W. H. Auden, photographed by Carl van Vechten, 1939

In a review of George Orwell’s collected essays, W. H. Auden admitted that it was impossible in a single review to deal adequately with volumes that ran to over two thousand pages. The same disclaimer can be made by a reviewer who picks up these two volumes of Auden’s late prose, 1,400 pages that cover the years 1963 to his death in 1973.1 With their publication, Edward Mendelson’s superb edition of the poet’s work nears completion. (Still to come is perhaps the most important of the seven volumes, Auden’s poems.) What’s astonishing about the items collected here is that they were written in the ten-year stretch that concluded Auden’s life. Their range, brilliance, and unflagging energy show everywhere the imprint of a master.

The Dyer’s Hand, Auden’s book of essays published in 1963, was made up largely of the lectures he gave in his five years as a Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It was a collection carefully arranged, even though it’s easy for a reader to ignore the order while dipping in to read about detective novels or D. H. Lawrence’s poetry. The new books are arranged wholly chronologically; they testify, although we knew it already, to Mr. Mendelson’s editorial attention to matters large and small. His exemplary devotion and scholarship in the service of Auden is comparable to twentieth-century editions at their most impressive: Peter Davison’s Orwell, in twenty-one volumes; John Haffenden’s labors with William Empson and with T. S. Eliot’s letters; Christopher Ricks’s editions of Tennyson and, recently (with his co-editor Jim McCue), of Eliot’s complete poems. The unapologetic professionalism of Mendelson’s work also shows an intense and pleased absorption in its subject.

What’s astonishing about the items collected here is that they were written in the ten-year stretch that concluded Auden’s life. Their range, brilliance, and unflagging energy show everywhere the imprint of a master.

Casting about for a word or phrase that could encapsulate something crucial to all of Auden’s prose, I came up with the well-worn but never quite exhausted word: Voice. In The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling, writing about Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, at one point stepped back to speak in larger terms about the reading of literature generally: “What underlies all success in poetry, what is even more important than the shape of the poem or its wit of metaphor, is the poet’s voice. It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen, and it carries both the modulation and the living form of what is being said.” Trilling wasn’t talking just about poetry, but extended his claim to prose fiction and essays.

Auden, who for many years collaborated with Trilling and Jacques Barzun to choose and review books offered by a club, The Reader’s Subscription (a wag once referred to it as: Sheep may safely graze), would have agreed with his colleague. Or so we might infer from part of a paragraph in his review of an anthology of Hilaire Belloc’s prose:

About Belloc the artist, all readers, whatever their religious and political convictions, will agree on two points. Firstly, he is, like Swift, one of the great masters of straightforward English prose. Even when I find what he is saying wrong-headed or absurd, I have to admire how he says it, his clarity, vigor, and elegance; and whenever his subject is one to which dogmas are irrelevant, as when he is describing his experiences as a French conscript or his adventures among savage mountains and on stormy seas, or his visit to little known cities, I am completely enchanted.

From my less-than-full acquaintance with Belloc’s writings, I would call Auden’s judgment just; even if one found it wrongheaded or absurd, there is much to admire in the clarity, vigor, and elegance of his straightforward prose. Sometimes the judgment is one that probably no reader has previously made, as when in an obituary tribute to Marianne Moore, he writes, “Different as they are in every other respect, her poems have one characteristic in common with Dryden’s: both are always firmly rooted in staid common sense.” He doesn’t stop to argue it, but the enlightening comparison has been authoritatively made.

But what distinguishes Auden’s prose in these late samples is a quality absent from Belloc or Swift or Dryden in their sometimes aggressive address to readers. It is a quality not perfectly named by calling it graciousness or attractiveness in manner, but has to do with treating readers in an engaging, deferential, even modest way. You feel he is telling the truth when, in reviewing a biography of Walter Scott, he admits to not having read Scott the way he reads Jane Austen, or Dickens, George Eliot, or Trollope; in fact, not having opened a book of Scott’s for years, he didn’t know that Scott wrote a life of Swift and edited Dryden’s works. He promises to remedy the situation as soon as he can find “the leisure.” This was written two years before his death, but how on earth could he have found such leisure when, along with the poems he was still writing, one essay or reviewing assignment succeeded another, with scarcely a pause?

