W. H. Auden Summary
by Charles Osborne

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W. H. Auden Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

When Wystan Hugh Auden died on Spetember 28, 1973, he left behind a considerable reputation as a poet and a man of letters. He earned early fame in the 1930’s as the most notable poet writing in English. His group of friends—such writers as Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood—were “the Auden circle”; his generation was “the Auden generation.” A prolific writer, he avoided only the novel, freely ranging between essays, plays, poems, and opera libretti. Sometimes he worked alone, but often he collaborated: Isherwood and he wrote plays together; with Kallman, he wrote opera libretti for the composers Stravinsky and Henze. Honors were heaped upon him; only the Nobel Prize eluded him.

On the whole, Auden’s great reputation is unsupported by critical opinion of his works. For example, The Orators, an early book, was called “remarkable” by one critic, but “a jumble of images and jottings” by another. The Age of Anxiety, published in 1946, was “persistently boring” to one critic, and “a rheumatic crystal” to another. In 1960, when Auden published Homage to Clio, no one had anything good to say about it. Of one effusion, a critic said it was “perhaps the worst of Auden’s poems,” while another reviewer gave Auden’s recent verse the aesthetic status of “a crossword puzzle.” Even his friends were occasionally forthright enough to criticize him in print. Charles Osborne, the writer of this biography, said of an Auden translation that it was “a failure, and a mouthful of failure at that. Each line has far too many syllables. . . .”

In fact, Auden was a major influence but a minor poet; he is definitely of the second rank, a Herrick rather than a Donne. His larger works are mostly unsuccessful, and it is only in some of his lyrics and meditative poems that he finds his true voice. In “Spain,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “September 1, 1939,” and “In Praise of Limestone,” he writes verse that seems impassioned and imperishable. Much of this verse is occasional in the best sense, the occasion providing a springboard for poetry.

To say that Auden was a minor poet is not to say that his thoughts about poetry ought not to be taken seriously; in fact, much of his aesthetic thought should be of interest to those concerned about his or any poetry. Early in his career, he told Spender that a poet “arranged words into patterns with a mind whose aim was not to express a feeling, but to concentrate on the best arrangement that could be derived from the occasion.” This credo could be interpreted as a denial of feelings, an assertion that poetry is no more than a sophisticated game. Really, however, it was a criticism of “people [who] do not even think about ’making’ [a poem] at all, but about ’expressing themselves’—which is something very different, and which can be a boring idea—as opposed to trying to tell truthfully what one sees.” To Auden, “every poem written today is important, because it is a blow struck for the personal outlook on behalf of all those who are being robbed of a personal outlook.”

Still, Auden’s importance stems from what he wrote, not what he did. For the most part, he led the ordinary life of an impecunious...

(The entire section is 833 words.)