The Complete Works of W. H. Auden
Prose – Volume IV; 1956-1962
Princeton University Press – £44.95
Apart from being a terrific, genius-like poet of the highest order, W. H. Auden was armed with an unscrupulous and uncanny wit, capable of disarming even the most academic of Oxford intellectuals. Or, to whom the author himself so soberly once referred (a mere few pages into this book’s Introduction): ‘’Old, learned, respectable bald heads.’’
If anything, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose – Volume IV; 1956 -1962 is a literary tour-de-force, that covers as well as conveys, almost everything this ultimate poet, writer, quintessential observer of life and critic, was all about. Capable of being brave, brazen and blunt one minute, poignant, persuasive and extremely philosophical the next:
And neither of my natures can
Complain if I should be reduced
To a small functionary whose dreams
Are vast, unscrupulous, confused.
It should come as no surprise therefore, that this fourth and altogether audacious volume captures Auden at a time in his life, when he could on occasion, afford to be as recklessly considered in his work, as he could shamelessly adamant, honest and perhaps, just a little dismissive. The latter of which is wonderfully brought to bear in ‘A Great Hater’ (‘Essays and Reviews 1957’), where, upon critiquing Fyodor Dostoievsky’s The Diary Of A Writer, Auden unashamedly writes: ‘’This review will be both inadequate and unjust. Inadequate because The Diary Of A Writer runs to over 1,000 closely printed pages and, in the time allowed me, it has been impossible to read them all; unjust because, though Dostoievsky is, of course, a great genius, I cannot bear him.’’
Where, in the current literary world of servile, sycophantic toads, would one possibly stumble upon such a bouquet of regal rectitude? Of such heartfelt fidelity? Of such, dare one say, passion?
This alone, is what accounts for Auden being so very important, and this book, so very, very readable. That’s not to say the above reference to the Russian maestro is the anchored contingency throughout – as it’s absolutely not. For instance, the very first line of ‘Three Memoranda on the New Arden Shakespeare’ (‘Essays and Reviews 1960’) reads: ‘’Shakespeare, as every schoolboy knows, is Top Bard.’’
Continuing along a similar theme of Auden’s non-contingent awe (and deep rooted respect) for Shakespeare, he commendably continues: ‘’[…] almost anyone over thirty who cares for poetry or drama, will find […] that the more he reads Shakespeare the more he becomes convinced that Shakespeare really is Top Bard, that between him and every other English writer there is an immense gulf.
Shakespeare wrote a lot and each work of his is utterly different from all the others. Dickens is one of my favourite authors and I wouldn’t be without a single one of his novels, but it is fair to say, I think, that after you have read three or four of them, you know the Dickensian world: you may not yet have met all its inhabitants, but you already know pretty well what they will be like when you do. But to have read, let us say, one comedy, one tragedy, one chronicle play and one non-dramatic poem of Shakespeare’s, will not give you any proper idea of the Shakespearian world: that can only be got by reading everything he wrote.’’
It is just, such broad and precise admission, by way of truly telling it as it truly is, that, to my mind at least, accounts for Auden being so concurrently credible and magnanimous. Credible for being so honest. Magnanimous for admitting the above to begin with.
Lest it be said that the 979 pages of this weighty volume covers a rather vast and voluptuous terrain.
The aforementioned Introduction dips into Auden’s five-year-term as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, before immediately commencing with his many (colourful to say the least) Essays and Reviews that were published between 1956 and 1962. ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ begins on page 447, while the eight Appendices (‘Creweian Orations,’ ‘Auden as Anthologist and Editor’ ’Public Lectures,’ ‘Auden on the Air,’ ‘Endorsements and Citations,’ ‘Public Letters Signed by Auden and Others,’ ‘Translations’ and ‘Lost and Unwritten Work’) takes up pages 829 through to 900 – with Textual Notes and an Index of Titles and Books Reviewed making up the remainder.
Suffice to say, one can more often than not, open any page at random, and stumble upon something of either profound interest or that which is ridiculously witty or funny: ‘’A poet is, before everything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. Whether this love is a sign of his poetic gift or the gift itself – falling in love is something which happens to a person, not something he chooses – it is impossible to say (‘Squares and Oblongs’); ‘’Mozart is like a mistress who is always serious and often sad. He never suspected that love could ever exist without a hint of sadness or fear’’ (‘TheVoltaire of Music’); ‘’What a relief to learn that I may go happily to my grave without having read The Life of St Katherine, 8372 lines in rhyme royal by John Capgrove, or Lydgate’s translation of de Deguilleville’s The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, of which even professor C. S. Lewis, who has the literary digestion of an ostrich, is compelled to say: ‘’The poem is unpleasant to read, not only because of its monstrous length and imperfect art, but because of the repellent and suffocating nature of its contents (‘Just How I Feel’); ‘’The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident’’ (‘Reading’).
If such be the case – and who am I (or anyone for that matter) to suggest otherwise – then The Complete Works of W. H. Auden – Prose – Volume IV; 1956-1962 is a very well conceived and comprehensive ‘’lucky accident.’’
Not to mention an all-round, terrific book