Peter McDonald

Firbank, Bellini and Rare Steak

W H Auden: Prose, Volume III – 1949–1955


Faber & Faber 779pp £40 order from our bookshop

We know that writers can be badly or well served by the scholars who edit and process their works and lives; but might it is also be possible for them to be too well served in such things? Nobody can really ever know enough about the poets they love, and scholarly labours over the written remains of a Tennyson or a Byron, a Pope or a Wordsworth, are never going to be redundant, no matter how tiny the details in which they deal (Shakespeare’s laundry-lists, discovered and edited, would naturally make a bestseller). But timing in these things is important; and poetic reputations, in particular, take a lot of time to settle and consolidate. The big editorial guns can be fired too early, and a premature salvo is not guaranteed to put its subject safely among the immortals.

It is not that anyone could seriously fault the quality of the editorial attention which has been lavished on W H Auden in the decades since his death: the ongoing edition of his Complete Works has been brilliantly executed so far, and this third volume of his critical prose, covering work from the first half of the 1950s, more than meets the standard of its predecessors. No publisher’s files have been left unrifled, no page of typescript of manuscript has been unconsulted, and no variant text left uncollated. The pieces themselves and appendices, with detailed notes, amount to a good 770 pages. And yes, all of this accounts for just six years of Auden’s prose. Might it not – for a writer who, whatever other strings he had to his bow, was primarily and emphatically a poet – be just a bit much?

It’s difficult to give a straightforward answer. Lovers of Auden will find the very plenitude rewarding, while those less fully convinced by the poet will see in it evidence of a talented writer engaged in stretching himself too far and developing, in the process, an addiction to his own intellectual and stylistic mannerisms. In the years covered by the book, Auden made a living from his writing and lecturing, much of it about poetry, in the United States. That living was enough to allow Auden to spend the summers in Italy, on the island of Ischia, where he could concentrate on the more obviously creative side of his writing. This instalment of his prose, then, contains a great deal of literary journalism, written for a wide variety of publications, from the famous and lucrative like the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, and even Vogue, to the relatively obscure, like a Jesuit magazine called Thought or The Griffin (a book club bulletin). There are also the many commissions, whether for articles on opera or poetry anthologies, most notably the four-volume Poets of the English Language project, on which Auden worked assiduously during these years: as a commentator and an editor, he was unfailingly fluent and interesting, as well as being (albeit more failingly) perceptive and idiosyncratic. The market Auden served in the early 1950s got very good value from him, and obviously found in his prose a voice amenable to the conditions of the time and place.

It’s worth remembering that the place was the USA, and the time not without its difficulties, both cultural and political. The Auden ‘brand’, in that particular context, was wide-ranging but highbrow, and distinctively English without being un-American. The readers most often addressed by Auden in his journalism were not likely to include many dedicated readers of his own poetry, but were liable, on the other hand, to be keen on culture in general. Had things turned out a little differently, Auden might have become as famous in his adopted country as Alistair Cooke, an English compère for high culture at the high point of the American century.

But there was always much more to Auden’s prose than a required tone, and the greater part of his journalistic success in the early 1950s can be attributed to a capacity for sheer brilliance. Auden is at his best when reacting directly to literature, and this volume contains dozens of acute remarks: of Byron, Auden writes that ‘though he had 20/20 vision’, his ‘eyes were like those of some animal which can only see objects when they move’, adding that ‘his gift for observing the passage of thought and feeling matches his eyes’. Or again, Auden can point out how ‘The genius of Dickens … lies in his capacity to transform the lower middle class into an aristocracy which it would be a privilege for any Proust to enter.’ Auden’s judgements were often good ones, based on a powerful insight and exceptionally broad literary knowledge. Although the poet had plenty to say about the literature and culture of his new homeland, he had more to pass on to his readers about European literature, thought and – with particular enthusiasm, as well as the librettist’s insider knowledge – opera. Even more than half a century on, Auden’s writing on these subjects still sparkles with intelligence and elegant wit.

The very brilliance, however, had its drawbacks. One was an old problem of Auden’s: the inclination to generality, to sweeping theories of everything (and anything), resulting in the abrupt, emphatic prose of dogmatic assertion. This can be amusing in small doses, such as the announcement that anyone who dislikes the novels of Ronald Firbank, ‘like someone who dislikes the music of Bellini or prefers his steak well-done, may, for all I know, possess some admirable quality but I do not wish ever to see him again’. But these teasing games soon grow in significance, and Auden finds numerous excuses to lay down the rules for his own ideal community, a private Eden defined by the impeccable taste of its few occupants. In the end, and whether or not one is granted admittance to Auden’s exclusive club (I pass the steak test, but fail on the Bellini), the seriousness and repetitiveness of the game grow tedious. Schematic literary and philosophical histories are another Auden favourite, and his 1949 book of lectures on the sea and the desert in literature (The Enchafèd Flood, included here) is now almost unreadable, however interesting the local insights that go into its argument. Though the prose style loosened up in the years following this, the decidedness of opinion only hardened.

Auden is at his best as a critic when not being called upon – or not calling upon himself – to formulate rules and regulations. Of course, Auden’s proposed legislation is of the liberal sort; many of his literary preferences (and dislikes) are commendable; and his social and cultural positions, which embody a rational and rather impressive Christianity, still stand up well. Writing in 1952 on Kierkegaard, Auden deplored ‘the ubiquitous violence of the present age’ as ‘not truly passionate, but a desperate attempt to regress from reflection into passion’. The models for this were (in a very daring turn of thought) the Nazis: ‘The worst feature … of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis is not its cruelty but its frivolity; they did not seriously believe that the Jews were a menace.’ It is an odd thought – the Holocaust as a consequence of the Nazis’ personal failings – but it is in line with Auden’s more general insistence on the artistic and philosophical significance of the private life: ‘the possible area of the personal’, he wrote in 1955, ‘is larger than [one] supposes.’ Whatever the truth of this – and the quality of Auden’s own poetry of the mid-1950s and after does not offer the proposition unequivocal support – it is in the personal voice, with all its quirkiness and unexpected discoveries, that the best of this very large volume is to be found.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter