With Slip and Slapdash

Frank Kermode

  • The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. Vol. III: Prose, 1949-55 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 779 pp, £29.95, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 691 13326 3

Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing prose: ‘unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day,’ he told his friend James Stern, ‘I feel ill.’ Spurred on by these complementary inducements – the need to make money and the need not to be sick – he wrote quantities of prose. It appeared, over the years, in an impressive range of journals, from Eliot’s Criterion and Leavis’s Scrutiny to Vogue and the New Yorker; from the Daily Herald to many and various obscure little magazines. He reviewed books of almost all sorts and found further occasions for writing prose – lectures, pensées, forewords, afterwords, theological essays, opera programmes and sleeve notes – and by no means all these pieces could fairly be dismissed as what Milton called writings of the left hand. He looked into other writers for thoughts that might help him shape his own meditations, his repeated attempts to express his own peculiar versions of the truth about God, history, the natural world, love. Some of those writers were fashionable, some not; he seemed indifferent to such considerations, and for the most part addressed himself as thinker or as artist to whatever topic attracted his attention in either capacity. For example, he admired, as if he were a modern expert, the professorial medievalist W.P. Ker, and regarded George Saintsbury’s Historical Manual of English Prosody (1910, useful to poets and other interested parties, but now, I daresay, rarely consulted) as his authority on that subject.[*] He was all for making it new, but not in quite the same way as Ezra Pound. At one point he too could have produced a reading list of essential books; but as time went by he seemed to care less than he had in his wilder, more assertive days about convincing or converting others.

In his early New York years he was much taken with the Christian existentialism then flourishing, and especially by Kierkegaard (who provided a valued philosophical schema with his aesthetic-ethical-religious triad). Zahl und Gesicht, a work by the exiled Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner, was among the books he described as having ‘so essentially conditioned [a writer’s, i.e., his] vision of life that he cannot imagine who he was before he read them’. Another important work was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s strange book Out of Revolution, which Mendelson identifies as a formative influence on The Age of Anxiety.

He read intensively, and mainly with his own intellectual needs in mind. Like many heavy readers he loved detective stories, but he took them seriously, prefixing to his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ a heavy Pauline epigraph: ‘I had not known sin, but by the law.’ He always had gurus – Gerald Heard, Charles Williams, Georg Groddeck, Homer Lane. Some quietly faded away, but with a few he enjoyed an enduring sympathy: Forster and Virginia Woolf, for instance, and Eliot, with the respect due to the publisher of his first book of poems, but staying well short of idolatry. Such connections ensured that he wrote many letters; he asked that they be destroyed after his death, but clearly many were not. There will be more work for editors.

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[*] Saintsbury has an eloquent chapter condemning English syllabics. Auden must have considered and rejected it, for something like half of his poetry is written in syllabics. He got the idea from Marianne Moore and developed it in his own way. It can be unobtrusive: it is possible to admire ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ without noticing that it is in syllabics. However, Louis MacNeice once scolded me for praising a syllabic poem by Thom Gunn, arguing that the practice would be ruinous to the English verse tradition – which is more or less what Saintsbury said.