This space is the tomb where the great ones return. ”
Alliteration was probably the answer I was looking for, but I’m not sure. I remember wondering what a “dump” was. Still, the first line and its pleasant chant of “driver to pilot” stuck in my memory. It was only later that I learned that these were the first words of a poem by WH Auden, who was to become one of my favorite writers.
Princeton University Press has just published “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939” and “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973”, edited by the tireless literary executor of the poet, Edward Mendelson. Together, the linked pair reprints each individual collection published during the poet’s lifetime, as well as uncollected or discarded works and fragments. Meticulously detailed endnotes provide the bibliographic history of each poem and trace Auden’s obsessive tinkering and revisions. The two volumes – priced at $60 each – are 2,000 pages and a bargain, as well as a dazzling, scholarly triumph for Mendelson and Princeton. Additionally, they form the cornerstone of the monumental “The Complete Works of WH Auden: Prose”, which comprises six previously published volumes collecting all of the Anglo-American poet’s essays, speeches, plays and juvenilia.
Certainly, many readers will be satisfied with the Vintage paperback book “Selected Poems of WH Auden”, also published by Mendelson. Yet, becoming an Auden Completist is easy. My own passion really ignited at Oberlin College after meeting Robert Phelps, the literary journalist father of one of my roommates. Not only did Robert teach a class on Auden at the New School in Manhattan, but his Greenwich Village apartment housed copies of all of the poet’s books, as well as many associated materials.
Through Robert’s influence, I began to discover the extent of Auden’s genius. I remember opening the 1962 collection of essays “The Dyer’s Hand” one Sunday morning at a breakfast in the South Hall that offered freshly baked hot donuts. Much later, after Robert’s death, I inherited his copy of “The Enchafèd Flood” (1950) – Auden’s fascinating study of the romantic iconography of the sea – as well as his first editions without jacket and scribbled poetry. Almost all of these photos feature images of the author pasted to the flyleaves, and in “Another Time” (1940) – probably Auden’s largest 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, almost all contain breathtaking lines and passages. In his early efforts, the poet seems almost to channel TS Eliot:
“It is time to destroy error.
The chairs are brought from the garden,
The summer conversation stopped on this wild coast
Before the storms, after the guests and the birds:
In the sanatoriums we laugh less and less,
Cure less certain; and the noisy madman
Plunge now into a more terrible stillness.
At other times, Auden’s phrases approach surrealism: “In infected sinus and ermine eyes” or “A crack in the teacup opens / A way to the land of the dead”. A master of light verse, he can also be very funny: “Goddess of authoritarian underlings, Normality! Certain poems, such as “Epitaph on a tyrant”, unfortunately remain relevant: “When he laughed, respectable senators burst out laughing, / And when he cried, little children died in the streets.
As a youth, Auden planned to become a mining engineer, and he’s still good at depicting industrial landscapes – he gravitates around tramlines and slag heaps – but he can also survey rugged 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 gun cocked, the code word engraved in memory…”
‘The Complete Works of Auden’ features writing beyond poetry
Of Auden’s book-length works, I like “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944) the most, built around poems of various styles spoken by the characters of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The bar ballad “Master and Boatswain” begins like this:
“At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s
We drank our liquor straight,
Some rode with Margery,
And some, alas, with Kate…”
After this tumultuous bluster, the poem ends unexpectedly with the conjunction of the melancholy and the worldly:
“The nightingales sob in
The orchards of our mothers,
And the hearts we broke long ago
Have long broken others.
In the second American half of her life, Auden was “ashamed” – her word – of many of her most revered works from the 1930s, calling them “dishonest” rhetorical trash. Among the victims of this aesthetic puritanism were “Spain 1937” (“Today the struggle”), “Sir, the enemy of no one, forgiving all” and “Sept. 1, 1939.s The opening of the latter always seems timely, but rarely more so than now:
“I’m sitting in one of the dives
As clever hopes expire
Of a low and dishonest decade.
Circulates on the luminous
And the darkened lands of the earth…”
Mendelson notes that the poem actually began on September 2 in New Jersey — at the home of Auden’s partner’s dentist father, Chester Kallman — and ended on September 7. So, in a way, it’s dishonest. According to another revealing note, Auden actually planned to remove his tenderest lyrics, “Lay your sleeping head, my love”, from his shorter poems, until Kallman insisted he keep them. Great artists are not always the best judges of their work.
In times of crisis, poetry can help focus our fears and turn “noise into music”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Auden hoped that he might be considered “a minor Atlantic Goethe”, even though his poetry became loose and garrulous, his diction sometimes obscure. A 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 finest money one can make.” can buy” and points out that the windows of his study in Austria admit “a light with which one could repair a watch”. Here, he concludes, “the silence is transformed into objects”. Need we add that these objects, wherever they were handcrafted, are among the best and most enjoyable poems of the 20th century?
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press. 848 pages. $60
The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973
Edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press. 1120 pages. $60
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