Reviewed by Ian Lipke
I have been privileged to receive a copy of Edward Mendelson, The Complete Works of W.H. Auden (Princeton University Press, 2022), upon which this review is built. The two-volume set is a magnificent work that captures more than adequately the oeuvre of a major twentieth century poet, playwright and musician. Its multi-volumes comprise hard covers of exquisite durability, each equipped with a dustcover beautifully illustrated with photographs of the author at two different stages of his life.
Mendelson attempts to treat with a judicious hand the many aspects of literature and the arts that Auden shared with his followers. The breadth of the man’s involvement was staggering. The period from the early 1920s when the Marxists became his champion through the numerous changes he adopted in style in order to make his art understood (or, more likely, less puzzling to others who found his ideas so difficult) is a picture of a man with no intention of restricting his poetry. He writes to entertain, to teach, to produce poetry’s most subtle effects. Early influences on him were such poets (to name only a few) as Wordsworth, Walter de la Mare, Thomas Hardy, and eventually T.S. Eliot but there were numerous others.
In 1927, Auden’s poetry was laconic and compressed, beset by a psychological awareness that his parents may have seen him as different, and misunderstood. However, the 1930s was “a time of crisis and dismay”. Auden’s interest in politics was focused specifically on the nature of man himself, in the roots of his social and individual problems, evidenced in the poet deep interest in Freud, in loneliness, anxiety, and fear. Yet his tone has been described quite rightly as “in a sense detached, impersonal, briskly purposive. Some of his 30s verse is spiritually muscular, a sort of moral gymnastics” (Spears, 111). His 1930s poems capture outlooks and settings in ways we do not easily forget.
Volume 1 of Mendelson contains Poems 1930 – 1939, Juvenilia (largely early poems written prior to 1928), appendices and textual notes. While the textual notes provide valuable information on historical aspects of a poem’s life, the prime purpose is to gather information relevant to the poems themselves. Mendelson’s first volume is dedicated to the songs of the 1930s. It is a work of love, a book that is solidly-built and will expect to hold the poems of Auden for years to come. It features a twenty-five-page chronology of Auden’s life, a necessary piece of writing as the life of the poet was complex. The book then provides examples of the poet’s lighter work, lyrics that create a sense of stillness, the stillness of harmony and calm, or the stillness of menace, poems that reflect and muse, insisting as Rilke does, on the need for a poet to sit still and absorb.
Volume 1 is a study of the shorter poem. Among other things it reveals that Auden likes to explain things; he is deeply attached to the English landscape where man has lain out bare, stark, and improbable shapes; he thinks through images of ‘villages of the heart’ and ‘suburbs of fear’. His landscapes often link with the wanderer, an isolated man on a search.
Auden’s technical skill, his poetic virtuosity, is indisputable; he is gifted, professional, a constant practitioner. He is interested in all forms of verse, from the word-of-mouth limerick to the closely designed poem of volume length. He opposes all notions of artistic decorum and of ‘correct’ style. We find great range and flexibility in his verse – also a disposition to play around. Auden believes that the primary characteristic of a budding poet is the wish to ‘hang around words’ and play with them. Auden displays a recurrent loyalty to a few forms as well as a readiness to experiment in such forms as the brief lyric and the sonnet. These are a strength in the current volume which presents them in fine splendour.
A poem that shows Auden at his best is “A Summer Night” – a complex poem that weighs present harmony against future change. It is, part of a series of poems hinting at the poet’s fundamental dissatisfaction with society, but it is also a testament to his own joyous epiphany – his desire for the harmony of his present, private world to transform the public world of the future. It is a touching and convincing argument.
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.
