Early Auden, Later Auden –
A Critical Biography
By Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press – £27.95
Auden wrote that ”In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth.
(‘Introduction to Early Auden’)
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.
They say that in times of complete darkness, only poetry will suffice. And so far as poetry is concerned, I do sometimes wonder if only W. H. Auden will suffice.
Reason being, his vision and literal vortex, not to mention overt considered contextualisation, appear to evidently know no poetic parameters. No parameters that is, in the (true) sense in which we have been conditioned to understand, and occasionally embrace them. For sure, there are the two Dylans along with T. S. Eliot and a further array of stunning poets – far too many to mention here – although I do feel Auden stands somewhat alone.
Alone within a distinguished gambit of prime, idiosyncratic invention.
A thinking that the author of Early Auden, Later Auden – A Critical Biography, Edward Mendelson, appears to (wholeheartedly?) subscribe to: ”During the first twelve years of his career, the years that are the subject of this book, Auden made the difficult passage from a private poetry to a public one, from apparent formal disorder to manifest artifice, and from lonely severity to a community of meaning.”
Said ”community of meaning” and the analysis thereof, being both the centrifugal focus and adroitness of this simply sublime critical study.
To be sure, an exceedingly well considered and more than comprehensive study, I’m probably not alone in believing it will lead the way. Something the The New York Times writer, Christopher Lehman-Haupt already substantiates when he writes: ”It’s a wealth of intelligent, knowledge and insight that Mendelson… brings to this study… With his array of interpretive tools, he solves for the first time the notorious obscurities of Auden’s earliest work.”
An early work, which in ‘The Exiled Word,’ the author clarifies as being ”for intense love affairs that end quickly; the later poems are for marriage.”
To my mind, so much of Auden’s work touched on so many integral issues. He was never afraid to hold back; in subject matter, as well as in style, imagery and definition.
Indeed, he shot from the hip and wrote from the heart.
And what more could one possibly ask from a poet?
Qualities, that surely could on occasion, become a little overwhelming for the uninitiated. Qualities, which these 817 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) are fully prepared to divulge by way of the poet being at the eventual vanguard of an assimilation of possible influence and writing styles: ”While other styles of writing seemed content to rest on the sad margins of a conventional past, modernism alone seemed to look toward a difficult and inexorable future. Its procession of landmarks stands as imposingly now as it did then: 1920 saw the publication of Women in Love; 1921, Yeats’s Four Plays for Dancers; 1922, The Waste Land and Ulysses; 1923, Birds, Beasts and Flowers; 1925, A Draft of XVI Cantos and Eliot’s Poems 1909-1925; 1926, Personae; 1927, To the Lighthouse; 1928, Anna Livia Plurabelle and The Tower. And in 1927 – 28 Auden wrote the first of the intensely modernist verse he gathered in his 1930 Poems. For a young poet whose early ambition was to write the great poems of his generation, there seemed no turning back.”
If anything, Auden always looked readily to the future, as if, from a literary perspective at least, it couldn’t come quick enough.
One need only read some of the poetry written throughout the various stages of his life:
There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway
Of new men making another love.
Each lover has some theory of his own
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone.
Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.
Our present, meanwhile, is about
Our business here and abroad:
A boy is whipped in a cell,
An old woman is bustled out
Of the house she loved so well;
Both whimper and are ignored.
(An early draft of ‘A Walk After Dark’)
With the Early Auden split into two parts (entitled ‘The Border and the Group’ and ‘The Two Worlds’) along with the Later Auden into three parts (‘Vision and After,’ ‘The Flesh We Are’ and ‘Territorial’), the actual whole follows the major evolution of the poet’s thought process. Thereby offering a comparison of Auden’s various views at the various junctures throughout his lifetime.
With penetrating insight, the author re-evaluates Auden’s early ideas, methods and personal transition(s) as reflected in the many poems, manuscripts and private papers.
Early Auden, Later Auden – A Critical Biography, also goes on to link the numerous changes in the poet’s intellectual, emotional and religious experience, by way of his ever evolving public persona. Thus enabling readers to confront head-on, Auden’s personal struggles with the self, and the trajectory of fame; not to mention the means by which these internal conflicts were oft reflected in his writing. Especially in later years.
That Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of the Estate of W. H. Auden, and is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, it should come as absolutely no surprise that these thirty-three chapters account for a book that is resolutely more inspired than the actual word inspired itself.
Let it be said that so far as literary criticism is concerned, Early Auden, Later Auden is going to take some beating.