The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V
Princeton University Press – £44.95
Having already reviewed the previous four volumes of W.H. Auden’s colossal body of work that Princeton University Press have published over the years; it should come as no surprise that I’d be more than compelled to write about this rather marvellous collection too.
Weighted in overt literary curiosity, my reasoning is such that almost all of Auden’s work, whether it’s prose, poetry or indeed, just about anything, remains so instantly enlightening. Not to mention consistently refreshing and invigorating to read.
In the words of The London Review of Books’ Frank Kermode: ”When you add in the volumes already devoted to plays, libretti, poems, it becomes hard to avoid describing the whole enterprise as heroic. In fact it could also be described as unique, for no other twentieth-century English poet has been so fully and patiently honoured.”
Indeed, it’s not remotely easy to even marginally fathom what makes W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968 so very readable. So very enjoyable; other than it being a darn good read of the highest (and I do mean the highest) calibre.
With the possible exception of only a handful of exceptional writers such as Burroughs, Camus or Orwell, where else would one read such colourful and quintessentially vital provocation in any other book’s Introduction – as any of the following: ”When in love, the soldier fights more bravely, the thinker thinks more clearly, the carpenter fashions with greater skill […]. It is quite true, as you say, that a fair principle does not get bald and fat or run away with somebody else. On the other hand, a fair principle cannot give me a smile of welcome when I come into a room. Love of a human being may be, as you say, a lower form of love than love for a principle, but you must admit that it is a damn sight more interesting […]. For millions of people today, words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy, have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee-reflex […]. Propaganda, like the sword, attempts to eliminate consent or dissent, and, in our age, magical language has to a great extent replaced the sword.”
Replete with philosophical undercurrent(s), the above quotations are equally cerebral and regal. Yet the tonality of the actual language used, remains nothing less than that which one has come to wholeheartedly expect from surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest of poets.
Yetr, what set Auden apart from so many of his contemporaries, was his uncanny and sometimes audacious ability to wax lyrical without ever falling into the trap of taking his eye off the ball. A facet of both thinking and writing, that still isn’t all too easy to accommodate. As not only was his writing simultaneously succinct and elaborate, it was anchored in being acutely fundamental: ”[…] ”there is no comprehensible relationship between the moral quality of a maker’s life and the aesthetic value of the works he makes;” the sources of every artist’s art ”are what Yeats called ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,’ its lusts, its hatreds, its envies.””
Suffice to say, the above is a mere tip of the extraordinary, literary iceberg contained within these 509 pages (excluding seven sections of Appendix, numerous Textual Notes and an Index of Titles ad Books Reviewed). From the very outset of Prose 1963-1968, Auden testifies to his own resounding translucent belief, where, in a Foreword to The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956, he writes: ”[…] in deceiving others, I cannot help knowing that I am telling a lie. I can, of course, choose to avoid learning certain facts because I am afraid of the truth and prefer to remain in ignorance, as the average German under Hitler, though he knew that concentration camps existed, preferred not to think about them […]. We must not, of course, imagine that political freedom in itself guarantees the creation of good art; indeed one of the most obvious characteristics of any country where there is freedom of speech and publication is the vast quantity of rubbish which gets spoken and printed. Persons with a love of and a talent to perceive and utter it are, unfortunately, a minority, but only under conditions of freedom can this minority develop its powers and have an influence.”
Hopefully, what I’ve written will give just some indication as to the sheer breadth and depth of W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968. To simply call it an altogether wonderful book could be construed as getting off too lightly, but in truth, that really is what it is: ”The articles will delight any reader with their wit, charm, and elegance (Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books).