Auden, when an undergraduate at Oxford, took a look at the literary scene in general and decided that it offered an empty stage. “Evidently they are waiting for Someone,” he said with, Stephen Spender tells us, “the air of anticipating that he would soon take the center of it.” Auden’s fantasy, however, was to be at the center, not to be the sole figure. Christopher Isherwood was to be the novelist. Robert Medley was to be the painter. Cecil Day-Lewis was in there in some poetic capacity, as were Louis MacNeice and Spender. Spender told Auden he wondered whether he, Spender, ought to write prose. But Auden put his foot down. “You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.” “But do you really think I’m any good?” gulped Spender. “Of course,” Auden frigidly replied. “But why?” “Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.”

In the end, Spender did write some prose, including World Within World, the autobiography from which I am quoting, and a rare book called European Witness, which I strongly recommend.1 He kept an important journal, and also tried his hand at fiction, as did Day-Lewis. The real division of the spoils was between Auden and Isherwood, the preeminent poet and the preeminent novelist. Isherwood kept away from poetry, apart from a few very early verses and some translations. Auden kept away from anything remotely like the novel. The two men collaborated on drama—it was territory which they could divide up amicably. Isherwood wrote film scripts while Auden wrote fine texts for documentaries, two of which (Coal Face and Night Maid) have held their own as poems. Isherwood later worked on a Frankenstein movie, for which Jonathan Keates later suggested the sub-title Mr. Norris Changes Brains. Auden got opera. Isherwood took Hollywood. Neither stepped on the other’s turf.

Prose, though, prose could not be easily divided up, or left, as we have heard, to Spender as his own. Prose is too important, too unsatisfactory a concept, too interesting in its ramifications. How could Auden have been given Poetry, Isherwood the Novel, and Spender—Prose? It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t divide up. And besides—Auden needed prose.

He needed it in various ways, one of which was to make a living, for, as he claimed in the introduction to The Dyer’s Hand, he wrote all his lectures, introductions, and reviews because he needed the money. He hoped some love went into their writing. But when he looked over his criticism again he decided to reduce it to a set of notes. There was something, in his opinion, false about systematic criticism. When Alan Ansen, who compiled a collection of Auden’s “table talk,” said to him in 1946, “I should think you might almost be ready to issue a volume of collected prose,” Auden said, “I don’t think so. Criticism should be casual conversation.”

And indeed his table talk is and was very much like the opening sections of The Dyer’s Hand:

The most painful of all experiences to a poet is to find that a poem of his which he knows to be a forgery has pleased the public and got into the anthologies. For all he knows, the poem may be quite good, but that’s not the point; he should not have written it.

No poet or novelist wishes that he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.

Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.

One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

These come from the page, whereas this comes from conversation:

Yeats spent the first half of his life writing minor poetry, and the second half writing major poetry about what it had been like to be a minor poet.

And this:

Eliot wrote nothing but late poetry (smiling) after “Gerontion,” anyway.

The word “smiling” is put in by Ansen to mark Auden’s realization that what he had said wasn’t really true.

For a long time Auden’s periodical criticism remained uncollected, until Auden himself had probably forgotten much of what he had written and where it was to be found. The Dyer’s Hand, first published in 1962, was put together under Auden’s direction by an assistant whose job it was to go to the libraries and copy out the pieces in question. Presumably Auden then carried out his paring down of the essays. Forewords and Afterwords (1973), the prose book published ten years later, was selected and overseen by Edward Mendelson, who became Auden’s literary executor and who published in 1977 The English Auden, which collected for the first time the journalism of the Thirties. Until that publication, it would have been only a very attentive reader, and one with a long memory, who could have formed an opinion of Auden’s work overall. And I should add that Mendelson’s recent, definitive collection—Prose 1926-1938—is only the beginning of the gathering of the fugitive pieces. Although we are in a much better position now than we recently were to see Auden whole, we will not truly be able to do so until we can see the prose whole.


The reason for this is not that we expect it to outshine the poetry, or to supplement its perceived deficiencies. The reason is that in Auden’s work, prose and poetry interpenetrate to a far greater extent than in the work of any other English-language poet of this century. There are vectors in Auden’s work—the Blake vector, the late Henry James vector—which can be traced in prose and poetry alike:

The sword sung on the barren heath,
The sickle in the fruitful field:
The sword he sung a song of death,
But could not make the sickle yield.

