IS THERE AN Auden boom in the making?

The publication of these three overlapping works this year, following on Samuel Hynes' critical survey The Auden Generation (1977) and Charles Osborne's gossipy biography (1979), would seem to point in that direction. Not that there has ever been an Auden bust, except in certain critical and academic circles where his theory and practice of poetry ran counter to prevailing fashions. Indeed, the last few years have also seen a definitive edition of Auden's Collected Poems (1976), the republication of the original, unrevised versions of his early poetry in The English Auden (1978), and a new edition of the popular paperback Selected Poems (1979), all edited by Edward Mendelson. Now, eight years after his death, we are beginning to get a fix on Auden's place in the firmament of 20th-century poetry and a more rounded portrait of the complicated private man behind the rumpled public face.

Humphrey Carpenter has found a congenial subject in Auden; the biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien and his fellow Inklings has moved on to a younger contemporary of C. S. Lewis and his friends but one who for the most part had little direct contact with them. The exception was Charles Williams. Auden met Williams, then an editor at Oxford University Press, in 1937 when he proposed doing an Oxford Book of Light Verse. The proposal was accepted, but more significantly, Auden made a personal discovery that was to affect his return, three years later, to the practice of the Anglican faith: "For the first time in my life (I) felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity." It was not an unusual experience with Williams, as T.S. Eliot and Lewis have both testified. But even apart from this religious link, Auden came to share in his later life a preference for poetic forms and subjects that correspond to the anti-modernist stance of the Inklings, and he became such a fan of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings that he was willing to make appreciation of it a touchstone of literary judgment.

This, of course, is not the Auden of the early poetry and the "Auden generation." The young man who dominated his peers in the 1930s by force of intellect and sheer productivity traveled in a world far removed from Oxford's common rooms. Indeed, his own academic career there was memorable more for the figure he cut than for any scholastic achievement. His youthful tutor, Nevill Coghill, once asked him what he intended to do in later life, to which Auden replied, "I am going to be a poet." But when Coghill proceeded to give him professorial advice about the usefulness of the English course as preparation for such a career, Auden scowlingly replied, "You don't understand at all, "I mean a great poet."

In the decade between Auden's coming down from Oxford and his departure from England in 1939, he was seldom in one place for very long. Germany, Iceland, Spain, China marked the most significant stopovers on his geographical pilgrimage; teaching and, for a time, film work provided income while he attempted to establish himself as a professional man of letters.

This outward restlessness had its inner and more profound counterpart. Here Carpenter and Mendelson complement one another splendidly, as one follows a personal, the other a critical path through Auden's early manhood. Together they give us what all the other books and articles have never quite managed: a sensitive account of Auden's development that relates his emotional and sexual search for an enduring personal relationship to his wider quest for a convincing belief system (whether psychological, political or religious) as well as a comprehensive critical reading of the poetry, drama and commentary that grew out of that double search. And what an astonishingly large corpus that appears when you consider that Auden was only 32 when he left England.

Carpenter begins forthrightly enough with a disclaimer ("not a book of literary criticism") and a direct confrontation with Auden's pronouncements against literary biographies ("always superfluous and usually in bad taste"). In justifying the project he offers an observation about Auden that illuminates much of the poet's life, especially his later years: "Auden adopted a dogmatic attitude which did not reflect the full range of his opinions, and which he sometimes flatly contradicted." If any one feature of Auden's personality dominates this detailed, objective yet sympathetic biography it is his complexity: the political radical who never joined the Communist Party because he saw himself as irradicably bourgeois; the homosexual who accepted both the traditional Christian strictures against his way of life and his own need to live that way; the artist who took his craft with utmost seriousness and yet could call it, in comparison with morality and religion, "small beer."

Combine all of that with the force of Auden's personality and one comes away with some sympathy for Chester Kallman, the young American who became Auden's lover in 1939 and his friend and companion for over three decades. It was not to be the idyllic relationship Auden had hoped for, but it did provide him with the closest approximation to married love that he was ever to find. In describing this relationship and the other sexual involvements that preceded and followed it, including a brief, intense heterosexual affair, Carpenter is scrupulously fair to all parties and, more important still, he neither confuses love with lust nor reads the poems that grew out of these relationships in a naively autobiograpical way. Most important of all, he recognizes the true connection between the various crises of Auden's emotional life and his work: "(Auden) in fact needed the crisis: it provided a vital stimulus to his emotions and imagination. As he himself said of Chester: 'He makes me suffer and commit follies, without which I should soon become like the later Tennyson.' The truth was that his finest and greatest love was not for Chester but for his art. Everything else could be, and was, absorbed into it."

