►→Also see: ►→ W. H. Auden (1907-1973) – Wystan Hugh Auden
W.H.Auden produced an astonishing range of prose works, and his particular and quirky intelligence painted new and challenging portraits of such “major” artists as Shakespeare and Goethe as well as “minor” writers such as Walter de la Mare and G.K.Chesterton. The distinctions between essay and review, criticism and history, philosophy and anthropology, melt in Auden’s prose, leaving the reader bewildered by a series of erudite, yet sometimes seriously questionable arguments. The two collections The Dyer’s Hand (1962) and Forewords and Afterwords (1973) contain selections of his later essays, while Edward Mendelson’s The English Auden (1977) provides a useful cross-section of the vibrant pre-1940 pieces.
In “Psychology and Art To-Day” (1935) Auden suggested that “To a situation of danger and difficulty there are five solutions.” It was after rejecting the “solutions” of the idiot, the schizophrenic, the criminal, and the invalid that he accepted the positive and healing fifth solution shared by the scientist and the artist: “To understand the mechanism of the trap.” Much of the syncretism and eclecticism that underlie the easy transitions in his prose between various political and religious issues, as well as between disciplines, resulted from his search for synoptic understanding “as the hawk sees it, or the helmeted airman.”
Rarely providing an orthodox interpretation of books, events, or artists, Auden thrived on experimental creative error, and the liberties he took with established knowledge—in addition to the half-serious assertion that he “needed the money” —formed part of the price he asked for writing prose. In the early essays, for example, Auden’s treatment of Freud and D. H.Lawrence demonstrated how he followed the spirit but rarely the letter of their theories, while in “The Good Life” of 1935 he observed, following T.S.Eliot and I.A.Richards, that “unless people have substantially the same experience, logical controversy is nothing more than systemised misunderstanding.” The scientist in Auden saw through to the structures of knowledge and its transmission, hence his preference for “a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.”
In “Psychology and Art To-Day,” Auden claimed that art consists in telling parables “from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions.” For Auden the parable was a secular story, the “only kind of literature which has gospel authority.” Politically charged in the 1930s, the later Auden sometimes used the parable as a means of speaking about Christianity at a distance, as in the 1954 essay “Balaam and his Ass”: “To illustrate the use of the master-servant relationship as a parable of agape, I will take two examples…” In “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948) Auden found in the detective story a Christian parable of existential guilt. These analogies are typical, and Auden’s acknowledgment that “Man is an analogy-drawing animal” applies particularly to himself.
Auden’s remark in “The Prolific and the Devourer” (1939) that he found pornographic stories more erotic than physical sexual encounters emphasizes the importance of language and story to Auden’s sense of self; this is reflected in his prose when the artist tempers the scientist. The 1938 article “In Praise of Gossip,” for example, emphasized the importance of telling a story well, rather than adhering to some notion of veracity which ultimately tames and reduces a narrative to a tedious and factual account. Auden’s own tendency toward the anecdote and the aphorism fulfilled this demand throughout his work, while his eye for the revealing quotation was often employed in an arch fashion, as when he complained about the lack of privacy in published letters and then reproduced the most personal letters himself. It is not surprising, then, that as an epigraph to The Dyer’s Hand Auden selected Nietzsche’s aphorism, “We have Art in order that we may not perish from Truth.”
In the autobiographical poem “Letter to Lord Byron” (1936), Auden tells us that it was his precocious desire to observe the “various types of boys” that shocked the matron at his public school; the amateur but perceptive anthropologist was another of Auden’s roles. In a later essay, “Notes on the Comic” (1952), Auden described the abuse hurled between truck drivers and cab drivers on the New York streets as a form of flyting, arguing that the participants were more interested in playing with language than insulting each other.
Auden’s homosexuality rarely surfaced in his prose, but he occasionally offered some thoughts on the subject (as in the essay “C.P.Cavafy,” 1961). When he did discuss homosexuality it was without guilt, sensation, or prevarication; it was simply a choice of object, the important point being the quality of a relationship rather than its constitution.
His obvious enjoyment in discussing the sex life of J.R.Ackerley in the essay “Papa Was a Wise Old Sly-Boots” (1969) is a fine example of Auden’s double standard when considering biographical material, complaining that Ackerley never said what he “really preferred to do in bed.”
