When not crafting his poetry, W H Auden wrote to order: reviewing detective stories, penning encyclopaedia entries and writing for the BBC. A collection of his essays shows him happily working 'among the filthy', in prose
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By rights, a poet's prose ought to be shame-faced, apologising that its writer is not better occupied. Why would a poet stoop to review a book or write an essay, unless he was hard-up or temporarily deserted by the fickle muse? Joseph Brodsky declared that "the poet, in principle, is 'higher' than the prose writer". The poet performs exhilarating aerial loops, while the man of the prose trudges along the ground.

Although Brodsky was a friend and a devout admirer of Auden, the disciple's lofty principle was contradicted by the master's practice. Auden, as this first volume of his prose testifies, happily worked to order. He reviewed detective stories, wrote encyclopaedia entries, appealed for funds on behalf of starveling theatre companies, and editorialised on the BBC. He did so with no sense of condescension. Reversing Brodsky's priorities, he considered prose, for all its humdrum horizontality, the more exigent calling. While Brodsky fretted for lift-off, Auden refused to think of walking as a poor, lame substitute for flying. As he shuffled through life in his carpet slippers, wincing as his bunions acted up, he maintained that it was wicked to use a car or any other mechanised transport if your feet could carry you. To walk was to perform a "naturally good act".

In a verse letter to Byron - included here as a piece of honorary prose, since its source is the Letters from Iceland, on which he collaborated with Louis MacNeice in 1936 - Auden calls the novel "a higher art than poetry altogether". His reason, like all of his aesthetic judgements, invokes an arduous moral standard. The novelist requires "finer character and qualities" than the flightily virtuoso poet. The test of his work is not the characters he creates and the qualities with which he endows them; the novel depends on his own integrity as a human being. Isherwood viewed Auden's poetic skill as a slick and fraudulent talent, like the conjurer's capacity to make hats give birth to rabbits. Auden, the connoisseur of crosswords and clerihews, shared this sceptical attitude to his own art. Prose entailed more solemn responsibilities. An account of his personal moral code in 1938 begins with a meditation on goodness, and specifies that "only the greatest novelists can portray good people". Poetry has no need of saints, and no conception of sanctity.

Auden, famously unhygienic, revered novelists because their apprenticeship to reality required them to be "among the filthy / Filthy too". During his Chinese tour with Isherwood, written up as "Journey to a War" and included in this volume, he took a doleful delight in the new phonetic identity assigned to him by a friend in Hong Kong: his name was transliterated as Au Dung. He accepted menial jobs - preparing graphs of Icelandic trade, or writing a benign foreword to a collection of verse by Bristol schoolchildren - because he believed in their humbling virtue. True to the hieratic creed upheld by Brodsky, Eliot thought that poetry should "purify the dialect of the tribe". Auden disliked this purgative ambition, and valued prose because it recalled the level, lowly origin of literature, "whose medium is language - the medium of ordinary social intercourse", soiled, like paper money which has passed through too many hands, by its communal function of exchange. Prose was a public amenity, like the places of congregation - avenues, parks, or squares - which Auden and Isherwood missed in Shanghai: the city, they said, contained "nowhere anything civic at all".

The reviews and essays in Edward Mendelson's new collection, W H Auden Prose 1926-1930 worry over intellectual problems which Auden's poetry treated more elliptically, often more glibly. He saw the decade as "one of the great critical historical periods", and compared its social and intellectual convulsions to the collapse of the Roman empire or the Reformation. He travelled to inspect fissures in a world no longer held together by a liberal consensus. Iceland had been annexed by the Nazis as an Aryan nursery. Auden was gratified to find that the locals were often smart and stocky, more like Alberich than Siegfried, and he rejoiced in their lack of martial vigour: they vomited copiously in buses. China, which Isherwood called "an anonymous country", represented a possible future - but one in which there would be no place for bourgeois individuals like the amateurish reporters who wrote "Journey to a War".

