Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957
by W.H. Auden
Random House, 351 pp., $7.50
It has sometimes been claimed that for several hundred years without interruption there has always been a major poet writing in the English language Perhaps there have been some dull decades, for which the word “major” would need to be stretched a little, when the already established resources of the language were just being steadily mined, without any new discoveries being made. Mr. Auden began to publish in a decade that was very far from being poetically dull. He was almost immediately recognized as likely to prolong the necessary line into the future. We have now arrived at the future, Mr. Auden is still writing, and the continuity holds.
The mature poetry of Eliot and Yeats surrounded Mr. Auden’s beginnings, nearly forty years ago, when the first bright-jacketed Faber volumes began to appear. He was an intruder with a harsh voice, and, in The Orators and elsewhere, dramatized himself as an enemy of established poetical good manners. In his Preface to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats showed his distaste for Auden’s new reductive style, like a metaphysician of that time deploring the logical positivists. There was a respectful, veiled hostility between the generations. In the Thirties every English undergraduate who cared at all for contemporary writing kept these early Auden volumes with him, because they were the living, and also lyrical, language of restlessness and dissent. One stands in a peculiarly intimate relation to a poet, and even perhaps to a philosopher, whose work develops in parallel with one’s own experience. A two-way running commentary is established, and one is either grateful to the poet for expressing what needs to be expressed at the right time, or one is censorious because he has failed to rise to some occasion (unknown to him), and because he has perversely taken a path of his own and failed to understand what was expected of him.
Mr. Auden has always left his followers behind. Not least in the Preface to this carefully prepared and revised collection, he looks back to his own public history in a disclaiming spirit, with a mild and elderly gaze and with some surprise. He seems to dislike some of the ungentlemanly opinions and political prophecies in his early verse, and he has repudiated the untidy involvements of the Thirties. But having been, for good reasons, the poet laureate of one disheveled generation, at least in England, and having so far found no successor in full possession of the title, he cannot now easily slip away into an eccentric privacy even if he is no longer representative and is no longer a public voice.
THE ORIGINAL REASONS for his dominance are not too difficult to understand. It seemed that in his poetry he never allowed fine fictions and believable truths to be divided only by a blurred and disputed line. He wanted always to be strictly truthful. For a generation made literal-minded by new political brutalities and by the probability of war, it was no …