From Anthony Hecht’s The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden (Harvard University Press, 1993) I’ve learned that Auden coined a word useful enough to be enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary: soodling. From sound alone, without a context, what do you think it means? First I thought of noodling, as in a musician idly playing, working out a part or simply killing time. The same goes for doodling, another idle pastime. Because of its faintly comic sound, I guessed it might refer to that fine American folk art, goofing off.
In fact, the OED defines “soodling” as an “adj. poet. Rare” meaning “flows or moves slowly.” Auden uses it in the poem “Under Sirius” in Nones (1952): “…the baltering torrent / Shrunk to a soodling thread.” The dictionary says the word is “Of obscure origin,” but goes on to cite two uses from 1821, both by John Clare in his poem “The Village Minstrel”: “To go so soodling up and down the street” and “While I as unconcern'd went soodling on.” Hecht apparently is incorrect when he describes Auden, a lifelong reader of the OED, as “inventing” the word.
The OED also gives soodly, “adj. dial. leisurely, slow,” and cites the same poem by Clare: “The horse-boy, with a soodly gait, / Slow climbs the stile.” Soodling is a word we would expect Clare to use. When not in the insane asylum he was an inveterate soodler, a wanderer in nature, at once drifting and attentive to plants and animals. He writes in a letter: “…I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbors who are insensible to every thing but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”
Clare is cited 765 times in the OED; Auden, 749 times. Among the latter is Auden’s use of “baltering” in the line from “Under Sirius” quoted above. The first sense of “to balter” is defined as an intransitive verb meaning “To tumble about, to dance clumsily.” In his biography of the poet, when describing Auden’s undergraduate days at Christ Church, Humphrey Carpenter reports:
“In his conversation as in his poetry, he used a vocabulary drawn from scientific, psychological and philosophical terminology, and from his discoveries among the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words like 'glabrous', 'sordes', 'callipygous', 'peptonised' (which all appeared in his poetry during this period) delighted him but disconcerted his listeners. ‘I did not understand much of what Wystan said,’ recorded one undergraduate contemporary, who nevertheless `felt it was important because of the portentous manner in which he said it.’”
Even if he didn’t coin the word we can surely describe Auden as a devoted soodler in the OED.