Sunday 29 September 2013

W. H. Auden - forty years on

W. H. Auden died in his sleep last night, forty years ago.

Earlier in the evening he had given a poetry reading to the Austrian Society of Literature in Vienna and then returned to the Hotel Altenburgerhof, in the Walfischgasse. He was 66 years old and was, indisputably, the greatest Man of Letters of the 20th century.

'Man of Letters' isn't a phrase one hears much any more, as such tweedy exotics no longer exist and Auden was among the last. He published around four hundred poems but was also a playwright, critic, librettist, theologian, travel writer, essayist, journalist, translator, reviewer, lecturer and film-maker. 

He was by far the most accomplished of poetic virtuosi -  he could turn his hand to the most rigorous syllabic verse and to traditional forms (sestinas, sonnets, villanelles); he could grind out Anglo-Saxon metrics, ballads, limericks, clerihews, light verse, song lyrics and much more besides. There was nothing he couldn't do, and do supremely well, in verse.

The best piece I've ever read about Auden originally appeared in the TLS in January 1973. It's by Clive James, and was prompted by the publication of Epistle to a Godson the previous year. You can, and should, read it here. It's a brilliant introduction to both the life and the work.

Auden's first collection was the tiny 1928 booklet Poems (see below), hand printed by his friend Stephen Spender in an edition of 'about 45'. All known copies are now accounted for, and priceless. Auden would not republish most of the poems in this collection, and James in his review suggests, intriguingly, that the poet spent the rest of his career in flight from his own virtuosity, his huge Shakespearean gift. It's a theory.  

Poems (1928)

The first poem in that first little book is entitled (with admirable modernist anonymity) 1(a). Here it is in full:

The sprinkler on the lawn

Weaves a cool vertigo, and stumps are drawn;

The last boy vanishes,

A blazer half-on, through the rigid trees.

The rest are just as good - but isn't that great?

©  The Estate of W. H. Auden

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