The Crack in the Teacup

W.H. Auden: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, Volume I, 1926-1938

edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press, 836 pp., $59.50

This new volume in the invaluable Complete Works of W.H. Auden edited by Edward Mendelson contains the original version of all the prose essays and reviews the poet wrote during the years he was living in England, as well as the original text of the two travel books in prose and verse in which he collaborated with Louis MacNeice (Letters from Iceland) and Christopher Isherwood (Journey to a War). It also contains a great deal of his verse: the long, witty Letter to Lord Byron in the Iceland book and the two sonnet sequences London to Hong Kong and In Time of War in the Isherwood book. Mendelson supplies a text newly edited from the manuscript where available, otherwise from the printed text “reprinted with a minimum of regularization” from the first edition. Some 150 pages of appendices and textual notes deal with problems in the transmission and supply explanatory notes on allusions in the text. For anyone interested in “early Auden” this book is indispensable.

There is a great deal here that was not written by Auden. The prose narrative of Journey to a War, for example, though based on notes kept by both men, was written by Isherwood, and in Letters from Iceland there are poems by MacNeice, who is also responsible for a series of letters—“Hetty to Nancy”—which give an account of the journey across the island. In their mock Last Will and Testament the poets’ voices sometimes join in unison but more often alternate in the carefully crafted terza rima they chose for this mischievous critique of their contemporaries. (Evelyn Waugh denounced it as a “gossip column.”)

In 1930, nearing the end of the allowance from his parents that had allowed him to live in Berlin after he came down from Oxford in 1928, Auden joined the ranks of young men desperately seeking employment as the long winter of the Depression set in. “Do you by any chance know of a job for me?” he had written to the novelist Naomi Mitchison in 1929. “Anything from nursing to burglary. Is it possible to get into a publishing firm in any capacity?” In April 1930 he replaced his friend Cecil Day Lewis as a teacher at Larchfield Academy near Glasgow, a private school for boys which had seen better days. Auden taught English and French to forty or so young Scots who had just as much trouble with his Oxford accent as he did with their Glaswegian. “I’m up here…,” he wrote in a birthday verse letter to a friend, “Paid to teach English to the sons of Scotsmen—/Poor little buggers.” He seems to have enjoyed teaching, however, and his debut as a teacher in April coincided with the news that T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber had accepted his first book of poems for publication. In that same year Eliot’s magazine Criterion printed his first review; it was to be followed by others over the years, as well as …

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