What W. H. Auden Can Do for YouPosted: February 4, 2014
What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers)
Alexander McCall Smith
Kindle Edition $9.18, Amazon Hardcover $15.45
Princeton University Press, 135 pages
I have been a W.H. Auden fan since college. I will grab any book I hear about that focuses on Auden, his circle, and his times. This new, thin book on Auden from the Writers on Writers series is written by Alexander McCall Smith, who is an Irish novelist and a bigger Auden devotee than even I am.
The book was for me rather uneven. Some chapters focused on Auden’s life and how his poetry reflected his experience. I found those interesting and they contained some material with which I was not familiar. A couple of chapters were abstract to the point that my eyes glazed over. A few chapters were autobiographical on Smith’s part, which I found enjoyable because they described how Auden informed Smith as an author and as an individual.
Smith discusses how Auden was often critical of his own work. I have long been aware of this. And this is why you don’t let authors compile their own selected works volumes. In an edition Auden edited shortly before his death he omitted one of his greatest poems “September 1, 1939.” Fortunately it was restored to a collected poems edition after his death. Indeed Smith tells us the poem “was photocopied and faxed around New York in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade towers.”
The poem is still relevant in our troubled world of political turmoil today.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street, Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low, dishonest decade …
Auden wrote that he omitted the poem from his collection at least in part because on reflection he considered one line to be nonsense. That line:
We must love one another or die.
No, not nonsense. The absolute truth.
This is not the best book I have read on Auden, but it is worth reading if you love Auden and appreciate the issues he tackled. And any book that keeps us remembering Auden today has justified its existence.
We need Auden today as much as ever.
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