Our Auden

Auden, W.H. The Complete Poems: Vol. I and Vol. II.
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press, 2022


In “Eulogy,” a poem written in 1965 for Neville Coghill upon his retirement, W. H. Auden wished his old tutor and friend time to “rethumb a pet author.” The phrase has the cozy light humor, often denigrated, of Auden’s later period, but I like its efficiency in conveying his love of literature with his characteristic reluctance to overvalue it. The phrase also calls up an ever-more-profound wish of my own: to experience the revelations of re-reading. One gift to us from the greatest authors—not just “pet” authors—is, of course, that when we re-read them, we find what we hadn’t before: images, themes, or forms that were always there but we weren’t ready to see, or which we had seen as minor and now recognize as major.  We ought more often to acknowledge that this altered, improved seeing happens, too, when we read the work of a great critic who has specialized in a writer (say, W.H. Auden): the critic himself (say, Edward Mendelson) is evolving as his knowledge of the writer—and of life itself—deepens over time; he begins to highlight different features of the writer’s work, which then influence us to re-read differently than we might have on our own. When a critic is also a great textual editor (say, Edward Mendelson), we have all the tools at our disposal to revisit how the writer too—Auden—revisited his oeuvre, either by actually revising post-publication, or striking early versions from the record of “authorized” work, or commenting on how they might have been written better or at least differently.

All these gifts have been offered generously in Mendelson’s edition of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Vol.1 and Vol. 2, adding up to about two thousand pages, and published just before the fiftieth anniversary of Auden’s death in 1973.  These two volumes are in fact numbers nine and ten of a critical masterpiece that also gathers all of Auden’s libretti, plays, and prose. Apart from Mendelson’s criticism on other authors, ranging from Homer to Virginia Woolf to contemporary figures, we have his single volumes over the years that assembled different versions of Auden’s poetry—The English Auden (1978), for instance—and his critical biographies Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999), which were in time combined as one updated volume (2017). If Edward Mendelson had not existed, somebody else would have served ably enough as Auden’s literary executor. I don’t see, though, how anybody else could have interpreted that calling for over half a century with such talent, one that combined a watchmaker’s precision with the imaginative leaps, and instinctive restraint, that we expect from the best creative artists. With the publication of Auden’s Complete Poems, no one interested in twentieth-century poetry can fail to see that we owe Edward Mendelson an immeasurable debt.

He wrote recently, in a review of several editions of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, “Annotation is a form of dialogue between an editor and an imagined reader. Like any dialogue, it requires tact.  An editor must avoid causing the insult of saying something obvious or the tedium of excessive detail.” Check: that’s what Mendelson has achieved with Auden. Mendelson went on, “Annotation is also a dialogue between the editor and the author. Tact requires an editor to listen to what an author meant when using words that mean something different today… Textual editing is another form of dialogue between an editor and an author, and the dead author deserves the same consideration and care that she would have wanted while living.” Check.

Mendelson shares with Auden not only an instinctive tact but other appealing characteristics, notably a tendency toward understatement. Yes, Auden loved making bold unprovable assertions, such as “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,” but one reason that “Musée des Beaux Arts” is one of the Anglophone world’s most beloved poems is that he employs this audacious gambit only to contrast it with subsequent understatement and deflation, which is itself employed to commend Brueghel’s own painterly deflation of the impact of the fall of Icarus: the “expensive delicate ship” near the tiny drowning boy “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” In the biographical essay in Volume I that serves as critical introduction to both volumes here, Mendelson writes this about Auden: “He still summered with Kallman in Austria, and he died in Vienna on his return journey to Oxford, on 29 September 1973.” See how, mid-sentence, we have a Breughel-like burial of the lede: the fact of the poet’s death. Perhaps the sentence is written like this because Auden is a living presence in Mendelson’s mind. He seems to be suggesting as well that this important poet had had, just like the important poet/everyman honored in Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” the humble experience of “his last afternoon as himself.”