Amoeba in the running water
Lives afresh in son and daughter.
‘The sword above the valley’
Said the Worm to the Penny.

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.

Those who will not reason
Perish in the act:
Those who will not act
Perish for that reason.

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.

The Prolific and the Devourer: the Artist and the Politician. Let them realise that they are enemies, i.e., that each has a vision of the world which must remain incomprehensible to the other. But let them also realise that they are both necessary and complementary, and further, that there are good and bad politicians, good and bad artists, and that the good must learn to recognise and to respect the good.

To the Devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains; but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.

But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights….

These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.

That was Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake. I edited out Blake’s ampersands.

Blake sat at Auden’s left when he wrote, urging concision, definite views, plain language. He was not the Blake of the long line, of the interminable prophetic books, but the fiery Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the Blake of the notebooks.

Henry James sat on Auden’s right, suggesting fascinating syntaxes and ways of prolonging a sentence, giving a nuance to a nuance. This is the late Henry James, making his appearance as early as the early 1940s. “A mannered style,” Auden wrote later, “that of Góngora or Henry James, for example, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception who can.” And again, in his essay on James’s The American Scene, Auden says:

James had been evolving a style of metaphorical description of the emotions which is all his own, a kind of modern Gongorism, and in The American Scene this imagery, no longer inhibited by the restraining hand of character or the impatient tug of plot, came to its fullest and finest bloom.

Indeed, perhaps the best way to approach this book is as a prose poem of the first order…relishing it sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guidebook than the “Ode to a Nightingale” is an ornithological essay.

And he recommends the reader who finds James’s late manner hard to get on with to read the last paragraph of the chapter on Richmond, describing the statue of General Lee—“a purple patch,” he calls it, adding that there are many others which match it. It reads:

The equestrian statue of the Southern hero, made to order in far-away uninterested Paris [and how like Auden that phrase sounds], is the work of a master and has artistic interest—a refinement of style, in fact, under the impression of which we seem to see it, in its situation, as some precious pearl of ocean washed up on a rude bare strand. The very high florid pedestal is of the last French elegance, and the great soldier, sitting his horse with a kind of melancholy nobleness, raises his handsome head as he looks off into desolate space. He does well, we feel, to sit as high as he may, and to appear, in his lone survival, to see as far, and to overlook as many things; for the irony of fate, crowning the picture, is surely stamped in all sharpness on the scene about him. The place is the mere vague centre of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses. It is somehow empty in spite of being ugly, and yet expressive in spite of being empty. “Desolate,” one has called the air; and the effect is, strangely, of some smug “up-to-date” specimen or pattern of desolation. So long as one stands there the high figure, which ends for all the world by suggesting to the admirer a quite conscious, subjective, even a quite sublime, effort to ignore, to sit, as it were, superior and indifferent, enjoys the fact of company and therefore, in a manner, of sympathy—so that the vast association of the futile for the moment drops away from it. But to turn one’s back, one feels, is to leave it alone again, communing, in its altitude, which represents thus some prodigious exemplary perched position, some everlasting high stool of penitence, with the very heaven of futility. So at least I felt brought round again to meeting my first surprise, to solving the riddle of the historic poverty of Richmond. It is the poverty that is, exactly, historic: once take it for that and it puts on vividness. The condition attested is the condition—or, as may be, one of the later, fainter, weaker stages—of having worshipped false gods. As I looked back, before leaving it, at Lee’s stranded, bereft image, which time and fortune have so cheated of half the significance, and so, I think, of half the dignity, of great memorials, I recognized something more than the melancholy of a lost cause. The whole infelicity speaks of a cause that could never have been gained.

So Auden heard this music, this Gongorism, and was enchanted. And he needed this prose for his own prose, and this poetry for his own poetry. He was not alone in his love of the late James, but he was not, on the other hand, one of a mob, and that sense, perhaps, of personal discovery, that sense that the late James was lying around neglected, made his appropriations possible.


