W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 3)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10049

Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

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Auden, an Anglo-American poet, essayist, composer, critic, playwright, and teacher, succeeded Eliot as the "greatest living poet." His poetry is rooted in the tradition of English poetry—from Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English verse through Pope, Hopkins, and Eliot. The recipient of many important honors, he was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for The Age of Anxiety. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

I doubt whether any man living has read everything published by W. H. Auden, probably the most prolific poet-critic of the twentieth century. Not only the quantity but the range of Auden's writing is the most extensive of any contemporary poet's; what is more remarkable, everything he writes is readable. The luxuriance of the Auden bibliography, even in his mid-years, recalls the Victorians, who provided not only the high literature of their time but the popular literature as well. Auden, however, is not popular, any more than T. S. Eliot is popular. Like all Moderns he has eschewed popularity….

There is a pervasive and convincing pastness about Auden's writing which always leaves me wondering whether he really is a twentieth-century man or one of those creatures flung over the time barrier by a nineteenth-century time machine.

Auden is probably the most English poet since Thomas Hardy died in 1928, the year Auden published his first book. Internationalism has never sat on him well; nor has Americanism (Auden has camped out in America for many years); he is indeed the chief ornament of English letters in the twentieth century. But English poetry is to this day largely "nineteenth century" compared with American or French or Spanish poetry….

The fact is that Auden was never as much interested in the social revolution or in religion as he was in psychology; it is Auden's fascination with psychological behavior that makes him readable, charming, and, it may be, lasting. The retreat of Auden is the retreat from poetry to psychology, an almost total sacrifice of the poetic motive to the rational motive…. There is in him nothing of the visionary or the seer, everything of the conversationalist and the classroom wit. Auden, moreover, is an intellectual through and through, and poetry to him is a species of talk. The retreat of poetry into talk, which Auden has made a respectable poetics, is part of the canon of Modernism….

Auden is the editor of the best general anthology in English poetry, among his other numerous anthologies, and he knows the tradition in a true sense, and loves it. He is part of it; he is heir to it. In fact, one can understand Auden best by seeing him in the role of curator of the tradition of English poetry. One of the reasons Auden fled England must have been his fear of being recognized as a traditional English poet to the manner born. He has Poet Laureate written all over him….

In his work we see an enormous mass of unrelated poems and verses covering every possible category of the poem, as the textbook and anthology classify the English poem. The poet's hallmark is always evident; the turn of phrase, the vocabulary, the rhythms themselves are always distinctively his, so characteristic that one can spot them in a second. And these forms run from the smallest to the largest, from the minutest epigram to the oratorio, libretto, verse play, prose-poem; everything, in fact, except the modern "epic" like the Cantos or the straight narrative, like "Roan Stallion." Yet we cannot find a particular form which we identify as Auden's, one he has invented….

Auden's great achievement, on the other hand, is the modernization of diction, the enlarging of dictional language to permit a more contemporary-sounding speech. In this endeavor he has created a revolution in English...

(The entire section contains 10049 words.)

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