Mendelson’s penchant for understatement goes hand-in-hand with modest self-presentation. All poems as they were first published in book form are gathered here, as well as extensive outliers in appendices (such as “Poems Abandoned Before Publication”) and textual notes which explicate minor variants and sometimes offer later alternatives, which can mean better or worse alternatives, in their entirety; but Mendelson never trumpets his labors. As one example of what’s not trumpeted, he reprints Auden’s own fifty-four pages of brilliant notes—sometimes in prose, sometimes in yet more verse—to his long poem “New Year Letter,” as they were published in the first iteration of The Double Man in 1940, although unwisely deleted by Auden for later editions; and then Mendelson writes twenty-six pages of notes upon Auden’s notes. The poet had secreted in his own (erased) notes what was to become my favorite definition of poetry: “The Devil, indeed, is the father of Poetry, for poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings. The poetic mood is never indicative.” The clear expression of mixed feelings—that’s at least as good as Marianne Moore’s imaginary gardens with real toads in them. (Interestingly, she too later attempted to delete from the record a genius definition of poetry; her last version of that wonderfully rambling poem, “Poetry,” in which her definition appeared, kept only three lines from the original. Why can’t poets who know so much know their own strengths?)

But let’s return to that introduction in Volume I, where we see Mendelson rethinking Auden. I’m not an objective reader, whatever that might be: Auden has been my heart’s core, my go-to number-one modern poet since I first discovered him as a high school senior, the year before he died.  He swirls in my head virtually every day, although lines, memorized and mis-memorized, detach themselves sometimes from their surroundings and may even graft themselves briefly to the wrong poems. I don’t really mind this; after all, Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats that “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” It matters to me, though, what Mendelson thinks or rethinks, because his modifications are closer to the unmodified source than those of any other person living. I sit up straighter when I realize, for instance, that in Mendelson’s fourteen-page biographical introduction, there are no fewer than six mentions of a short review Auden wrote in 1942 of a book, Poems and New Poems, by Louise Bogan.

Auden’s The Complete Works: Prose is so vast that it takes up six thick volumes, as Mendelson edited them, in the Princeton compendium. The Bogan review is a drop in the bucket of one of those volumes, and didn’t make Auden’s own cut for The Dyer’s Hand (1962), the readers’ unofficial favorite among his prose volumes. (Joseph Brodsky used to tell his students that The Dyer’s Hand should be thought of as every poet’s Bible.) If you’re Mendelson, though, you’ve got all of Auden in your head, so that any little shard may surface and be held up for thorough examination. Mendelson had in fact mentioned the Bogan review more than twenty years ago in Later Auden, and again in an introduction to one of his editions of Auden’s prose; but in lingering with it here, he is expanding upon a point: “….in 1942, Auden wrote a summary account of his own career, disguising it as an account of the poet and friend whose book he was ostensibly reviewing, Louise Bogan.”

Of course, Auden is not alone among book reviewers in taking an assignment as excuse to work out for himself something tangential to the book at hand. In this case, he had written: “…Miss Bogan employs her gift in the way in which, as a rule, it should at first be employed, to understand her weakness to which it is dialectically related…” And Mendelson goes on to pursue the principle of dialectic, in fact various dialectics, in Auden. Keeping that helpful prompt in mind, and returning to the introduction after having just read the two thousand pages that followed it, I see more than ever how much of Auden’s thinking, in both poetry and prose, could be cast in terms of interlocking but binary tensions. The list of binaries is longer than I’ll provide here, but for starters we have the tug between: poetry and prose, weakness and strength, life and work, life and death, active and contemplative, Protestant and Catholic, sacred and secular, good and evil; also between well-meaning self and demonic self, dream heroic self and dull workaday self, self that knows Eros and self that knows agape, the self that was authentic then and the different self that is authentic now, the self that invented once and the self that must not merely repeat that invention, the self that loves you and the self that loves me. In the Bogan essay, as quoted by Mendelson, Auden plucks two lines from Yeats’s “The Choice” (“The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life or of the work”), and much as he reveres Yeats, objects; he finds that such an either-or can only come from “the lying Tempter.” I found myself noting that, because Auden’s “New Year Letter” casts paradox and division within the self as temptations from the Devil, the Bogan essay is an apt and timely prose reinforcement of what much of the dialectical poetry, especially in the early 1940s, considers. It’s no accident that the dialectics of “New Year Letter” proceed in rhyming couplets; among the most memorable is “If love is to be annihilated/There’s only hate left to be hated.”