To those who were anyway disillusioned with Auden (Randall Jarrell thought he had never repeated the success of Poems, 1930, while Philip Larkin dated the decline from the outbreak of World War II), this Jamesian influence was unwelcome. But Auden needed influences. He always needed influences. When he ran out of influences, he entered a depression and very soon died. So we should think twice before bemoaning the James vector, or wishing it away. Here is the opening passage of “At the Grave of Henry James,” the poem Auden wrote in the spring of 1941, which began life as a twenty-eight-stanza blockbuster, by 1945 had been reduced to twenty-four, and finally got boiled down to ten stanzas only. This version comes from the 1945 Collected Poems:

The snow, less intransigeant than their marble,
Has left the defence of whiteness to these tombs; For all the pools at my feet
Accommodate blue now, and echo such clouds as occur
To the sky, and whatever bird or mourner the passing Moment remarks they repeat

While the rocks, named after singular spaces
Within which images wandered once that caused All to tremble and offend,
Stand here in an innocent stillness, each marking the spot
Where one more series of errors lost its uniqueness And novelty came to an end.

To whose real advantage were such transactions
When words of reflection were exchanged for trees? What living occasion can
Be just to the absent? O noon but reflects on itself,
And the small taciturn stone that is the only witness To a great and talkative man

Has no more judgment than my ignorant shadow
Of odious comparisons or distant clocks Which challenge and interfere
With the heart’s instantaneous reading of time, time that is
A warm enigma no longer in you for whom I Surrender my private cheer

Startling the awkward footsteps of my apprehension,
The flushed assault of your recognition is The donnée of this doubtful hour:
O stern proconsul of intractable provinces,
O poet of the difficult, dear addicted artist, Assent to my soil and flower.

In his book Later Auden (1999), Edward Mendelson calls this poem “dismayingly loquacious”—a judgment with which Auden eventually concurred, as we have seen. And it is true that in the original version—and to a lesser extent in its final truncated form—Auden turns James into a saint, who is asked to pray for him. Mendelson says: “James could safely be called upon to pray when he was dead, however seldom he had prayed in life.”

Mendelson points out an interesting circumstance of this poem’s first publication. It came out first in Horizon, later in Partisan Review, where it would have been read, Mendelson writes, as part of a critical battle “to canonize American literature as a precursor of English and European modernism.” The key figure in this movement was an acquaintance of Auden’s, F.O. Matthiessen, whose American Renaissance came out later in the same year. Auden’s enthusiasm for James and Melville was genuine and unaffected, but still one might suppose that there was a particular pleasure in paying tribute to the culture in which he was making his home (the grave of Henry James, incidentally, being in the family plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts). On the poem’s first English publication, the New Statesman commented that James and Auden had one thing in common: “They both changed nationality for the same reason—the neutrality of the United States.”

A cutting remark, one of the first of many, for Auden’s decision to move to the United States was held against him. In fact although he applied for American citizenship in 1940, he did not receive it until 1946. The adaptation of an American prose style for poetic purposes might well have contained an element of needling defiance of the English reader of the time—especially for the kind of reader who wanted his Auden sharp and political, wanted more of the Popular Front-style rhetoric which the poet had deliberately decided to put behind him.


Auden was a rhetorician. He knew himself to be a rhetorician of the highest powers, and, when he saw the power he had, he recoiled from it in deep horror. And as he recoiled, he filled his followers with dismay, since they could not see the furies that he saw. They saw the beauty of the rhetoric of “Spain,” that astonishingly simple device of repetition and change between “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow,” sustained over 104 lines with such a profusion of im-agery. Auden heard only the lines of which Maynard Keynes wrote, “In this he is speaking for many chivalrous hearts.”

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder—

the lines which provoked Orwell’s first, scurrilous attack in the Adelphi (December 1938):

Our civilisation produces in increasing numbers two types, the gangster and the pansy. They never meet, but each is necessary to the other. Somebody in eastern Europe “liquidates” a Trotskyist; somebody in Bloomsbury writes a justification of it. And it is, of course, precisely because of the utter softness and security of life in England that the yearning for bloodshed—bloodshed in the far distance—is so common among our intelligentsia. Mr. Auden can write about “the acceptance of guilt for the necessary murder” perhaps because he has never committed a murder, perhaps never had one of his friends murdered, possibly never even seen a murdered man’s corpse. The presence of this utterly irresponsible intelligentsia, who “took up” Roman Catholicism ten years ago, “take up” Communism to-day and will “take up” the English variant of Fascism a few years hence, is a special feature of the English situation. The importance is that with their money, influence and literary facility they are able to dominate large sections of the Press.2

