W.H. Auden (1907–1973) 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, from his early strictly metered verse, and plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood, to his later dense poems and penetrating essays, represents one of the major achievements of twentieth-century literature.

When Auden Met Britten

W.H. Auden, left, with Benjamin Britten, 1939-41

In the summer of 1935, Mr. John Grierson asked me to write a chorus for the conclusion of a G.P.O. documentary film called Coal-Face. My chorus, he told me, would be set by a brilliant young composer he had hired to work for him, called Benjamin Britten.

Lame Shadows

The following is an extract from “Lame Shadows,” his review of a new translation by David Luke of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories, which appeared in the September 3, 1970, issue.

A Short Defense of Poetry

The following address was given at a round-table conference on “Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Literature” at the International PEN Conference in Budapest, in October 1967. Discussions of the role of the artist in society too often bear no fruit because the participants have not defined the meaning of the …

Two Poems

ARCHAEOLOGY The archaeologist’s spade delves into dwellings vacancied long ago, unearthing evidence of life-ways no one would dream of leading now, concerning which he has not much to say that he can prove: the lucky man! Knowledge may …

Death at Random

I must begin by saying that I found this book maddeningly repetitious, and its style far too fancy for my liking. Nevertheless, I think it a book everybody should read. It does not tell us anything new, but it rubs our noses in facts which we would prefer to forget.

An Odd Ball in an Odd Country at an Odd Time

Nobody has done more to arouse an interest in Spanish literature among English-speaking readers than Mr. Brenan. His scholarship is impeccable and his prose style felicitous. Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a very strange country and I am very glad I didn’t have to live in it.

No, Plato, No

I can’t imagine anything    that I would less like to be than a disincarnate Spirit,    unable to chew or sip or make contact with surfaces    or breathe the scents of summer or comprehend speech and music    or gaze at what lies beyond.

Posthumous Letter to Gilbert White

It’s rather sad we can only meet people whose dates overlap with ours, a real shame that you and Thoreau (we know that he read you) never shook hands. He was, we hear, a rabid Anti-Clerical and quick-tempered, you the quietest of curates, yet …

The Poems of Joseph Brodsky

One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has …

Veni, Vici, VD

In general, I disapprove of modern permissiveness in writing about sexual matters, but I realize that, even twenty years ago, this book could probably not have been published. Nobody could call it pleasant reading but, in my opinion, it should be required reading, especially for young people. A wall slogan …

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day

I assume that all readers of The New York Review of Books Know something about the activities of the Catholic Worker movement, even if they have never read its newspaper or visited one of its hostels or communal farms. So, since the philosophical outlook that inspired it was Peter Maurin’s …

Ode to the Diencephalon

(after A. T. W. Simeons) How can you be quite so uncouth? After sharing the same skull for all these millennia, surely you should have discovered the cortical I is    a compulsive liar. He has never learned you, it seems, about fig-leaves or fire …

An Odd Couple

To his friends and acquaintances, who included such people as Rossetti, Ruskin, Swinburne, Thackeray, and Browning, Munby was a member of the professional upper middle class, a tall, handsome bachelor, a barrister (though he hated Law) who loved parties, the theater, the opera, was a member of the Athenaeum Club …

A Saint-Simon of Our Time

Count Kessler’s diaries begin when he was fifty, three days before the Armistice, and end in 1937, a year after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when he was an exile living in Paris. Mysteriously, there are no entries between New Year’s Eve, 1933, and May 25, 1935. Like …

Doing Oneself In

Though I have been fascinated by this book, I am not sure that I am the proper person to review it. As a Christian, I am required to believe that suicide, except when it is an act of insanity, is a mortal sin, but who am I to judge, since …

A Genius and a Gentleman

A few years before his death Verdi wrote: “Never, never shall I write my memoirs! It’s good enough that the musical world has put up with my notes for so long a time. I shall never condemn it to read my prose.” I don’t think, however, that he would have …

The Diary of a Diary

In reading Mr. Isherwood’s latest book—since in it he always refers to himself as Christopher, I shall henceforth call him by his first name—it may be helpful to recall the three crises through which, according to Erik Erikson, anybody who merits an autobiography must pass: the crisis of Identity, the …

Too Much Mustard

I strongly suspect Mr. Harold H. Hart of being deeply concerned about the problem of overpopulation, for if anything could be calculated to make a reader swear off sex forever, it is his compilation The Complete Immortalia. So far as I know, the making of bawdy verses is almost exclusively …

Talking to Mice

Plural the verdicts we cast on the creatures we have to shake hands with—Creepy! Get Her! Good Lord, what an oddity! One to steer clear of! Fun! Impossible! Nice but a bore! An adorable monster!—: but those animates which we call in our arrogance dumb are …

The Megrims

It has been estimated that migraine afflicts at least 10 percent of the human race and the true percentage may well be higher, since probably only those who suffer severe attacks consult a doctor. Even if, like myself, one has had the good fortune never to have experienced an attack, we all have known some relative or friend who has had them, so that we can compare their character traits and symptoms with Dr. Sacks’s detailed descriptions.

Bonjour Chazal

M. Malcolm de Chazal is a poet, though he writes in prose (not, thank God, in free verse). His chosen literary form is the aphorism. This is an aristocratic genre. The aphorist does not argue or explain: he asserts. At the same time, however, he addresses his reader as an …

He Descended into Hell in Vain

“The man who will not act except in total righteousness achieves nothing. He does not enter the path of progress and he is not true because he is not real…. The man who seeks to be true must run the risk of being mistaken, of putting himself in the wrong.” …

The Anomalous Creature

The Fall into Time can and, I think, should be read simultaneously in at least two ways, perhaps more. It can be read seriously as a sermon by a latter-day Jeremiah (it is not an accident, surely, that M. Cioran is the son of a Greek Orthodox priest) about The …

Portrait with a Wart or Two

If one is interested in an author, one cannot help asking oneself: “Suppose I had to make an anthology from his works, what would I select?” This means, of course, that one will be unfairly prejudiced against any selection which differs from one’s own. In the case of a poet, …

Lame Shadows

Anyone who offers a fresh translation of a prose work—poetry is another matter—is in duty bound to justify his undertaking by explaining why he thinks that earlier versions are unsatisfactory, a task which can only be congenial to the malicious. Dr. Luke has felt, quite rightly, obliged to cite some …

Old People’s Home

        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 …