Books: Keeper of the flame : Later Auden by Edward Mendelson Faber & Faber, pounds 25, 570pp

What's the last thing a great poet ought to do? Choose the right literary executor. Sean French rejoices that W H Auden made sure his work rests in good hands the right choice we knew about them. T H Barrett finds holes in the Wall holes in the Wall holes in the Wall

In the couple of years before W H Auden's death in 1973, the heavy smoking, drinking and pill-popping caught up with him. His face looked like a geological relic. David Hockney made a memorable drawing, commenting: "I kept thinking, if his face was that wrinkled, what did his balls look like?" His conversation was repetitive; he became isolated and depressed.

But even while so much else was going wrong, Auden did a brilliant thing. He had got to know Edward Mendelson, a young Yale academic, and enlisted his cooperation in editing a collection of essays. He was so impressed that he appointed him as his literary executor.

The result of this choice has been startling. Compare the posthumous publishing history of Auden with that of T S Eliot, under the supervision of his widow, Valerie. In the 35 years since Eliot's death there has been no proper revision of the collected poetry, no expanded selection of essays. The edition of the letters seems to have stuck at volume one, and there have been a number of unseemly squabbles with unauthorised biographers.

On the other hand, Mendelson has devoted much of his career to producing a series of superbly edited editions of the poetry, prose, plays and librettos. These range from daunting (and scarily expensive) scholarly works to the indispensible selection of the poetry available as a cheap paperback. He has also cooperated tactfully with biographers, critics and other editors. The result is that an extraordinary amount of Auden's work is accessible (with even more, such as wonderful late essays and reviews, to come). It's difficult to think of any editor who has done as much for his subject since Max Brod refused Kafka's deathbed request to destroy his manuscripts.

Mendelson has also acted almost as Auden's authorised critic in various introductions and notes and, above all, in Early Auden (published back in 1981) and now Later Auden. This is not the slavish, sycophantic process it sounds. From the very start, when he was an undergraduate poet, Auden led a controversial public career. He constantly did things that great poets weren't supposed to. He collaborated, wrote in unrespectable forms such as commentaries for films or nightclub songs, made private jokes in his poetry, wrote about gasworks and disused railway sidings, and claimed to be bored by nature. He kept developing and leaving supporters adrift.

And this was before, with Christopher Isherwood, he left Britain for America just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The ferocious attacks on this supposed act of desertion mutated into an attack on his poetry. Philip Larkin, for instance, wrote a devastating review describing the American Auden as "too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving".

Auden emerges from this book as a man entirely lacking any kind of spite. Mendelson tells us that just a few months after Larkin's review appeared, Auden reviewed Larkin's The Less Deceived and "praised it without reservation".

Auden's growing tendency to rewrite, cut or suppress famous early poetry caused even more resentment, even among close friends. Mendelson uses his knowledge of the published and unpublished work to trace the logic of Auden's development. To put it crudely, this amounts to moving from being a poet who wrote what was beautiful even if he didn't really believe it was true to one who tried to get at truth even if the result might not be conventionally beautiful.

The knowledge needed to trace Auden's shifts requires awesome scholarship. Nobody has ever mistaken The Age of Anxiety for a simple poem. Larkin said that he had never got through it, or met anyone who had. In a typical detail, Mendelson mentions that many critics have pointed out that the poem's epigraph comes from the Dies Irae sung in the Mass for All Souls night. But, he adds, "the relation of these details to the rest of the poem makes sense only in terms of the little-known book in which Auden found them". Mendelson goes on to demonstrate with great subtlety the way in which Auden drew on Out of Revolution, an "eccentric, panoramic study of history" by the forgotten Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.

I don't think Larkin would have been won over. Mendelson doesn't give much attention to tone, the way that the American Auden just sounds so different from the English Auden. But a serious reading of masterpieces like The Sea and the Mirror, For the Time Being and Horae Canonicae now starts with this book.

There are lesser compensations to Mendelson's thorough scholarship. On page 397 he decorously avoids mentioning the name of the young man addressed in "Lay your sleeping head, my love". But if you cross-reference it with the note on page 796 of Mendelson's edition of Auden's prose, you can, for the first time, work out who was the subject of one of this century's most beautiful love poems.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living