Not only Yeats but T.S. Eliot, one of Auden’s earliest influences and his editor and publisher for much of his career, comes in for correction in the Bogan review. Auden doesn’t cite but is clearly thinking of Eliot’s by-then-famous essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot proposes that the progress of an artist is a “continual extinction of personality,” amending that only to say “an escape from personality” is double-edged: “only those who have personality and emotions know what it is to want to escape from these things.” In 1942, Auden answers, “But the escape from the Self, without the surrender of the Self is, of course, an illusion, for it is the Self that chooses the particular avenue of escape…And still the personal note appears, only now in the form of its denial, in a certain phoney dramatisation, a ‘camp’ of impersonality.”

And later Mendelson draws us back to the Bogan essay yet again, where he says Auden “wrote of the temptation to make a performance of the kind of impersonality that adopts a convenient myth for the sake of its literary effect.” Indeed, some critics have found Auden susceptible to just such a performance of impersonality. Mendelson’s essay gives Auden room to expatiate, finally to the point where the poet has recognized “that beliefs are religious or nothing, and a religion cannot be got out of books or by a sudden vision, but can only be realized by living it.” This is hardly an impersonal take; it is the take of someone who looks hard in the mirror. You don’t have to be a believer in God to believe the pure authenticity that Auden brings to such statements throughout his career.

This was a man whose work, for all its stylistic variety, is unified within a primary life project, a continual aspiration to the condition of love. It’s fitting that many of the lines his readers remember as essential speak to that quest. In the Poet’s Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the lines engraved on Auden’s stone come from “The More Loving One” (1957): “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” I think of my own favorite among his midsized poems, “The Shield of Achilles” (1952), where the tragedy is that a child could grow up without knowing that “one could weep because another wept.” The necessarily failed practice of love, phrased famously in “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1937) as the command to “love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart” or the speaker’s wish in “Lullaby” (1937) that his lover should lie “Human on my faithless arm” is inseparable for Auden from a refusal to place artistic creation above Creation.

As he confessed in a letter about “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944), which is both a poetic commentary on The Tempest and one of his most original works: “I am attempting something which in a way is absurd, to show in a work of art, the limitations of art.” That is: my art is limited; all art is limited; I will use my talent to celebrate, in the words of my arty version of Caliban, “the perfection of the Work that is not ours.” Engraved on a stone in his first Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey, are Auden’s final words in the Yeats elegy: “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” These lines rely, as a substantial number of his best lines do, not only on paradox but on the heartfelt promptings and locutions of prayer. The notes to The Double Man that Auden later removed complicate things nicely: in them Auden defined “a poet’s prayer” as “Lord, teach me to write so well, that I shall no longer want to.” Mendelson’s introduction helpfully supplies a further thought of Auden’s on selfhood, from nearly a decade later: “‘The problem of every man and writer,’ he wrote in 1949, ‘is at all times essentially the same, namely, first to learn to be himself and then to learn to be not himself’.” Mendelson takes from this, too, that to be not-oneself is also to be concerned more deeply with what we hold in common with others.