Which brings us to Early Auden, a book that puts Auden's poetry squarely at center stage and relies on biograpical detail either to frame the narrative or, occasionally, to elucidate certain obscurities in the poems. Where Carpenter taps Auden's letters and other writers' memoirs, Mendelson mines the original drafts of published and unpublished poems for important clues to the development of Auden's art, from his discarded juvenilia to the masterly poems he wrote shortly before sailing to New York, among them, "Mus,ee des Beaux Arts." Chapter by chapter, Mendelson leads us through the oeuvre (most conveniently available in The English Auden), mapping the shifting landscape of Auden's poetic world, linking his psychological and political search for a stable world view to the poetry's inward and outward turns.

Though he sticks closely to the texts, Mendelson offers more than a series of explications. He has a clear thesis as well, which is part apologia, part polemic. It revolves around the distinction between vatic and civil poetry, the former exemplified by the Romantic poets and their successors, the latter by Chaucer and Spenser, Dryden and Pope. The modernist movement, to which Auden was an early and ardent convert, owed its principal allegiance to the vatic tradition with its exaltation of the poet as lonely seer and of poetry as the supreme human achievement. Auden eventually abandoned the disguised Romanticism of the modernist stance because its turn inward had become self-regarding to the point of self-extinction. In its place he reinstated the discarded civil tradition where strict form took precedence over free verse and where "building the Just City now" outweighed poetic angst. Such is Mendelson's overall reading of Auden's career; the polemical edge in its tone is aimed at the critics who have dismissed Auden as a brillant young poet who in his later years abandoned radicalism for dogma and poetic substance for formal virtuosity. The full development of that argument will have to await Mendelson's promised second volume, but for now we have this lapidary summation: "Auden's early poetry is the record of his passage from indifference to forgiveness."

Mendelson's achievement has been to chart that journey in its broad outlines and specific details, giving us along the way convincing readings of well-known poems like "A Summer Night," "Lullaby" and "Spain 1937" that remove old obscurities while opening up new complexities. He has also turned up certain unpublished poems of 1933 that reveal Auden's brief flirtation with messianic fantasies, and he speculates that Auden's critique, in his preface to Markings, of Dag Hammarskjold's similar temptations may have been sparked by his own experience. What gives that speculation point is the likelihood (mentioned also by Carpenter) that Auden's refusal to alter those remarks cost him the Nobel Prize in 1964. This is a long book to cover a decade of a poet's life, but it is a tribute both to Auden's fertile imagination and to Mendelson's graceful command of the material that Early Auden suffers from no critical longueurs.

The same cannot be said quite so confidently of Donald Mitchell's much briefer book, based on the Eliot Memorial Lectures of 1979 at the University of Kent. Part of the problem derives from the form; the chatty tone and digressive asides that enliven a lecture often ring false in print; similarly, the multimedia presentations that allowed Mitchell to illustrate his talks with sound and image are reduced here to scores and stills. But there are also the limitations imposed by the narrow focus; the title says "the Thirties," but most of the discussion centers on the subtitle year, 1936. The book is in essence a long historical footnote, elaborating, more from Britten's standpoint than from Auden's, an uneasy, short-lived but quite fruitful partnership between composer and poet. Mitchell relies heavily on Britten's private diaries for background, and, as his publisher and authorized biographer, he has more to say about the music than the poetry, though he does print an otherwise unavailable text of Auden's from the film, The Way to the Sea.

It is perhaps unfair to compare this short course of lectures with the major studies of Carpenter and Mendelson; Mitchell lacks the former's psychological acumen and the latter's hermeneutical talents. But he does remind literary types that music played a vital role in the artistic and political world of the 1930s in film, drama and song. And his extended treatment of the professional and personal relationship between Britten and Auden illustrates just how completely the latter tended to take over the running of his friends' lives. Mitchell includes in his notes an extraordinarily avuncular letter from Auden to Britten to 1942 that explains a good deal of the coolness the composer displayed toward the poet in later years. But as Mitchell also makes clear, the settings Britten did of Auden's poems, especially the "On This Island" sequence, had a decisive impact on his musical career. What matters, or should matter, to us is the art; everything else about the artist is memorable insofar as it illuminates the work of creating. On this point, Mitchell, Mendelson, Carpenter--and Auden--would concur. $90By JOHN B. BRESLIN, JOHN B. BRESLIN, S.J., is associate director of the Georgetown University Press and a contributing editor to America magazine