Writing literary biography has always been a challenge. Frequently, writers lead rather pedestrian lives, and the only excitement they create occurs when they publish a new novel or volume of poetry. Few biographers are blessed with subjects as inherently interesting (some would say infuriating) as Ernest Hemingway or George Gordon, Lord Byron. The best literary biographies, such as Walter Jackson Bate’s life of John Keats, combine details about the subject’s life with critical analyses of the work. Balancing life and work is often tricky, however, and few biographers are successful in such an effort.
Those scholars who have chosen to write about artists whose careers were eventful have often opted to report on the life, leaving it to other scholars to critique the work. Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) is an excellent example of this approach. Unfortunately, the British expatriate poet and essayist W. H. Auden did not lead the kind of life that would make newspaper headlines. He spent his days, and often his evenings, reading and writing. When he was not composing poems he was writing essays, preparing anthologies, composing librettos for operas, teaching undergraduate courses, or lecturing to audiences interested in what he had to say about literature and life. He did not fight in any of the conflicts that swept across Europe during the turbulent twentieth century. He led no protest marches. He went on no big-game safaris. Although he was a homosexual, he kept his private life very private.
It should not be surprising, then, that when Edward Mendelson, the person Auden chose as his literary executor, elected to write a biographical study, he chose to focus almost exclusively on Auden’s work. As a consequence, while it may disappoint readers interested in vignettes about Auden’s life, Mendelson’s two-volume study, Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999), provides one of the most comprehensive critical analyses of Auden’s poetic talents.
Mendelson calls Later Auden “a history and an interpretation of W. H. Auden’s work from the time he moved from England to the United States in 1939 until his death in 1973.” The description is accurate, not only for what it includes but for what it leaves out. Although referred to by the publisher, reviewers, and readers alike as a biography, Later Auden is much more a critical analysis of Auden’s work than a study of his life. Picking up where he left off in Early Auden(1981), Mendelson continues his analysis of Auden’s poetry as a record of his subject’s intellectual life. Only those events in Auden’s life that influenced his writings are mentioned, and then almost always only briefly. Like the work of another distinguished Columbia professor, Lionel Trilling, who described his groundbreaking study of Matthew Arnold as a “biography of Arnold’s mind,” Mendelson concentrates on Auden’s verse as the concrete expression of the poet’s lifelong attempt to interpret the world to his readers, serving all the while as a kind of filter through which the writings of philosophers of his own century and previous ones could achieve more widespread attention and understanding. He uses the poems as a means of interpreting Auden’s life, suggesting that many of them have a double meaning: a public meaning intended as commentary on society, and a private interpretation revealing the depths of Auden’s feelings about his relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and others.
As one might expect, Mendelson organizes his work chronologically, but instead of focusing on major life events he concentrates on significant individual poems or collections that emerge from Auden’s encounter with his world. Mendelson traces carefully Auden’s varying reactions to events in Europe leading up to World War II and to the horrors of the conflict in the years immediately following cessation of hostilities. His poems reveal a growing sense of pessimism and even despair as events moved inevitably toward a second worldwide conflagration. Auden seemed particularly distraught, since history was in conflict with the idea of progress to which he had subscribed during his early years when he felt that communism would provide a cure for the world’s social and political ills. Although he was able to produce poems like “September 1, 1939,” celebrating the inevitable success that a commitment to personal and universal love would have over the forces of destruction,...
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