Books: In-jokes and out-takes

Sean French maps the private world of a poetic powerhouse; Prose 1926-1938: Essays, Reviews and Travel Books in prose and verse by W H Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson, Faber, pounds 40
Here is W H Auden writing in 1932, in an extract from a work that has appeared in no earlier collection of his poems:

It is going on.

It is going to be like this to-morrow.

Attendance-officers will flit from slum to slum,

Educational agencies will be besieged

By promising young men who have no incli- nation

To go into business,

Examiners chuckle over a novel setting of

The problem of Achilles and the Tortoise,

Fathers sell grand pianos or give up tobacco,

That little Adrian or Derek may go

To Marlborough or Stowe.

The Auden tone is unmistakable: the shift between incantatory repetition and conversational style, the eye for detail, the unexpected rhymes, above all the sheer oracular authority. The reason it has not appeared in collections of poetry is that it is not a poem. I have reset as verse a paragraph from a review by Auden of three books on education.

In this collection of prose, Auden quotes the definition of poetry as "memorable speech". It was a gift he possessed to an almost miraculous degree. Think of his gift for lapel-grabbing openings. It's everywhere. In his first poems, rejected by T S Eliot as poetry editor at Faber and Faber, and never published, these lines appear: "We saw in Spring/ The frozen buzzard/ Flipped down the weir and carried out to sea."

It's in the elegy made famous by Four Weddings and a Funeral: "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone," or in the opening of the great political poem, "Spain": "Yesterday all the past. The language of size/ Spreading to China along the trade routes

The main thing to be said about this outstanding collection of his prose is that it gives us a look around the engine room of Auden's imagination during its most brilliant decade. The range is bewildering, until you remember the variety of verse he was producing during the same period. There are book reviews, manifestos, introductions to anthologies, a pamphlet about educational theory, a history of writing for children, an essay about the relationship between Freudian psychology and art, and of course the two collaborative travel books, Letters from Iceland (with Louis MacNeice) and Journey to a War (with Christopher Isherwood).

The editor, Edward Mendelson, (who is Auden's literary executor) has rightly included everything, so the variation in quality is great. There are a couple of truly dismal attempts at round-ups of crime fiction for the Daily Telegraph, but then, 100 pages later, they inspire the brilliant poem in Letters from Iceland about why people read detective stories. In his own poetry, Auden was breaking down barriers between the classic and modern, the poetic and prosaic, the private and public, political and lyrical. We follow the same process in these essays. He has an eerie gift for adopting different styles, using jargon, adopting, or sometimes just striking, attitudes. Yet tortuous, contradictory, callow though some of his hastily constructed arguments may have been, Auden was in tune with his decade. One of his large themes that recurs through the essays is a preoccupation with the dangers of hero-worship, both to the followers and to the leader himself.

It was an argument that concerned both the political currents of the Thirties and Auden's own status as a poetic spokesman. This larger dread fed into his poetry and gave an unmistakable charge to his personal mythology of frontiers, spies and tribal betrayals.

Much of this book may seem familiar, consisting as it does of the already available travel books. But they gain considerable interest from being published in their first editions, and for fans of Auden and MacNeice's famous parodic Last Will and Testament, the book will almost be worth its price for the awesomely authoritative, and very funny, notes by Mendelson and Auden's biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines. They explain the weird private jokes and personal references that make up that most Thirtyish of Thirties works.

It was often assumed by disapproving critics that Auden's poetry was a private, possibly homosexual, joke shared between him and his coteries. What Mendelson and Davenport-Hines have shown is that Auden's friends were as baffled as everybody else. Take the following "bequest": "I leave the wheel at Laxey, Isle of Man, / To Sean Day-Lewis."

This is the world's largest waterwheel: a joking reference (so the editors have now established by consulting Sean Day-Lewis) to the five-year-old boy's bedwetting problem for which Auden's father, a doctor, was approached. As with Auden's major poem, "The Orators" - which depends integrally on a paper only published in the journal of the Anthropological Institute - the sense of exclusion was itself the meaning. Not quite getting the point was part of the point.

There will be more urbane, entertaining essays in later volumes by the American Auden, more interested in literature for its own sake. What later essays lose is the sense of impending crisis, of something terrible about to happen, that haunted everything he wrote in the Thirties. When, in September 1939, the terrible thing did happen, Auden would never be quite the same writer, or man, again.