Having come to fame early, Auden had the close attention of critics throughout his adult life, far longer than most poets. Being in the literary spotlight from young manhood clearly affected his own perspective on his work; in fact, in his later years, he rewrote, abandoned, and cannibalized many of his earlier poems because he felt this youthful work was “untrue.” Essentially, he attempted to remake the outlines of his own body of poetry. Another effect of his early fame—or notoriety, as the case may be—was his fairly substantial audience (for a poet). Conscious of this loyal readership, he broadcast his political and social ideas throughout the 1930’s. The effort was made in good conscience: He was only attempting to persuade his readers of what he felt was right. Yet perhaps in reaction, as the 1930’s drew to an end, Auden withdrew from the spotlight. Having come to literary fame early, he tired of it; having spent nearly a decade fighting for a just society, he turned inward.
That is not to say that Auden’s poetry lacked a strong streak of inward-turning from the outset. The early poems often have as their setting a wild, make-believe landscape concocted from a rich variety of sources: Icelandic sagas, Old English poetry, boys’ adventure stories, and surreal fantasies that he had found in reading the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Throughout Auden’s poetry, during all four literary states into which he divided his career, his...
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