The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Prose – Volume II (1939-1948)

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden
Prose – Volume II (1939-1948)
Princeton University Press – £52.00

Tough, taught, regal, dense, opinionated, poetic, idiosyncratic yet never (ever) dull, the elongated work(s) of W. H. Auden, always makes for imperative reading. This altogether superb collection of  Prose- Volume II. 1939-1948, is absolutely no exception. From an historically literal standpoint alone, it’s as if entire chunks of pre-conceived ideas of European literature in general, warrant total re-evaluation.

From Dante to D. H. Lawrence, from William Shakespeare to Tolstoy, Auden infuses a wry wit of acerbic, bucolic consideration into that of his countless, colourful critiques, by way of infiltrating a quandary of reflexive supposition. Indeed, he does so, unlike any other. And it’s this ‘unlike any other’ element, that makes the old buffer’s writing so intriguing and elementary, fascinating and, dare I say it, entertaining.

For instance, in a review he wrote for The Nation called ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ (which is to be found in ‘Essays and Reviews 1939’), Auden aligns Shakespeare’s poetry with an acute and un-foretold capability of committing ‘verbal incest,’ which to my mind, is just one of many instances within these 552 pages, where the aforementioned sense of re-evaluation comes into play. Consider if you will, the following: ‘’The works of Shakespeare are the man; he is the only one of the great European figures of which this can be said. Leonardo left off painting the Mona Lisa to study engineering, Goethe could put aside Faust to take part in local government, Tolstoy rejected his own novels on moral grounds. One cannot imagine Shakespeare doing any of these things. Even in Dante one feels an interest in philosophy and history that is separable from his interest in their poetic expression. But in Shakespeare poetry and life are one. If we do not like poetry, he can mean nothing to us whatsoever. In the true sense of the word ‘’pure,’’ he is the purest poet who ever lived; that is to say, he explored all life through a single medium, that of language.’’

What’s interesting here is Auden’s adroit absolutism. There’s no ifs or buts. No room for negotiation. It is, as he says it, believes it, understands it, and that’s it. On the one hand, this is commendable, on the other hand, perhaps a tad extreme, especially the assertion: ‘’If we do not like poetry, he (Shakespeare) can mean nothing to us whatsoever.’’ Admittedly, I do know what he means and I do know where he’s coming from; as for all intents and purposes, everything about Shakespeare was without doubt, anchored within that of the written word.

But, might it not be argued from a theatrical standpoint at least, that rather a lot of what Shakespeare was about, also had a great deal to do with the stage? That vast, intense and perplexing arena, wherein the potential for explicit and occasionally great drama, knows no bounds? Not to mention the subliminal unsaid?

Surely there’s just as much to be said for Shakespeare the dramatist, as there is for Shakespeare the poet?

Such questioning is what makes so much of this book, charming, as well as challenging to read. It’s like I mentioned at the outset, it’s as if entire chunks of pre-conceived ideas of European literature in general, warrant total re-evaluation – as Auden continues in the same review: ‘’Other great men, like Leonardo and Goethe, have equalled him in their curiosity; other poets, like Dryden and Pope, have equalled him in their exclusive passion for poetic expression; but his combination of curiosity and gift is unique. To find a parallel one must go to music, to Mozart or Wagner.

Like every great genius he took good care to be born in the right place and at the right time for the work he had to do. No other country in sixteenth century Europe had a language as suitable for poetry as had England; at no other time in English history has there been a large-scale poetic form, like that of the Elizabethan drama, which by its nature kept poetry applied to life, encouraged it to explore the widest possible field of experience, and protected it from literary auto-intoxication. Had Shakespeare been born a Frenchman, he could hardly have written better than Racine; had he lived in the eighteenth century, his range could hardly have been wider or deeper than Pope’s; and had he lived at the end of nineteenth century, he might well have lost confidence in poetry altogether and abandoned it like Rimbaud.’’

Clearly, all of the above belongs upon a wide-open canvass of questionable conjecture. It’s the stuff of tutorials and examinational prowess. To be sure, the above has at least four great essay titles:

1)Had Shakespeare been born in France, would he still have written in the same way, and found the same degree of success?
2)To what extent can Shakespeare’s combination of curiosity and gift be compared to such composers as Mozart and Wagner?
3)Would it be fair to say that the actual language of sixteenth century England had just as much to do with Shakespeare’s unrivalled success, as he himself?
4)To what degree did Shakespeare acknowledge the fact that poetry was protected from auto-intoxication by that of Elizabethan drama? Where, in his poetry and drama, is this most evident?

The sheer amount of critical debate and analytical trajectory triggered by Auden’s perpetual audacity throughout this second volume, does indeed, warrant its purchase alone. It allows literary buffs to host veritable conventions of sorts; wherein the intoxication of rabid conversation and argument would, regardless of the man himself, reign supreme. Other topics might include: Kierkegaard’s (uncompromising) existential Christianity, the dishonesty of nationalism, the relationship between Voltaire and the Catholic Church, Tennyson’s ivory tower of technique, the degree to which D. H. Lawrence ought best be regarded as a Christian heretic – to name but a tiny tip of the inflammatory iceberg.

The list is endless, as is the realm of both caustic and majestic promise and potentiality. It’s all here, in one strident and mighty swoop of literary deliberation and genius. In fact, there’s even an article actually entitled ‘How Not to Be a Genius.’

What more could one possibly ask for?

David Marx

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