Because Professor Mendelson is usually slow to praise and quick to criticize, this is not an altogether enjoyable book to read, although it is authoritative and it is an indispensable guide to its subject. He is not concerned with biography in the usual sense, but rather with the twists and turns of Auden’s beliefs about the proper role of a poet and of a writer up until Auden’s final departure for America in 1939. By full and careful quotation from poetry and prose, published and unpublished, Professor Mendelson has little difficulty in showing that Auden’s beliefs about his own aims as a writer were constantly changing, and that at any one time up till 1939 his attitudes were liable to be confused and contradictory, and often also rather lightly held and superficial.
Professor Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor, but here he is still among his more stern critics. Should public themes and the dislocation of the times be the center of a modern poet’s writing? The young Auden sometimes thought so. Should his verse point the way to a last social harmony and to a possible Utopia? Auden sometimes tried to, but often not. Should he write, in drama and in shorter verse forms, of a coming revolution, shadowy, frightening, and undefined? He sometimes did.
On the other hand he had been convinced at an early stage, leaving Oxford and becoming a schoolmaster, that men are “articled to error,” and that the human heart is incurably divided against itself, and that we are of our nature sinful and ignorant. Or he was half convinced of this for most of the time. His own reflection and his reading of Freud had from the beginning made him think that public causes are more likely to be the expression than the cure of the neuroses of individuals. He was among the first of imaginative writers, alongside Svevo, to make serious play with Freudian ideas, weaving them ingeniously into the rhetoric of social revolution and of social satire, sometimes, but not always, with frivolous effect. He was in sympathy with Freud’s final pessimism, and he did not expect to be sane or healthy, or that others would be.
Professor Mendelson dwells rather heavily on the undeniable inadequacies and inconsistencies of Auden’s thought as that of a poet of the left and an occasional advocate of social revolution during these years. He will not let him off the charge of having at this stage no firm and thought-out position, no solid basis for the continuing moralizing in his verse. I remember a critic in the Thirties who, disliking the tone of Auden’s writing, compared him with Martin Tupper precisely because of the relentless moralizing in even the best and most lightheaded of the early poetry. Auden loved aphorisms and epigrams, his own and those of others, which he very successfully anthologized; and his aphorisms and epigrams naturally tend to carry a moral punch as general reflections on …