Did Auden learn not to be himself? Writing a foreword in his fifties to an edition of poems that included the ambitious but arcane The Orators, itself produced in his twenties, he levels a characteristically fierce self-reproach: “My name on the title-page seems a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi.” A strain of self-correction runs through Auden’s history, which partly derives from, but isn’t limited to, an epiphanic vision one evening in 1933 as he sat with a small group of people on a lawn. (It was the immediate occasion of an untitled poem, later called “A Summer Night,” as well as a much later essay in which he wrote, “For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”) That event contributed, by 1940, to the private but deliberate practice of the Christian faith he had abandoned in his teens. Again and again he arrives at a pivot in thought, sometimes joyful, sometimes scathing to the ego. Famous in the poetry world by his early twenties, he also grows to experience, more keenly than most poets, a sense that truthfulness to the self, not fame, is the great hurdle. As he says in his marvelous short essay “Writing” (1962): “The most painful of all experiences to a poet is to find that a poem of his he knows to be a forgery has pleased the public and gotten into the anthologies. For all he knows or cares, the poem may be quite good, but that is not the point: he should not have written it.” Here we have another paradox: we strive to become not-ourselves, yet we can’t get there without being authentically ourselves. Given the conundrums of identity Auden puzzled over, his work seems especially resistant to a reader’s labeling.

Readers usually classify his work as “early Auden” and “later Auden” largely because of the convenience of the year 1939 as a line of demarcation. World War II breaks out, Auden emigrates from England to America (where, when called up for the draft, he will be rejected), and falls in love with Chester Kallman, who will be in his life in one way or another until the end. 1939 is also the year he wrote some of his greatest poems, regardless of his later dismissal, in part or in full, of a few; the highlights include, among others, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Refugee Blues,” and the six-line “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” which rarely gets enough credit, in my view. (“And when he cried the little children died in the streets” is the final line, a brilliant twist on the propaganda cliche.) What is jaw-dropping to remember is that in February of 1939 he is turning only thirty-two; he has already produced The Orators, the moving and accomplished On This Island, the marvels of Journey to a War and Letters from Iceland, co-written with Louis MacNeice but with that latter book including Auden’s solo tour de force, the hilarious and wise “Letter to Lord Byron.”

To say “later Auden” is for many readers to indicate the decline. When Randall Jarrell published his grudgingly admiring but rather mean-spirited essay, “Changes in Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry,” in 1941, in which he comprehensively detailed the tics and habits, the “system of rhetorical devices so elaborate that Auden might list it under Assets, just as a firm lists its patents,” our washed-up poet had just turned thirty-four. He was starting to write what in 1944 would be published as For the Time Being, containing the title poem and “The Sea and the Mirror,” two long multi-part works that in their range of character and voice, their formal and tonal variety, and their unpretentious but great seriousness, rank among the most beautiful of the twentieth century. Jarrell had been quite correct about the devices he spotted in Auden, such as his penchant for “Effect by Incongruity,” as in the phrase “the shining neutral summer”; or the startling simile, as in “kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer”; and he had been right to list a lot of examples. It’s just that in the real life of poems, phrases don’t exist as a list of examples; they exist in the context of poems.

I wish it were more standard to refer to “middle Auden,” which happens at a comparatively young age for him, at least from our current perspective, when anybody under forty or even fifty may be called young. In “Under Which Lyre” of 1947, Auden is already a begowned, much-laureled Phi Beta Kappa speaker at Harvard, but he has only just arrived at what he calls “the fattening forties”—amusingly rhymed with “as stout as Cortez.” Perhaps it would be useful to call middle Auden the one we read from 1939 to, say, 1955, when he publishes the volume The Shield of Achilles. (Although Jarrell is correct, too, that Auden relies heavily on anachronistic phrases or situations, surely the title poem, in its fusing of images from The Iliad, the Christian Scriptures, and the Holocaust, proves that a rigorous use of anachronism may open a window for us onto the universal.) Conceding that after the mid-1950’s, less-good work takes up an increasing percentage of Auden’s pages, there are too many essential poems in that period for us to waste time lamenting.

Mendelson referred convincingly in Later Auden to the “formulaic triviality that afflicted Auden’s work” at the end. “Formulaic” is a nicely ambiguous word, which might suggest either the depleted poet’s reliance on dutiful assignments from himself or others to get moving, and/or a reliance on tried-and-true poetic forms that may result in predictable content. Both thematic and formal assignments are in play from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, but the writing that emerges is not always trivial. Having a commission, such as a reworking in 1965 of a previous translator’s versions of Berthold Brecht’s “Eight Songs from Mother Courage”—a task which Auden found “a chore”—nonetheless draws from him fresh lines that call up the pithiness of the early days. An example of a chorus:

The snow has gone. Good souls, arise!
The dead lie still. They can’t obey,
When those who still have legs and eyes
Lace up their boots and march away (II.603).

