In the normal way of things a reviewer with no pressing deadline could spend a score of widely scattered hours reading Forewords and Afterwords, stimulated always by the vast expanse of what he doesn’t know that Auden does. The range of interest, and none of it mechanical! All of it professional in the best sense, amateur in the best sense, free of bluff, full of life. As it turns out, though, this book becomes the last one to have been published in the poet’s lifetime.
A collection of all the shorter critical pieces and introductions he wished to preserve – the longer prose is in The Enchafèd Flood, Secondary Worlds and his central critical work, The Dyer’s Hand – Forewords and Afterwords could at first sight seem a fair distance from the poetry and scarcely a representative last text. Posthumous verse collections will surely follow at a brisk rate. And yet, as a volume conveying Auden’s European magnitude as an artist, this collection of his ancillary prose could scarcely be bettered. In its casual way (casual in the happenstance of its occasions and compilation: there is, of course, nothing casual whatever about its thought and craft) it is a testament not just to Auden’s culture but to culture – the European artistic civilization which, we can now see, Auden was as effective as Eliot in comprehending and maintaining. And he was more at ease in it than Eliot. In every sense he was at home.
Literary journalism, then; but an ample demonstration that literary journalism at its height – and even when dictated in its emphases by the preoccupations of a working artist – is the criticism that transmits vale. And unlike many synoptic critics who are in the omniscience business full time, Auden does not feel compelled to reinforce his sense of value by pretending that everything worth knowing about the heritage of every tongue finds its confluence in him. Not out of humility, just out of practical necessity, he admits ignorance and follows where it leads. After explaining, for example, that the French alexandrine, even when Racine is writing it, always sounds to him like the anapaestic canter of ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’ he goes on:
In such a passage several of Auden’s special qualities as a writer of critical prose are simultaneously busy. There is his lightness of touch, as if all these things were workaday affairs and not at all frightening. There is the unintended hint at the vastness of his reading, which extends even to the minor correspondence of the great artists and especially to their correspondence with each other: in Auden’s prose all the artists of the past are alive and talking among themselves in a humane (mostly) and engagingly human (always) unanimity of interest – an interest which Auden ensures, by assuming so, that you share. On top of these things there is the insistence that the facts of art are concrete and practical, and that educating yourself in them is a matter of finding out about them, and that years might go by before the truth reveals itself. By returning to this point over and over – by always insisting that of finding things out there is no end – Auden creates, unbeatably, the feeling that education is lifelong, addictive, playful. In him there is no element of the self-immolating drudge. He would never have been capable of Eliot’s sermon on the necessity for the student to embrace boredom.
For Auden mortification has to do with the disciplines of poetic technique: the acquisition of culture is as natural as breathing, and within the limitations of your propensities you do it to relax. Look at the galleries of knowledge, the number of literatures, the languages penetrated to the rhythm of their roots, that are all present and vividly functioning in Auden’s prose. And yet it is only on second thought that the whole thing impresses us, just as we have to live on into adulthood before we realize – if we ever do – that the fairgrounds of childhood are the evolution of the centuries, the designs of studious men. The paintwork, the music and the coloured lights were all thought out, and are more than just a game.
Valéry is continually invoked. One had already realized, reading these pieces as they came out in the magazines and anthologies, that the parallelism of Auden’s and Valéry’s critical careers was becoming more and more explicit. As well as anthologizing aphorisms (The Faber Book of Aphorisms, edited with Louis Kronenberger, and the recent A Certain World, concerned with slight longer but still brief pronouncements, are the key works here), Auden has for a long time been manufacturing gnomic utterances and quiddities of his own. The similarity to Valéry’s practice is obvious, and even in the longer pieces Valéry’s example is likely to be prominent: there is many a long essay by Auden whose compressions can be clarified by glancing into a short book by Valéry. In both men the talk is of art as the one continuous world. The same is true of Montale. Only in Brecht, the fourth master, does art acknowledge the primacy of politics. Auden’s long, curving progress – from his mental entanglement with the German extremist political spectrum of the early 1930s to his gradual adoption of the hallowed, art-idealist role as otherwise exemplified by Valéry and Montale – is a classic example of how the pursuit of mastery leads away from battle. Despite his Austrian domicile and the vital presence of the German language (and German opera) at the centre of his life, Auden’s ripest years were devoted to the complete acceptance of his part in the Latin tradition, the Icelandic sagas notwithstanding.
Forewords and Afterwords is dedicated to Hannah Arendt, and appropriately it shares not just the undisputed qualities of her journalism but the questionable qualities of her formal philosophy. One has been puzzling for a long time to recall whom Auden has been echoing when he starts a new essay by declaring that there are three different kinds of compassion, or precisely twelve varieties of contrition. Well, here is the answer. Miss Arendt’s proclivity for staking out a philosophical mining operation before ripping up the soil in a declared number of parallel strips has spread to Auden and often involves him in generating an air of faintly bogus rigour. Such a tone goes against the direction of Auden’s real effort, which is composed of a refreshing certainty about what he knows to be true, an equally refreshing diffidence about what he has not yet discovered, and a lively, contradiction-ridden dialectical hubbub concerning what lies between. Throughout the book we find him declaring that a poet’s private life is his own business, yet delving on the same page into every aspect of a poet’s private life he can smell out. That is the multiplicity of approach that makes Auden what he is and which his tendencies to ponderousness might stifle, should he let them. What he was. Might have stifled. If he had let them. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we need the past tense.
(T.L.S., 12 October 1973)