The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III (1949-1955)

The Complete Works of W. H. Auden
Prose – Volume III (1949-1955)
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press – £40.00

Throughout this third edition of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III (1949-1955), the magnificent trajectory of what can only be described as some of the most alive, authentic and worthy of considered prose and poetry ever written, still soars far higher than most of his contemporaries. This includes contemporaries of both yesteryear, as well as today. For the colourful validity of so much of Auden’s work(s), still resonates way beyond comparison. One of the prime reasons being that his actual approach to writing, was never saccharine or just so so, lacklustre or dull, repetitive or dare I say it, safe.

Unlike so many of today’s young-soul-rebels of petty glissando, glitterati poetics; all hung-up’n’strung-up on a detox vindication of all of life’s languid liability (and then some), Auden was a true master of a writer and observer. An inventive wordslinger and story teller of the highest, and most pristine order. Where else would one stumble upon an inflammatory dissertation upon such a didactic line as: ‘’Thou shalt keep thy word irrespective of the consequences (Auden’s italics)?

Let’s be honest it here, one wouldn’t.
Well not very often anyway.
Not unless one was knee-deep in either Blake or the Bible, and even then, one would probably have a hard time quantifying/qualifying the solipsistic strength of the words themselves. Especially with regards the latter.

This really isn’t the case with W. H. Auden; or at least much, if not most of the writing(s) throughout these 699 pages (775 if one includes the Textual Notes). For instance, the aforementioned line leaps out of page 537, where, amid ‘The Dyer’s Hand – 1, What Is Poetry About,’ Auden argues: ‘’There are people whom the Poet despises or condemns, but it would never occur to him to think that they could be anything but despicable.

For him mankind are divided into two classes, the gifted few whom he admires because they are really themselves, and the average anonymous mass whom he considers beneath his notice because they are no one in particular. Thus he is interested in well-bred families with ancient titles, great warriors, athletes, beautiful heiresses, wise ancients of both sexes, all who exhibit daring and energy like big-time gangsters and speculators, and monomaniacs of all kinds like pathological misers and spendthrifts. […]. The only moral commandment he takes seriously is: Thou shalt keep thy word irrespective of the consequences. Disloyalty is the unforgivable sin. However, for one who emphasises loyalty so much, he has a curious trait. If some misfortune happens to his dearest friend, if he loses his job or falls ill, the Poet will drop him or avoid him, for the Poet agrees with Nietzsche that there must be something dreadful about anyone to whom dreadful things happen, and he has a superstitious horror of misfortune which he believes is infectious.’’

For some reason, Morrissey comes to mind here, as do a number of other self-indoctrinated believers of their own worth, such as one of Morrissey’s idols, Oscar Wilde, and he who once subscribed to his own self value to such a degree, that he aligned it with the Khmer Rouge’s declaration of Year Zero, Joe Strummer.

Suffice to say, one can wax lyrical on the propensity of self value and poetry ad infinitum, and perhaps no one has (ever) done this better than Auden himself.

Throughout The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose Volume III, numerous such examples are placed before us at regular intervals. They occur it seems, to prod and remind, to alert and provide us with our very own, variable reflexive analysis of not only Auden’s instinctive Poetry and idiosyncratic Prose, but the very society within which we find ourselves.

Furthermore, one really doesn’t have to wait too long to be alerted to this, along with a wide array of relative issues. Whether it’s: ‘A Note On Graham Greene’ or ‘Religion and the Intellectuals: A Symposium,’ ‘Of Poetry in Troubled Greece’ or ‘The Philosophy of a Lunatic,’ ‘Some Reflections on Music and Opera’ or ‘The Adult Voice of America,’ ‘T. S. Eliot So Far’ or ‘Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot,’ ‘A Message from W. H. Auden [on Dylan Thomas]’ or the aforementioned ‘The Dyer’s Hand.’

To be sure, there is something herein that is indeed guaranteed to make one sit up, perhaps swallow hard, reflect and then proceed to take note. In fact, as early as page xviii of the book’s Introduction, we are already faced with Auden’s take on celebrity culture: ‘’The Public has always existed, but one effect of the mass media is to make it easier than ever to be faceless and impersonal. The culture of celebrity is one result of the growth of the Public: ‘’the public instinctively worships not great men of action or thought but actors, individuals who by profession are not themselves.’’ The moral consequences are all too clear: ‘’ The public, therefore, can be persuaded to do or believe anything by those who know how to manage it. It will subscribe thousands of dollars to a cancer research fund or massacre Jews with equal readiness, not because it wants to do either, but because it has no alternative game to suggest.’’

With the exception of Will Self and perhaps Jeremy Paxman, who today, would come out with such a vengeance with regards the current crisis of celebrity culture? A crisis, which, if nothing else, is disposing of individuality, as if it were a cancer.

An illness to which almost everyone, is succumbing.
Every age, every creed, every colour, every genre, every idiot, every television producer, every Tom, Dick’n’Scumbag record label: ‘’that faceless purposeless mass that anyone can join when one is no one in particular.’’

This excellent tomb of a book is as academic as it is entertaining as it is informative as it is inspiring as it is (obviously) superbly well written. The only downside being, it ensures the literary bar is so highly placed, it ensures the rest of us can only ever negotiate coming close – if, with the exception of a selected few, such a thing is remotely possible.

David Marx


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