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Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) (Vol. 9)

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Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

Auden, an Anglo-American poet, essayist, dramatist, editor, and critic, was one of the twentieth-century's greatest poets. The body of poetry that Auden left is distinguished by its remarkable versatility, a variety that encompasses form, metre, subject, and theme. Joseph Warren Beach has said that "when it comes to subject matter and thought, [Auden] has the … distinction of being perhaps the most representative of poets in his time writing in the English language…. No poet of our time has covered more ground, or ground more favorable to the growth of speculations suited to the felt needs of the time." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

[Auden] thought for a time of shaking the world, and as a young man talked much of its being shaken, but eventually he decided on another mode, to accept with modifications. As this habit grew on him, he increasingly prided himself on it; he was the world's celebrant, and in case that be thought too limited a role, he argued that no poet could be more….

As Auden lowered his sights as poet, he returned to … High Church sympathies…. [His] decision to regard himself as a believer was also a resolution to make do with what was available, and get on with it. Secular diffusion was a danger. He refused to pursue further the passionate but uncertain outlook which for a time he had accepted from "Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane, once healers in our English land." Yet he did not abjure them entirely in favor of the later trio whom he salutes in the poem "A Thanksgiving," in his last book,

         Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis            guided me back to belief.

His twenty years of unbelief were in fact marked by adherence to a secular psychotherapy which was always calling problematic divinities from the wings, "Sir, no man's enemy," "Lords of Limit," or just "Love." It was clear to him then, as before and after, that he required objects of affection more lasting than any his eyes could light upon. His poems were evocations of someone or something that might join stability and affection like form and content. He had no specific commandments to relay, but he could identify outrageousness he disliked in conduct as in poetry….

Although some moving passages in Auden are expressly Christian, such as "O Unicorn among the cedars," from ["New Year Letter"], the center of interest in his verse cannot be said to lie in religious experience. Exaltations and rigors attracted him less than aftermaths and loosenings. His Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, is never more effective than at the close when Christmas is over.

  Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,   Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—   Some have got broken—and carrying them up into the attic.

The amused tolerance and homely images suited his conception of the poet as stymied in action but wonderfully expressive in verbal responses.

In his later aesthetic pronouncements, which he uttered with the greatest certainty, Auden assigned all consideration of the Creator to the Church, but allocated Creation to the poet. This division of labor enabled him to recognize a certain backsliding even among Christian poets.

               Whatever their personal faith,                All poets, as such,                Are polytheists,

and perhaps in himself specifically,

           Poets have learned us their myths,            but just how did They take them?            That's a stumper….

Auden wrote quite a number of poems of praise, but his most affecting passages are rather those...

(This entire section contains 5357 words.)

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that afford inklings or present forebodings, that connect what seemed unconnectable, that locate wounds and then search and sometimes salve them. As well as being two clergymen's grandson, he was after all a doctor's son. Perhaps no other poet has uttered so many warnings as Auden. His concern for spiritual health was like that of his father for public health in the Birmingham area. Sometimes he warned of a personal doom deep and dark as any sea dingle, sometimes—more communally—of a terrible future for the sleeping city….

Auden was deeply influenced by Freud—perhaps he was the first great post-Freudian poet, a distinction not without its perils—and even more by Freud's eccentric followers Groddeck and Layard. Like the latter, Auden extended Freud into psychosomatic medicine and on his own he translated mental states into spectacular language. So he illustrated "crooked love" by the lines,

           The glacier knocks in the cupboard,            The desert sighs in the bed….

He learned from Freud, or confirmed from him, a sympathy for repressed parts of the mind to go with a sympathy for repressed parts of humanity. He also learned the pervasiveness of imperfection. (p. 26)

The title, Thank You, Fog, suggests that the volume is to be taken as celebratory, but as usual this strain is much mitigated. The fog makes for good company; it is still fog. If anything, the wryness of the poems is greater; life's tricks, like tricks of phrase, have been seen through. A pungent example is his last variation on the famous line in "September 1939," which announced, "We must love one another or die." Because Auden came to regard this sentiment as fustian, he omitted first the stanza, then ruthlessly expunged the whole poem. But in this last book, the final poem, attributed to Chester Kallman and Auden jointly, contracts the idea to its statable residue:

           When you get a little older            You'll discover like Isolde:            "We must love one another and die!"