In Auden’s review of Orwell’s collected prose, he noted that, given Orwell’s hatred of Christianity, it’s doubtful he spent much time reading about theology or ecclesiastical history. Auden spent a good deal of his reading life, especially in his later decades, with these subjects, and seemed more interested in them than in traditional modern Western philosophy—Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant. The presence of such study on Auden’s part is felt throughout these two volumes; they are more or less bookended by a 1962 introduction to Anne Fremantle’s The Protestant Mystics, and an unpublished lecture of 1971, “Work, Carnival, and Prayer.” Both pieces are couched in a relatively toneless idiom that suggests their “content” is more important than any stylistic aspect of it: reversing the statement he made about Belloc’s prose, Auden is more interested in what he’s saying than in how it is said. The introduction to the Protestant mystics divides the visionary experience into four types: the vision of “Dame Kind” (non-human things of this world), of Eros, of Agape, and of God, each of them painstakingly described. “Work, Carnival, and Prayer” again shows Auden’s propensity for breaking down things into this or that category and proceeding more or less systematically with the work of elucidation.

There are many other essays and lectures of this sort in the volumes: “The Worship of God in a Secular Age” may stand as typical. Mendelson points out in his introduction that Auden, “As he did often in his prose, . . . spoke in a mostly affirmative way about matters that his poems treated more darkly.” More darkly, yes, and also more humorously; his prose never ceases to be pedagogically serious, although now and then there is a welcome breaking into wit. “The Worship of God” piece has a subheading, “Sermons,” in which the mischievous Auden rears his head: “I must confess that I have very seldom in my life heard a sermon from which I derived any real spiritual benefit. Most of them, when they were not asking for money, told me that I should love God and my neighbour more than I do, a fact I know already.”

There is disagreement about how seriously Auden is to be taken as a “thinker,” and of course, as Mendelson has shown in his books on the poetry, Auden’s mind was perpetually in flux; the influences he submitted to were legion and didn’t always agree with one another. As a non-specialist in Auden’s poetry, my sense is that the least available of his works are those where he was most ambitious in drawing on previous thinkers: Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Charles Williams were writers especially important to the poems Auden wrote after coming to America in 1939. Yet For the Time Being, The Sea and the Mirror, and The Age of Anxiety have always seemed to me less appealing than his great book of the 1930s, Look, Stranger! (Titled On This Island in this country), and the collections from the later 1940s and early ’50s, especially Nones, which contained some of the finest of his later poems—“In Praise of Limestone,” “Air Port,” and “The Fall of Rome”—all characterized by Auden’s wit at its sharpest. The wittiest of them, “Under Which Lyre,” the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard in 1946, saluted the returned servicemen taking up the life of education:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

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.

Those last three lines I can’t read without a shiver that is not only comic.

The two volumes also contain the books Auden published during the last six years of his life, Secondary Worlds (1967) and A Certain World (1969). The first consists of the T. S. Eliot memorial lectures on disparate subjects: the martyr as dramatic hero, the sagas, problems facing a Christian writing in the twentieth century, and, perhaps the most interesting one, the world of opera. The second is Auden’s commonplace book, with items listed alphabetically, as in Alps, The, Anagrams, Anesthesia, Angelology. Its 337 pages are a rich trove, the items often consisting of quoted sources (Thoreau on ants) with Auden occasionally chiming in or essaying the topic on his own. In his Foreword to the commonplace book, he suggests that “Compilation is a form of autobiography,” which is seen to be the case when we come across items as distinctly pertinent to Auden’s life as “Landscape, Limestone,” or “Lead Mine, Visit to a,” in which such a visit is minutely described in the words of one “T. Sopwith.” Under “Dons, Humor of” we get the following, also mentioned in his review of the Warden of Wadham, Maurice Bowra:

Dr Spooner: I want you to come to tea next Thursday to meet Mr Casson.
Mr Casson: But I am Mr Casson.
Dr Spooner: Come all the same.

