Reading WH Auden’s Prose

“Throughout life our existence is profoundly influenced by names, names of persons we meet and love, names of characters, whether in history or fiction, who embody for us what we mean by goodness, justice, courage, names of artists and scientists who have helped us form our conception of life and the world. Indeed one might say, ‘Give me a list of the names in your life and I will tell you who you are.’ ”

It so happens that, when I was a schoolboy, the first poets that made up the role-call of my adolescence were Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. It now seems odd that I was attracted to such a heterogeneous collection of poets, but their work surely helped shape my  early conception of life.

Youthful literary passions don’t always bear revisiting. It seems unlikely that I will return to Plath, Dickinson or Cummings though by objective standards they are good poets. They make up a litany of writers I once enjoyed that I haven’t found to sustain rereading.

Eliot and Auden, Tom and Wystan as I somewhat absurdly think of them having read many memoirs and accounts of their contemporaries, are, if not quite constants, writers I dip into annually to refresh my memory of a particular line or poem. Both poets peaked in one of those infrequent intervals when the British decided to almost cherish their intellectuals. They were recognised, frequently on the radio and television, difficult to imagine in these times when our culture is infantilised and debased in precisely the way Auden foretold; last bulwarks as both poets were against a seemingly endless surge of neatly packaged, crude content to be voraciously consumed and forgotten.

Reading Auden’s prose for the first time is to be startled by its originality and by the sharpness of his insights. Michael Wood reviewed a volume of the prose, part of a complete edition of Auden’s works by Princeton University Press, consequently I’m reading volume V and would be content to read little else for quite some time.

His prose inevitably returns you to his poetry. A quite brilliant essay, The Fall of Rome, is a companion piece for his poem of the same name. For any writer of Auden’s acuity, all the writing forms a single body of work. There was a time when all my reading was of poetry, to engage with a gifted poet’s work after a thirty year absence is to discover a lush exquisiteness that only experience and the transformative nature of time can bring about. It also reminds me with some urgency to make much more time for poetry, whether revisiting barely recalled chestnuts or exploring newer work.

9 thoughts on “Reading WH Auden’s Prose

  1. Similar collection of youthful enthusiasm as me, although I still do enjoy reading Sylvia Plath and Dickinson. But I return again and again to Tom and Wystan, and I enjoy their essays as much as their poetry. I love what you say about ‘one of those infrequent intervals when the British decided to almost cherish their intellectuals’ – very different of course from the French or Romanian culture that I was familiar with.

  2. I’ve read very little of Wystan’s prose: will try to do so, having read this – a fine endorsement. Not sure about that opening quotation though; ‘names’? I suppose he’s being elliptical or allusive…Wonder why you no longer find those other three to your taste? They’re all perhaps a bit more, what, quirky? TSE and WHA maybe have a certain gravitas, or take on bigger targets? As for a culture that cherishes its intellectuals – well. Must look out those prose texts, then.

    • I can admire the work of those other three, but find little enjoyment in spending any significant time with their work. My antipathy is different with each but there is with Dickinson and Cummings an insular quality that limits repeated reading. Plath I probably need to reassess some time.

  3. Oddly, I’ve read and loved all of those poets except Auden – though I do have a collection of his works sitting waiting on the shelf. Some authors I can return to, others not, but I always find I can go back to Plath with great pleasure.

  4. Two collections published in the US in the 1970s, The Dyer’s Hand, and Forwards and Afterwords, have been favorites of mine for many, many years.

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