What is included is Another Time, a collection of Auden’s shorter poems. It was the first of the books he submitted to his American publisher, Random House. Included in Another Time is one version of the poem Lullaby.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
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 carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
This poem was written not for the purpose of consigning a child to sleep but addressed to a lover. The first stanza admits the lover’s mortality but stanza two turns to supernatural and more divine ideas in a vision of ‘universal’ love, a love that is of pre-eminent importance to us. Love is described as ‘grave’ because it is deeply felt, and deeply serious. Even the stone-cold heart of the hermit can be thawed and warmed by love’s power.
In Auden’s work, love is a construct. His poem is hopeful, but throughout Auden remains aware of the fragility and impermanence of all human relationships. He remains distant, his writing more conceptual, with nothing of the hot blood of writers absorbed in their subject.
Auden reveals a mind deeply interested in craft i.e. in shapes and patterns. While his poems are not strong in some sensory effects, he has an acute ear [as seen in his Seascape and Lullaby poems] and he responds well to patterns of colour [not as interested in the modulations of the colours themselves]. There is little touch, taste or smell in his verse. He rarely lingers over his sensory effects. We tend to remember his poems as shapes or patterns…as structures formed out of the interplay of man’s moral dilemmas.
Holding a superior place in Auden’s work are his epithets, a series of wry statements often labelled conceptual rather than descriptive…they comment rather than describe; they set the object into a relationship with something or someone else. i.e., not ‘grassy slope’ but ‘tolerant enchanted slope’.
Lay your sleeping head, my love
Human on my faithless arm
The interest comes from the play of moral relations between the owner of the head and the arm.
During the thirties the poet made use of a type of simile in which a concrete fact was yoked to an abstract idea. He became fond of dying falls,
and grew enormous,
and cried Woe.
He stylized pointing:
The boarding house food,
the boarding house faces,
The rain-spoilt picnics in the windswept places.
This is not to dispute that, in this period, Auden can also be large and rhetorical, as the ten verse Dover (1937) demonstrates. The tone of Dover is easy and conversational. It is as though we are listening to the poet reading aloud. The exemplar for this style of writing is W.B. Yeats Easter 1916, and while Auden does not challenge Yeats in terms of quality, his achievement cannot be dismissed. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Artes comes close. “With a laconic casualness it makes a searching and moving observation on human suffering, and this is its strength; it is also in parts both knowing and uneasily colloquial” (Spears, 114).
Volume 2 covers the work of Auden from 1940 until 1973. It is a more complex collection than the earlier volume and is made up of shorter individual poems, very long poems, appendices, and textual notes. It is introduced by a preface, contains detailed notes, and an index of titles and first lines. In total it covers at least 1105 pages.
Mendelson has demonstrated the ability to supply what readers need i.e., a context in which to learn about a poet who, while a major voice in twentieth-century literature, remains largely unknown. His book fills a gap that has, until now, remained unbridged. The long poems are a distinguishing feature of the second volume. An appreciation of the fine depth of Auden’s thinking may be gained from a reading of The Age of Anxiety*.
The four speaking parts are obviously different aspects of Auden himself (reason, emotion etc). As voices they should have a dramatic quality if they interact, but they don’t. Auden was not a playwright, his voices were not for the stage, for drama. The default effect (and perhaps his intention?) is like having four masked voices coming at you independently like a Greek Chorus: impassive, beating their different drums alongside one another, not connecting in any real way. This lends much of the text an austere authority, as though rising above human emotion to map out the whole human condition like a Lepidopterist-Bard. The different poetic forms used (from what I can see/hear) are held together by alliteration and the three-stress line that a modern poet would not touch with the proverbial barge pole… The Age of Anxiety is full of insights but, requires close study. There is a definite plan to the work as you can see from the sections, based on the seven ages of man (from Shakespeare?).
[The Age of Anxiety material (*) was supplied by Mr Joe Tierney of University of the Third Age Brisbane]
Auden is a poet for the future. The is much in him that has not been touched yet. Mendelson’s double volume set is a massive step forward.
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-21929-5 Volume 1
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-21930-1 Volume 2
$US60.00; 1031 pp (Vol. 1); 1124 (Vol. 2)