The Complete Works of W. H. Auden:
Poems Vol 1 and Vol 2 edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton University Press) 2022.
Tackling the complete poems of W. H. Auden has proved a rewarding, though at times exhausting, experience. Auden wrote a great deal of poetry containing some of the longest poems published in English in the 20th century. His The Age of Anxiety (1947) runs to 200 pages and The Sea and the Mirror is similarly of book length. There are shorter poems but not that short. It feels like the tradition of long Norse sagas have been trailing Auden. Although born in Birmingham Auden’s father believed the family was of Icelandic descent. I suspect this fed into child Wystan’s imagination and accounted for his adult epics with their conversational format. But his writing, always brilliantly crafted, created problems. The poetry can be witty, forceful and immediate and also, in parts of the same poem, or others, didactic and forbidding in its casual erudition.
The criticism made by Auden’s detractors is that he is hectoring and wrote too much of variable quality. I’m not a detractor but still in a state of being a more converted lover of his poetry. Auden’s braininess can both attract and repel. He can flip from being merely clever (though never shallow) to a deep lyricism full of ideas and moral concern always containing a profound musicality.
‘Auden’s poems are intellectual creations, even when the poet’s intellect is used to warn us against the follies of uncontrolled intellectualism.’
The Observer (Writer? Date?)
So says the blurb on the back of my CD of Auden reading Auden. I would recommend all readers of these handsome looking Princeton editions to listen to recordings of W. H. and be inspired by his great authority in small doses – too much brings a serious monotony, just enough then you’ll have the correct lift of voice to read them aloud, as they deserve to be.
Some critics of Auden say that the early Auden, especially of the thirties, is the best and that there is a falling off in quality in a lot of the post-war verse. I don’t think that’s true, there are good, even great poems to be found in every decade. The joy of reading the complete Auden is to add more forgotten, or over-looked poems to your favourites – how often when I’ve spoken to other poets about this that the obvious hit titles are mentioned such as September 1939, Nightmail, In Memory of W.B.Yeats, Leap Before you Look, Musee de Beaux Arts, Stop all the clocks, As I Walked Out One Evening or the words for Britten’s cabaret song, Tell me the truth about love.
Auden, perhaps more than any other 20th century poet, wrote some of the best in memoriam poems ever written. Apart from the Yeats poem with its unforgettable aside ‘he was silly like us’ he also covered Henry James, Freud, Ernst Toller, Herman Melville etc. They could also be silly at times but their significance for Auden shone through to inspire him, not to write hagiography but capture their lasting psychological importance as people and icons and provoke sparks of moral philosophy.
Take the poem Herman Melville written in March 1939. Here is the first verse followed by the longest mid-poem verse.
‘Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went across each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.’
‘Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day,
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,
But wears a stammer like a decoration:
And every time they meet the same thing has to happen
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and suceeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.
From the opening commitment of the writer, to sit down and create in his imagination symbols of ethical responsibility we then arrive at Melville’s Billy Budd. Forces of good and evil (Auden cleverly omits the name of Claggart the ship’s master at arms) desiring one another to almost ravish their destruction: and most disturbingly a destruction that’s socially approved of on a daily basis.
This is great poetry that Auden achieves with the most thoughtful and tender skill. Nothing is self-conscious. Words flow and yet pierce so incisively. Above he is relaxed, without ever being relaxing, with his subject matter: he’s not having to prove anything and isn’t self-conscious.
Sometimes when political and personal anxiety enters his poetry he can be brilliantly cutting in a wonderful poem like The Shield of Achilles (1952) and then simply leaden and obvious in The Age of Anxiety (1945).
