Years ago, I was doggedly answering the questions on a standardized high school achievement test when I was asked to identify the poetic device employed in the following stanza:
That gap is the grave where the tall return.’ ”
Alliteration was presumably the answer wanted, but I’m not sure I knew that. I do remember wondering what a “midden” was. Still, the first line and its pleasing singsong of “reader to rider” stuck in my mind. Only later did I learn that they were the opening words of a poem by W.H. Auden, who would become one of my favorite writers.
Princeton University Press has just published “The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939” and “The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973,” edited by the poet’s indefatigable literary executor, Edward Mendelson. Together, the linked pair reprint each individual collection issued in the poet’s lifetime, as well as uncollected or rejected works and fragments. Meticulously detailed endnotes supply every poem’s bibliographical history and track Auden’s obsessive tinkerings and revisions. The two volumes — priced at $60 each — clock in at 2,000 pages and are a true bargain, as well as a dazzling, scholarly triumph for both Mendelson and Princeton. What’s more, they form the capstone to the monumental “The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose,” which includes six previously issued volumes gathering all the British American poet’s essays, talks, plays and juvenilia.
Many readers, admittedly, will be happy with just the Vintage paperback “Selected Poems of W.H. Auden,” also edited by Mendelson. Still, it’s easy to become an Auden completist. My own passion really caught fire at Oberlin College after I made the acquaintance of Robert Phelps, the literary journalist father of one of my roommates. Not only did Robert teach a course on Auden at Manhattan’s New School, but his Greenwich Village apartment also housed copies of all the poet’s books, as well as much associated material.
Through Robert’s influence, I began to discover the breadth of Auden’s genius. I remember opening the 1962 essay collection “The Dyer’s Hand” one Sunday morning during a breakfast at South Hall that featured hot, freshly made doughnuts. Much later, after Robert’s death, I inherited his copy of “The Enchafèd Flood” (1950) — Auden’s thrilling study of the romantic iconography of the sea — as well as his jacketless, scribbled-in first editions of the poetry. Nearly all these feature pictures of the author taped to the endpapers, and in “Another Time” (1940) — probably Auden’s greatest single collection — Robert left a postcard of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” which inspired the famous “Musée des Beaux-Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong/ The Old Masters.”
While the meanings of Auden’s poems can sometimes be elusive, nearly all of them contain lines and passages that take your breath away. In his earliest efforts, the poet almost seems to be channeling T.S. Eliot:
“It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanitoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.”
At other times, Auden’s phrases approach the surreal: “In the infected sinus, and the eyes of stoats” or “A crack in the teacup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead.” A master of light verse, he can also be very funny: “Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!” Some poems, like “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” remain sadly all too relevant: “When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/ And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”
In his youth, Auden planned to become a mining engineer, and he’s always terrific at depicting industrial landscapes — he gravitates to tram lines and slag heaps — but he can also survey rough terrain through the eyes of a secret agent: “Control of the passes was, he saw, the key” or “Watching with binoculars the movement of the grass for an ambush,/ The pistol cocked, the code-word committed to memory …”
Of Auden’s book-length works, I most love “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944), built around poems in various styles spoken by the characters from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The barroom ballad “Master and Boatswain” starts this way:
“At Dirty Dick's and Sloppy Joe's
We drank our liquor straight,
Some went upstairs with Margery,
And some, alas, with Kate …”
After that roistering swagger, the poem unexpectedly closes with the conjunction of the wistful and worldly:
“The nightingales are sobbing in
The orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others.”
In the second, American half of his life, Auden grew “ashamed” — his word — of several of his most revered works of the 1930s, calling them “dishonest” rhetorical trash. Victims of this aesthetic puritanism included “Spain 1937” (” Today the struggle”), “Sir, no man’s enemy, forgiving all,” and “Sept. 1, 1939. The opening of this last always feels timely, but seldom more so than now:
“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low, dishonest decade.
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth …”
Mendelson notes that the poem was actually begun on Sept. 2 in New Jersey — at the home of the dentist father of Auden’s partner Chester Kallman — and finished by Sept. 7. So in one sense, it is dishonest. According to another revelatory note, Auden actually planned to drop his most tender lyric, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” from his collected shorter poems, until Kallman insisted he keep it in. Great artists aren’t always the best judges of their work.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Auden hoped he might be regarded as “a minor Atlantic Goethe” even as his poetry grew loose and talky, his diction occasionally recondite. One poem from “About the House” (1965) ends with the line “the true olamic silence.” (Olamic refers to a vast period of time, eons.) Appropriately, in “The Cave of Making” — also from “About the House” — Auden lovingly describes his dictionaries as “the very best money can buy” and stresses that the windows of his study in Austria admit “a light one could mend a watch by.” Here, he concludes, “silence is turned into objects.” Need one add that those objects, wherever they were handcrafted, stand high among the best and most enjoyable poems of the 20th century?
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press. 848 pp. $60
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press. 1120 pp. $60
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