The Case of the Dizzy Detective

The Poet Auden: A Personal Memoir

by A.L. Rowse
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 138 pp., $14.95

A good argument could be advanced for allowing this little book to pass unreviewed. It’s trifling in a number of ways, and casts no light of any consequence on its ostensible subject. There is nothing here that will be useful to scholars or biographers of Auden, or to interest readers of the poet’s work. Yet it is a book so quirky in its mean-spiritedness, so touchy in its vanity, so dazzling in its carelessness and irresponsibility, that it commands some interest as a curiosity.

Strictly speaking, the book is not about Auden—or, at the very least, Auden is made to share the stage with two other persons, both of them named Rowse. The first Rowse struts around with huge self-satisfaction, doing his best to eclipse Auden from view of the audience. The second Rowse, apparently invisible to, or unnoticed by, the first, seems to be his own burlesque or parody, inept and clumsy in such obvious ways as to seem like a Shakespearean clown exposing the pretensions of his superiors, as well as revealing all their worst and most unpardonable faults.

It’s rare for an author to present himself in so unfavorable a light, and it must be acknowledged that there was once a time when Rowse did not write this way about himself. His lovely A Cornish Childhood, in which, with a grace and humor that are altogether lacking here, he covers eloquently and at leisure some of the same events, puts them in a humane perspective. But the years appear to have embittered him. His latest book, Friends and Contemporaries (Methuen), exhibits the same biliousness and repeats some of the same slanders to be found in the volume under review. This is puzzling in a man of his accomplishments. He can boast one of the largest and most varied of bibliographies, which would include works on the Churchills, the Elizabethan world in many aspects, Simon Forman (the seventeenth-century physician, astrologer, and lecher, his impressive discovery), Marlowe, Tennyson, Swift, Byron, European history, and, voluminously, on Shakespeare.

On the basis of his Shakespearean studies, to which I shall return, Rowse clearly regards himself as a kind of literary detective, a Sherlock Holmes figure of rare cunning; and when, as now, he directs his attention to Auden, he adopts the same meerschaum and opium hauteurs. After acknowledging that Charles Osborne and Humphrey Carpenter have written what he calls “properly sympathetic” biographies, and commending as “valuable” the collection of essays and homages edited by Stephen Spender under the title of W.H. Auden: A Tribute, he says that by contrast to these works,

What I wish to do is, I hope, more original: to sleuth him in his work. For all Wystan’s failure to catch up with it, I have managed to sleuth William Shakespeare in his, and to reduce the so-called problems or, rather, the confusions that have been made of his life and work, to common sense.

What seems striking and painfully characteristic in these sentences is their breezy…

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