Literary History: Objective and Subjective: The Poetics of Auden's Anthologies

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When you read any version of literary history written by any modern English poet--whether an explicit history of the kind presented in a critical essay, or an implicit history of the kind suggested by the poet's general attitudes to the literary past--you are likely to learn the same general truth, no matter which poet you read. What every modern poet tells you is that the whole course of literary history has been moving toward one great goal, and that goal has now been accomplished, triumphantly and conclusively, in the work of the poet whom you happen to be reading. This of course means that the poet's version of literary history is likely to be somewhat different from others that you may be familiar with.

William Butler Yeats, for example, explained Irish literary history by asserting that the true central line in Irish writing had been drawn by Jonathan Swift, Bishop Berkeley, and other Irish Protestants like Yeats himself. When Yeats compiled an anthology called The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the book revealed that the most significant modern verse had been written by poets who wrote in a symbolist and visionary style more or less like Yeats's own. A hard-edged war poet like Wilfred Owen, whom everyone else thought of as a towering central figure in modern poetry, did not appear in the book at all. Yeats was so convinced that he embodied the teleology of modern poetry that he gave himself the privilege of rewriting some of the poems in the anthology in the style that he thought they would have been written in had their authors known better.

T. S. Eliot, a couple of decades younger than Yeats, wrote dozens of essays in which he implied or explained that the central line of English poetic history extended from John Donne directly to T. S. Eliot himself, who had restored the true methods established by Donne. John Milton, whom you may have thought was a central figure, was in fact an eccentric outsider. William Wordsworth and John Keats were entertaining distractions from the central line, but no more than that. William Shakespeare was obviously too major a figure to ignore, but it appears that everyone other than Eliot had erred in overestimating Shakespeare's ultimate importance.

W. H. Auden, who was a few decades younger than Eliot, also wrote his own literary history, but unlike Yeats and Eliot, he went out of his way to make clear exactly what his motives were for doing so, and made clear that his version of literary history was not an objective truth which he was the first to discover, but a way of thinking that he found useful when writing his own poems. And he made clear that his ideas about literary history changed over the years as his ideas about his own poetic agenda changed.

He didn't say all this explicitly when he was young, but he went out of his way to say it when he was older. In 1956, when he was a few months short of fifty years old, he gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, "Making, Knowing and Judging," and one of his themes was the difference between the kind of library that you find in a scholar's mind and the kind of library that you find in a poet's mind. In the scholar's mental library, The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, is a very big book; in the poet's mental library, the same title exists, but the book has only ten pages. In the scholar's mental library, the books are arranged in chronological order of writing; in the poet's mental library, the books are arranged in chronological order of reading. "In Memoriam is written before The Dunciad, the thirteenth century comes after the sixteenth."

As for the poet's judgments on the contents of his mental library, Auden knew that even his most mature judgments retained something of the attitude he ascribed to undergraduate writers:

   If an undergraduate announces to his tutor one morning that
   Gertrude Stein is the greatest writer who ever lived or that
   Shakespeare is no good, he is really only saying something like
   this: "I don't know what to write yet or how, but yesterday while
   reading Gertrude Stein, I thought I saw a clue" or "Reading
   Shakespeare yesterday, I realized that one of the faults in what I
   write is a tendency to rhetorical bombast. …