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Auden the Accessible
on 22 December 2009
For half a century I have skirted round Auden, apart from some short and well-known lyrics; I feared the longer ones were a bit dry and demanding. Then I agreed to teach him to adults. I bought a 300pp ''Selected'', and then a ''Collected'' up to the mid-50's but kept falling between stools as we all uncovered poems we liked individually but which were never to be found across all collections.
This 900pp. US edition is a huge boon tho' it takes 2 weeks to arrive.It reveals the whole arc of his writing life, his precocious early intelligence, his polymathic interests, how adventurous his emotional and sexual experiences were.... What emerges is a profoundly benign approach to human life, an experience that can be improved but never perfected, and that improvement is effected by facing and integrating our demons and uncertainties.. His poetic obituary to Yeats in 1939 ends:
'' In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.''
Towards the end of his life he wrote 'Thanksgiving for a habitat', celebrating his house in Austria. Twelve poems each evoking a room and a particular friend who'd stayed there with them. It's a humane, erudite sequence that leaves one with a delighted smile on one's face.
Even here it is not a complete Auden. There are some pieces the editor has not 'selected in' and some are not in because Auden disowned them. This includes the magnificent reflections on the coming war - 'September 1st, 1939'. A final observation - Auden was a fine reader of his own work, not over-emphatic as an actor might be, nor dead-pan as some poets seem to be as if to be animated might reactivate the stresses from which the poems originally emerged. It's worth hunting down some CDs. I found two - "The Spoken Word" - WHA - British Library/BBC.