Uncle Wiz

Stefan Collini

  • Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Vol. V: 1963-68 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 561 pp, £44.95, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15171 7
  • Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Vol. VI: 1969-73 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 790 pp, £44.95, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15171 7

Auden loved aphorisms, extracts, notes, lists. It was not just the shortness of short forms that he approved of: he liked their refusal of system even more, their acknowledgment that fragmentariness can only ever be papered over, never wholly subsumed. The nearest he came to publishing an autobiography, which was not very near at all, was A Certain World (1970), a commonplace book made up of his favourite quotations, arranged alphabetically under rough and ready, almost arbitrary headings, with only occasional passages of explanation or commentary. Similarly, his editing (with Louis Kronenberger) of A Book of Aphorisms (1962) expressed a collector’s delight in showing off his treasures.

In the foreword to what is generally regarded as his best critical work, The Dyer’s Hand, published in 1962, he articulated a similar preference about literary criticism: ‘In going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ This presents the choice in somewhat extreme terms – most connected prose written by critics has not been in the form of either notebooks or treatises – but it pointed to a marked feature of Auden’s practice. He placed little value on continuity in a prose composition: his own paragraphs are often a series of fresh starts, oblivious to the existence of their immediate predecessors. Those grace notes that most writers use to ferry the reader’s expectations over from shore to shore bored him or seemed inauthentic. He made much of the quality he called ‘good sense’ in many of his favourite writers, the measured acceptance of the actual that became almost the signature of his own later poetry; a frank acknowledgment of the scattered incompleteness of experience constituted, for him, an important test of a writer’s humility before the sheer solidity of the empirical.

This anthologising impulse made for a distinctive reviewing style. He could, when he chose, be conscientious enough about giving a report on a book’s contents, but increasingly he just picked out the plums. This gave many of his long reviews the character of scrapbooks, compilations of greatest hits loosely tied together with obiter dicta. In writing about Edgar Johnson’s Life of Walter Scott, for instance, in the New Yorker in 1971, he assembled a sequence of favoured exhibits. ‘Idiosyncrasies are always endearing, and Scott was not without them’; examples follow. Then, further down the same page: ‘The working habits of a writer are always interesting, at least to other writers. Like most serious and prolific writers – Balzac and Proust are exceptions – Scott worked by day, not by night,’ and more in that vein. Having mentioned, in passing, Scott’s role in orchestrating George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, he went on chattily: ‘About the Royal Visit Professor Johnson has an amusing anecdote to relate’; the anecdote is quoted at length. And then, as so often, just as he seems to be launching into another aspect of his topic, he abruptly ends. Sometimes one can’t help wondering whether he simply broke off, having reached the appointed length, much as he would abruptly leave a dinner as the clock struck ten (9.30 later in life), merely announcing that he liked to go to bed early.

He liked to do what he liked, and reviewing was no exception. He declared that he saw no point in reviewing books he didn’t think well of (many reviewers seem to announce this principle more often than they follow it), though we know nothing of the commissions he turned down. Certainly, when so minded, he could turn an assignment to his own purposes with unabashed zest. Perhaps the most remarkable instance is the piece he wrote in 1965 for the New Yorker, ostensibly a review of autobiographies by Evelyn Waugh and Leonard Woolf. On the pretext that ‘no one can read an autobiography which describes a time, a country, a class familiar to him without starting to compose his own,’ Auden turned this into an 11,000-word comparison of his and their lives, under a series of headings such as ‘school’, ‘events and acts’ and so on. After so much detail about the three men’s lives, the final paragraph suddenly segues into a lament that the planet is becoming damagingly overcrowded, ending with the barely relevant sentence (barely relevant to what one might have thought was the task in hand): ‘How can we contemplate the not so distant future with anything but alarm when no method both morally tolerable and practically effective has yet been discovered for reducing the population of the world to a tenth of its present size and keeping it there?’

Auden never hesitated to give readers a piece of his mind; which piece of his mind he gave them depended less on his ostensible subject matter than on whatever was preoccupying him at that moment. Towards the end of his life he sometimes made a feature of this wilfulness. ‘I must begin by apologising to Professor Ricks,’ his piece about Christopher Ricks’s book on Tennyson begins. ‘What follows is less a review of his excellent book, the best study of Tennyson I have read, than a series of personal reflections on the poet suggested to me by reading it.’ Maybe something of the sort is more often than not the case when writers are reflecting on the work of fellow practitioners, with Auden simply disdaining that affectation of judiciousness most reviewers use to disguise the fact.

