In his recent memoir of English literature at Oxford, the critic John Carey recalled meeting W H Auden when he was professor of poetry from 1956 to 1961. ‘Auden’, Carey notes, ‘famously likened his face to a wedding cake left out in the rain. But what I noticed more than his wrinkles was how he turned his head – slowly and carefully, as if it was someone else’s head and he might break it.’ This uncanny sketch came back to me as I read through these volumes, which complete the publication of the poet’s critical prose. The older Auden notoriously disowned some of the most quotable verse composed by his younger head. Yet to the end he seems to have been haunted by the thought of its precocious talent. Able still to recall ‘the last line and a half of the first poem I ever wrote’ (‘and in the quiet/Oblivion of thy waters let them stay’), but not ‘who or what They were’, in the last decade of his life Auden returned repeatedly to the mystery of who he had been.
Volume V begins just after the Oxford professorship and offers some substantial long-form essays by a transatlantic commentator enjoying his seat in the intellectual business class of the day. His introduction to an anthology of The Protestant Mystics (1964), for example, lays out Auden’s understanding of the types of religious experience and quotes at length from ‘an unpublished account for the authenticity of which I can vouch’. This obliquely presented passage of autobiography describes the evening in June 1933