In translating others, Auden sometimes brings not merely the author’s style or his own to bear but a lifetime of metabolizing everything else he has read. The final two lines of Auden’s 1955 translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s “The Romantic” runs: “Where does any miracle start? / Cold eye, look in your heart!” I don’t know what the original Polish says, but Auden manages to remind us of not one but two poems by Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (“I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”) and “Under Ben Bulben” (“Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”). As for any triviality we see in later Auden, it tends not to be written in constricting forms but in loose stanzas of self-indulgent chattiness. Hard-wired to give Auden the benefit of the doubt, I like a lot of the chatty stuff too, such as the opening to “Thanksgiving for a Habitat” (1967): “Nobody I know would like to be buried / with a silver cocktail shaker, / a transistor radio and a strangled / daily help…”

One of Auden’s habits that Jarrell’s 1941 essay doesn’t address is the increasing use of negative statements, especially as openers to poems, as in the sentence above beginning “Nobody I know…” It hadn’t yet become an addiction by 1941, and was at times effective; but rethumbing our poet from the 1950’s onward, I did begin to feel crowded by negativity. Not thematic but grammatical/rhetorical negativity; not despair but… I’ve got to stop saying “not.” That’s what happens when you read too much of it: you can’t untangle all the nots, as it were. Well aware, though, that the lines of poems only and always exist in context, I’ll try to demonstrate one of Auden’s most affecting uses of the negative, in “The Shield of Achilles.”

In three short stanzas from Thetis’s perspective, we have the repeated declaration that “she looks over his shoulder”—the shoulder of the god Hephaestos, busy forging the shield—for something beautiful and (somehow) safe for the goddess’s doomed son Achilles. Then follows the refrain “But there on the shining metal,” and later, “But there on the shining shield.” The trimeter stanzas about Thetis are answered by long-lined, more discursive stanzas: an alternation that provides a sort of formal and rhetorical dialectic between hope and hope abandoned. These longer lines detail what Hephaestos, in Auden’s rewrite of Homer’s description, is actually depicting on the shield: scenes of the most grievous, indifferently inflicted wrongs, set in the most blighted landscape.  Yet even here, much of what is described comes to us without a “not” or a “nothing” or a “no” until the last possible moment. I’ll italicize what I’m calling positive statements—which fill nearly the whole of this stanza:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes liked to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

“What their foes liked to do was done”: grammatically, that’s a positive assertion, although its meaning is horrific. “They could not hope for help and no help came” is the only negative statement in this stanza, and it’s devastating, for sure. Yet by relying on primarily positive statements, Auden is only intensifying our sense that evil operates inexorably; it is positively, immovably there. By the time we come to the poem’s final lines, “the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles/ Who would not live long,” the deferral of the negative is what gives us goosebumps of dread. What more moving example of Auden’s dialectical mind at work, his “clear expression of mixed feelings”?

It’s unfair to hit lesser poems over the head with the club of a great poem, but once I saw the not-principle as a stylistic default fault, I found myself underlining it often in the latter half of Volume II, and with a somewhat defeated spirit. The “Postscript” to Auden’s mostly excellent elegy for MacNeice, “The Cave of Making” (1964) begins (I’ll italicize the negatives): “Timeless fictional worlds / Of self-evident meaning / Would not delight , // Were not our own/ A Temporal one where nothing / Is what it seems.” Such twisted lines lose immediacy. Piled-on negatives serve increasingly, too, as the primary organizing principle in poems, as in “Hands” (circa 1959): It begins “We don’t need a face in the picture to know…” and soon proceeds to “nor a tradesman’s calendar to recognize…” and from there to “And abroad where nothing is called by its right name…” and “without them, what should we talk of anyway?” to “No wonder poor hunted fugitives…” and finally, even, to “‘No!’ heart swears, ‘I never wrote such rubbish!’”

Auden wrote of the wish to become not-oneself. As every mature adult knows, we tend to become more and more automatically, helplessly ourselves, and our predictability begins to irritate both ourselves and others. What I want to focus on next is more cheering: Auden as an example of the ways great writers become more fruitfully themselves, although (and because?) they don’t know where they’re headed. His early and middle career are a delight to revisit not only because they contain free-standing gems, more perfect than the rest of us humans are ever likely to make, but also because some of them are practice runs for making other gems that shine just as brightly or more so.


One through-line in Auden’s work is a favorite meter: tetrameter. As Mendelson’s notes let us know, Auden wrote in a sleeve-note for a recording he made of his Yeats elegy that “Part III [is] in rhymed four-foot trochaic quatrains.” He means stanzas such as:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice…

Note that a word like “follow” can only be scanned as beginning with a strong stress; but the next three lines’ first syllables, “to” and “with” and “still,” might in another poem not be stressed at all; they are promoted to strong beats from their context. Auden’s choice to call this meter trochaic points to a division in thinkers about prosody; some readers would call these lines not trochaic but “headless iambic,” in which we have the acceptable variation of a missing weak syllable in the opening iambic foot. These readers argue that the strong stress of the lines’ final syllable reinforces the line as primarily iambic. What matters to us here, though, is what Auden thought; he seems most interested in the effect of the big bang of a first syllable in a line, balanced by a stressed rhyme at its end: bang then bang, not bang then whimper.

And although countless poets used trochaic tetrameter before Auden, his usually strict use of it—that is, with very few variations—is especially reminiscent of Shakespeare’s. “The Sea and the Mirror” and a number of essays on Shakespeare, not to mention a whole series of lectures about him, attest to his importance to Auden, relatively little of Auden’s own verse is written in Shakespeare’s most common meter, pentameter. That Shakespeare’s use of tetrameter, often trochaic—heard in the lyric “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” as well as in songs or in special set speeches in the plays—is what stuck so effectively with Auden makes me ask what advantages it provided. The commanding rhymed tetrameter of the prayer-like ending of the Yeats elegy finds an antecedent not only in Yeats himself but in a touchstone for Auden, The Tempest, where in the Epilogue, Prospero entreats the god-like audience: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free.” Earlier in that speech, Prospero says:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…

Shakespeare often uses the authoritative sound of this meter for what we might call summarizing statements, and so does Auden, as in this chorus in the early play he wrote with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935):

Now through night’s caressing grip
Earth and all her oceans slip…

It continues in a poem of 1936 whose first line serves as a title:

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last…

The meter serves an imperative in the more distantly rhymed 1937 “Lullaby”:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm…

The same meter is used to achieve a number of goals, including a headlong speed, in “The Fall of Rome” of 1947:

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

It’s interesting, too, to compare Auden’s treatment of similar phrases in two poems that have somewhat varying meter. The visionary poem of 1933 later called “A Summer Night” employs both trochaic tetrameter and trimeter in an elaborate pattern. “Equal with colleagues in a ring/ I sit on each calm evening,” Auden writes, and in a later stanza adds more tetrameter lines,

Now North and South and East and West
Those I love lie down to rest…

The much looser tetrameters and pentameters of “Funeral Blues” (1937) are written for a different effect:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest…

Here the deliberate mild stumbling of Auden’s meter reinforces the fact we’re hearing an imitation, or a gesture toward an imitation, of a blues song, whose imagined melody would accommodate unequal syllable counts. And the stumbles indicate too that we’re not meant to be hearing from the authoritative poet-narrator himself but from a character, an ordinary person, who is finding (beautiful) difficulty in putting his grief into words.

The trochaic tetrameter is just one of myriad skills Auden masters to help himself continually refine the expression of deep feelings. In an example from 1936, collected as poem XII of On This Island, he writes:

Let him not cease to praise
Then his spacious ways
Yes, and the success
Let him bless, let him bless.

