The Complete Works of W. H. Auden
Prose – Volume I (1926 – 1938)
Princeton University Press – £69.95

To get to sleep in latitudes called upper
Is difficult at first for Englishmen.
It’s like being sent to bed before your supper
For playing darts with father’s fountain-pen
Or like returning after orgies, when
Your breath’s like luggage and you realise
You’ve been more confidential than wise.

Letter to Lord Byron – Part II

More English than the Queen, John Major, Stonehenge, cricket and shepherds pie combined, W. H. Auden may well have lived in America for the best part of his adult life, but as the above and this exceedingly excellent, first collection of Prose (and Travel Books in Prose and Verse) testify: his vision, writing, humour, high-octane-caustic-wit and all round topological imagery, always remained deeply entrenched within that of a British persuasion.

To be sure, the 831 pages of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume 1 – 1926-1938,, is a literal clarification that the man’s preposterous amount of prose, poetry, book reviews, travel writing and soaring satire, was, in the early years at least, quintessentially bereft of fruitless filler. This ought hardly be surprising, considering the consistency by which the poet/writer remained within acute earshot of all that truly mattered in life.

From politics to travel to current affairs to philosophy to the reasoning behind poetry (if there is such a thing) to the erstwhile application of writing itself – we are throughout this veritable vortex of culture, oft reminded of the degree to which Auden sought nigh impossible answers. Of The Orators on page XV of the books Introduction for instance, he writes: ‘’My name on the title-page seems a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi… My guess to-day is that my unconscious motive in writing it was therapeutic, to exorcise certain tendencies in myself by allowing them to run riot in phantasy.’’

Such ‘therapeutic motivation’ is what surely instils in most writers, a rabid desire, if not need, to put pen to paper in the first place? Were writing not in some way ameliorative, then why the kernel of seemingly sacrosanct and subliminal yearning?

In his essay simply entitled ‘Writing’ (printed in this edition without cuts and palliations), Auden describes speech and writing as: ‘’two tributary streams, rising at different sources, flowing apart for a time until they unite to form a large river […]. The urge to write, like the urge to speak, came from man’s growing sense of personal loneliness, of the need for group communication. But while speech begins with the feeling of separateness in space, of-I-here-in-this-chair and You-there-in-that-chair, writing begins from the sense of separateness in time, of ‘I’m here to-day, but I shall be dead to-morrow and you will be alive in my space and how can I speak to you.’’

Many might consider such self-introspective writing barely a quarter of the way into the book, a trifle dense, but then we are talking of a lucid, restless and altogether brilliant mind; which, herein at least, was forever on. Forever on high alert. Forever to be reckoned with within it’s own kloof like maze of sought after utility. In the 1932 essay ‘Why People Read Books,’ Auden waxes both lyrical as well as physiological when he writes: ‘’Reading and living are not two watertight compartments. You must use your knowledge of people to guide you when reading books and your knowledge of books to guide you when living with people. The more you read the more you will realise what difficult and delicate things relations with people are but how worthwhile they can be when they really come off; and the more you know of other people, the more you will be able to get out of each kind of book, and the more you will realise how good a really good book can be, but that great books are as rare as great men.’’

The latter might just as easily be applied to great painters and writers, great singers and musicians; in fact, the entire gambit wherein dubious and shonky saturation is the relative norm. Listen to most daytime radio or partake in daytime television, and witness for yourself, the shocking equation of lesser men in relation to ‘’great men.’’ Admittedly, this is neither revelatory nor anything intrinsically new, but one cannot help but ponder upon the depths to which so-called ‘art’ need further plummet, before finally, finally being wrought back from the catafalque of such über-saturation as Cheryl Cole’s vacuous vomit.

Luckily for us, this book is about as far removed from the death-knell of art as is humanly possible. Apart from being an educational read and a mighty colossal inspiration (which, in and of itself, is surely reason enough to splash out), it covers a very considerable amount of literary terrain. As well as initially including ten years worth of thought provoking essays and reasoned reviews (written between 1926 – 1936), also included are Auden’s countless Letters From Iceland. This is followed by the two conclusive years worth of essays and reviews that culminate in 1938, the same year he also co-wrote ‘Journey to a War’ with Christopher Isherwood – he who penned Goodbye To Berlin, the recent re-publication of which I shall be writing about in the not too distant future.

Finally, lest it be said that there’s as much relevance, power and audacity contained in such lines as:

…she turned
Dissolving in his frank blue eyes
All her hope, like aspirin

today, as when they were written as part of ‘A Novelist’s Poems’ in 1937. Just one example amid literally hundreds, this is what fundamentally accounts for this very fine collection of works being truly indispensable, if not crucial.

David Marx


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