The English Auden

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The career of W. H. Auden reflects the paradoxical nature of literary relations between the United States and England. Sharing a common language, a common cultural and artistic background, the two countries seem at once close and remote, sharing in the modern artistic revolution against inherited forms, and yet, in the final analysis, refusing to merge into a single literary tradition. T. S. Eliot, born in St. Louis, became an English citizen and a major force in the English literary scene; Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, notes in his introduction to this volume that Auden’s literary career really began with a rejection by Eliot of his first volume of poetry. Yet Eliot remains, for most literary historians, an American poet, distinctively American in his poetic voice, no matter how much he seemed to take on the appearance and demeanor of the English literary classes. Auden’s career parallels Eliot’s, except in reverse. Taking up residence in New York in 1939, Auden became an American citizen in 1946. If Eliot needed a retreat from America into England, and Englishness, to become a major American poet, Auden needed a retreat from England to become the poet he wished to be. He wrote a friend in 1939: “I adore New York as it is the only city in which I find I can work and live quietly. For the first time I am leading a life which remotely approximates to the way I think I ought to live.” Yet, in spite of Auden’s long sojourn in America, no one doubts that he was an English poet. This volume goes a long way toward showing why.

Auden, of course, unlike Eliot, was established as a major contemporary poet before he made his transatlantic pilgrimage. He published the first collection of his verse (entitled simply Poems) in 1930; together with Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and others, Auden quickly made clear that a new generation of English poets was to be heard in the land. Building on the revolutionary modernism of Eliot and Pound, Auden and his contemporaries forged a new era in poetry—clearly modern in its style and voice, but possessing a wider awareness of the social, economic, and political realities confronting Europe in the years leading up to World War II. Auden was later, as we will see, to be profoundly uncomfortable with at least some of the ideas he voiced in his early poetry and prose. Nevertheless, as this volume attests, Auden’s early reputation was well founded. The three volumes of poetry anthologized here, along with the essays and reviews, show us a poet of vigor, of clarity and force, as well as a man who has thought deeply about the state of English language and letters. What Mendelson has done in this volume is to make possible a clearer view of Auden’s poetic origins, his early verse, and his preliminary reflections on art and society: in sum, the English roots of his poetic career.

The bulk of this volume is given over to Auden’s poetry, a substantial quantity of verse for any poet’s lifetime, and a truly remarkable amount for the first twelve years of a poet’s career. Reprinted here are all the poems from Auden’s first three volumes, Poems (1930, reprinted with seven substitutions in 1933), Look, Stranger (1936), and...

(The entire section is 1326 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Yale Review. LXII, June, 1978, p. 609.