The experiment with loose rhythms here seems a dress rehearsal for two poems soon to come, the trimeter “As I Walked Out One Evening,” also of 1937 (where “all the clocks of the city” say “Life remains a blessing /Although you cannot bless”), and that infinitely re-quotable tetrameter section of the 1939 Yeats elegy (“In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise”). Vocabulary and rhetoric in fine early poems also anticipate later, greater ones; “The Shield of Achilles,” for instance, has precursors. In Journey to a War, section XVI, we have this in 1933:

Here war is simple like a monument;
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan…

Later in the poem we read that “we can watch a thousand faces / Made active by one lie.” Compare this phrasing to the Achilles poem, written nearly twenty years later, but in similar, pentametric rhythms:

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place…

And note the subsequent lines about larger-numbered masses: “A million eyes, a million boots in line, / Without expression, waiting for a sign.”

One could spend years tracing such unwitting rehearsals and deliberate rethinkings. In Another Time’s “XXIX. Song,” whose manuscript Mendelson dates from September 1939, Auden writes “Silence invades the breathing wood” although he has already written, in January of that year, the famous line of the Yeats elegy, “Silence invaded the suburbs.” Maybe he didn’t remember. I prefer the line from the Yeats elegy, not because of the difference between a wood and a suburb, but because the past tense, “invaded,” makes you wonder what comes after the silence. In “X. Brussels in Winter,” I prefer the arresting 1966 revision “And fifty franks will earn a stranger right / To take the shuddering city in his arms” to the milder 1938 original, “And fifty franks will earn the stranger right / To warm the heartless city in his arms.” In “Music is International” (1947), Auden writes that “we may some day need very much to / Remember when we were happy,” which is fine, but it’s not as delightful as the ending to “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno” (1958) : “…though one cannot always /  Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was.” Auden was often wrong-headed to ditch his earlier poems, but it’s a pleasure to see him, late in his career, writing better versions of similar material, either in revised poems or wholly new ones. He also recasts ideas from prose into poetry, or the reverse. Among many examples, in “Vespers” (1954) from Horae Canonicae, he writes, “In my Eden our only source of political news is gossip”; in a section of his essay “Reading,” he lists the attributes of his “personal Eden”, and one of them is “Sources of Public Information: Gossip.”

And there’s yet another pleasure in store for the reader who plans to peruse these two volumes—as I do—for the rest of life itself, studying just a few pages in detail at a time.  You can never overestimate Auden’s technical ingenuity. Mendelson alerts us to some of the most winning bits: for instance, a note says that Auden told Malcolm Cowley that the eleven-syllable line used in both “Miranda” (in “The Sea and the Mirror”) and “Lullaby” (in “For the Time Being”) “comes from Ireland—there has to be a caesura after the fifth syllable.” In another note, we learn that Auden proposes (insanely?) to Theodore Spencer, whose writing course at Harvard he will be visiting, “What about making your class write a drapa?” If you don’t know, and I didn’t, this is a Medieval Icelandic form, a death-lament or dirge, with a very long list of undergraduate-unfriendly requirements like this: “the odd lines contain an internal assonance, the second of which falls on the penultimate syllable.”

Benefiting though we always do from Mendelson’s help, it’s also entertaining to discover formal cleverness on our own. I’d remembered that “Streams” (1953), from Bucolics, was written wholly in the fiendishly difficult apocopated rhyme (where the penultimate syllable of one line rhymes with the last syllable of its neighbor line, thus blurring the edges and creating a flow appropriate to a stream), but I’d never before noted it in “The Managers” (1947): bad/ladder, success/leisure, more/horses. I grew to appreciate this lesser-known poem, which runs on as naturally as conversation, as a result. Even a poem marked as “Abandoned” in an appendix to the second volume is more adroit than the best published work of most poets. Beginning with the line “We get the Dialectic fairly well,” Auden invents a variation on the sestina form, which repeats certain end words identically, in a certain order. Rather than employ the usual six of these repeated (but not rhyming) end words per stanza, he settles on three (“time,” “fate,” and “well”) and then makes the other three end words into rhymes on those repeaters. Even better, Auden never re-uses any of his rhyme-words (for instance, for the constantly repeated “well” he gives us repel, pell-mell, cell, hell, bell, tell). Thus he’s worked out a “dialectic” form a bit like a compass: one point (identical words) is fixed, the other (their rhymes) moves. He may have abandoned the poem—although it makes perfect sense, sounds natural, and addresses one of his favorite themes—because he never wrote a sestina’s required sendoff, a three-line envoi, in which all six previous end-words are woven in. But surely his dexterity was such that he earned the right to forgo the prescribed ending.