The unique danger of the 1930s, unlike those earlier periods of break- up, was that doubts could now be facilely assuaged or forcibly abolished, because technology had perfected "the centralised distribution of ideas". The Nazis issued every German household with a radio; they turned minds into compliant receivers, tuned in to the Fuhrer's hypnotic harangues. Auden too, as he later remorsefully acknowledged, comforted himself with a political myth, the nostalgic dream of socialist unanimity. In an entry for a children's encyclopaedia, he explained - or explained away - Homer, Dante and Shakespeare as communal creations. Shakespeare might have been the embattled laureate of republican Spain: he "was born in a small, young country, fighting for its existence as a independent nation".

Yet Auden understood that personal and political agendas were not always synchronised. Prefacing an anthology in 1927, he defined poetry as "the formation of private spheres out of a public chaos". That formative activity involves retreat, reclusion. Though poets may aspire to be epic commanders, at best they are day-dreamers, at worst neurotics. Other men unselfconsciously use language as a means of communication. The poet knows that words are a self-disabled lament for the absent things they name. In 1932 Auden pointed out the residual presence of inflection in English, by venturing a candid specimen sentence: "I love him. He loves me." By 1938, in one of his Chinese sonnets, that reciprocal certainty had turned querulous: "America addressed / The earth: 'Do you love me as I love you?'" For Auden, condemned in life to the role of unrequited lover, language was the symptom of our unrequited love for a world which ignores our anthropomorphic designs on it.

Isherwood's mother, taking notes at a lecture in 1937, recorded Auden's claim that "a poet must be an engineer and spy". They were, of course, conflicting personae. Auden, whose favourite Oxford building was the gasworks, admired the engineer's utilitarian, prosaic trade, and thought of literature as a technological tool: he recommended reading in the 1932 children's- encylopaedia essay because it "improves our technique of living".

But he could not resist the arcane poetic allure of sedition. In a review of Churchill's memoirs, he brilliantly remarks that "the English are a feminine race, the perfect spies and intriguers". Letters from Iceland - playing truant from its dour inspection of whaling stations and herring factories - indulges that treasonous and trans-sexual impulse in MacNeice's giggling, gossipy epistle "Hetty to Nancy", addressed in cipher to Anthony Blunt, a "nancy boy" and also a spy.

Pained by these contradictions within himself, Auden strove to synthesise Marx and Freud, which meant reconciling the summons to political engagement and the artist's lamed psychological incapacity. Sometimes he managed the feat through dialectical sleight-of-hand: "There is," he argued in a New Verse essay on surrealism, "a rough and ready parallelism between the Conscious and the Unconscious, and the Masses and the Communist Party". A marriage (I'd say) made in hell.

More often, the gap between the doctrines provoked miserable self-reproach. In league with Isherwood, he elaborated a boyish saga about the need for the fractious self to be annihilated by a virile, grown-up identity. The Truly Weak Man must be transformed into the Truly Strong Man. T E Lawrence, changing his name and discarding his chivalric fancy dress to enlist in the air force, exemplified this austere modern valour, as Auden pointed out in a 1934 review of Liddell Hart's biography. Isherwood praised Auden's indifference to Japanese air raids: he "slept deeply, with the long, calm snores of the truly strong". Despite the compliment, Auden blamed himself for not attaining heroic impersonality.

In Iceland, he glanced enviously at a "real professional English traveller". He assessed his tan, his profile, his easy fluency: here, he admitted, was "something I shall never be". Discussing the demotic appeal of limericks, doggerel and nursery rhymes, he remarked with the same ruefulness that this was "the kind of poetry I should like to write but can't". He made a more ruthless demand on himself when - in the hope that Christianity might resolve the dispute between Marx and Freud - he insisted that "the secret of good art is the same as the secret of a good life".