These poems are relaxed and throwaway, almost the opposite of those clamant, heterodox formulations of his experience that he had written at the start. The slow-paced, ruminative, and usually agreeable tone does not keep the perceptions from being unflinching, but it does make them less imperative. For the nouns shorn of articles and the twisted syntax he used as a young man, Auden now substitutes neologisms formed by making nouns verbs and other lexical bizarreries, some more felicitous than others. In his early work the landscape, a mix of industrial smoke and Beowulfian fells, seemed brilliantly invented; the later landscape is deliberately familiar, old-shoeish. Time has brought a concern, even in verse, for bodily comfort. Where once the crosshatch of emotions startled him or appeared to do so, the unsurprisableness of experience now catches his eye….

Auden could cut to the bone in "Lullaby," evidently addressed to his senescing self,

              The old Greeks got it all wrong:               Narcissus is an oldie,               tamed by time, released at last               from lust for other bodies,               rational and reconciled.               For many years you envied               the hirsute, the he-man type.               No longer: now you fondle               your almost feminine flesh               with mettled satisfaction,               imagining that you are               sinless and all-sufficient,               snug in the den of yourself,Madonna and Bambino:Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

So he continues to the last the stripping of illusions which he began in his first book. Vanities change, but vanities remain. The poet bewilders them again as he moves into the shadows. (p. 27)

Richard Ellmann, "Under Tom Tower," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), December 12, 1974, pp. 26-7.

[W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, the] volume of Auden's achievement, defies immediate critical analysis: seven hundred pages of fine print, 400 poems and some of them very long indeed. But who would be foolish enough to see it as a 'mirror' of our times? There is not one poem in this book which does not contain a beautiful or an unusual line, but there are very few which do not seem abrupt, flawed or unfinished.

They are all, unmistakably, the work of Auden. No poet of his generation acquired such a familiar tone, that raffish poise between schoolboy and schoolmaster, and no poet acquired it so quickly and with such considerable success. Even the early poems have a developed tone and syntax which Auden was never completely to abandon….

The poet springs up fully armed, and although there are some faint traces of early poetic influences—of Yeats and Eliot particularly—they are either skilfully concealed or else charged with irony and bathos. But no poet as receptive as Auden to the prevailing climate will want to escape his time completely. There are other influences at work, and Auden started writing in that odd and heady period when the works of Freud and Marx were becoming fashionable; at a time, then, when nebulous concepts and vague forms of intellectual discipline were placed in the service of romantic mythologies which were no less potent for seeming 'scientific'. Auden's is an art which, from the beginning, used instant methods to achieve vaguely intellectual, quasi-romantic effects.

Even in his earliest poetry, Auden had a taste for gnomic utterances enhanced by emphatic rhythms, for pen-portraits, for short moral lessons, for poems filled with arguments which were never quite as coherent as his rhymes suggested. Auden was, in other words, always a rhetorician, aware as any poet of the truth-giving powers of language but, like any rhetorician, also a formalist prepared to meddle with those powers. He always chose the right tone for the right message, and for the right audience.

English poetry had not behaved in that way since the eighteenth century (Auden's argumentative Muse was the perfect accompaniment to a new Age of Prose) and his effect was enormous. He gave other poets the itch to generalise—to say the right things for the wrong reasons—but he also gave them a highly private language which defeated them. He encouraged smartness and glibness in poets who were not quite as smart or as articulate as he. He encouraged overstatement, and the history of recent years is littered with the inflated corpses of dead poems. With his rhetorical ability to employ different forms for different occasions—with 'Songs', 'Lullabies', 'Letters'—he indirectly turned light verse into something of a poetic fetish, and it has remained an alibi ever since for weak or vacillating poets. More importantly, Auden's rhetoric fatally weakened the language in any hands other than his own: he taught poets to use the language as a vehicle for their consciences, or as the blunt instrument of their 'tone'. Despite his often expressed and boring concern for poetic form, he actively encouraged poetic licence of the most dangerous kinds.

