The Complete Poems of W.H. Auden: A Review

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Vol. I and II. Princeton University Press, 2022. $60 + $60, 848pp + 1120pp.

About twenty years ago, I was listening to the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal on cassette tape. The host, Ken Myers, was interviewing a scholar named Alan Jacobs about the poetry of W. H. Auden. As an undergraduate English major, I knew nothing of Auden, but I liked Modernist poetry, and T. S. Eliot was very much to my taste. During the interview, Jacobs read aloud an excerpt from Herod’s prose monologue in Auden’s Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being.” I was so taken with the passage that I replayed the tape phrase by phrase so I could transcribe the passage longhand. When I entered graduate school, I knew the subject of my thesis would be W. H. Auden.

As an enthusiastic reader of Auden’s poetry, I have been unhappy with the available volumes of Auden’s verse. Several “collected” volumes of Auden’s poems appeared in his lifetime, none of which actually collected all his previously-published work. The Selected Poems, currently available in paperback, is a better volume. It contains much of Auden’s most memorable verse but necessarily leaves out many of Auden’s remarkable long poems, such as “For the Time Being.” Then there is the 700-page Collected Poems, which reprints all the long poems but omits some of Auden’s best-known poems, like “September 1, 1939,” and the volume’s flimsy binding makes the whole thing difficult to read.

Now, at long last, Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson has produced a definitive, scholarly edition of every published poem by Auden, bound in two sturdy volumes. This is a variorum edition, complete with the publication history of each poem and full documentation of every known textual variation across reprintings. Wisely, Mendelson has placed these scholarly notes in the back of each volume, leaving each page of poetry beautifully free of footnotes.

Auden was notorious for correcting, altering, and even rewriting his poems for subsequent reprintings. Mendelson has opted to reprint each poem in its original form, correcting only minor editing errors. Auden’s later alterations are recorded in the endnotes. Poems are grouped as they appeared in Auden’s printed collections, each of which has a life and style of its own.

Volume One begins with Mendelson’s brief but comprehensive biographical introduction to Auden and contains all the poems Auden wrote between 1927 and 1939. Volume Two contains the poems from the rest of Auden’s career, from 1940 to 1973. The division is not arbitrary; Auden emigrated from England to the United States in 1939, so Volume One records Auden’s English period and Volume Two his American period.

Auden’s career as a poet spans nearly half a century, and between these two volumes, there are over 1,200 pages of poetry. Poetry collections are not novels, and most readers will first skim the collection looking for titles, lines, and phrases that catch their eye. Readers already familiar with Auden will enjoy revisiting their favorite eras in the poet’s development, whether it be the frequently-anthologized poems of the 1930s, the experimental long poems of the 1940s, or the later poem sequences. Auden has something for everyone: light verse, modernist obscurity, social critique, tragic romance, laconic observation, and Christian spirituality, all of it couched in carefully-wrought formal verse of every conceivable type. And as I discovered years ago, a number of his best “poems” are prose passages included in longer works of verse.

Auden’s earliest poems are notoriously obscure. One poem begins, “Upon this line between adventure/Prolong the meeting out of good nature/Obvious in each agreeable feature.” Even when one recognizes that “prolong” is in the imperative mood, the syntax is incomplete (between adventure and what?). The obtuseness of the early poems allowed many of Auden’s young, radical readers in the 1930s to project their own socio-political obsessions onto poems that had little to do with politics at all. Although Auden was always a liberal and a socialist, his poetry is more psychological than political. His early poems sound as if they were written using some kind of coterie slang—except that there was no coterie. Auden’s friends and editors, including T. S. Eliot, were as puzzled by his early poems as anyone else. These poems are mostly explorations of his own inner life, his search for meaning and his yearning for human connection in the absence of God.

The early poems also reveal Auden’s abiding love of light verse, comic “shorts,” and other kinds of poetic frivolity. Auden is often a lot funnier than many of his critics will acknowledge, and a number of his seemingly serious poems were actually written tongue-in-cheek. One of his best-known poems, “Funeral Blues,” begins “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,” while another stanza says, “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.” The whole poem is a bit of pastiche, but not self-evidently so, and many readers have found it genuinely moving.

“Funeral Blues” was included in the 1939 collection Another Time, a volume that also contains most of Auden’s frequently-anthologized poems: “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “As I walked out one evening,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Refugee Blues,” “Spain 1937,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and “September 1, 1939.” And while Auden later refused to reprint either “Spain 1937” (containing a line justifying “necessary murder”) or “September 1, 1939” (containing the infamous line, “We must love one another or die”), these two poems continue to be revered by many of Auden’s readers. Both poems show Auden caught up in the heat of a political moment in which he felt he had to say something to oppose European fascism. He had traveled briefly to Spain in 1937 to aid the communists against Franco, and while staying in the United States he listened with anxiety to the daily radio reports of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But Auden, upon reflection, decided both poems were “phony,” that they expressed emotions about the political situations that he never actually felt. Both are aesthetically compelling poems, but Auden regretted writing them and never attempted anything like them again.

Although Another Time definitively established Auden as a major poet of the period, it very much represents the poet in transition. Many of the poems in the volume, as well as the poems he would go on to write in the 1940s, are energized by three massive changes in Auden’s life. First, he emigrated from England to the United States, establishing himself as the poet in New York City and eventually becoming a United States citizen. Second, he formed a deep relationship with a young New Yorker named Chester Kallman. At first the two were lovers (Auden had always been homosexual), but after a painful breakup, they eventually reconciled and remained lifelong friends. And finally, Auden returned to the Christian faith of his childhood, becoming a communicant in the Anglican Church after having been an atheist for about fifteen years.

