Michael Dirda reviews two new volumes of the complete works of WH Auden

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Years ago, I was doggedly answering questions on a standardized 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,

‘That valley is fatal when the furnaces burn,

There is the garbage dump whose smells will drive you crazy,

That gap is the tomb to which the tall ones return. ”

Alliteration was presumably the intended answer, but I’m not sure I know. I remember wondering what a “trash” was. Still, the opening line and its pleasant “reader to rider” chant stuck in my mind. 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” Y “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973,” edited by the poet’s indefatigable literary executor, Edward Mendelson. Together, the linked pair reprints every single collection published in the poet’s lifetime, as well as uncollected or rejected works and fragments. Meticulously detailed endnotes provide the bibliographical history of each poem and trace Auden’s obsessive tweaks and revisions. The two volumes, priced at $60 each, run to 2,000 pages and are a real bargain, as well as a dazzling academic triumph for both Mendelson and Princeton. In addition, they form the cornerstone of the monumental “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Prose,” which includes six previously published volumes collecting all of the British American poet’s essays, talks, plays, and youthful works.

True, many readers will be happy with just the Vintage Paperback. “Selected Poems of WH Auden”, also edited by Mendelson. Still, it’s easy to become an Auden completist. My own passion was really 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 also housed copies of all of the poet’s books, as well as much associated material.

Through Robert’s influence, I began to discover the breadth of Auden’s genius. I remember opening the 1962 essay collection. “The Dyer’s Hand” on a Sunday morning during a breakfast at South Hall that included fresh hot donuts. Much later, after Robert’s death, I inherited his copy of “The Enchafèd Flood” (1950), Auden’s gripping study of the romantic iconography of the sea, as well as his dust jacket-less, scribbled first editions of the poetry. Almost all of these have photographs of the author pasted on the endpapers, and on “Another moment” (1940), probably Auden’s largest individual collection, Robert left behind a postcard of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, which inspired the famous “Musée des Beaux-Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong / The Old Masters.”

While the meanings of Auden’s poems can sometimes be elusive, almost all of them contain lines and passages that take your breath away. In his earliest efforts, the poet almost seems to be channeling TS Eliot:

“It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are being brought from the garden,

Summer talk stopped on that wild shore

Before the storms, after the guests and the birds:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,

Less sure of cure; and the crazy noisy

It now sinks into a more terrible calm.

At other times, Auden’s sentences border on the surreal: “In the infected womb, and the eyes of the stoats” or “A crack opens in the teacup/A path to the land of the dead.” Master of light verse, he can also be very funny: “Goddess of bossy minions, Normality!” Some poems, like “Epitaph on a tyrant”, is still sadly very relevant: “When he laughed, respectable senators burst out laughing, / And when he cried, little children died in the streets”.

In his youth, Auden planned to become a mining engineer, and has always been very good at rendering industrial landscapes (he likes tram lines and rubble heaps), but he can also survey rough terrain through the eyes of a secret agent: “Control of the steps was, he saw, the key” or “Observe with binoculars the movement of the grass in search of an ambush, / The cocked pistol, the key word memorized…”

‘The Complete Works of Auden’ showcases writings beyond poetry

Of Auden’s book-sized works, what I like best “The sea and the mirror” (1944), built around poems in various styles spoken by the characters in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The bar ballad “Master and Boatswain” begins like this:

“At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s

We drank our liquor straight,

Some went up with Margery,

And some, unfortunately, with Kate…

After that rowdy arrogance, the poem unexpectedly closes with the conjunction of the nostalgic and the mundane:

“The nightingales are sobbing in

The orchards of our mothers,

And hearts we broke long ago

They have been breaking others for a long time.

In the American second half of his life, Auden was “ashamed”—his word—of several of his most revered works of the 1930s, calling them “dishonest” rhetorical rubbish. Victims of this aesthetic puritanism were “Spain 1937” (“Today the fight”), “Lord, enemy of no one, forgiving everyone” and “Sept. 1, 1939. The latter’s opening always feels timely, but rarely more so than now:

“I sit in one of the dives

As clever hopes expire

From a low and dishonest decade.

Circulate on the bright

And the darkened lands of the earth…”

Mendelson notes that the poem actually began on September 2 in New Jersey, at the home of the dentist father of Auden’s partner, Chester Kallman, and ended on September 7. So, in a sense, it’s dishonest. According to another revealing note, Auden actually planned to drop his most tender lyric, “Lay your sleep head, my love,” from his collection of shorter poems, until Kallman insisted he keep it. Great artists are not always the best judges of his work.

In times of crisis, poetry can help focus our fears and turn ‘noise into music’

In the 1950s and 1960s, Auden hoped that he might be regarded as “a minor Atlantic Goethe”, even as his poetry became loose and chatty, his diction occasionally recondite. a poem of “About the house” (1965) ends with the line “the true olamic silence”. (Olamic refers to a vast period of time, eons.) Appropriately, in “The Cave of Making,” also from “About the House,” Auden lovingly describes his dictionaries as “the best money can buy” and emphasizes that the windows of his Austrian studio admit that “a light could mend a clock”. Here, he concludes, “silence becomes objects.” Need I add that these objects, wherever handcrafted, rank high among the best and most pleasing poems of the twentieth century?

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Complete Works of W.H. 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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