The emphasis is unashamedly didactic, even parsonical. Auden, who worked as a schoolteacher during the early 1930s, described the development of the profession in a long tract on the educational industry; the beak, he thought, was a latter-day monk. Although the Marxist in him extolled activism, he also paid tribute to "those who pray", who "mediate between God and man" - or between abstract ideas and the grubby, uproarious boys at the back of the classroom. The elderly Auden mocked himself as a "minor transatlantic Goethe". In the prose of the 1930s, there is no affectation of sagacity. Teaching is a drab and dutiful business, conducted in a fug of chalk dust. The Auden who called England his "tutrix" and commended "our intelligent island" contributed a reading list to the Birmingham Town Crier, with notes on vocabulary cribs and comprehension tests for 10- to 14-year-olds.

His irony prompts an immediate qualification. The teacher may be a spy, adopting the role for other, unlicensed purposes. While employed at Downs School, Auden wrote a campy narrative for the school magazine in which a bibulous and pederastic master escorts a party of boys to Transylvania. Failing to guard the morals of his charges, he boasts to Dracula's compatriots about his school's swanky credentials: "The headmaster never appears except in spurs ... and the games master lives on the raw flesh of freshly killed stags."

More seriously, since he thought of his own school as a prototype of the fascist state, Auden wondered, in a 1937 sociological study, if teaching might not be demagoguery by other means, appealing to the love of power, "freedom from contradiction, and the company of the immature". In fact, the temptation lay elsewhere: Auden, never a classroom tyrant, did become a common-room bore. I remember him at All Souls in the 1970s, repetitiously quoting himself, fulminating about the decline of the Times crossword, enslaved to the punctilious personal regime - with bedtime promptly at 9 pm - which had replaced his youthful quest for "security of belief".

The beliefs with which Auden experimented resembled the masks worn by actors at the Group Theatre, where the plays he wrote with Isherwood were performed. Justifying this facial armour, he argued that "everything we think ... modifies our bodies". The headlines of worry and anguished grimaces written on the mask eventually penetrated to the face beneath, etching it with what he called "professional creases". By the end of his life, his personal griefs and the cultural disasters of the century were incised in the furrows and crevasses of his skin. In 1935, negotiating a truce between revolution and theology, he described the strain of the activity: "Christianity is a twice-born catastrophic religion. Jesus teaches that a real conversion is required, not a slow amelioration." The saviour, he added, orders us to start living "the good life" today.

He remained unsure of his own worthiness. Looking into heaven over Byron's shoulder in Letters from Iceland, he asked "Are poets saved?" The question still nagged two years later, when he and Isherwood were entertained to tea by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. "Please tell me," she insidiously inquired, "do poets like cake?" Auden greedily said that they did. "I thought perhaps," she purred, "that they preferred only spiritual food."

An exhausting cycle of commitment and disillusion lay ahead, creating gods and then dismissing them. The urgency of enterprise was tripped up by misjudgements and wrenching changes of heart: men are "articled to error". Eventually Auden identified his own embodiment of the good man, though not in a novel. His personal redeemer was Falstaff, a noble spirit incarnate in a flushed, flatulent body. The Falstaff he worshipped was not Shakespeare's but Verdi's: abandoning the democratic documentary art of the 1930s, symbolised by the camera he carried with him to Iceland and China, Auden put his trust instead in opera, which made the soul manifest in song. But "the Good Place", as he predicted on his way back from China in 1938, "has not been." Certainly its address was not Oxford, where he spent the last morose, sozzled year before his death in 1973.

Failure was the only success available to the Truly Weak Man. At least it vouched that he was still travelling towards an answer, avoiding the false certainties of ideology. Auden died in transit, in a hotel where he was waiting to catch a plane. "The life of man," he said, "is never quite completed"; and Edward Mendelson's multi-volume edition of his prose, I am glad to say, has only just begun. 'W H Auden Prose 1926-1938: Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse', ed Edward Mendelson , is published by Faber, pounds 40