Bernard O’Donoghue

He Noticed Such Things

The Complete Works of W H Auden: Prose – Volume IV, 1956–1962

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Princeton University Press 982pp £44.95 order from our bookshop

It is a critical commonplace nowadays that the definitive complete works of any writer – even of Byron, notoriously – are impossible to produce. Nevertheless, most of Auden has now been wonderfully edited by Edward Mendelson and his collaborators as comprehensively as possible. This fourth volume of the prose is of particular interest because it covers the period of Auden’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, which marked the occasion of his anxious return to England after sixteen years spent mostly in the United States. When Enid Starkie persisted in urging Auden to stand for the chair, he finally agreed despite his fears that he would be greeted with hostility because of his American citizenship and his move to America at the start of the Second World War – not to mention his homosexuality. He was elected in the face of what now looks rather impressive opposition: Harold Nicolson (whom Auden defeated by twenty-four votes out of the 499 votes cast) and the great, somewhat maverick Shakespearean scholar G Wilson Knight. Auden was terrified at the prospect of giving the lectures. He described in a letter to Stephen Spender his ‘fits of real blind sweating panic’, going on to wonder: ‘Why are the English so terrifying?’

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