Michael Dirda reviews two new volumes of WH Auden’s collected works

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Years ago, I was doggedly answering questions on a standardized high school achievement test when I was asked to identify the poetic device used in the following stanza:

“‘Oh, where are you going?’ said the reader to the rider,

“This valley is deadly when blast furnaces burn,

There’s the dung heap whose smells will drive you crazy

That gap is the grave to which the great return.” ”

Alliteration was probably the answer you were looking for, but I’m not sure I knew that. I remember wondering what a “Midden” was. Still, I remembered the first line and its pleasant singsong of “Reader to Rider”. Only later did I learn that they were the opening words of a poem by WH Auden, who would become one of my favorite writers.

Princeton University Press has just published The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939 and The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973, edited by the poet’s tireless literary executor , Edward Mendelson. Together, the joined pair reprints every single collection issued during the poet’s lifetime, as well as uncollected or rejected works and fragments. Meticulously detailed endnotes provide the bibliographical history of each poem, tracing Auden’s obsessive tinkering and revising. The two volumes—priced at $60 each—run 2,000 pages, and are a steal and a dazzling scholarly triumph for Mendelson and Princeton. They also form the keystone of the monumental “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Prose”. which contains six previously published volumes summarizing all of the essays, lectures, plays and young adult literature of the British-American poet.

Admittedly, many readers will only be satisfied with the vintage paperback, Selected Poems of WH Auden, also edited by Mendelson. Still, it’s easy to become an Auden completeist. My own passion was ignited at Oberlin College after I met Robert Phelps, the literary journalist father of one of my roommates. Not only did Robert teach a course on Auden at the New School in Manhattan, but his Greenwich Village apartment contained copies of all of the poet’s books, as well as much related material.

Through Robert’s influence, I began to see the breadth of Auden’s genius. I remember opening The Dyer’s Hand collection of essays one Sunday morning over a breakfast at South Hall of hot, freshly made donuts. Much later, after Robert’s death, I inherited his copy of The Enchafèd Flood (1950) – Auden’s fascinating study of the romantic iconography of the sea – as well as his jacketless scrawled first editions of the poems. Almost all have pictures of the author glued to the endpapers, and in Another Time (1940) – probably Auden’s largest single collection – Robert left a postcard of Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, which the famous Musée des Beaux -Arts”: “They were never wrong about suffering/ The old masters.”

While the meaning of Auden’s poetry is sometimes elusive, almost all contain lines and passages that take your breath away. In his earliest endeavors, the poet almost seems to be channeling TS Eliot:

“It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are fetched from the garden,

Summer talk stopped on this wild shore

Before the storms, after the guests and birds:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,

healing less certain; and the loud madman

Now sinking into a more dreadful calm.”

At other times Auden’s sentences approach the surreal: “In the infected sinus, and the eyes of stoats” or “A crack in the teacup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead”. A master of light verse, he can also be very witty: “Goddess of opinionated subjects, normality!” Some poems such as “Epitaph on a Tyrant” unfortunately remain all too topical: “When he laughed, respectable senators burst out laughing, / And as he cried, the little children died in the streets.”

In his youth Auden wanted to be a mining engineer and he’s always been great at depicting industrial landscapes – he’s drawn to tram lines and slag heaps – but he can also survey rough terrain with the eyes of a secret agent: “Controlling the passes was, he saw, the key” or “With the binoculars he watched the movement of the grass for an ambush, / The pistol cocked, the code word memorized…”

“The Complete Works of Auden” shows writings beyond poetry

Of Auden’s book-length works, my favorite is The Sea and the Mirror (1944), rebuilt Poems in a variety of styles, spoken by characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Barroom ballad “Master and Boatswain” begins like this:

‘Dirty Dick and Sloppy Joe

We drank our schnapps pure,

Some went upstairs with Margery,

And some, unfortunately, with Kate…”

After this tumultuous boast, the poem unexpectedly closes with a marriage of melancholy and worldliness:

“The nightingales are sobbing in

Our mothers’ orchards,

And hearts we broke long ago

Have long broken others.”

In the latter, American half of his life, Auden was “ashamed” – his word – of several of his most revered works of the 1930s, calling them “dishonest” rhetorical garbage. Victims of this aesthetic puritanism included “Spain 1937” (“Today the Battle”), “Sir, Enemy of None, Forgive All” and “Sept. 1, 1939. The opening of this last one always feels timely, but rarely more so than now:

“I’m sitting in one of the dives

How the cunning hopes fade away

From a low, dishonest decade.

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth…”

Mendelson notes that the poem was actually begun on September 2 in New Jersey – at the home of Auden’s partner Chester Kallman’s dentist father – and finished on September 7. So in a way it’s dishonest. According to another reveal note, Auden actually planned to drop his most tender lyric, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” from his collected shorter poems, until Kallman insisted he keep it. Great artists aren’t always the best judges of their work.

In times of crisis, poetry can help channel our fears and turn “noise into music”.

In the 1950s and 1960s Auden hoped to be seen as ‘a little Atlantean Goethe’, even as his poetry became looser and more talkative, his diction occasionally reserved. A poem from About the House (1965) ends with the line “the true olamic silence”. (Olamic is referring to a vast amount of time, eons.) Appropriately, in The Cave of Making – also from About the House – Auden affectionately describes his dictionaries as “the very best that money can buy” and emphasizes that admit the windows of his studies in Austria, “a light with which one could repair a clock”. Here, he concludes, “silence is transformed into objects”. Needless to say, these objects, wherever they were handcrafted, are some of the finest and most entertaining poetry of the 20th century?

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939

Edited by Edward Mendelson

Princeton University Press. 848 pages. $60

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973

Edited by Edward Mendelson

Princeton University Press. 1120 pages. $60

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/06/29/michael-dirda-auden/ Michael Dirda reviews two new volumes of WH Auden’s collected works

Chris Estrada

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