Prose Volume IV: 1956-1962 by W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson, Princeton University Press, 982 pages, ($65). In 1956, W.H. Auden was 49 years old and was on the lip of becoming the most eminent of intellectual gray eminences. He was elected professor of poetry at Oxford and, along with being one of the most honored and imitated poets in the English language, had written some of the finest critical prose of modern times.
Look at this latest volume in Princeton's truly distinguished collection of Auden's matchless prose -- over 900 pages but encompassing only six years of publication. And included within is one of Auden's greatest works -- to be sure collected from earlier work -- "The Dyer's Hand." Here is the cornerstone of Auden as one of the greatest public intellectuals the world is ever likely to have.
It is no small irony that as great a poet as Auden was -- and will always remain -- it is the mountain of prose that he left that remains the easiest and most natural and delightful entree to his gloriously capacious mind. This prose, says Edward Mendelson in his introduction, was "more urbane and accessible than anything in his earlier prose" yet Mendelson says of these essays that "they contain hidden beneath their polished surfaces, some of his darkest explorations of responsibility and guilt."
If any -- or all -- of that makes it seem as if Auden was erecting a monument to himself, nothing of a sort is going on here. He is the very exemplar of proportion. Before a simple short piece on William Blake, he'll announce that he has "no authority to speak" of Blake the "designer and engraver." And then confess at the end "when I think of any writer whom I really like, I find myself imagining works which I wish they had written. In Blake's case, for instance, I would like to read a sequel to 'An Island in the Moon' written when he was 50. I would give anything to possess a Blake annotated copy of Goethe's 'Theory of Colors.' "
It is hard for many of us to imagine a writer whose companionship is any more fascinating or wise than what can be found here.
-- Jeff Simon