A handful of writers remain companionable across a lifetime, moving one to guard them jealously. When we’re young, slanders against the select can sting and spur us to mount an angry defense. With time, we relax. We grow up. If our writer is as good as we think, he can take care of himself. W.H. Auden expresses a more complicated variation on the process I’m describing in his 1958 review of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition:
“The normal consequence of having read a book with admiration and enjoyment is a desire that others should share one’s feelings. There are, however, if I can judge from myself, occasional exceptions to this rule. Every now and then, I come across a book which gives me the impression of having been especially written for me. In the case of a work of art, the author seems to have created a world for which I have been waiting all my life; in the case of a ‘think’ book, it seems to answer precisely those questions which I have been putting to myself. My attitude towards such a book, therefore, is one of jealous possessiveness. I don’t want anybody else to read it; I want to keep it all to myself.”
For almost sixty years my understanding of Auden’s poetry and prose has evolved, retrogressed and, most recently, grown confident and untroubled. He sits quietly close to the top of my private pantheon and no longer needs my advocacy. Like Auden, I want others to share my “admiration and enjoyment.” There was a time when William Logan’s review of the two fat volumes of Auden’s poems published by Princeton University Press as part of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden would have left me scrambling for the ramparts. Logan’s eight-page review in the April issue of The New Criterion, “Darkness Visible: Auden Collected,” is not an unqualified pan: “When so many poets go from weakness to weakness, or strength to weakness (consider Delmore Schwartz), Auden for the most part went from strength to strength.” Like Philip Larkin, Logan favors early Auden over late, with 1939 and his move to the U.S. roughly marking the demarcation.
Logan judges the 1940 volume Another Time to be “perhaps Auden’s best.” Here you’ll find the greatest hits – “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and, of course, “September 1, 1939.” In Logan’s view, a case of poetic arteriosclerosis set in after that, not long after Auden turned thirty: “[T]hat older poet became a demented rambler as soporific as the elderly Wordsworth, and at a far younger age.”
I deem the 1951 collection Nones one of his finest. Included are “Prime” and “Nones,” and the poem that may be his greatest, “In Praise of Limestone,” though Logan calls it “the pince-nez lecture of the forensic geologist.” Still, read Logan on Auden. He’s one of our better critics. “Auden’s cleverness, his knack for savage opening line, his sorcerer’s touch with form—all these can be appreciated, yet he now rarely enters what is called, rather stupidly, the ‘conversation.’” All true, yet that final phrase indicts not Auden but us.