All this was to be expected. A poet who finds his style early in his career is bound to create considerable difficulties for himself and for others; so was there anywhere for Auden to go after the audacious and considerable verses of his youth? This edition gives some sense of continuity, if not of development. Auden's early hard lines soon disappear; the enthusiastic employment of forms and conceits continues, but now with too much ease and fluency. The struggle to find 'an altering speech for altering things' has been won, but at great cost. A sort of monumental calm descends over Auden's poetry in the 'forties. Where in his early poetry he gave his general statements a concrete etymology, in his later poetry that happy union of the actual and the ideal, that line which crosses precariously between the particular image and the general intent, becomes too stylish and too explicit. His poetry becomes a manual of dexterous techniques. All the work has been done, and he need only stand back and let the verse create itself in a succession of jokes, imprecations and subordinate clauses….

In the poems of what might be called his 'middle period'—'In Praise of Limestone' being a sufficiently familiar example—a number of clauses, each containing an ascertainable and readily comprehensible image, are linked loosely together within the harmonics of an established tone. Nothing is disordered; nothing can go wrong. In the end, though, this 'tone', that particularly English quality which Auden ended up by calling 'common sense', came to dominate whatever Auden had to say. When Auden's poetic strategies became clear, his forms became harder and more predictable, his range of subjects more solipsistic and quirky. He either had something, or nothing, to say. What he actually said it with was of lesser consequence, and so he was always seduced by a trite phrase or an easy rhyme….

His early success, and his late decline into amusing doggerel, are part of the same movement. His is a case of the individual talent, to use an antique distinction, which matures at the expense of the tradition. So it is that early influences in his work are minimal or concealed and that, in his later poetry, the language degenerates and the 'I' becomes at once more insistent and more precarious. As his messages and private codes deserted him, so his language became drained and lifeless. Politics was an early and useful disguise but, when that failed him, he turned for an alibi to that most unpoetic of pursuits, Religion.

When Auden 'got' religion, he explicitly devalued poetry: 'That love, or truth in any serious sense/Like orthodoxy, is a reticence …' And of course 'Anything will do for children/Made in God's image …' Poetry becomes a pastime, a series of Horatian exercises to keep one's end up—rather like doing crossword puzzles. 'So thinking, he returned to duty, reclaimed by the actual world where time is real and in which, therefore, poetry can take no interest.' There are some things, then, which are either unsayable, like 'love' and 'truth', or else not worth the trouble of saying. And so Auden slowly pushed himself and his art into a corner—'About the House', as it turned out. This may seem strange after the heady political commitment of his early years, when poetry was an instrument of belief, but it was natural for him to abscond from History in order to nurse his private pleasures. Poetry was always concerned with instruction or with entertainment—always, in fact, with something other than itself. Auden's progress from politics to quietism, from Marxism to Religion, is not the progress of a poet but of a moralist.

And so in his late poetry there is the same easiness and fluency, but now they have been entrusted to those small topics which Auden came to celebrate: occasional feasts, limericks, moral homilies, private musings on the weather or the state of his domestic life…. (p. 26)

It is dreadful stuff, and only in the context of over-ambitious American rhetoric and tawdry English poetasting would his last poems seem interesting. But he had once been a strong poet, and to the end he remained a significant 'case'. His real measure has yet to be taken…. (p. 27)

Peter Ackroyd, "Poetic Licence," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 18, 1976, pp. 26-7.

[Auden] was, quite simply, the best British poet of his generation (not counting Yeats, Graves and De La Mare, all writing but all older). How one looked forward to the new Auden and rushed off to buy it and soak it in! Until—well, he ceased to write consistent poetry, something that was his voice: his song, his magic. Why? What happened in America during the war years? Did he feel himself, although not on purpose, a deserter? Something snapped. But was it merely the boyish gaiety, the underlying health and happiness, however much he wrote about the anxieties and doomsdays of the Thirties? Was it that, because the expected doomsday had come and had petered out, he had to find a deeper doomsday inside himself, a nonpolitical doomsday? In the second part of his life the voice is certainly Auden, but he has dived into darker waters and perhaps has snagged himself on the Christian religion, always a danger for European poets….

Reading here and there [in Collected Poems], I find myself lingering over my old favourites, mostly from 1934 to 1940. Some I have chewed over a dozen times, always getting that extra drop of honey. But I should, no doubt, be reading the latest ones—those I found I can't understand or can absolutely not find any empathy with. And the prose? Caliban's long speech? Should it be here? And should the Clerihews, clever as they are, have any place in a volume of poetry? As the pages turn the scholarship deepens, the vocabulary surges and bubbles. Where MacDiarmid mined the Lallans quarries, Auden mined the obscurer parts of the English language. Scrabble players, take a look! It is difficult going. The allusions become harder to follow. One feels oneself faltering. My fault?

