Endless curiosity

W H Auden: Prose, Volume III (1949-1955) Edited by Edward Mendelson Faber &

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To adapt one of the poet's own ways of classi fying persons and things and, indeed, God Himself: W H Auden could be terribly boring, but he was absolutely not a bore - not in print, anyway, even if anyone who survived one of his vodka-sodden social evenings in New York might well want to pass a less lenient verdict. On the right occasions, Auden was not only not a bore, but a true wit, a conjurer, a charmer; and some of those right occasions were the ones when, rather than putting on a black gown and booming at lecture halls of academics or fellow literary professionals, he addressed a general, intelligent public, such as the readers of the New Yorker. Many writers - above all Orwell, in his splendid, ghastly essay on the subject - have groused and moaned about the terrible waste and shame of reviewing books, but in Auden's case the discipline seems to have done him a power of good.

This hefty volume of Auden's prose output clocks in at almost 800 pages including appendices, and gathers what he pounded out, in Manhattan, for money, in the winter months across six years - summer was for poetry, which doesn't pay many bills even if you are an Auden. It offers overwhelming proof that, by this stage of his life, the former rebel and fellow-traveller of the Communist Party was both ready to praise the middle-class virtues of steady hard work and politeness (he had long since given up trying to épater the bourgeois; here, he more often tweaks the noses of the literary and social avant-garde) and to practise them. These pieces vary in size from book length - the volume begins with the full text of his rumination on the Romantic iconography of all things maritime, The Enchafed Flood - to odd blurbs, plugs and petitions. In tone, they range from the plodding ("None of these propositions is a demonstrable proposition but without them . . ." etc, etc) via the skittish to the deliciously pungent: ". . . think of the so kickable whine of Poe's correspondence or the awful whiff, compounded of incense and stale underwear, emitted by Rilke's". Odd synaesthesia, there, but enjoyable for all that.

Auden had been training himself to be a polymath at least since his undergraduate days, and that particular aspect of his talent speaks most plainly in such half-academic, half-populist pieces as his introductions to the five volumes of a series of anthologies he co-edited, Poets of the English Language. Among its other virtues, this brief quintet adds up to a decent primer in the evolution of metres across the centuries since William Langland. He had also been reading widely in history, and drawn some firm if decidedly idiosyncratic conclusions from his studies, which gave him a foundation for such self-assured statements as: "Whenever scientists and artists of different countries exchange periodicals, they are enjoying a right won for them by the popes of the 11th and 12th centuries . . ." Fodder here for a couple of dozen provocative A-level history questions.

When it comes to topics, the range is a good deal narrower: this is more Auden the hobbyist or keen advocate than Auden the man for all themes. There are one or two surprise appearances - a foreword to an early volume by John Ashbery, an introduction to Anzia Yezierska's Red Ribbon on a White Horse - but for the most part the writers he considers are those already well known as in some way or other suited to his palate: Somerset Maugham, Jean Cocteau, Poe, Sidney Smith, Tolkien, Ronald Firbank, Boswell and Johnson, Keats, Baron Corvo, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll. In addition to the purely literary discussions, there are essays on religion (especially Protestant, especially when in the shadow of his major influence at the time, Kierkegaard), music (especially opera, especially libretti and their translation) and Sigmund Freud (especially as a moralist and what Auden calls a "historian".)

There are hints here that Auden thought of his poetry as the stuff that would concern posterity, and of prose as tending towards the purely ephemeral: though he is never sloppy, never less than a decent craftsman, he doesn't often set out to make his articles sparkle and stun. Like an inveterate diner-out who feels no compunction in airing old stories before new audiences, he repeats words, ideas and sometimes almost entire essays in different contexts. A bit of judicious skipping is recommended, if you want to maintain an appetite for the juicier contents, such as his naughty characterisation of Eliot: "Like most important writers, Mr T S Eliot is not a single figure but a household" - made up, Auden continues, of a precise and pedantic archdeacon, a mad old peasant woman who has seen rape, murder, famine and plague at first hand, and a schoolboy who likes to hand out exploding cigars. This diagnosis, which comes in a fleet-footed attack on Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, may not be fair, but, once read, it is hard to forget. Some readers believe that Auden's gift for memorable lines of poetry was lost to him after his move to America. Perhaps so. He certainly hadn't lost the ability to sprinkle a few tasty plums in the suet of journalistic prose.

This article appears in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood