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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition