At a time when poets no longer enjoyed the wide readership they once did, W. H. Auden achieved a considerable popular success, his books selling well throughout his lifetime. He was also fortunate in having several sympathetic, intelligent critics to analyze and assess his work. It is true that Auden had his share of detractors, beginning, for example, in the 1930’s with the negative response to his work in the influential journal Scrutiny, and, later, in two essays by Randall Jarrell taking him to task for his various ideological changes. Even today some argue that Auden’s work is uneven or that his later poetry represents a serious decline from the brilliance he demonstrated in the 1930’s. In a sense, his reputation has been granted grudgingly and, by some, with reservations. Despite all this, however, Auden is generally regarded today as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. Several of his lyrics are well established as standard anthology pieces—“Lullaby,” “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,”—but his larger reputation may well rest not on the strength of individual poems but on the impressive range of thought and technical virtuosity found in his work as a whole.
Auden’s poetry is quintessentially the work of a restless, probing intelligence committed to the idea that poise and clearheadedness are possible, indeed necessary, in a world beset by economic, social, and...
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