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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
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.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style