Auden’s essays combine the confessions of the innocent, the certainty of the dogmatist, the schematizing of the scientist, and the skepticism of the man in the street. These traits occur time and again from the earliest pieces, brash with “youth’s intolerant certainty” to the pose of the “booming old bore” of the late prose. Hence while the tone of his later essays emulated the curmudgeonly don rather than the bright young schoolmaster, Auden remained an entertaining teacher, utilizing techniques of defamiliarization alongside a sometimes shocking familiarity. But whether written in the role of parable promoting politician or grand old man of letters bristling with ex cathedra statements, Auden’s prose acknowledges itself as a limited and partial offering, revealing a writer intensely aware that his voice is one among thousands, and that an air of impropriety or even charlatanism hangs over his words. There remains a deceptive, studied informality in Auden’s prose which allowed him to make risky and unsupported judgments through the pose of the homely amateur. His 1956 inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford captures this tone: “I shall now proceed to make some general statements of my own. I hope they are not nonsense, but I cannot be sure.”
In the essay “Hic et Ille” (1956), using the mirror as an analogy for the ego, Auden stated that “Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow.” The roles Auden played in his prose constitute a series of ingenious games played with his “mirror,” and take on retrospective meaning from his remark that “We shall be judged, not by the kind of mirror found on us, but by the use we have made of it, by our riposte to our reflection.” Auden’s unique blend of storytelling and analysis, his self-conscious manipulation of knowledge, and his ability to discuss the underlying structures of power and identity constitute a riposte that at once disarms and disquiets.
Wystan Hugh Auden. Born 21 February 1907 in York. Studied at Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk, 1920–25; Christ Church, Oxford, 1925–28, B.A. in English, 1928. Lived in Berlin, 1928–29. Taught privately in London, 1930, at Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, Scodand, 1930–32, and at Downs School, Colwall, Herefordshire, 1932– 35. Married Erika Mann, daughter of the writer Thomas Mann, so that she could get a British passport, 1935. Staff member, GPO Film Unit, London, 1935–36. Traveled in Iceland with Louis MacNeice, 1936, and in China with Christopher Isherwood, 1938; gave radio broadcasts for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War, 1937.
Emigrated to the United States, 1939, and became a U.S. citizen, 1946; lived primarily in New York, though from 1957 spent summers in Kirchstetten, Austria. Taught at various schools and universities in the U.S., 1939–53. Relationship with the writer Chester Kallman, from 1939. Member of the editorial board, Decision magazine, 1940–41, and Delos magazine, 1968, and editor, Yale Series of Younger Poets, 1947–62. Major with the U.S. Army Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany, 1945. Member, American Academy, 1954. Professor of Poetry, Oxford University, 1956–61.
many, including King’s Gold Medal for Poetry, 1937; American Academy Award of Merit Medal, 1945, and Gold Medal, 1968; Pulitzer Prize, 1948; Bollingen Prize, 1954;
National Book Award, 1956; Feltrinelli Prize, 1957; Guinness Award, 1959; Poetry Society of America Droutskoy Medal, 1959; Austrian State Prize, 1966; National Medal for Literature, 1967; honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities.
Died in Vienna, 29 September 1973.
Essays and Related Prose
The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, 1962
Selected Essays, 1964
Forewords and Afterwords, edited by Edward Mendelson, 1973
The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, edited by Edward Mendelson, 1977
Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, vol. 1: Prose 1926–1938, edited by Edward Mendelson, 1997
many volumes of poetry (collected in Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, 1976), plays with Christopher Isherwood, and several libretti. Also edited many anthologies of poetry; translated works by Goethe and Scandinavian writers.
Collected works edition: The Complete Works, edited by Edward Mendelson, 1988– (in progress).
Bloomfield, B.C, and Edward Mendelson, W.H.Auden: A Bibliography, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1972
Gingerich, Martin E., W.H.Auden: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Bold, Alan, editor, W.H.Auden: The Far Interior, London: Vision Press, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1985
Bucknell, Katherine, and Nicholas Jenkins, editors, W.H.Auden: “The Map of All My Youth”: Early Works, Friends and Influences, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
Carpenter, Humphrey, W.H.Auden: A Biography, London: Allen Unwin, and Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981
Davenport-Hines, Richard, Auden, London: Heinemann, and New York: Pantheon, 1995
Fuller, John, A Reader’s Guide to W.H.Auden, London: Thames and Hudson, and New York: Farrar Straus, 1970
Haffenden, John, editor, W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983
Hecht, Anthony, The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H.Auden, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993
Hynes, Samuel, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s, London: Bodley Head, 1976; New York: Viking Press, 1977
McDiarmid, Lucy, Auden’s Apologies for Poetry, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Mendelson, Edward, Early Auden, London: Faber, and New York: Viking, 1981
Smith, Stan, W.H.Auden, Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1985
Spears, Monroe K., The Poetry of W.H.Auden: The Disenchanted Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963
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