The period of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s is now beginning to be seen as extremely significant for the shaping of Western culture in the postwar era. Certain moments and places in those years have come to stand for decisive changes in human consciousness. The sexual openness of Weimar Berlin in the 1920’s, the political conflict of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s in the context of economic crisis, and the shifting of political relationships in the conduct of World War II have all had their profound impact on the contemporary world. W. H. Auden, who participated in all these events, has for that reason, along with his ability to respond imaginatively to his experience of these events, become, after T. S. Eliot, the major poet of the twentieth century. A frequent visitor to Germany in the 1920’s, an observer of the Spanish fighting, and an immigrant to America just before the outbreak of World War II, Auden was able to chronicle his age, and give it its appropriate name—the Age of Anxiety.
It is therefore especially important for an understanding of Auden to have a work such as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, a work that locates the writing of his poetry and other works in the context of Auden’s life. Carpenter, soundly, does not try to offer detailed explications of the writing; instead, he allows generous quotation from the work to illuminate Auden’s response to the events he observed or in which he participated. As a result, Carpenter’s biography of Auden is a splendid companion to Auden’s works themselves, an account of the life that is both pleasurable to read and destined to become a constant point of reference for serious study of the works.
This is not to say that the historical context out of which Auden wrote will “explain” his poetry; it is merely a claim that, especially for a poet such as Auden, given to deliberate obscurity in much of his writing, knowing the context and at least some of the more personal references will enable fuller and more informed response. Carpenter is able to orient readers to the kinds of personal and cultural issues and situations in which Auden was involved as he composed his work. Such knowledge will not take the place of his works themselves, but it will enable readers to approach them more intelligently.
Especially in some areas of Auden’s life, Carpenter is able to combine a directness that clarifies with a sense of decorum that avoids the sensationalistic. Many modern biographers delight in the candor with which they can relate the intimate lives of their subjects, and Auden might easily have received such lurid treatment. Except...
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