It is interesting that Nicholas Jenkins, who researched what little is known about Auden’s six weeks in Spain during the Civil War, comes to the conclusion that “Spain,” the poem, takes sides in the internecine political battles that were taking place on the Aragon front. He quotes Cyril Connolly’s formulation of the two opposing positions: “The Communists and Socialists say ‘First win the war, then attend to the revolution.’ …The younger Anarchists and the POUM say, ‘The war and the revolution are indivisible and we must go on with both of them simultaneously.”‘ Jenkins thinks that “To-morrow…/All the fun under/Liberty’s masterful shadow…/ To-morrow…/The eager election of chairmen/By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle”3—such deferrals of the revolution allude to the Communist or Socialist line as against that of Orwell’s POUM. If that is true, it helps to explain the particular dislike that Orwell took to a poem which he also affected to believe was “one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war.”

It depends, though, what Auden meant by the struggle, and I do not necessarily think that he would have considered the war and the revolution to be divisible, or that the revolution should be deferred. After all, the lines “To-day the expending of powers/on the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting” define political work as part of the present struggle. Furthermore, Orwell does not, in the notorious passage in “Inside the Whale,” object to Auden on the grounds that Jenkins’s theory would lead us to expect. He quotes two stanzas:

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Now Orwell travesties the second stanza. He says that it

is intended as a sort of tabloid picture of a day in the life of a “good party man.” In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle “bourgeois” remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying.

Of course it is Orwell who has inserted the “good party man,” the political murders, the bourgeois remorse, the luncheon, and the evening chalking walls. All this by way of inducing outrage, softening the reader up for what follows:

But notice the phrase “necessary murder.” It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men—I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means—the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is “liquidation,” “elimination” or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.4

Auden, it seems clear to me, had used the word “murder” as an intensifier, not in any casual sense: to kill, even in defense of the Spanish Republic, is murder, and we have to accept this. But the noncombatant pansy poet had injured the deepest vanity of Orwell, the man of action, the veteran of the colonial police, who had fought with the POUM and who knew that killing on the battlefield and murder were two quite different things. So, we may ask, after Orwell’s strident assertion of his credentials, what does distinguish the dead on the battlefield from the bodies of the murdered? “The terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells”—what essential difference is there here? One might sympathize with Orwell if he had addressed what was really upsetting him—that Auden had inadvertently accused him of being a murderer. Orwell did have a clear sense of the distinction to be made between the different kinds of killing going on in Spain, and he made it, not in his attack on Auden, but in the classic Homage to Catalonia.

Auden himself, who thought Orwell’s attack “densely unjust,” wrote to Monroe K. Spears in 1963:

I was not excusing totalitarian crimes but only trying to say what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist position. (1) To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else. (2) In a war, the members of two rival groups try to murder their opponents. (3) If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.

Point one in this argument is evidently wrong if we accept that there is such a thing as a legal definition of murder, but the fact remains that Auden was emphasizing, rather than overlooking, the nastiness of war, and he was not condoning political liquidations.

It is true that there were writers involved with Spain and the Communist Party who, so far from shying away from the murder side of things (the liquidations on the Republican side), considered it a mark of their seriousness that they accepted that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” A good example of this type of character is Hemingway, who derided John Dos Passos for coming to Spain in the Civil War and trying to find out what had happened to his friend José Robles. The Popular Front officials, who wanted to keep him in line, were trying to protect Dos Passos from the news that Robles had been executed. Hemingway, on learning of Robles’s execution, decided that he must, a priori, have been a spy. He not only told Dos Passos the news, at a festive lunch to honor the XVth International Brigade. He also told his friend that Robles had got what he deserved. Dos Passos refused to believe that Robles had been guilty of treason.

Hemingway was so keen to prove himself the kind of guy who knew that you couldn’t make an omelet without breaking eggs that he denounced Dos Passos, first in a public meeting in New York, later in an article called “Treachery in Aragon,” and subsequently in one called “Fresh Air on an Inside Story” in which an absurd figure, a famous American writer, decides there is terror in Madrid.

“You can’t deny there is a terror,” said this expert. “Everywhere you can see evidences of it.”

“I thought you said you hadn’t seen any evidences.”

“They are everywhere,” said the great man.

I then told him that there were half a dozen of us newspaper men who were living and writing in Madrid whose business it was, if there was a terror, to discover it and report it. That I had friends in the Seguridad that I had known from the old days and could trust, and that I knew three people had been shot for espionage that month. I had been invited to witness an execution but had been away at the front and had waited four weeks for there to be another. That people had been shot during the early days of the rebellion by the so-called “uncontrollables” but that for months Madrid had been as safe and well policed and free from any terror as any capital in Europe. Any people shot or taken for rides were turned in at the morgue and he could check for himself as all journalists had done.

