The Biography of a Great Poetry
The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927–1939 & Volume II: 1940–1973
(Princeton University Press, 2022)
The first question anyone interested in W. H. Auden’s poetry is likely to ask about the sumptuous new edition of the poems is, “What will I learn from these 2,000 pages that I don’t know from the Collected Poems, also edited by Edward Mendelson, that came out in 1976, has been in print ever since, and is 670 pages long?” Or, if you believe none of the poems Auden wrote after emigrating to the US bears comparison with those written in the late 1920s and throughout the thirties, “What will I find out about Auden’s best poetry that I don’t know from 1977’s The English Auden, also edited by Mendelson and still in print, where the poetry takes up a mere 300 pages?”
The answer to both is a lot, and the value added starts with the presentation. While the Collected Poems is retrospective, printing the poems Auden wanted as he wanted them by the time of his death, the Princeton Poems, exhilaratingly prospective, prints the poems as they first appeared in individual books, recreating Auden’s poetic development as it actually happened from 1928 to 1972, including many poems later eliminated, plus the poems from the posthumous Thank You, Fog. Also here are poems Auden published in magazines but chose not to reprint, as well as poems he didn’t publish anywhere, such as the first thirty-six lines of an unfinished 1940 sestina, “We get the Dialectic fairly well,” that sprang to life in The New York Review of Books last December.
Material changes are accounted for in textual notes that make up more than half the page count. Since the notes do not identify or explain names and other references, this may seem like a lot of unnecessary information unless you’re working on a PhD, but Auden treated his published books as notebooks and could make several different sets of revisions before deciding a poem was finished. This was certainly true up to his Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 and Collected Longer Poems, published in 1966 and 1968 respectively, and he might have made further changes to earlier poems and revised later poems if he’d had the chances he did in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Not only do the textual notes list Auden’s second, third, and fourth thoughts, they point out mistakes and euphemisms introduced by typists and publishers on each side of the Atlantic. So the notes are key to this edition of the poetry, which is both the climax of Princeton’s edition of Auden’s complete works and the foundation on which it was built.
And yet … you’d be hard pressed to find contemporary poems in English that exhibit an affinity with the poems gathered here, the kind of affinity that, without being anything like them, the early poems have with poems by Hardy and Frost, Yeats and Moore. Scads of poems in the 1930s and ’40s were influenced by Auden, some written by his friends, but the most recent readable and widely-available proof of his influence I know of is John Ashbery’s Some Trees, published in 1956, and a poem Philip Larkin added to his 1946 The North Ship when it was reprinted 20 years later, “Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair.” This apparent remoteness is partly a result of the inevitable historicizing of a recognized poet and partly due to changes inside and outside poetry during the last half century.
Some markers are obvious. One example: for Auden, “man” and “mankind” are nouns that include women as well as men, and he’s not concerned about the long range effects of a shared name that privileges one sex over another. Unless a poem is a love poem or character study, “he” is the generic pronoun for anyone alive: you take it in stride to get somewhere with the poems, and if you don’t, goodbye. But what really sets Auden’s poetry apart from poems now is his perpetual technical engagement with the poetry in English that came before him, starting with Beowulf—a body of work he expands in all directions, contributing elegies, clerihews, sonnet sequences, ballads, prose poems, villanelles, and englyns. For starters.
The sheer surprising novelty and quality of the alliterative, politically inflected, and electrifying early poems—“The Watershed,” “This Lunar Beauty,” “A Bride in the 30’s”—owe as much to the times and Auden’s life while England was homebase, as they do to the country itself. He lived in Weimar Berlin a year following graduation from Oxford in 1927, taught in prep schools back in England, wrote plays with Christopher Isherwood, traveled to Iceland with Louis MacNeice, provided texts for Benjamin Britten to set, wrote scripts and did odd jobs for a government-sponsored documentary film unit, visited the Spanish Republican front in 1937, and was in China with Isherwood when the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Once he traded national frontiers for state lines, though, Auden settled into what was rapidly becoming a norm for US poets, supporting himself by writing criticism, anthologizing, and traipsing around the country from college to college, teaching, lecturing, and giving readings. After 1945 he spent summers abroad.
It was on their return trip from China in 1938 that Auden and Isherwood saw the United States for the first time, liked what they saw, and decided to move there: Isherwood to Los Angeles, Auden to New York. They came back early in 1939, preceded by formidable reputations, and some Britons never forgave them for what they considered outright desertion during the worst threat to their native country since Napoleon. But the two men were professional writers, not soldiers or diplomats, and expecting them to put their lives on hold for the national emergency makes as much sense as believing that Neville Chamberlain wouldn’t have signed the Munich Agreement if he’d read The Orators or Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. Worth remembering, too, is that homosexuality was a criminal offense in England until 1967.
Taken together, the poems fall into three main groups, with the English Auden succeeded not so much by a US Auden but, in the four long poems written during and right after World War II, by a consciousness cutting loose from England and Europe and finding its bearings in the States and a renewed commitment to Christianity. “New Year Letter,” “For the Time Being,” “The Sea and the Mirror,” and “The Age of Anxiety” were the last long poems Auden wrote, but he hadn’t stopped writing shorter poems, often in thematic suites, and he continued to write them, along with opera libretti with his partner Chester Kallman and a steady stream of translations and critical prose, until he died in a Viennese hotel room in 1973.
While his poetry does relax after 1947’s Age of Anxiety, it never loses its brilliance or technical ability, and the later lyrics are as remarkable in their more circuitous ways as the earlier pointed work. Here are the endings of “First Things First,” “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno,” and “Partition”:
Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say
How much it believed of what I said the storm had said
But quietly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
…though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
Besides assembling some of the most vivid poems ever committed to English, their pertinence no more confined to poetry than to the century in which they were written, these two books are also a monument to the acumen, scholarship, and perseverance of Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and the editor of the complete works, who brings to his task here, as he did to the eight volumes of plays, libretti, and prose, a single minded devotion usually associated with editors of Victorian poets’ letters, Cecil Y. Lang for instance, and, further back, establishers of texts like Herbert J. C. Grierson, whose 1912 edition of John Donne’s poems is still the only one that counts. You’d say Auden lucked out if you didn’t believe his work deserves this kind of meticulous and exemplary care.