Kendra Steiner Editions

September 3, 2019

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, ‘Prose, Volume III: 1949-1955’

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THE COMPLETE WORKS OF W.H. AUDEN, ‘PROSE, VOLUME III: 1949-1955’

Edited by Edward Mendelson, 779 pages

Published in 2008 by Faber & Faber

auden

In March of this year, I spent a few glorious weeks savoring the final volume of Auden’s collected prose, VOLUME VI: 1969-1973, in whatever free time I had for reading. When I was a teenager, Auden’s poetry had excited me, alongside the work of Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery, though for some reason in the last 20 years I no longer read Auden’s verse. About 20 years ago, I acquired the volume COLLECTED LONGER POEMS, and I found it deadly. Oh, I’m sure the fault was entirely my own, but I could not make it through any of them—-on some level I was reminded of fusion-jazz, lots of technical expertise but nothing to say…except for when the pieces were didactic, and that was even worse. Auden’s prose, however, is still a joy for me. Whether essays, reviews, prefaces, commissioned statements, or whatever an esteemed author and intellectual is paid to write to pay his bills and to fund what he views as his “creative work,” the pieces both illuminate the subjects discussed and, perhaps more importantly, contain the kind of off-the-cuff philosophizing and summations of a life’s worth of life experience and intellectual passions that only a wise person can toss off effortlessly. It is a privilege to be in Auden’s presence, if only on the page and sixty-five to seventy years after these pieces in the present volume were written, from 1949-1955. Auden is the kind of public intellectual always needed in society. He reminds me that a fine essay is as satisfying as a piece of chamber music or a miniature from a master visual artist, and he surely dashed most of these off as quickly as Picasso could draw a woman’s back with a few expert and passionate strokes.

When Auden is discussing 20th Century Greek poetry, or T.S. Eliot’s essays, or American culture, or Poe, or Wilde, or Byron, or Cocteau, or the Protestant Reformation, in between the analysis and the detail about the subject at hand, one finds wonderful gems tossed like rubies by someone ordered to scatter their riches in the next five minutes…statements that on some level may make assertions, and that the reader may or may not accept, but that start one thinking, that raise questions, the way a fine Socratic teacher will begin the dialogue with an ice-breaker. I tend to slip in a bookmark and stop reading when I encounter one of these, and begin pondering, the way one would in the perfect college seminar, which probably does not exist in the real world, or exists only rarely.

Why don’t I share some of these random passages from Volume III (1949-1955) of the COLLECTED PROSE, and let you also take these passes given to you by quarterback Auden and run with them (all within about 50 pages of this massive book):

“…to find out what a person’s religion is one has only to discover what he becomes violent about.”

“The problem of every man and writer is at all times essentially the same, namely, first to be himself and then to learn to not be himself”

“Like nearly all self-analyses, this is at once too modest in regards the gifts and too proud as regards the character, for what lies in front of one’s nose depends on the direction in which one chooses to look”

“The nine or ten short novels…of Roland Firbank are, to me, an absolute test. A person who dislikes them, like someone who dislikes the music of Bellini or prefers his steak well-done, may, for all I know, possess some admirable quality, but I do not wish ever to see him again”

“No European finds it easy to believe that progress is likely”

“[Cocteau’s} attitude is always professional, that is, his first concern is for the nature of the medium and its hidden possibilities: his drawings are drawings, not uncolored paintings; his theatre is theatre, not reading matter in dialogue form; his films are films, not photographed stage effects”

“[Christian] apologetics by their nature can arrive at little more than negative conclusions, i.e. the most an apologist can hope to demonstrate is that his opponent’s conclusions do not answer certain questions which they both agree must be answered”

“Every artist, good or bad, is a member of a class of one”

“The artist does not want to be accepted by others, he wants to accept his experience of life which he cannot do until he has translated his welter of impressions into an order; the public approval he desires is not for himself but for his works, to re-assure him that the sense he believes he has made of experience is indeed sense and not a self-delusion”

“Every translator is an international agent of good-will”

“When one glances over a list of titles to religious books, one realizes how almost impossible it is for writers on such topics to avoid sounding like salesmen of quack medicines”

“[Poe’s] heroes cannot exist except operatically”

And as Auden himself wrote about a book of T. S. Eliot’s essays, which applies equally to his own prose, “the value of Mr. Eliot’s book is not the conclusions he reaches, most of which are debatable, but the questions he raises.”  I’d say only “some,” not “most” in Auden’s case, but the questions Auden raises make reading his collected prose akin to a session with a great Socratic teacher. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

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