The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939
W.H. Auden: A Commentary
Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, 1926-1938
Auden, when an undergraduate at Oxford, took a look at the literary scene in general and decided that it offered an empty stage. “Evidently they are waiting for Someone,” he said with, Stephen Spender tells us, “the air of anticipating that he would soon take the center of it.” Auden’s fantasy, however, was to be at the center, not to be the sole figure. Christopher Isherwood was to be the novelist. Robert Medley was to be the painter. Cecil Day-Lewis was in there in some poetic capacity, as were Louis MacNeice and Spender. Spender told Auden he wondered whether he, Spender, ought to write prose. But Auden put his foot down. “You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.” “But do you really think I’m any good?” gulped Spender. “Of course,” Auden frigidly replied. “But why?” “Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.”
In the end, Spender did write some prose, including World Within World, the autobiography from which I am quoting, and a rare book called European Witness, which I strongly recommend. He kept an important journal, and also tried his hand at fiction, as did Day-Lewis. The real division of the spoils was between Auden and Isherwood, the preeminent poet and the preeminent novelist. Isherwood kept away from poetry, apart from a few very early verses and some translations. Auden kept away from anything remotely like the novel. The two men collaborated on drama—it was territory which they could divide up amicably. Isherwood wrote film scripts while Auden wrote fine texts for documentaries, two of which (Coal Face and Night Maid) have held their own as poems. Isherwood later worked on a Frankenstein movie, for which Jonathan Keates later suggested the sub-title Mr. Norris Changes Brains. Auden got opera. Isherwood took Hollywood. Neither stepped on the other’s turf.
Prose, though, prose could not be easily divided up, or left, as we have heard, to Spender as his own. Prose is too important, too unsatisfactory a concept, too interesting in its ramifications. How could Auden have been given Poetry, Isherwood the Novel, and Spender—Prose? It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t divide up. And besides—Auden needed prose.
He needed it in various ways, one of which was to make a living, for, as he claimed in the introduction to The Dyer’s Hand, he wrote all his lectures, introductions, and reviews because he needed the money. He hoped some love went into their writing. But when he looked over his criticism again he decided to reduce it to a set of notes. There was something, in his opinion, false about systematic criticism. When Alan Ansen, who compiled a collection of Auden’s “table talk,” said to him in 1946, “I should think you might almost be ready to issue a volume of collected prose,” Auden said, “I don’t think so. Criticism should be casual conversation.”