Yet the pure gold can still be found. Some of it goes back a long way. The alliterations come from the Anglo-Saxons; those ancient poets should be proud of their descendant. I remember so well reading the first of them…. Almost at the first reading I knew this was the real thing, exciting and beautiful. It is useless to describe poetry; it has to make its own way to the centres of feeling. And maybe I should not be the one to write about it, since the poem I loved best, the one I know by heart, the one that was sparsely titled 1st September 1939, is not in. Wystan had come to think it was not true. But it was true for me. (p. 26)

Naomi Mitchison, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Naomi Mitchison 1976; reprinted with permission), November, 1976.

Auden was not blind to the common qualities of tyrant and poet; no doubt it will be said of him, as of that less happy tyrant, T the Great, that 'after he was dead, his traces were visible for years.' All the more strange to have, gathered into one misleadingly final volume [W. H. Auden: Collected Poems], that immensely rich and various work, whose importance lies equally outside and elsewhere. And not always as a benign influence: Auden must have ruined as many promising poems of other people's as he himself perfected. (p. 679)

Against the background of negative, minimalist art, shuddering and turning away with fastidious distaste from physical existence, Auden's celebration of earth, his questing curiosity in all her domains, stands out with the more power for its outrageous 'in-the-know' tone. Delight is not the prerogative of simple-minded innocence, he tells us; the songs of experience need not all be songs of pain.

And what a variety of subjects and interests are brought, with a Renaissance enthusiasm, to the poems: astronomy, anthropology, geography, geology, music, medicine—his omnivorous intelligence makes all grist to the Auden mill. Who would he most like to be? Not just Konrad Lorenz—but Firbank into the bargain. Auden's creative incongruities carried over into life.

From this, from the sheer length of Auden's creative life, and from the much discussed episodes—the Thirties Auden, the late Auden, Auden the Marxist, Auden the Christian, and so on—one might have expected the poems to make a disjunct collection, a history of discarded forms and styles, like, perhaps, the self-conscious adjustments and new beginnings of Yeats. Yet quite the reverse is the case.

Of course, Auden had far too good a measure of his audience not to adapt his tone with changing tastes—his rhetoric becoming more modest and discreet, perhaps, but always the voice of a persona helping him to hold the centre of the stage as the scene changes. In this light, it seems to me wrong to suggest that some of his revisions—for instance, 'O all the instruments' to 'What instruments we have'—were a forsaking of rhetorical effect for a closer adherence to fact. There is nothing more 'precise' about the revised version here, since we can hardly be expected to read instruments that do not exist. It is not a concession to the factual, but to the matter-of-fact tone; and, as such, is more of a self-conscious adoption of a rhetorical front, than a rejection of it.

His tone may have changed, but that unmistakable and pervasive verbal technique persists in almost every line—so distinctive that if, in Coleridge's metaphor, we met them running wild in the deserts of Arabia, we should instantly cry out 'Auden'. It is there in the very first poem: not Auden in chrysalis, but the brilliant imago. How was it that Auden, alone, came to spring fully-armed, so to speak, from the head of the Muse?

Auden's poetry, like Byron's, is the 'repository of a voice'—a changing voice, like Byron's, but nonetheless self-revelatory. It might be tempting to look for the explanation of the cohesion of his poetry in this characteristic voice, and thus in the personality of Auden—/as we, like his lordship, are mostly impressed by the personality of Byron. After all, Auden greatly admired Byron: they both enjoyed acting extravagant parts (Auden had his Byronic travels, too); they both were possessed of a keen sense of the absurd, particularly, and disarmingly, in relation to their own acting. Yet, of course, there could not be a greater difference in their use of language—the very area which most distinguishes Auden.

T. S. Eliot said that if Byron had distilled his verse, there would have been nothing whatever left. If Auden had distilled his, on the fifth boiling, he would have found at the bottom of the pot his poems unchanged. The words of his poems are important not so much for something behind them, or referred to by them, as in, and for, themselves. In this, they are wholly unlike the words of a Byron poem: their true relation is to music.