‘Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed:
Column by Column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief’
‘…A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
The Shield of Achilles
‘Let us then
Consider rather the incessant Now of
The traveller through time, his tired mind
Biased towards bigness since his body must
Exaggerate to exist, possessed by hope,
Acquisitive, in quest of his own
Absconded self yet scared to find it
As he bumbles by from birth to death
Menaced by madness:…’
The Age of Anxiety
The poem that Auden considered his best is The Sea and the Mirror (1944). It’s a series of dramatic monologues as if spoken in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest after the end of the play itself. It begins with a preface from the stage manager to the critics. We then have Prospero speaking to Ariel followed by the supporting cast – Antonio, Ferdinand, Stephano, Gonzalo, Alonso, Sebastian, Tinculo and finally Miranda all speaking to us from the deck of their boat sailing back to Milan. For me these short monologues are beautifully wrought containing great lyric power. The sense of the movement of the sailing boat and these expressions of regret and hope is really exquisite.
Then Auden intentionally shatters this reflection by introducing Caliban. ‘Caliban to the Audience’ takes the form of a long prose poem where Caliban questions what we have just heard from his island intruders, the nature of theatre, life and existence in general all with a misanthropic view that art changes nothing and that the sufferings of the world are not redeemed. For Caliban’s voice Auden deliberately adopts a highly artificial tone written in the dense style of late Henry James.
This third section was an intimidating read. Coming across as prolix, obscure and mannered in as ugly manner as possible to convey Caliban as a superior dark rival to the powers of Prospero. It took me three readings to get a handle on it. And even now that’s an intermittent comprehension. I sought out a few critics’ response to Caliban’s address and they too appeared to shy away from interpretation nor voice any pleasure.
‘How then, we continue to wonder, knowing all this, could you act as if you did not, as if you did not realize that the embarrassing compresence of the absolutely natural, incorrigibly right-handed, and to any request for co-operation, utterly negative, with the enthusiastically self-effacing would be a simultaneous violation of both worlds…’
‘Caliban to the Audience’
For me writing like this is an example of Auden’s longer narratives being broken backed and why Auden, who is a wonderful poet, can also be such an exasperating one: cloaking his erudition in such hard language (If Auden had to pastiche Henry James then sooner it be the heightened music style of The Golden Bowl than the strident hesitancy of say The Ivory Tower). Bowl gets an occasional look in but unfortunately Tower blocks the way.
So, reading this superbly scholarly edition you have to rest awhile and return to those shorter long poems or plain short in order to relax with W.H. Approach the titles I mentioned at the beginning of this review you will find much to delight and entertain. To those I would add Five Songs (1931, The Detective Story (1936) Lullaby (1937) A Summer Night (1932) The Hunting Season (1952) An Island Century (1956) Mountains (1952). One of his simplest darkest and most disturbing poems is Miss Gee (1937). It has to be one of best ruthless rhymes ever written. After Miss Gee dies of cancer the poem ends on this gruesome note.
‘They hung her from the ceiling,
Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
And a couple of Oxford Groupers
Carefully dissected her knee.
If I haven’t properly discussed the Auden of political commitment then it’s because it’s not confined to the important poems of the thirties – urgently talking of the growth of fascism. You will find a politico-historical consciousness informing so much of his oeuvre along with Auden’s gay sexuality, love of music, art, religion, ecology, philosophy and the enormous range of his reading: all playing inventively with form and above all expressing Auden’s immense curiosity, intertwining his seriousness and wit, about where humankind was heading. Like Picasso Auden was a protean artist who couldn’t stop being creative every day. Writing became as natural as breathing.
It’s inevitable that there would be unevenness. Yet when Auden is great he is really great. Whether Auden is succeeding or not, enthralling me or boring me, I admire his inspiring energy to write on. If there’s one poem that typifies that creative energy then I would have to chose the magnificent River Profile (1966) and its final stanzas.
‘acts of surrender, effacement, atonement
in a huge amorphous aggregate no cuddled
attractive child ever dreams of, non-country,
image of death as
a spherical dew-drop of life. Unlovely
monsters, our tales believe, can be translated
too, even as water, the selfless mother
of all especials.’
I think we all want to be ‘especial.’ Princeton’s authoritative two volume edition of the poetry of W. H. Auden gives you his special lot.