Wystan Hugh Auden must be ranked with T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost as one of the major voices of twentieth century poetry. Some of his poems, like the justly celebrated “Musee des Beaux Arts,” have become mainstays in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Important poets such as James Merrill and John Ashbery-to name only two—are deeply indebted to Auden for both his style and subject matter. Auden acknowledged his own debt to Yeats, Frost, and Eliot in the many essays and articles he composed, especially after moving to the United States in the fateful year of 1939, just a few months before World War II began. Through his close association with Yale University Press, and through teaching positions at Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College, he became one of the undisputed arbiters of literary taste, both in his adopted country of America and in his native England, where poets such as Philip Larkin fell under his spell.
Born in York in 1907, Auden grew up in Birmingham and ultimately attended the University of Oxford, where he quickly established himself as a promising young writer. During the late 1920’s and the entire decade of the 1930’s, he wrote and published at a frenetic pace, often collaborating with playwright Christopher Isherwood. Auden became an American citizen in 1946, but in the late 1960’s he moved back to Oxford. He spent his latter years there and in his summer home outside Vienna, where he died in 1973.
Anthony Hecht, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a personal friend of Auden for some thirty years, is in an unusually strong position to write a book on Auden’s poetry. Readers will be struck at once by the author’s erudition and familiarity with the works of Auden. He almost adopts the role of an old friend, leading the uninitiated reader into the complicated and fascinating landscape of Auden’s poetry, beginning with the privately printed Poems (1928). Hecht then proceeds to do line-by-line analysis of the key poems in Auden’s seven major books of poetry, including On This Island (1937), Letters from Iceland (1937), a book of poetry and prose which includes the important poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” Another Time (1940), The Double Man (1941), For the Time Being (1944), Nones (1951), and The Shield of Achilles (1955).
Auden’s books were often issued in British and American editions with different titles. The British title of The Double Man, for example, is New Year Letter (1940). A further complication is that Auden made constant revisions, emendations, and even cancellations of his texts. The Collected Poetry (1945) contains many such altered texts, and Auden deliberately arranged those poems alphabetically rather than chronologically to forestall any attempt to find an overall theme or direction in his work. For the most part, Hecht wisely defers to Auden’s wishes; Hecht’s distinction between public and private poems is one that Auden himself made implicitly and explicitly throughout his career. Hecht claims that Auden’s greatest poems, such as For the Time Being, manage to combine the two realms into one memorable artistic synthesis. Private feelings (grief, loneliness, love) are often juxtaposed to larger facts of history, society, and theology. For the Time Being was written as an elegy for Auden’s mother:
the poem deals as much with his feelings of personal loss as it does with the mystery of Christ’s nativity and the cruel stupidity of human governments, dramatically represented by Herod.
Hecht uses few biographical references, even though Auden’s literary and personal life is documented in reams of personal letters, notes, and anecdotes. Hecht uses such material sparingly and appropriately, always in support of explication and never as an end in itself. Typically, he will point the reader to the excellent biography by Humphrey Carpenter, W H. Auden: A Biography (1981); occasionally he quotes from Auden’s close friends and collaborators. Only twice does Hecht introduce his own reminiscences. His focus, always, is on the poetry.
To read The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W H. Auden is to appreciate Auden on a deeper level and in a complete cultural context because Hecht is a kind of Renaissance man, offering intelligent and literate observations on the sources and references in all the poems under discussion. Auden, like Eliot and Yeats, was brilliantly educated, equally at home in the worlds of literature, art, opera, psychology, history, and politics. He was fluent in most European...
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