What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
By Alexander McCall Smith
Princeton University Press – £13.95
”The moral certainties of the Left are comfortable for those who feel themselves rejected, and a sexual nonconformist might well find such circles welcoming […]. Those moral certainties also offer a new you.”
The above quote, taken from the fifth chapter (‘The Poet as Voyager’) of this altogether rather splendid read, certainly makes one think – while instantly bequeathing the reader with an abundance of political, as well as philosophical food for thought. As such, one of the fundamental attractions of What W. H. Auden Can Do For You lies just as much in the author himself, as it does the all looming and continuing trajectory of his subject.
By way of appealing to those interested in Alexander McCall Smith as a novelist and Auden as one of the greatest poets of our time (at the same time), these twelve chapters are, if nothing else, a charming account of how a relationship between a budding writer and his colossus of an influence, can, over many years, come to bountiful fruition.
It is as the author of Early Auden and Later Auden, Edward Mendelson has written: ”This is not only a convincing account of W.H. Auden’s poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait of McCall Smith himself and a testimony to the wisdom and courage he has found in Auden’s poems. This is a valuable and memorable book.” Valuable, might I add, because of some of the brave and open, yet quasi-contentious consideration throughout: ”[…] Auden has been taken to task for trying to be too clever, for using words for effect and without real regard to their meaning, and for being juvenile. There are other charges against him: in particular, he was famously criticized by the poet Philip Larkin for turning his back on political and social engagement in favour of the self-indulgent and the frivolous – a criticism that has lingered and is still occasionally encountered” (‘Love Illuminates Again’). And Memorable, because of some of the book’s many astounding declarations of common-sense: ”Understanding helps us deal with most threats, and seeking to understand must be our first response to evil, just as it is to anything else with which we have to deal. But there will be limits to our understanding, as Auden points out in ”If I Could Tell You.” Some things, we come to learn, just are” (‘If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know’).
Entertainingly dense yet poetically informative, I found What W.H. Auden Can Do For You a more than inspiring read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in poetics and the sometimes shameful ways of the world.