His playfulness with the sonnet—where his use of pentameter is most likely to be found—is similar to his work on this sestina, in that he wishes to honor the form while finding out what happens when nonce rhyme schemes, or stanza shapes, influence the argument. In The Double Man’s sequence of poems called “The Quest,” a sonnet I’ll pluck from the middle called “Vocation” proceeds as three tercets rhyming aba and then a five-line stanza of alternating rhyme. That final stanza is conventional in that it introduces a volta—“Though mirrors might be hateful for a while,”—and yet it occurs a line later than the Petrarchan sonnet conventionally turns. The next sonnet, “The Useful,” begins and ends with a five-line stanza of alternating rhyme, but has at its center a quatrain that seems to end rhymelessly (“wish”), until we see that sound taken up in the final word of the poem (“gibberish”), whose meaning reinforces Auden’s theme in the poem: a critique of the “over-logical.” The next sonnet, “The Way,” is written in seven rhyming couplets; the next, “The Lucky,” in two six-line stanzas followed by a Shakespearean rhyming couplet. Yes, the young poet is showing off, but he makes me wish that other poets would do more of it.

And finally—can any review of Auden’s oeuvre dare use the word “finally”?—I don’t think anyone has ever written better prose poems in English. That’s partly because Auden is, as the six prose volumes show, a superb writer of essays. It’s also partly because his prose poems sometimes exist—like contrasting, variant verse forms—in the midst of lineated poetry, as in the long prose poem “Caliban to the Audience,” which closes out, and both implicitly critiques and validates, the anthology of verse forms in “The Sea and the Mirror.” And yet some prose poems stand alone, as in the ravishing and profound “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (1959), where the illusion operates that this work is, as its subtitle calls it, “an unwritten poem.” It is written in prose because of its premise: in thinking “I love You,” the poet says that “I should like to write a poem which would express exactly what I mean when I think these words.” What he goes on to say in the eleven pages of not-the-poem is so rich, and indeed, so poetic, that I will have to quote one aperçu to stand for them all: “It is as much of the essence of erotic love that it should desire to disclose itself to one other as it is of the essence of charity that it should desire to conceal itself from all.”

And here we are, back where we began: with the dialectic between Eros and loving one’s neighbor, with the elevation of selfless love as an ideal, with the paradox in which a poet who wishes to know himself, and does, also wishes to be something a bit less confining. Any complaint, however good-natured, about this poet’s lesser lines should be made while we keep in mind his life project of love. It is behind all of his greatest lines as well as his best whole works, of which there are so astonishingly many. And we should keep in mind, too, the labor of love of Edward Mendelson, who has made it possible to go on reading and reading, with greater understanding, our Auden.

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter is the author of nine books of poems published by Knopf, including Zoom Rooms (2022), The Surveyors (2017), and A Phone Call to the Future: Selected Poems (2008).Her book Nothing by Design was recipient of the 2015 Poets' Prize. She is a co-editor of three editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and is editor of the Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt. Salter is Professor Emerita in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Mary Jo Salter

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Author: Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter is the author of nine books of poems published by Knopf, including Zoom Rooms (2022), The Surveyors (2017), and A Phone Call to the Future: Selected Poems (2008).Her book Nothing by Design was recipient of the 2015 Poets' Prize. She is a co-editor of three editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and is editor of the Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt. Salter is Professor Emerita in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.