunction in Auden between the avuncular moralist who has such remarkable things to say about art, pride, sin, self-deception, etc., and the disheveled, lickerish narcissist who habitually besotted himself with horrifying quantities of alcohol, benzedrine, and some fifteen-thousand cigarettes yearly, who talked about being “married” to the disreputable Chester Kallman and then diverted himself with a steady procession of call-boys. George Orwell retracted his description of Auden as “a sort of gutless Kipling,” but not, I believe, his comment from 1940 (soon after Auden absented himself from the perils of war-threatened England) that “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” Auden later wrote to the British embassy offering to do “anything when and if the Government ask me,” but he oughtn’t have been surprised to find his offer rebuffed. Auden mounted a campaign against an overly aestheticized view of the world, but he did so while remaining within the orbit of aestheticism. His anguish was no doubt genuine, but his solution always had something of a performance about it. This is not to say that it lacked pathos. In a sermon he delivered in Westminster Abbey in 1966, Auden poignantly observed that
those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on the subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals. Where faith is concerned, very few of us have the right to say more than—to vary a saying of Simone Weil’s—“I believe in a God who is like the True God in everything except that he does not exist, for I have not yet reached the point where God exists.” As for loving and forgiving our enemies, the less we say about that the better. Our lack of faith and love are facts we have to acknowledge, but we shall not improve either by a morbid and essentially narcissistic moaning over our deficiencies. Let us rather ask, with caution and humour—given our time and place and talents, what, if our faith and love were perfect, would we be glad to find it obvious to do?
Referring to Christianity, G. K. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. It is a witty statement, partly true. But only partly. In both his art and his life, W. H. Auden leaned heavily on the resources of the subjunctive, even as he entertained his readers with dreams of indicative truth. When he was eight years old, his mother taught him the love duet from Tristan. Auden played Isolde. It is not clear that he ever ceased giving that performance.
- W. H. Auden: A Commentary, by John Fuller; Princeton University Press, 640 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
- Later Auden, by Edward Mendelson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pages, $30. Go back to the text.
- An exception is the aforementioned Juvenilia: Poems, 1922–1928, edited by Katherine Bucknell (Princeton University Press, 1994). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 9, on page 13
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