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National Poetry Month: W.H. Auden

W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

To celebrate National Poetry Month, The New York Review throughout April will be posting poems and articles by poets and critics whose work in the magazine has spanned a period of years or decades. We’ll be focusing on one poet or critic at a time, presenting a selection of his or her work from our archive on this blog.

We begin with W.H. Auden (1907–1973), whose contributions to the Review go back to its first issue of February 1, 1963. Auden was an English poet, playwright, and essayist who lived and worked in the United States for much of the second half of his life. His work represents one of the major achievements of twentieth-century literature.


April 7

We conclude our week of Auden with this 1966 poem. To read more of his work, please see his contributor page on this site.

September 22, 1966
Out of a bellicose fore-time, thundering
head-on collisions of cloud and rock in an
up-thrust, crevasse-and-avalanche, troll country,
     deadly to breathers,

it whelms into our picture below the melt-line,
where tarns lie frore under frowning cirques, goat-bell,
wind-breaker, fishing-rod, miner’s-lamp country,
     already at ease with

the mien and gestures that become its kindness,
in streams, still anonymous, still jumpable,
flows as it should through any declining country
     in probing spirals.

More »


April 6: A view of old age in the modern world

In this 1970 poem Auden paints a grim picture of old age—one that was vigorously opposed later that year in the pages of the Review by none other than the 88-year-old Igor Stravinsky. He compared Auden’s “old people’s home” to a hotel on Lake Geneva where he had been recuperating from an operation: “In contrast to Auden’s friend … none of the elderly guests was praying for a ‘speedy dormition,’ I think, though possibly for a painless one. (Auden dislikes abeyances and as Director of the Voluntary Death Program would quickly clear out all God’s Waiting Room establishments.) In fact the only disease these venerables wanted to die of was more life.”

July 23, 1970
        All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
        are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
        easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps, their very
carnal freedom is their spirit’s bane: intelligent
        of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.) Then come those on wheels, the average
        majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community singing, then
        the loners, muttering in limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as impeccable,
        improvident, unspeakable as the plants
they parody.

More »


April 5: Auden’s God

In 2007 Edward Mendelson wrote about Auden’s Christianity, presenting a deep portrait of the poet through his changing relationship to religious belief. “Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Mendelson writes that Auden considered prayer to be “a form of attention,” a way of concentrating on things outside the self, just as he believed that art should “make self-deception more difficult, and, ‘by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.’”

Edward Mendelson
On Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch
December 6, 2007
Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought. It was also the aspect of his life and work that seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends.

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Late in life, after reading a Scientific American article about the microbes that live on the human skin, Auden wrote a poem that asked what religious beliefs such creatures might devise to make moral sense of their world. You can listen to him read that poem, “A New Year Greeting” (1969), in this clip from the audiobook Voice of the Poet: Auden.


April 4: A reading of late Auden

In his subtle 1969 account of the development of Auden’s voice, Denis Donoghue praises the later poems, in which “texture increasingly depends upon grammar rather than upon a field of images. The poems move toward civilized conversation, relying mostly upon exact discriminations of tone: the poetry does not secrete itself in a word, a phrase, an image; it occupies an area of feeling….”

Denis Donoghue
June 19, 1969
On Auden’s Secondary Worlds, Collected Longer Poems, Letters From Iceland, and other books.


April 3: An epistle

This poem from 1969 was dedicated to Philip Spender, nephew of the poet Stephen Spender, a close friend of Auden’s.

June 5, 1969
DEAR PHILIP. “Thank God for boozy godfathers”
you wrote in our guest-book, which was flattering:
     though I’ve reached the years when discretion
     calls for a yearly medical check-up,

who am I to avouch for a Christian
baby, far less offer ghostly platitudes
     to a young man? In yester times it
     was different: the old could be helpful

when they could nicely envisage the future
as a nameable settled landscape their children
     would make the same sense of as they did,
     laughing and weeping at the same stories.

More »


April 2: On Goethe, and an ode

In this piece from 1967, Auden reviews a collection of writings about Goethe in conversation, written by his contemporaries. “Goethe is one of the very few persons in history,” he writes, “whose talk one wishes could have been tape-recorded rather than reproduced from memory by others.”

February 9, 1967
How and why Goethe should have acquired the reputation, among people who knew so little about him, for being a sage and public oracle is to me a mystery, and it is not the only one. What I find really surprising about Goethe’s character is, not that he should have treated some of his visitors with icy formality, that some who arrived, expecting to receive pearls of wisdom, came away with nothing better than an Umph! or a Do you really think so?, but that Goethe should have consented to see them at all.

More »

July 11, 1968
The High Priests of telescopes and cyclotrons
keep making pronouncements about happenings
  on scales too gigantic or dwarfish
  to be noticed by our native senses,

discoveries which, couched in the elegant
euphemisms of algebra, look innocent,
  harmless enough, but, when translated
  into the vulgar anthropomorphic

tongue, will not be received with hilarity
by gardeners or house-wives: if galaxies
  bolt like panicking mobs, if mesons
  riot like fish in a feeding-frenzy,

it sounds too like Political History
to boost civil morale, too symbolic of
  the crimes and strikes and demonstrations
  we are supposed to gloat on at breakfast.

More »


April 1: David Jones, Marianne Moore, and a limerick

Auden’s first piece for The New York Review looked back at the 1952 publication of Anathemata, a book of poetry by David Jones. This was Jones’s second book, and came after In Parenthesis, his 1937 volume on World War I intermingling prose and poetry. T.S. Eliot later called Jones “a representative of the same literary generation as Joyce and Pound and myself…. David Jones is the youngest, and the tardiest to publish.”

February 1, 1963
Anathemata might be described as an epic about the two Adams. Perhaps it may help the reader to approach what is, frankly, a very difficult poem, if he will imagine, as he reads it, that he is sitting in a Roman Catholic church while Mass is being celebrated. What is going on at the altar starts a train of thoughts and memories, his mind goes wool-gathering, and he forgets where he is, until some sound or sight recalls him to a consciousness of where he is; this in its turn starts a new train of thought, and so on.

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Auden was a longtime champion of Marianne Moore’s work. In his book The Dyer’s Hand (reviewed by John Berryman in the Review’s first issue) he wrote that Moore’s poems “delight, not only because they are intelligent, sensitive and beautifully written but also because they convince the reader they have been written by someone who is personally good.” In 1967 he contributed this poem, written in the syllabic verse for which Moore was well known, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday.

November 9, 1967
The concluded gardens of personal liking
Are enchanted habitats,
Where real toads may catch imaginary flies,
And the climate will accommodate the tiger
And the polar-bear.

So, in the middle of yours (where it is human
To sit), we see you sitting,
In a wide-brimmed hat beneath a monkey-puzzle,
At your feet the beasts you animated for us
By thinking of them.

More »

This poem from 1966 is one of Auden’s shortest:

May 12, 1966
The Marquis de Sade and Genet
Are most highly thought of to-day;
   But torture and treachery
   Are not my sort of lechery,
So I’ve given my copies away.

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