This awful insiderism (which is not as far as it should be from Orwell’s “Don’t talk to me about murder, I know more about murder than you do”), this “Don’t be a bourgeois liberal wimp and ask why your worthless traitor friend has disappeared,” this boasting of reliable friends in the secret police, all this is very far from Auden’s spirit. Auden went to Spain and wrote a short descriptive article for the New Statesman. He worked for a while, perhaps, in radio propaganda. He visited the Aragon front. He seems to have been shocked rigid by some experiences, although no one appears to have found out what these were.5 He wrote “Spain,” which was sold to raise money for medical aid. After Orwell’s attack on him, he tried to change the offending lines:

Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder….

But it was no good in the long run, for he began to see the ending of the poem as grotesquely immoral. So he dropped it and suppressed it. And at the same time he tried to suppress in himself the urge to create a stirring rhetoric which would move men or classes to action. It is no exaggeration to say that the horror he felt at his own powers—or his own potential—was, though in differing degree, the same kind of horror with which he observed the power of Hitler. From this horror proceeded much that his admirers observed with dismay: the self-deflation, the retreat from activism, the putting of a distance between himself and his followers, the return to religion.

Imagine someone who has grown up a great admirer of Blake. He or she leaves the university, gets married, has a baby. One day the babysitter goes mad and kills the baby. A few months later, the grieving parent happens to pick up a copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and reads the line: “Sooner murder an infant in its cra-dle than nurse unacted desires.” One would think: I used to like this, as a thought expressed with a curious extremism; now I can hardly look at the page.

And Blake himself, having once been such an oddity that he seemed beyond normal reproach, would suddenly lose the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly one would ask—if one turned to him at all—exactly what manner of meaning any one of his strange pronouncements was supposed to have, and one would be soon impatient. For instance, under the maxim I have quoted comes the next: “Where man is not, nature is barren.” Once it might have seemed to possess a mysterious beauty—a beauty often possessed by statements that are, strictly speaking, untrue. But now one would have lost patience with that sort of untruth, and with one’s former self, as one who used to delight in it.

You have to imagine Auden, at the end of the Thirties, reading his own works in rather the same spirit as our imaginary parent reading Blake. Once, in his invented world, Auden could, at a stroke of the pen, have a spy taken out and shot. Now he has passed through a world where spies are indeed taken out and shot, and where revolutionary rhetoric, such as he had once delighted in, had proved deadly. So he reads his own works, and those of his more ambiguous heroes, with wariness and impatience. He takes Lawrence’s dictum: “Anger is sometimes just, justice is never just.” It is, he says, “admirable advice to lovers, [but] applied politically can only mean: ‘Beat up those who disagree with you.”‘ He says:

Writers who try, like D.H. Lawrence in The Plumed Serpent, to construct political systems of their own, invariably make fools of themselves because they construct them in terms of their own experience, and treat the modern State as if it were a tiny parish and politics as if it were an affair of personal relations, whereas modern politics is almost exclusively concerned with relations that are impersonal.

“Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane”—of the old trinity it was Blake who lasted longest with Auden, and whose manner he was closely imitating in “The Prolific and the Devourer,” the prose work he wrote, but never published, in 1939. For instance, the thought quoted earlier—“He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches”—comes in the context of a discussion of the writer’s relation to politics:

Crisis. Civilisation is in danger. Artists of the world unite. Ivory Tower. Escapist. Ostrich.

Yes, the Crisis is serious enough, but we shall never master it, if we rush blindly hither and thither in blind obedience to frantic cries of panic….

You cannot give unless you also receive. What is it that you hope to receive from politics? excitement? experience? Be honest.

The artist qua artist is no reformer. Slums, war, disease are part of his material, and as such he loves them. The writers who, like Hemingway and Malraux, really profited as writers from the Spanish Civil War, and were perhaps really some practical use as well, had the time of their lives there.

The voice of the Tempter: “Unless you take part in the class struggle, you cannot become a major writer.”

And it is in “The Prolific and the Devourer” that we find, placed in apposition: “The Dictator who says ‘My People’: the Writer who says ‘My Public.”‘ And: “If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.”

