Ian Sansom

  • W.H. Auden: Prose 1926-38, Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse edited by Edward Mendelson
    Faber, 836 pp, £40.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 571 17899 5

W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and reappears in every religion, metaphysic and code of ethics; it is reflected in (or perhaps reflects) the earliest social system of which we have knowledge – the Dual Organisation in Ancient Egypt; one of its most important projections is war.’ If one’s looking for evidence of the poetic style in the prose, it’s all here: the bobby-dazzling grand statement; the vague, adult gesture towards philosophy and religion and anthropology; the brow-furrowing reminder of war; the lolloping punctuation; the careful suggestion of wide reading and the faint twinkle of self-conscious word-play. In 1930 Auden was a 23-year-old Oxford graduate, recently returned from a year in Berlin, who had finally had his first collection of poems accepted by Faber. He was a young man beginning to make his mark on the world; he was discovering his voice, and his role. He had decided to become a teacher.

Auden taught full-time for five years, from 1930 to 1935, at Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, not far from Glasgow, and at the Down’s School in Herefordshire, and during that time he published The Orators (1932), The Dance of Death (1933) and, with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog beneath the Skin (1935), as well as writing most of the poems which were to appear in Look, Stanger (1936). It was the period of the great outpouring of his talent, and, as this first volume of his collected Prose reveals, much of his effort went into essay-writing and reviews. The longer essays of the period, produced every couple of years or so – ‘Writing’ (1932), ‘The Group Movement and the Middle Classes’ (1934), ‘Psychology and Art Today’ (1935), ‘The Good Life’ (1935) and ‘Morality in an Age of Change’ (1938) – are well known and much remarked on by critics and commentators, but this collection now makes clear the full extent of Auden’s work as a reviewer.

He contributed not only to the Criterion, but also to the Twentieth Century, the Architectural Review, Scrutiny, the Listener, the New Statesman and Nation, New Verse and the Daily Telegraph. He was practical and sensible in his recommendations (‘First and foremost we should all be very grateful to Mr Henderson and Messrs Dent for making the whole of Skelton’s work at last accessible to the general public in easily legible type and at a very reasonable price’); enthusiastic (‘No one who is interested in anything at all should fail to read this book’ – of Liddell Hart’s T.E. Lawrence); and nicely cheeky (of Churchill, ‘The old humbug can write’; Baden Powell, ‘nice old gentleman as he must be, is a ... Happiness-addict’). Within a short time he’d mastered all the tricks of the reviewer’s trade. He damns with faint praise (of Elsie Elizabeth Phare’s The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins he withers, ‘Miss Phare has written a book of 150 pages about a major poet’), charms as he disclaims (reviewing books on architecture: ‘I’d better say at once that I know nothing more about architecture than any other member of the professional classes who has had a suburban home, been educated at boarding schools and universities, spent holidays in lodgings by the sea, and visited old churches on a bicycle’), and feigns humility (in a note on Surrealism in New Verse – ‘My only knowledge of Surrealism is derived from Mr Gascoyne’s books, a few French writers like Breton and Aragon, some paintings of Dali, Ernst and others, and from the pages of the Minotaur’). The writing is slick and smooth, well-egged and oiled, with a tang and a hint of salt, like a good mayonnaise. His two finest moments come in Scrutiny in September 1932, in the second issue of the magazine, in which he concludes a review of books on education with a high camp flourish (‘But what can one do? Dearie, you can’t do anything for the children till you’ve done something for the grown-ups’) and in a gossipy review of The Book of Margery Kempt for the Listener in 1936 in which he describes how the poor woman ‘went off her head after child-birth’ and quips that she would be wonderful to meet on a ’bus’. The quick-whisking wit and hand-wringing are all highly entertaining. If Auden hadn’t left England for America in 1939 he might have become Alan Bennett.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in