Taking sides

Karl Miller

  • W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet by Charles Osborne
    Eyre Methuen, 336 pp, £7.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 413 39670 3

In 1960, Auden completed his third decade as a poet with the volume Homage to Clio. By then, Charles Osborne writes, he was ‘widely regarded as among the few really great poets of the century’. No slur on the century seems intended here: part of what we mean by talking of great poets is that there are never very many of them about. But Mr Osborne goes on to mention that the poets Larkin and Gunn refused to kneel to the new collection. Larkin said of Auden’s progress that ‘almost all we value is still confined to its first ten years,’ that ‘the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has.’ Mr Osborne never engages with the implications of this opinion. But it is surely sound, and nothing Auden was afterwards to write required that it be amended.

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