Review: Prose Volume V 1963-1968; Prose Volume VI 1969-1973, by WH Auden

In his urbane reviews, the poet entered into dialogue with other writers, dead or alive, writes Denis Donoghue


WH Auden (1907-1973) was a poet, librettist, playwright, an anthologist, man of letters, and everything but a literary critic. Princeton University Press is publishing his complete works, verse and prose, in (by my count) 10 beautiful volumes, splendidly edited by Edward Mendelson.

The edition might be regarded as enforcing a claim that Auden was essentially what he became, a major American poet, brother to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harold Hart Crane, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, rather than the brilliant English poet of the 1930s which he started out as.

This was a contentious issue some years ago. Philip Larkin argued that when Auden left England for the United States in January 1939, he lost his theme. The United States never gave him anything worth writing poems about. I am not sufficiently in the world to know whether or not this is still a hot issue.

“The ideal at which I aim,” Auden said of his poetry, “is a style which shall combine the drab sober truthfulness of prose with a poetic uniqueness of expression so that, if a reader should try to translate a passage into French, say, or Italian or German, he will find that this cannot be done without loss of rhythmical values and precise shades of meaning”.

Not that Auden’s prose is drab: it maintains a different virtue, urbanity, by entering into dialogue with other writers, often great minds, dead or alive. Sometimes a sentence is enough to raise his spirit. Saint Augustine: “Man was created in order that a beginning might be made”.

Samuel Johnson: “March 22nd, 1782: I spent the time idly. Mens turbata. In the afternoon it snowed”.

Logan Pearsall Smith: “Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither – these make the finest company in the world”.

The far-too-long reviews that Auden wrote for the New Yorker and later the New York Review of Books are conversation pieces, no end in sight, as if he were chatting to Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis in his flat in Manhattan or, for a change of air, in his seasonal residence in Austria.

None of his writings in prose is designed to hurt or even to disturb. Occasionally, a dead writer is given a further degree of death, as Auden reported of AE Housman’s poetry that “to my generation no other English poet seemed so perfectly to express the sensibility of a male adolescent”.

Auden assumed that readers of the New Yorker were of an agreeable social class, willing to be entertained, informed and sometimes edified. A favourite quotation would start the conversation off. On religion, he often quoted Simone Weil: “We have to believe in a God who is like the True God in everything except that he does not exist, for we have not reached the point where God exists”.

Cesare Pavese: “We can all do good deeds, but very few of us can think good thoughts”. Auden took his intellectual history from CS Lewis and Charles Williams, his humour from GK Chesterton and John Betjeman. His favourite style, he said, but I can’t believe him, was that of Ronald Firbank.

But the most enabling idea that Auden found was a simple one he gratefully received from JRR Tolkien, a distinction between the Primary World and the Secondary Worlds.

The Primary World, as Auden phrased it, is the world given to us by common sense: “The only world which can be ‘real’ for us as the one in which we all, including scientists, are born, love, hate, reproduce, die, is the world offered us by our senses, three-dimensional and geocentric, where objects have clearly defined edges and are either in motion or at rest”.

Secondary Worlds are created by artists and may take any of the diverse forms of music, opera, poetry, fairytales; anything that is created gratuitously, not because the artist must but because she is free either to do it or not. However, as Auden said, “any secondary world we may imaginatively construct necessarily draws its raw materials from the Primary World in which we all live”. I doubt that this covers the case of Tolkien’s Hobbits and elves.

I assume that Auden’s topics were suggested by editors. He once turned down William Shawn’s proposal on Goethe because he did not think he could write on the topic at sufficient length. He wrote a surly essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets, presumably because he regretted having taken on the assignment. But mostly he found the assignments congenial. Some of his sentences sound as if he had waited for years for an opportunity to write them. On the Oscar Wilde scandal: this “had a disastrous influence, not upon writers and artists themselves but upon the attitude of the general public towards the arts, since it allowed the philistine man to identify himself with the decent man”. Sometimes he tells what I think is a small lie – or a joke: “I have read and reread all of Jane Austen, all of Dickens, all of George Eliot, and most of Trollope, but I have read only about half of Scott’s novels”. All? Most? Only?

In his best reviews, Auden disputed with the author and brought an opposing author into the hubbub. Quarrelling with Soren Kierkegaard, whose view of the world he rejected, Auden called upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say that “to long for the transcendent when you are in your wife’s arms is a lack of taste and it is certainly not what God expects of us . . . If He pleases to grant us some overwhelming earthly bliss, we ought not to try and be more religious than God Himself”.

These two volumes of prose have only the unity of purpose embodied in Auden himself: his style, his turns of mood and phrase. So he writes wisely and often charmingly about Dag Hammarskjöld, Evelyn Waugh, Leonard Woolf, Max Beerbohm, the Icelandic Sagas, Tolkien, Joseph Brodsky, Oliver Sacks, Louise Bogan, Marianne Moore and many more. He is most at home when he writes about opera, moving with verve from Mozart to Wagner to Stravinsky. On other themes he is dutiful and this is usually enough to adorn the pages on which we read him. Only rarely is he daft, as in saying of Kierkegaard that “no person of talent who has read him can fail to realise that the talented man, even more than the millionaire, is the rich man for whom it is so difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.

That conversation should have ended before Auden and his companions heard the chimes of midnight.

Denis Donoghue’s most recent book is Metaphor (Harvard University Press)

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