Auden: Cranky, Cautious, Brilliant

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s
W.H. Auden, 1953; photograph by Cecil Beaton

When Wystan Auden wrote his long poetic “Letter to Lord Byron” in 1936, the author was on his way to being almost as famous as the addressee had once been. At twenty-nine, Auden had already established himself, not just as a literary but as a political presence. Soon, his name would be so resonant that James Joyce could use it (humorously) in Finnegans Wake as a pun on the father of the gods, Odin. He was becoming a 1930s English highbrow version of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s—the apparent voice of a leftish generation. Yet in the “Letter to Lord Byron,” Auden confesses that “left-wing friends” are warning him:

Your fate will be to linger on outcast
A selfish pink old Liberal to the last.

Auden does not say whether he agrees with those friends. But the prediction, as he grew older, may have come to seem a little too close to the bone. In 1967, when he prepared a second edition of Letters from Iceland, in which “Letter to Lord Byron” had appeared, he cut these lines (as well as many others). They do not appear in the Collected Longer Poems, published the following year, or in Edward Mendelson’s authoritative edition of the Collected Poems.

By 1963, when the final two volumes of Mendelson’s superb edition of Auden’s prose (the fifth and sixth volumes of the monumental Complete Works) begin, the poet has become pretty much the pale pink old Liberal his left-wing associates prophesied thirty years earlier. By 1970, when he published his delightfully idiosyncratic “commonplace book,” A Certain World, Auden could construe himself in episcopal terms:

In my own case, I like to fancy that, had I taken Anglican Holy Orders, I might by now be a bishop, politically liberal I hope, theologically and liturgically conservative I know.

Even those Marxist friends of the 1930s who were aware that both of Auden’s grandfathers were Church of England clergymen and suspected that he was a closet counterrevolutionary might not have gone quite so far in predicting his future. But the Auden we find in the articles, essays, lectures, and reviews from the last decade of his life is indeed rather like an aging and learned English bishop, personally benign and tolerant, but ruefully convinced at heart that the world is going to hell in a handcart if it does not repent soon.

There is, in the late Auden, little of T.S. Eliot’s ranting of his conservative Christian prejudices or of W.B. Yeats’s authoritarian shaking of the fist at the “filthy modern tide.” In his introduction to an anthology of the writings of Protestant mystics, Auden quotes approvingly from an unnamed Anglican bishop, “Orthodoxy is reticence,” and from C.D. Broad, “A healthy appetite for righteousness, kept in due control by good manners, is an…

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