W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

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 By full and careful quotation from poetry and prose, published and unpublished, Professor Mendelson has little difficulty in showing that Auden’s beliefs about his own aims as a writer were constantly changing, and that at any one time up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 life, as he wove them into his verse.

But there is a sentimental view of the early Auden, which is not unnoticed by Professor Mendelson but which is not much stressed. The period he examines includes The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6, The Orators, The Dance of Death, and includes the collaboration with Isherwood, as well as the writing of some of the most beautiful and memorable of the lyrics. Admittedly the longer works, and particularly The Dance of Death, are for the most part tedious reading now, particularly when they are packed with allusions and references which are scarcely worth tracing and understanding. They are a kind of literary cabaret act, never a very strong one, which I suspect cannot be brought to life again except with nostalgia and a special feeling for the period. Some were English boarding-school versions of Brecht, a literary romp among psychological theories and memories of friends. But even these works still rest with dignity in their distinguished Faber bindings and dust jackets on the shelves of the elderly, who will always harbor them with reverence as the experiments of the poet with whom they grew up; not very successful experiments, but entertaining and hopeful innovations at the time.

There was another interest in this first period that Professor Mendelson records but does not perhaps give as much attention as he might. From first to last in his development Auden found an affinity between poetry and light entertainment: not so much the bitter political entertainment of Berlin nightclubs and of Brecht, but the airy jingles of musical comedy and of Cole Porter and popular doggerel and nonsense verse. He found a felicity in a Cole Porter lyric, which in part came from its being unburdened by assertion, uncluttered by commitment or belief; it floated past the ear as a verbal bubble that was going nowhere, weightless and undirected. If language is in this way set free to follow its own rhyme and rhythm, with only the lightest puff of conscious control, it will by chance occasionally alight on an unexpectable shadow of thought, which is memorable, though an improbable linguistic accident. Auden always believed in the creativity of chance in a formal setting, in grace rather than in works, in magical associations and coincidences, and hence he believed in trying a gambler’s throw with words and phrases.


This was largely an effect of his temperament, but it was also a feature of the period in which he grew up and which is covered by this book. This was the period of P.G. Wodehouse’s universal success and popular dominance, of the crossword-puzzle addiction, of the jingles from popular songs heard everywhere on gramophone records and from Savoy Hill (the early BBC) and the bandmaster Henry Hall; the time of Baldwin’s England, England in a long-observed and felt decline, of disused canals and dole queues, of flappers and the Charleston and “Bye-Bye Black-bird” and “Oxford bags” (trousers with a distinctive shape and color) and This Year of Grace (Noel Coward) and of Morris Cowleys (automobiles). Auden always retained some of the typical habits and tastes of that time; for example, the daily exercise of doing a crossword found in the newspaper.

But obviously his own temperament counted for more than the period, and the formal constraints of prosody and rhyme for him brought their own instruction; formal constraints were a liberation for him, in writing as in living, both because they diminished the area of apparent rationality and because they controlled the temptations of egoism, so ruinous in a writer. Explaining his religion, and religion in general, to atheistical friends in his later life, he would say that it is a matter of being on the right square at the right time, as in children’s street games or in the game of snakes and ladders. If you happen to be on the wrong square when the die is thrown, and you therefore go to the bottom of the ladder, there is nothing to be done about it in a rational and planned way. You must recognize that you will not reach salvation if you happen to lack the necessary grace at the right time. Theories and arguments will not help you and you must not be puffed up by being a writer and by writing, which is the modern and romantic malady, the Baudelairean virus.

He often argued that in writing, as in social manners, a striving for distinction and grandeur betrays itself and thereby defeats itself. Such pretension is common, or, at best, vulgar, and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland would put it down, as he wrote in a New Yorker review in his later years. Grace must descend unwilled and tidily, in literature as in life.

I dwell on Auden’s ideas of inspired contingency, and on his belief in measure and formality, because they go some way to account for the casual inconsistencies of thought in his early writing, before the move to the United States. He was experimenting with literary forms, as Professor Mendelson emphasizes, throwing out phrases in a hit-or-miss manner, in a kind of literary strumming—“vamping” as it then used to be called—with the hope that he would hit upon a melody which he might in good conscience sustain, at least for the length of one poem, and which he could stand by later. He was simultaneously experimenting with meter and phrasing and literary form and with possible paths to salvation or to social improvement.

At the time, for his younger readers in the middle and late 1930s, this knock-about experimenting was exhilarating, a release from set forms and set expectations, a new kind of English writing. Eliot had begun to associate the modern movement with the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy, and many of us were delighted to find the rhythms of popular song put in the place of the clergyman’s uplifting tone. A ragbag of notions from Groddeck and Freud and Marx and Gerald Heard were turned into song, and used to create an effect of uncertain doom and of unanalyzed dread. This was at the time the note of the ultramodern, of the syncopation of standard rhythms, typical of the pylon poets, proper contemporaries of steel furniture and of commercialized functionalism in architecture. It was not possible to separate the new style from the new content, and at the time one did not particularly want to.

Auden was a poet of the left in the Thirties, not because of his positive affirmations and beliefs, but because of his sense of the stealthy doom of the bourgeoisie, the sick ruin of liberal culture, which was implied in almost all his writing, often even in the most lyrical, and which his new style and his range of allusion marvelously conveyed by hints and suggestions. If his pre-1939 poetry, taken as a whole, asserted anything consistently and clearly, it was that middle-class decency was a serviceable veil that was soon to be torn apart in Europe, and that the social and sexual order was slipping away into an abyss. He issued this news in his verse in a pamphleteering spirit, as if he were posting warning notices in public places. Then he went to New York and turned his back on those public themes arising from England’s decline, themes that later seemed to him like the residue of a family quarrel, confusing, inextricably knotted and without issue in this world and in any practical politics that he could care for.


Looking back with the aid of Professor Mendelson’s scholarship and careful quotations, and reading again the shorter poems of the years 1930 to 1940, I feel once again the gratitude I felt then for those many magical and always remembered opening lines, and for many luminous individual verses, and for a few great poems, which made Auden the undisputed poet-hero of my generation in these years.

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the hel- meted airman…


Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains…


Look there! The sunk road winding
To the fortified farm.
Listen! The cock’s alarm
In the strange valley.


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
It’s human position…


As I walked out one evening, Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat.

And there are many more.

The argument will always be resumed around the merits of late versus young Auden. In my generation one cannot lose the memories of the new lyrics and the new satire of these early years, of the loosening of the heavy prophetic burden of Yeats and Eliot. Auden was the glory of our times, defiant and unusual, and not as tidy then as he later wished to be. A tousled presence, unpredictable, self-contained, and, even in his more conservative moods, free and lonely in his thinking, superb in his command of meter and of the resources of language. In these times there is no equal glory in the language.

Apart from the critical survey of Auden’s thought, there is in this book much useful detail on revisions and new versions and editions. There is a most interesting account of an evening of religious experience, or quasi-religious experience, which captivated Auden when he was still a schoolmaster. Professor Mendelson is evidently the master of his subject and any reader will feel that he is in safe hands. His justified certainty and assurance inspire awe.

This Issue

August 13, 1981