A smack of Auden’s own donnish humor. Those looking for Audenic wisdom on the subject of the “Conception, the Immaculate” will be instructed as follows: “Behind this ingenious doctrine, I cannot help suspecting, is a not very savory wish to make the Mother of God an Honorary Gentile. As if we didn’t all know perfectly well that the Holy Ghost and Our Lady both speak British English, He with an Oxford, She with a Yiddish accent.” This is surely the right note.

In reviewing a selection of essays by the Harvard professor of English Theodore Spencer, Auden begins magisterially:

In a civilized society, nobody under the age of thirty would be permitted to publish any literary criticism. . . . In our own, alas, the young are not only permitted but economically compelled to perform in a field for which they have, as yet, neither the scholarship, judgment, wisdom, nor good manners it requires.

When he wrote those words, Auden was in his early sixties and exhibited all the qualities lacking in those young. During the last four years of his life, he published, by Mendelson’s count, some eighty items, a majority of them about literary figures. A partial list includes Belloc, the Brownings, Walter Scott, Mann, Orwell, Chesterton, Housman, Trollope, Edmund Wilson, Tennyson, Pope, Marianne Moore, Shaw, Campion, George Herbert, Dryden, and Chekhov. He makes no apology for including a former lover among those reviewed: when Chester Kallman published a book of poems, Auden declared “I can see no reason why the fact that Mr Kallman and I have been close friends for over thirty years should debar me from reviewing him.” (That review is followed by one of Christopher Isherwood, another old friend, so the Kallman review was not a one-shot exception to the rule about not reviewing friends.)

As a literary critic, Auden, to no one’s surprise, didn’t go in for extended treatments of particular passages—in this respect he was like T. S. Eliot—but he delivered his judgments unapologetically, often without qualification. Invariably the judgments turn out to be shrewd. Of Byron, on whom he wrote an excellent introduction to a selection of his work, he dismissed the earlier poems, insisting that Byron’s poetry sounded authentic only when spoken “directly in the first person as Byron.” He concluded the essay with a casual but wise disclosure about Don Juan: “I don’t feel like reading it very often, but when I do, it is the only poem I want to read: no other will do.” Although he once declared, shockingly and unjustly, that Tennyson was the “stupidest” of English poets, he made amends when, in reviewing Ricks’s edition of the poems, he singled out for special praise Tennyson’s occasional, epistolary ones to his friends: “To E. Fitzgerald,” “To the Reverend F. D. Maurice,” and “The Daisy”—not ones for which he is best-known but superb examples of Tennyson working in the Horatian mode. More than once he admits to disliking Shelley, but nevertheless, though “delighted by every line” of the minor nineteenth-century poet William Barnes, Auden calls Shelley by contrast a major poet, though he cannot enjoy a single poem of his. He salutes Dryden as “without any doubt, the greatest Occasional Poet in English.” As we ponder and agree with this judgment, it occurs to us how impressive Auden himself was as an Occasional Poet.

Sometimes the pronouncements are made in a near-Campish mode, as when, in the commonplace book, he confides in us that when reading other poets he keeps a look out “for lines which would make suitable captions for a cartoon by Max Beerbohm or James Thurber.” As two candidates he presents us with Eliot’s “Why should the aged eagle stretch his wings?” and an even better one from Yeats: “Had de Valera eaten Parnell’s heart.” My single favorite one-liner comes from the “Curtain Lines” entry in the commonplace book, attributed to Max Beerbohm’s brother: “I’m heading for the Thirty Years War.”

What’s continually surprising about the reviewing is Auden’s overall friendliness and good manners toward his subjects. One of his two rules for reviewing was that he wouldn’t review any book that he didn’t basically like, and Mendelson notes that he hadn’t since 1953 written about one he disliked (it was one of Santayana’s, who had recently died). So it is with a feeling of exuberant release from the maintained role that we come across his review of a pedantic biography of Mozart that begins with an unimprovable non-sentence: “An unbook written by, it would seem, an anal madman.” Having become familiar with Auden’s tolerance and equanimity, we have to believe the biography deserved it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 9
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