Example poetry

The Biography of a Great Poetry – The Brooklyn Rail

Edited by Edward Mendelson
The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939 & Volume II: 1940-1973
(Princeton University Press, 2022)

The first question anyone interested in the poetry of WH Auden is likely to ask about the lavish new edition of the poems is, “What will I learn from these 2,000 pages that I don’t know of collected poems, also edited by Edward Mendelson, which came out in 1976, has been in print since and has 670 pages? Or, if you believe any of the poems Auden wrote after emigrating to the United States are comparable to those written in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, “What Will I Find Out About the best poetry of Auden that I do not know of the years 1977 English Auden, also edited by Mendelson and still in print, where the poetry is only 300 pages? »

The answer to both is a lot, and the added value starts with the presentation. While the collected poems is retrospective, printing the poems Auden wanted as he wanted them at the time of his death, the Princeton Poems, from an uplifting perspective, prints the poems as they first appeared in individual books, recreating Auden’s poetic development as it actually occurred from 1928 to 1972, including many poems eliminated later, as well as the posthumous poems Thank you, Fog. Here are also poems that Auden published in magazines but chose not to reprint, as well as poems that he did not publish anywhere, such as the first thirty-six lines of an unfinished sextina from 1940, “We understand the dialectic quite well”, which sprang to life in The New York Book Review last December.

Significant changes are reflected in the text notes which make up more than half the number of pages. Since the notes don’t identify or explain names and other references, this might seem like a lot of unnecessary information unless you’re working on a Ph.D., but Auden treated her published books like notebooks and could do several rounds of different revisions before deciding one the poem was finished. It was certainly true until his Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 and Longer poems collected, published in 1966 and 1968 respectively, and he might have made further changes to earlier poems and revised later poems had he had the opportunity in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Not only do the text notes list Auden’s second, third, and fourth thoughts, but they point out the errors and euphemisms introduced by typists and editors on either side of the Atlantic. The notes are therefore essential to this edition of the poetry, which is both the culmination of the Princeton edition of Auden’s complete works and the foundation on which it was built.

And yet…you’d be hard pressed to find contemporary poems in English that bear an affinity with the poems collected here, the kind of affinity that, though in no way resembling them, the early poems have with poems by Hardy and Frost, Yeats and Moore. Heaps of poems from the 1930s and 1940s were influenced by Auden, some written by his friends, but the most recent readable and widely available evidence of his influence that I know of is that of John Ashbery. some trees, published in 1956, and a poem that Philip Larkin added to his 1946 The North ship when it was reprinted 20 years later, “Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair.” This apparent estrangement is partly the result of the inevitable historicization of a recognized poet and partly due to the changes within and without poetry over the last half century.

Some landmarks are obvious. An example: for Auden, “man” and “humanity” are nouns that include women as well as men, and he doesn’t care about the long-term effects of a shared noun that favors one gender over one. other. Unless a poem is a love poem or a character study, “he” is the generic pronoun for every living person: you pick him up and get somewhere with the poems, and if you don’t, goodbye. But what really sets Auden’s poetry apart from poems today is his lifelong technical engagement with the poetry in English that preceded him, beginning with Beowulf—a body of work which he developed in all directions, contributing elegies, clerihews, sonnet sequences, ballads, prose poems, villanelles and englyns. To start.

The startling novelty and quality of the alliterative, politically inflected and electrifying early poems – “The Watershed”, “This Lunar Beauty”, “A Bride in the 30’s” – owe as much to Auden’s time and life as England was his home base, as they do for the country itself. He lived in Weimar Berlin a year after graduating from Oxford in 1927, taught at preparatory schools in England, wrote plays with Christopher Isherwood, traveled to Iceland with Louis MacNeice, provided texts to Benjamin Britten, wrote screenplays and did odd jobs for a government-sponsored documentary film unit, visited the Spanish Republican Front in 1937, and was in China with Isherwood when the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Once he swapped national borders for state borders, Auden settled into what was quickly becoming a standard for American poets, supporting himself by writing reviews, anthologizing, and traveling the country from college to college. , teaching, lecturing and giving readings. After 1945, he spent summers abroad.

It was on their return trip from China in 1938 that Auden and Isherwood first saw the United States, liked what they saw, and decided to settle there: Isherwood in Los Angeles , Auden in New York. They returned in early 1939 preceded by a formidable reputation, and some Britons never forgave them for what they saw as outright desertion during the worst threat to their homeland since Napoleon. But both men were professional writers, not soldiers or diplomats, and expecting them to put their lives on hold for the national emergency is just as logical as believing Neville Chamberlain wouldn’t have signed. the Munich agreement if he had read The speakers or Isherwood Sally Bowles. It should also be remembered that homosexuality was a criminal offense in England until 1967.

Taken together, the poems fall into three main groups, the English Auden being replaced not so much by an American Auden but, in the four long poems written during and just after the Second World War, by a consciousness breaking away from the England and Europe and finding his bearings in the United States and a renewed commitment to Christianity. “New Year’s Letter” “For the time being,” “The sea and the mirror”, and “The Age of Anxiety” were the last long poems written by Auden, but he had not stopped writing shorter poems, often in thematic sequels, and he continued to write them, as well as librettos. opera with her partner Chester Kallman and a steady stream of translations and critical prose, until her death in a Viennese hotel room in 1973.

As his poetry relaxes after 1947 The age of anxiety, it never loses its brilliance or technical ability, and the final lyrics are as remarkable in their more roundabout ways as the previous pointed work. Here are the endings of “First Things First”, “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno” and “Partition”:

Grateful, I slept until a morning that wouldn’t say
How much he believed in what I said the storm had said
But quietly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many more cubic meters in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.


… even if we cannot always
Remember exactly why we were happy,
We must not forget that we were.


The next day he sailed for England, where he soon forgot
The case, as a good lawyer should. He wouldn’t come back
Fear, as he told his club, of getting shot.

As well as bringing together some of the most vivid poems ever written in English, their relevance no more limited to poetry than to the century in which they were written, these two books are also a monument to insight, to the scholarship and perseverance of Edward Mendelson, the literary executor and publisher of the complete works, who brings to his task here, as he has done for the eight volumes of plays, librettos and prose, a unique devotion usually associated with editors of Victorian poets’ letters, Cecil Y. Lang for example, and, further afield, founders of texts like Herbert JC Grierson, whose 1912 edition of John Donne’s poems is still the only one that account. You’d say Auden was lucky if you didn’t think his work deserved that kind of meticulous, exemplary care.

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