The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky,
His horrible companions did not know it;
But in that child the rhetorician’s lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.

That was Auden on Rimbaud, at the end of 1938. The child becomes a poet when the rhetorician’s lie bursts. But what if the rhetorician is the poet himself? “Crisis. Civilisation is in danger. Artists of the world unite. Ivory Tower. Escapist. Ostrich.” It has been pointed out that the wording is reminiscent of a letter composed by Nancy Cunard in 1937, requesting contributions for a book, Authors Take Sides on Spain. Auden may well have allowed his signature to be appended before he saw the text, which begins:


The Question.

Writers and Poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

It is clear to many of us throughout the whole world that now, as certainly never before, we are determined, or compelled, to take sides. The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment will no longer do.

And a little lower down, we find: “Today, the struggle is Spain,” picked up from Auden’s poem which had been published two months earlier.

Orwell, on receiving this manifesto, wrote to Left Review:

Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. This is the second or third time I have had it. I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender….

By the way, tell your pansy friend Spender that I am preserving specimens of his war-heroics and that when the time comes when he squirms for shame at having written it, as the people who wrote the war-propaganda in the Great War are squirming now, I shall rub it in good and hard.

What Orwell was sick of, Auden too was sick of. He had to stop putting his art at the service of the cause. The Ivory Tower, he had come to see, like the Point in mathematics, “is really only a useful mathematical concept without actual existence, meaning complete isolation from all experience. The closest approximation in real life is schizophrenia.” And how could Auden, of all people, envisage an art in which the equivocal attitude, the paradoxical or ironic detachment was banned—worse still, worst of all, demand such an art of others?


Auden has been lucky in his scholars, luckier than in his critics. He made a good choice of literary executor in Edward Mendelson, and the results are only now beginning to have their full impact. The Princeton edition of the complete works has already included the Plays, the Libretti, and the first volume of the Prose. Princeton has kindly let me see a typescript of the forthcoming Lectures on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Kirsch and due out next November. This volume manages to reconstruct the majority of the lectures Auden gave at the New School in 1946-1947, including an interesting lecture on the Sonnets, of which I was unaware when writing the first of these essays. It is a wonderful act of retrieval: Auden’s voice is unmistakable throughout, and the special brilliance of his response to Shakespeare is amply confirmed.

My understanding is that the second volume of the collected prose will contain many surprises and rarities, including for instance Auden’s 1949 review of Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, entitled “Port and Nuts with the Eliots,” which began:

Mr. T.S. Eliot is not a single figure but a household. The household has, I think, at least three permanent residents. First, there is the archdeacon, who believes in and practices order, discipline and good manners, social and intellectual, with a thoroughly Anglican distaste for evangeli-cal excess…. And no wonder, for the poor gentleman is condemned to be domiciled with a figure of a very different stamp, a violent and passionate old peasant grandmother, who has witnessed murder, rape, pogroms, famine, flood, fire, everything; who has looked into the abyss and, unless restrained, would scream the house down…. Last, as if this state of affairs were not difficult enough, there is a young boy who likes to play slightly malicious practical jokes. The too earnest guest, who has come to interview the Reverend, is startled and bewildered by finding an apple-pie bed or being handed an explosive cigar.

This passage is quoted in Mendelson’s Later Auden, the sequel to his Early Auden. The two books together make up the best-informed critical overview of Auden by far. This is partly because of Mendelson’s knowledge of the uncollected or unpublished work, and partly because of his extensive inquiry into Auden’s own reading. Very occasionally Mendelson as a critic is a little overingenious, and there is a surprising mistake on page 353, where Mendelson identifies Barabbas as an unrepentant thief. (The Unrepentant Thief mocks Christ from his own cross, in Luke’s account of the Crucifixion. He is a stock figure in the iconography of the Passion.) But these volumes are packed with information and elucidation.

John Fuller published his first Reader’s Guide to Auden in 1970, with a feeling, as he tells us, that he was championing a neglected master. His new Commentary is on a much larger scale, and glosses all of Auden’s published poems (whether collected or not). It is a work of reference, and as such outstanding. And it, too, champions its subject. One never feels that all this detailed explication, so economically expressed, is superogatory. Neither Mendelson nor Fuller is shy of saying that something is bad, when that is what they think. This makes them the better champions of what they admire. Between them they have quite transformed our understanding and appreciation of Auden.


This Issue

April 13, 2000