Though poets have hardly ever given evidence of their characteristic style in their earliest works, it is not unknown among composers: both Mozart and Chopin, for example, in their different ways gave, almost immediately, characteristic signs of their qualities of mind. In music, there is no separation of style and content: all expression of the individual nature of the artist is in style. Unlike Byron, the composer has no independent sentiments to fall back on. Mighty hot magic, Coleridge called music: and the mighty hot magic which even his detractors recognise in Auden, stems from his instinctive handling of words as a composer uses notes. He accorded them the status of irreducible, physical objects, like notes.

No distillation can boil away the sentiments from a symphony, nor from an Auden poem. Style is everything.

If Auden had ever really come to write the 'Prelude' he apparently projected, it might paradoxically have given us less real Auden than any of his poems. That subject, like all his diverse subjects, would only have been incidental to the style, mere matter for that distinctive poetic manner, which is the index of the individual, to transform: and the very nature of the subject would probably have necessitated the dereliction of the mighty hot magic, in favour of the facetious Don Juan style of which he was such a master.

Magic—or was it all just a mighty hot conjuring trick? A manner of speech, like Browning's, forged by a positive and vigorous intelligence, a hot sauce equally pleasingly masking each crumb from the cornucopia? It was more. Auden qualified our imagination: his incongruities are part of the way we think. (p. 680)

Iain McGilchrist, "Mighty Hot Magic," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Iain McGilchrist), November 25, 1976, pp. 679-80.

Even in the dark, portentous poems of Auden's early career, there were clear designs, the language of common speech, and an unpremeditated, dramatic manner. It was, in fact, the balance of these elements against the enigma that drew us in.

If the poems sounded at times like riddles, if the syntax was often knotty, yet the words remained natural and the meaning seemed important. Though we might be unsure of his sense, the author was evidently speaking straight to us, and on timely, even urgent matters. He seemed to assume that we understood, that we belonged to his tribe; and as we groped to trace the way, we felt we were just not sharp enough to follow him….

When the meaning of such poems emerged, it often dealt with the separation or opposition of mysterious persons or groups; with a distinction between two psychic conditions and the yearning for a change from one to the other; with movements between vague regions that seemed oddly cut off and yet neighboring. Slowly, we realized that change of place meant change of condition, that the outer landscape reflected inner moods, and the transformations desired were moral or emotional.

In Auden's best work the blend of openness with reserve, of well-defined form and riddling tone, of lucid and yet veiled speech, makes in general two subtle impressions: either that valuable truths are being conveyed, or that a distinguished person is showing us, his fellow tribesmen, a self he hides from strangers….

Auden's later work preserved the element of enigma, in a tangential approach to surprising topics and with exotic words dropped casually into ordinary speech. But the tone remained the sort that members of a harmonious family take toward one another. So Auden holds us with agreeable modulations of language—from slang to eloquence, from the colloquial to the technical—implying a privileged relation between him and ourselves. We respond to his candor, intimacy, faith in our sympathy. We stand with him against the Others….

The efficiency with which Auden traveled about his poetic universe depended on a knack of dividing it up into classes or gradations between which traffic was convenient. It's not for nothing that he wrote an ode to Terminus, the god of boundaries. From his early poems to his latest Auden approached his materials as a cataloguer.

He was eager to put things—morals, detective stories, mining machinery, God—in their proper places. Art, he wrote in "The Sea and the Mirror," presents us with "the perfectly tidiable case of disorder." So he tidied up the world like an affectionate housekeeper arranging a playroom for children: "To set in order—that's the task/Both Eros and Apollo ask."…

By a reflex action he seemed to arrange his important experiences as a collector of specimens would arrange rocks and minerals. He analyzed people and incidents into types that lent themselves to abstraction, illustrating principles of ethics or psychology….

Auden at his best … embodied the abstractions in curious or supreme examples. So when he wished to celebrate The Poet, he wrote magnificently about Yeats. When he wished to celebrate The Healer, he wrote almost as well about Freud. When he wished to celebrate a way of life, he identified it with the limestone landscapes he loved, and described some typical inhabitants of southern Italy (probably Ischia)….