One of his own affectations was to claim, a little too insistently, that he wrote prose only in order to pay the rent. T.S. Eliot had the bank and subsequently his job as a publisher; William Carlos Williams had his medical practice; Wallace Stevens had his insurance office; Philip Larkin had his obligations as a university librarian. Auden had prose. Lots of it: several of his New Yorker reviews weigh in at well over eight thousand words, though he economised on effort, and maximised his income, by quoting copiously: in a piece on Henry Mayhew, one quotation fills almost two pages of this edition. He would, I suspect, have loved the word-count facility of computers. Writing prose could also be seen as one response to the situation he identified in speaking of Tennyson, that of the lyric poet ‘perpetually confronted with the problem of what to do with his time between the few hours when he is visited by his muse’. That doesn’t seem to have been Auden’s problem: his collected prose, now completed by the publication of these two volumes, runs to more than four thousand substantial pages. Essays, reviews, addresses, forewords and other short prose contributions were provided in response to various commissions and requests. Some of the longer introductions to books that he edited (such as the 1964 Signet edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets) are significant critical essays in their own right; some, such as his foreword to his friend Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings (which itself took the form of a collection of pensées) are clearly a labour of love. Auden may have needed the money – he mostly wrote prose in the winter in New York to finance summers writing poetry in Europe – but he evidently took pride in his facility and his craftsmanship. Robert Lowell responded with a fellow craftsman’s appreciativeness when he observed of Auden’s multifarious prose: ‘Much hard, ingenious, correct toil has gone into inconspicuous things: introductions, anthologies and translations. When one looks at them closely, one is astonished at how well they have been done.’

In addition to examples of the various shorter genres, these two volumes include the three longer works that Auden published in his final decade. The first of these was Secondary Worlds, his T.S. Eliot Lectures delivered at the University of Kent in 1967 and published the following year. The four lectures treat four largely discrete subjects: ‘the martyr as dramatic hero’, ‘the world of the sagas’, ‘the world of opera’ and ‘words and the word’ (on Christianity and writing). These were all subjects he had cared about for some time, but although the range of reference is impressive, there are moments when the lectures seem merely dutiful. Then there is A Certain World, the compilation mentioned earlier (Auden didn’t want it described as his ‘commonplace book’), which occupies more than 330 pages of Vol. VI. Finally, 46 of his essays and reviews were gathered in the last collection published during his lifetime, Forewords and Afterwords (1973). Since the original versions are all included in full in these two volumes or their predecessors, they are not reproduced again at this point, but the details of their whereabouts in the six volumes of prose are provided. In 1972 Auden had largely entrusted the selection of the pieces to Edward Mendelson, then a young English professor at Yale, thus launching him on a series of heroic editorial tasks which, 43 years later, is still not finished. As an editor, Mendelson is meticulous, judicious and quite extraordinarily thorough: in addition to tracking down all of Auden’s occasional writings, he has provided each of these volumes with a series of appendices reproducing such normally fugitive forms as ‘responses to questionnaires’ and ‘tributes, citations and endorsements’. To say that Princeton University Press, in producing such handsome and usable volumes, has matched Mendelson’s editorial standards is to give high praise indeed.

No one who had such an intense, adoring, bickering relationship with the English language as Auden had could write prose that was wholly dull, though he does manage, when launched into certain favourite subjects, such as love (lack of) or salvation (difficulty of), to tax the reader’s patience a little. He enjoyed classifying – it was a way of laying down the law without resorting to an overall theory – but taxonomies don’t make for exciting reading. That may be one reason why the reviews are, on the whole, more interesting than the free-standing essays and lectures; there is a greater chance that they will be about something other than Auden’s own views, about a subject he usually finds interesting enough to be willing to provide a generous amount of information.

Contrary to expectation, he does very little that could be called literary criticism in most of the pieces gathered here. Quoting can, of course, be a form of criticism, though Auden rarely comments on the passages he excerpts, and says little about the verbal texture of the writing he discusses. There are plenty of judgments – sometimes sketchily supported by a more or less argued case, mostly not. And there is quite a lot of first-person nattering, about such matters as when he first read a particular author or some similar literary encounter. It’s generally agreeable, often informative, sometimes entertaining. No one could take him for anything less than an extremely accomplished, fluent, professional writer – one who also gladdened editors’ hearts by, Mendelson reports, delivering his copy on time and (usually) to length.

The episodic, even anecdotal quality of Auden’s later prose doesn’t lend itself to being distilled into an argument or even a consistent point of view (which presumably pleased him). There are a lot of opinions, many of them aired on more than one occasion (more than three or four occasions, actually), but they don’t really join up with each other and anyway he seems to have been very happy to disregard his own rulings whenever he chose. For instance, he frequently asserts that the life of a writer can tell us little or nothing about the work, and that drawing on personal letters is an indefensible invasion of privacy, but when something catches his fancy, which it often does, he’s quite happy to make an exception. He is formidably well read, and not just in literature, but he doesn’t parade his learning or lay claim to any scholarly authority. He read German fluently and clearly came in some manner to identify with Goethe (‘I should like to become, if possible,’ he wrote in a poem, ‘a minor Atlantic Goethe,’ modesty and immodesty jostling for precedence). Perhaps it was one of the sadnesses of his later years that he had no one to fill the office of Eckermann or Boswell, and it may be for that reason that some of the pieces collected here read a little like a great man’s table-talk. ‘The proper social function of the old,’ he ruled in 1972, ‘is, in my opinion, to become, in their own persons and here and now, an example of what is meant by the civilised life.’ Maybe any such talk of ‘civilisation’ is liable to sound pompous and self-important, but the more we listen to ‘Uncle Wiz’, the more wistfully we recall his younger self who could be ‘silly like us’.

