What was Auden thinking when he wasn't writing poetry?

"At the beginning of the 21st century," Edward Mendelson writes in his entry on W. H. Auden in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "many readers thought it not implausible to judge his work the greatest body of poetry in English of the previous hundred years or more." Even allowing for a literary executor's special pleading, this is an extravagant claim: Auden's poetry is full of good things, but it is also full of bad things. And the latter are usually the result of bad rhetoric. That Auden regarded "September 1, 1939," for example, as "infected with an incurable dishonesty'' says something for the probity of his criticism. If he was capable of writing nonsense, he was also capable of owning up to writing nonsense.

Some of the bad rhetoric that marred Auden's work can be blamed on his left-wing politics.Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (1988) brilliantly supplies the cultural and historical context for those politics. Yet Auden also acquired his rhetorical excesses from William Butler Yeats, whose public persona he initially tried to emulate. One of the virtues of this mammoth, six-volume edition of Auden's prose, which covers his essays and reviews from 1926 until his death in 1973, is that it shows how the poet gradually renounced the public stage for a more self-effacing, meditative, private life, especially after settling in America in 1939 at the age of 32.

"When the ship catches fire," he wrote in a piece on Rilke, "it seems only natural to rush importantly to the pumps, but perhaps one is only adding to the general confusion and panic: to sit still and pray seems selfish and unheroic, but it may be the wisest and most helpful course." Later, speaking with the Paris Review in 1972, he insisted that "a poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted."

How Auden regarded this duty can be seen in his moving eulogy for his friend Louis MacNeice, "The Cave of Making" (1964), in which he celebrated the demands of the art to which he devoted his life.

After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot
be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly
still insists upon
being read or ignored . . .

One can agree or disagree with the charge brought by Philip Larkin that Auden's intellectual interests stultified his poetry, but one cannot maintain that the essays in which he pursued those interests are stultifying. They exude zest. There may be much about the writing of Auden's generation that is meretricious. Evelyn Waugh was unsparing about Stephen Spender—"To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee"—yet Auden wrote a sprightly, elegant, witty prose. And if his reviewing paid the bills, it also helped to shape his protean poetry. The relationship between the state and the individual, history and human suffering, cultural vitality and cultural decay, talent and the snares that entrammel talent—these are the constant preoccupations of his poetry, and they are abundantly explored in these well-annotated volumes.

Since Auden only published two essay collections, The Dyer's Hand (1962) and Forewords and Afterwords (1973), there is much uncollected and unpublished work gathered here, and together with the previously published pieces, they reveal a good deal about the poet's inner life. In 1964, for instance, in a review of autobiographies by Waugh and Leonard Woolf, he wrote something of an autobiography of his own in which he gave expression not so much to family or personal history as to the exile's inexorable loneliness. Writing about other artists beguiled his sense of aloneness.

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