Auden's best poems breathe … an air of self-confident control but a lack of self-importance. Like Dr. Johnson, the poet felt cheerfully communicative about matters which interested him: biology and morals, religion and ritual, geology, music, and Icelandic sagas. By fitting them into one of his schemes, the poet brought them into his family, even as he brought in the reader. (p. 10)

Many of the poems entertain us through his habit of playing solemn games with his categories, especially with certain divisions between opposed sides. Auden liked to separate people—or creatures, or ideas, etc.—into mutually exclusive groups, each with its own rules; and he like telling why they must remain apart. He would go on to treat the consequences of their separation, sometimes explicitly and sometimes cryptically.

But then he would also turn on himself by arranging a passage between the groups. Or he would call for a linkage, produced by means that happily transcended the principle of separation. As the reader takes in the game, he first enjoys discovering the scheme of oppositions and its rules; then he enjoys the benevolent dissolution or transcendence of both.

In the political poetry that Auden wrote during the Thirties, he used to divide the ranks of the oppressors from those of the oppressed and to invoke portents of revolution. But he naturally hinted that his own roots belonged to the former, that by a leap of sympathy he could still identify himself with the latter, and that in some sense love (charity, brotherhood, etc.) might make a bridge. (pp. 10-11)

Auden's drive to establish and cross boundaries went beyond political and social classifications. It started from deeply moral concerns and easily took the form of psychological and religious distinctions: neurosis and health, faith and doubt. Regularly, the poet brought the distinctions to life by relating them to conflicts within the self and by inventing fresh images of transcendence. Even as he noticed the difficulty of crossing a frontier or of bridging a gap, he would insist the change had to be made.

This turn of mind led to another. Auden was struck by the way the commonplace hides the extraordinary, and the outside of things grows from and yet misrepresents their inside: "our selves, like Adam's,/still don't fit us exactly" ("Moon Landing"). Even a world that looks benign makes no response to human misery ("Musée des Beaux Arts"); and utter transformations of character may produce no visible change in one's aspect or manner ("A Change of Air"). In "The Model" Auden deals with the rare instance of an octogenarian who looks as good as she is.

But the opposite case bothered him chronically: colorless lives whose essence is evil….

The persistence of the motif suggests that the poet was reflecting his own moral ambiguity….

[Another] feature of Auden's work [is] the rendering of psychic states in terms of landscape. His imagery easily translated time into space, or changes in personality into changes of location. But the plain unfolding of the self in time seemed more of a challenge to him. At least, Auden handled it with effort, often framing it in the enormous map of phylogeny, or of the evolution of the universe. In a late poem, "The Aliens," he surprisingly finds the metamorphosis of insects an utterly unhuman idea, although he well knew how commonly it has served as a metaphor of man's spiritual history.

Movement in space, whether symbolic or "real," seemed effortless for his imagination. He found it convenient to describe maturing as growing "taller" in his early poems. Later, he could talk about the shift from a worldly to a religious frame of mind as "A Change of Air"; or he could describe the aspiration to grace as "The Quest" of a hero in mythical regions.

A remarkable feature of Auden's symbolic landscapes is the recurrence of certain elements: bleak, north of England scenery, with mines or mining equipment, often abandoned. The poet tells us that when he was a child, between the ages of six and twelve, he enjoyed elaborate daydreams of lead mining in a northern setting. (p. 11)

Auden's first published poem ["Lead's the Best"] was about lead miners who toiled so that cathedrals might have roofs, and that the wealth gained might provide ornaments for a lady whose knights errant were seeking adventure in remote lands…. Almost a quarter-century later, in a superb poem "Not in Baedeker," Auden returned to the theme. Again the lead gave roofs to cathedrals; but no longer did it subsidize ornaments for ladies; instead, it became the linings of coffins, perhaps because Auden's mother had died in 1941. The theme of the hero finding adventure abroad, while the beloved follows the usual routines at home, turns up in several forms, notably in "Who's Who," a neat, incisive comment on the blindness of love….

Didacticism and the impulse to set things in order are traits that encourage categorizing. To strengthen them, there were primitive dichotomies: the split in the self between the child who obeys his parents and the one who resists or ridicules them; or between the adult who labors openly at respectable tasks and the one who enjoys illicit pleasures in secret. Auden's early work The Orators is built on such polarities….

In his finest poems the housewifely, didactic impulse becomes merely the ground on which the inner self joins the outer, harmonized by the metrical design. (p. 12)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Inside Auden's Landscape," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), February 3, 1977, pp. 10-12.