Meeting the 50-year-old Auden, his undergraduate contemporary Richard Crossman observed: ‘The more Wystan talked – and he talked very volubly – the more he revealed that he is now a comfortable unreflective pundit with extremely conventional, washy views.’ Crossman’s own left-wing convictions and streak of anti-Americanism may have inflected this judgment, but something similar was noticed by others. ‘He sounds like an intelligent Time magazine talking,’ Allen Ginsberg reported around the same time. Many of those who met Auden in the final decade of his life remarked that he didn’t converse: he held forth. His monologues were hard to interrupt, and they weren’t short. He was, by turns, didactic, aphoristic, anecdotal, and given to recycling his opinions and stories many times over. His talk was rarely expressive of the kind of self-questioning that had animated the best of his early poetry. And as so often happens with such hardening of the intellectual arteries, the talk and the prose increasingly converged. ‘He is didactic,’ one old friend wrote as early as 1953, ‘because, one feels, he knows he is right; he has thought the thing out with the thoroughness of a cement mixer.’ Just as cement mixers are unlikely to be rewarding conversational companions, so what they produce tends to harden into heavy, unyielding slabs. In the final decade of his life, Auden kept the cement mixer churning, producing barrow-loads of prose for delivery to such regular high-end customers as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, as well as to fulfil various one-off commissions. His craftsmanship is still much in evidence, but the tonal range begins to narrow. Reading these volumes, I was reminded of Larkin’s unsympathetic riff on the contrast between the younger and older Auden as a poet, where he characterised the latter as ‘an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving’. That still seems harsh, as well as too indulgent to nativist prejudice, but there are stretches of the later prose where Larkin’s description doesn’t seem so wide of the mark. By 1965, according to Richard Davenport-Hines in his generally admiring 1995 biography, Auden ‘began shrivelling as a prose writer’.

His biographers have wondered about the cumulative effect on his system of his long-time use of benzedrine, his increasingly heavy drinking, and his constant smoking. Observers concurred in remarking how early and quickly his body seemed to age; he was only 56 in 1963 but he already had his mappa mundi face. Perhaps his mind remained unaffected, and perhaps it is condescending to speculate. But just as it is hard to imagine anyone valuing his prose above his poetry, so, on this evidence, it would be difficult to make the case for his later over his earlier writing. If Auden hadn’t written the dazzling poems of the prewar years, as well as the more easygoing, dextrous verse of his middle age, it’s unlikely that he would have been commissioned to write so much prose in his last decade, and even less likely that it would now find many readers.

Still, he did write those poems, and for that reason we are bound to be curious about everything else he wrote. Writing so much, with so much of it being task-work, was always likely to lead to unevenness, quite apart from any question of declining powers. But picking a way through the jumbled attic of his collected prose, one stumbles on treasures, or at least mementos it is pleasing to have. Some of the best writing comes in memorial tributes to friends, one of the minor duties that fall to the ageing writer. ‘A major poet and a good man has just died’ is how a piece spoken on the day of Eliot’s death begins before going on to develop a favourite conceit: ‘In Eliot the critic, as in Eliot the man, there is a lot, to be sure, of a conscientious church warden, but there was also a 12-year-old boy, who likes to surprise over-solemn wigs by offering them explosive cigars or cushions which fart when sat upon.’ Or, on the death of Marianne Moore in 1972, this mixture of the apparently conventional and the slyly startling : ‘Next to her unique tone of voice, utterly unlike anyone else’s, what immediately strikes me both about the poet and the person is her perfect manners, never too loud or fussy or off-key. Like most people she was repelled by the cobra, but she knew that this was not the cobra’s fault.’ Or, finally, a handsome tribute in his memorial address for his friend and collaborator Louis MacNeice that was the more telling because, for all its elegant generalising, it grew out of the dark nights of his own self-reproach:

Every poet knows that, when he looks back over what he has written, the poems it is a torment and a shame to recall are not those which, for one reason or another, were failures – no poet who writes much can hope to escape writing some poems which are bad or, at least, boring – but those which he knows to be clever forgeries, expressing feelings or attitudes which were not really his, but which vanity, a wish to please an audience, or the wrong kind of conscience deluded him into fancying were genuine … Of all the poets of his generation and mine, I would say without hesitation that Louis MacNeice had the least cause for self-reproach.

Auden’s own self-reproach on this score, well-documented in relation to some of his earlier poems, here prods him into the kind of eloquence that, even though it is only occasionally present in his late prose, reminds us why we might still want to go on reading him.