An Oracle Turned Jester

DAVID BROMWICH

This is the Auden canon as planned by Auden. The poet who was apt to deride “accurate scholarship” would nevertheless have been pleased with the editorial job: the Collected Poems supplies dates and variant titles, but otherwise keeps the apparatus to a helpful minimum, and is good to the eye and the touch. We shall have to wait for a promised second volume. The English Auden, if we want to read the canon as a palimpsest, compare the rubbed-out edges with the bold outline laid over them, and arrive at some conclusion about the poet’s character. In the meantime Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, wisely cautions us to regard Auden’s final change of dress as indeed final. It is. But a few intractable spirits ought to remain on the scene to ask if this was not after all another disguise. In his foreword to the Collected Shorter Poems (1965), Auden defended revisions “as a matter of principle” by quoting Valéry: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” The allusion is not quite candid. Valéry, who was by no means of Auden’s party in these matters, saw the work of a poet as forming an activity of unbroken meditation. To decide what the public should see of the meditation was a secondary worry: a fragment might be as important as a completed poem. What could a poem be for Auden, on the other hand, if not the finished expression of feeling on a given occasion.’

Auden generally revised for sentiment rather than sound and, without being an exponent of “pure sound,” one may raise a simple enough objection. To play the sage or pedant, and chasten the record of an earlier renegade self, is never good for the character; the results, when it is a poet who does this, are seldom happy for the poetry; and Auden is an exception to neither rule. Poetry survives, he said in his elegy for Yeats, “In the valley of its making

From The Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 17, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by The Times Literary
Supplement.

-91-

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W.H. Auden
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Modern Critical Views ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor’s Note vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Some Notes on the Early Poetry 7
  • Auden at Sixty 13
  • The Pattern of Personae 21
  • Auden after the Thirties 47
  • Auden, Hopkins, and the Poetry of Reticence 55
  • Only Critics Can’t Play 63
  • Artifice and Self-Consciousness in the Sea and the Mirror 69
  • An Oracle Turned Jester 91
  • The Rake’s Progress- An Operatic Version of Pastoral 101
  • Auden’s Revision of Modernism 111
  • The Orators- Portraits of the Artist in the Thirties 121
  • The Romantic Tradition in the Age of Anxiety 135
  • Disenchantment with Yeats- From Singing-Master to Ogre 161
  • Chronology 177
  • Contributors 181
  • Bibliography 183
  • Acknowledgments 185
  • Index 187
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