Auden Above the Snow Line

The Disenchanted Island: The Poetry of W. H. Auden:

by Monroe K. Spears
Oxford, 384 pp., $6.75

W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

In the caravan hauling Auden up Parnassus, the poet himself cuts sometimes an odd figure. First, this is simply because he is alive and kicking in the midst of a ceremony that still seems, despite all the modern precedent for it, one that might decently be reserved for a later time. True, we must all be thankful when honors come to living artists, but, entire books about them: this is different, this is not the conferring of the laurel, this is some chillier touch on the brow.

Living, the poet has not only the right to speak for himself and the right to keep private whatever he may not wish to say in public, to put under seal for a term, like State Papers, the secret treaties and communiqués of his private life. He has also a duty to speak for himself. He must make himself clear to his own time by his own means, in his own voice. Neither his own nor others’ asides to his audience can help him here. The books are saying, then, what? That the poet has lived in several times, has out-lived his time, has failed to make himself clear or has too completely succeeded and it is over now? Why can’t we read the poems, and read if we must the bleats and blasts of the reviews of the poems—other contemporaries’ struggles with them? Must we also ourselves be posterity? Can we look at living poets under the aspect of marble?

But Auden has asked for this treatment, perhaps not least by continually disclaiming his own suitability for a noble white bust; he won’t hold still, and he keeps sticking his tongue out. Yet he has always written a great deal about himself. in prose as well as in verse. This, of course, is one of the puzzles he makes that ask for treatment. He could not have hoped for better than Monroe K. Spears gives him in The Poetry of W. H. Auden. Spears insists he has come to praise and not to petrify, and finds his reason for the book in correcting the misinformation spread, he says, by Richard Hoggart’s Auden and by Joseph Warren Beach’s The Making of the Auden Canon, but principally in the “serious obstacle to understanding” created by Auden himself when he arranged his Collected Poems of 1945.

This famous arrangement was asking for, defying, and at the same time evading or appearing to evade the kind of concern with his works that brought about these books, and it has thus, too, helped swell the caravan to Parnassus. In 1945, he outraged the admirers of his earliest poems by omitting some of them, breaking others up, or giving them foolish titles and scattering them in the first-line alphabetical order of all the rest; the poems of the Liberal period he partly re-wrote, as Beach explains. to make…

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