Uncle Wiz the Wizard

W.H. Auden: A Biography

by Humphrey Carpenter
Houghton Mifflin, 495 pp., $15.95

This capacious, cautious, splendid biography commences with its author’s caveat: “It is not a book of literary criticism.” It ably shows how certain writings developed from instances of a lifetime. “I hope I have also managed to convey my own huge enthusiasm for his poetry.” Here Carpenter triumphs where others have been so drawn to anecdote or exegesis that poetry (and, importantly, prose) seems diminished. What he has not touched, Edward Mendelson’s Early Auden fully provides, as has been noted here before.1

Carpenter’s is the first biography to enjoy free access to a wide range of personal correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, family and personal memoirs. His accomplishment is awesome in accounting for the breath and breadth of an important contemporary poet. Prior attention has been useful for explication or useless as random gossip. Here we have days and nights spent in their inspiriting diversity and complexity. All that is perhaps lacking is a sense of fun and games which infused the speaking maker. Auden’s irony and sympathy, his magical influence over a band of adoring and admonished subalterns are well shown, but his mortal tone is impossible to recover.

Auden was one of the few influential intellectuals of his day who did not try to elevate his errors into some sort of philosophical system. He is to be read, like most energetic thinkers at their different moments, as inconsistent, with the proviso that every apparent mutation was prefaced by scrupulous self-questioning in which ambiguity in each step was expunged. As his life-time friend Professor E.R. Dodds explained:

The ruthless treatment of his own past work which recent critics have observed and deplored was no new thing in Wystan; it is the price his readers have to pay for the companionship of a receptive mind that perpetually rejudged the past in the changing light of the present.2

Auden’s early repudiation of political flirtation and of a dazzling idiosyncratic rhetoric which he felt had become formularized, and the shifts in his world-view, which abrasion by experience of the world as it is came to seem to him naïve, were not exactly ambiguous. Ultimately, his attitudes became unequivocal and unwavering, as self-discipline and self-awareness led to exile, alienation, and discovery—which few other of our artists had the wit, courage, or extremity to risk. His apologia was not couched in terms of the heroic, self-sorrowful confessional:

I can’t think what my It had on Its mind
To give me flat feet and a big behind.3

And the frowned-on changes, those metamorphoses which led Early to Middle to Late Auden, transforming helmeted airman to comfy Austrian householder, is what Humphrey Carpenter clearly details. This speaks volumes for the personal responsibility of a modern biographer; Auden’s friends and lovers have felt free to confide in Carpenter, most of them without let or hindrance, and he responded with a generosity sparing nothing save grossness. Auden the man, in his appetites, needs, satisfactions, or lack of them, is here, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.