on 4 June 2012
To attempt to describe over 2000 pages (across 4 volumes) of beautifully written prose is to run the risk of limiting their appeal. These volumes are special.
Auden earned his living by writing reviews, by teaching, and by compiling anthologies. Auden's prose output, as collected and presented by Edward Mendelson, Princeton University Press /Faber & Faber, consists of Volume I 836 pp (1926-38), Vol. II 556 pp (1939-48), Vol III 779 pp (1949-55), and Vol. IV 982 pp (1956-62).
Having re-read most of Volumes I & II (yes, that good), what I have read of the other volumes has not disappointed. Quite the contrary.
Auden offered as evidence 'the distortions in a culture where a poet could earn much more money by reflecting on his art than by practicing it'(Tony Sharpe, Auden's Prose, 111, Cambridge Companion, 2004) but, like Shaw's Prefaces, Auden's prose is often just as interesting as anything he had to say in his poems, and, perhaps taking Auden's own lead, the directness of prose often makes it a more accessible medium. Poetry and prose should not, I accept, be compared. That said, 'Áuden accepted that it was pointless to attempt any absolute formal distinction between poetry and prose'(Sharpe 112).
What did Auden write about the work of Robert Frost, Lawrence (TE) or Hopkins, Pope, or Byron? Of the city of Valencia, or China? Of Architecture, and Education? Volume I
Yeats, Arnold, McNeice, Rilke, Milton, Sandburg, James Joyce & Wagner, Henry James, Baudelaire, Betjeman, or Lawrence (DH). Auden on Opera, Fascism, Eros & Agape, or Shakespeare. Volume II
Volume III Auden on Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ronald Firbank, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Jean Cocteau, Colette, the list goes on. Auden too harks back to Keats, to Eliot, to Freud, to Mozart and to range of topics, Music, Philosophy, Freedom, and Authority.
Volume IV Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Van Gogh, Goethe... the list goes on.
Not cheap (attention librarians) but well worth it.