By Edward Mendelson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 570 pp. $30

Reviewed by Thomas M. Disch

Great poets are greatly young in their youth and then undergo sea-changes in sync with the times they live in and speak for as voices of the Zeitgeist. Lesser lights hoard their resources, repeat themselves like the very seasons, and strain to build thick, solid brick houses that will last a lifetime. The great, and only they, can get away with being prodigal.

Auden was the greatest poet in our language during the period(s) of his ascendancy, from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s. Edward Mendelson's study Later Auden opens in 1939 with the poet's arrival in New York at the age of 31, the unofficial laureate of his era with a body of work already behind him that was the subject of Mendelson's first volume of criticism, Early Auden -- work that included such anthems of the then-ascendant Left orthodox ideology as "Spain 1937" with its antithesis of "Yesterday the Sabbath of Witches. But today the struggle" and (lines he would live to renounce):

Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death;

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder;

Today the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

The flat ephemeral pamphlet might have been the poet's good, activist intention, but it was never within his range. From the moment he arrived in what was to become his new homeland, he never ceased to dazzle, and his fireworks have endured like marble. Within weeks of unpacking his briefcase, he had written his superb elegy "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" ("Earth, receive an honoured guest; William Yeats is laid to rest . . . "), which was also a kind of self-coronation, for who else was to assume the mantle Yeats had laid aside? Who else could turn out one immense Bardic Declaration after another at full throttle for the duration?

The next was to become his best-known poem, "September 1, 1939," which begins:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade . . .

and which climaxes with the oft-quoted "We must love one another or die." This, the poet later admitted, was not exactly true, for we'll all die whatever we do, but it was the affirmation that the time required, and the copyright is his, no matter that he would renounce that poem, too, in the course of poem-devouring time.

Great poets, when foolish, are also great fools, and Auden was that, too. He gobbled up every Big Idea that came along and gave it significant expression. Mendelson's critical exegesis is in large part of a history of Auden's ideological foibles. These were, it must be admitted, prophetic of the intellectual trends that would shape the half-century ahead. Auden was one of the first to acknowledge Marxism as a failed God, and he was a charter subscriber to Jung, to Kierkegaard and the High Protestant Existentialism of the 1950s, though he often did not renew his subscription. Before gays were out of the closet, he was notable for his sexual candor. Even in a Minnesota high school in 1956, I knew that his lines "Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm" had been written for another man. Ginsberg might take his clothes off on stage, but Auden had anticipated him in a dozen poems. Auden might have sneered at the confessional impulse in poetry, but his principles never constrained his Muse.

Mendelson is at his best when he patiently explicates the connections between the poet's life and his work, as when he shows how Auden's summers in Ischia were conflated with his childhood in the north of England to become the magistral verse essay "In Praise of Limestone." Other writers have often speculated on the connection between a nation's character and its geography (it was a favorite hobbyhorse of Gertrude Stein's), but none has ever framed so careful and particular (and concise) a case as Auden. His poem is a prime example of "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed."

Auden's lucidity in such cases sometimes militates against the need for an unriddling criticism. It is when Auden is difficult, gnomic or simply tiresome that Mendelson provides a useful open-sesame, encouraging one to have another go. Even with that encouragement I doubt I shall ever make it through Auden's faux-pastoral "The Age of Anxiety." On the other hand, Mendelson won me over to "The Sea and the Mirror," Auden's long riff on Shakespeare's "Tempest" (and his own genius), so that I wonder now how I managed so much to miss the point on my first visit. Self-delighting praise of one's own work is one of the prerogatives of genius, and in the prose sequence called "Caliban to the Audience" Auden (wrapped in the queenly robes of the late Henry James) describes himself as no reviewer would presume to, using the campy locutions he more and more affected in his later years, when his readers were addressed as "my dear":

"As he looks in on her, so marvelously at home with all her cosy swarm about her, what accents will not assault the new arrival's ear, the magnificent tropes of tragic defiance and despair, the repartee of the high humor, the pun of the very low, cultured drawl and manly illiterate bellow, yet all of them gratefully doing their huge or tiny best to make the party go?"

Auden was more than just the consummate literary hostess that is his persona here. He was, as his biographers have made clear, a rather impossible person -- self-absorbed to the point of monomania (when lesser beings presumed to take part in his monologues, he would say "Quite" and then continue along his solitary path); he was content to contradict himself with a Whitmanlike insouciance, usually for his own psychological convenience; he was a pioneer amphetamine addict and a traditional magnum-a-night alcoholic, as a consequence of which two habits he came to resemble, while still in his fifties, the portrait of Dorian Gray. But for all that, the disaster of the life and the follies of the ideologue seem to have impinged less on the stature of the poet than was the case for Pound or Berryman or Plath or any of his contenders for the title of Poet with the Mostest, and it was a pleasure to be invited back to the party by Mendelson, the perfect major domo.

Thomas M. Disch is a poet and novelist whose new novel, "The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft," will be published this month.