Although Auden’s turn (or return) to the Christian faith caught many of his friends and readers off-guard, the poems from Another Time do point in that direction. He closed “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by admonishing the poet, “With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice,” and expressing hope for poets still living:

In the deserts of the heart 
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

In a similar vein, the penultimate stanza of “As I walked out one evening” commands a dejected lover,

O stand, stand at the window 
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

Although both poems are secular in outlook, the way each one adopts distinctly Christian language signals Auden’s rethinking of his younger, atheistic outlook.

His middle period is dominated by several long poems. “New Year Letter” is a verse epistle in tetrameter couplets and traces the history of modern, Western culture while cataloging the various temptations faced by young intellectuals. “For the Time Being” is Auden’s most explicitly Christian poem. Originally intended to be set to music by Auden’s friend Benjamin Britten, it turned out to be far too long for a musical setting. “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest” is Auden’s ars poetica: set immediately after the play’s final scene, each character reflects on his or her place in the artistic scheme of the play. The sequence displays the sheer range of Auden’s poetic abilities. From meditations in syllabic verses to doggerel bar songs, from formal pieces (a sestina, a villanelle), to Caliban’s prose monologue parodying Henry James’s most elaborate style, the poem proves compelling both in its parts and as an organic whole.

“The Sea and the Mirror” is followed, somewhat unfortunately, by Auden’s most ambitious and least readable poem, “The Age of Anxiety.” A modern psychomachia in six parts composed in an alliterative meter imitating the medieval poem Piers Plowman, it is something of a quest story about four characters representing Jung’s four faculties, whose symbolic interactions I have always found hopelessly dull. Despite also writing opera libretti for major composers like Igor Stravinsky, Auden had no gift for storytelling.

Auden was an excellent parodist and had tried on many different styles; what came harder for him was authenticity. But from the 1950s onward, Auden settled into his genuine voice. He continued experimenting with poetic forms, and he liked to boast that he had written a poem in every known poetic meter, no matter how obscure—until he discovered a meter or verse form yet more obscure that he had not tried, and he would go and write a poem using it.

Two of my own favorite later poems, “In Praise of Limestone” and “The Love Feast,” appear in his 1951 volume Nones, named for the canonical hour at which Christ died. “In Praise of Limestone” describes the Italian island of Ischia where Auden had begun to spend his summers. The poem observes the types of people who come to the island, and it ends with a reflection on the resurrection of the dead. “The Love Feast,” on the other hand, reflects ironically on the expatriate party scene, which invites sensual indulgence despite the prospect of future regret: “I am sorry I’m not sorry,” the poet admits as he is drawn toward yet another one-night stand, and he concludes with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions: “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.” At his poetic best, Auden is an observer of the conflicted self in the world, making wry remarks about the peculiarities of human behavior, about the nature of art and artifice, and about the abiding demands of divine love.

Auden is a cerebral poet whose poems often grope hesitatingly towards an emotion. Poetry was not, for Auden, the result of a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would have it, but the discovery that he had emotions at all. His poems are frequently understated in tone. At his worst, Auden is bedeviled by abstractions, and he was all too aware of his tendency to divide body from spirit. He wrote many forgettable poems that are either mere technical exercises, in which he seems more interested in the form than in the subject of the poem, or obtuse psychological allegories in which different elements of the psyche circle around each other speaking in a coded language of private associations. And because these new volumes contain all of Auden’s published poems, it must be admitted that these volumes reward judicious skimming.

It is a testament to Mendelson’s scholarly and literary sensibilities that the notes are not boring. Between the two volumes, there are over 700 pages of endnotes on publication history, textual variations, and revisions. It may disappoint some readers that the notes are very seldom interpretive, for Auden’s poems do benefit from learned commentary. (John Fuller’s W. H. Auden: A Commentary is a good place to start.) Nor do the notes delve into Auden’s personal life, a task best left to biographers. But Mendelson does include occasional remarks that Auden himself made about his poems, and these are always illuminating.

Mendelson sometimes offers amusing back-stories about the editing process, such as when T. S. Eliot, who was Auden’s editor at his British publisher Faber and Faber, feared that a particular line in the manuscript of “New Year Letter” might violate copyright laws. Eliot decided to replace the line with one of his own devising without telling Auden. Eliot was understandably proud of his ability to “forge” a line in Auden’s style when Auden failed to notice the replaced line in the page proofs.

Auden was an inveterate formalist, and while Mendelson’s notes sometimes identify the formal features of poems, I think Auden would have wanted more emphasis placed on the purely technical achievements of his verse. But Auden would have respected Mendelson’s close attention to the minutiae of textual variations. Auden had a taste for catalogs, for trivia, and for exact times and dates (he was obsessively punctual). Mendelson could not have conceived a more fitting tribute to this poet than doing for Auden’s work what Auden was always attempting to do for his own life: organize it intellectually into a grand system that takes in every detail and provides aesthetic satisfaction to the soul.

These volumes are, in sum, the definitive edition of Auden’s poetry, prepared primarily for a scholarly audience, though the poetry and even the notes will be enjoyed by a wider audience, too. Although Auden was a professing Christian for most of his career, his poetry has never been as well known by Christian readers as it should be. One reason, I suppose, is Auden’s lifestyle. He was a lifelong homosexual, and was quite open about the fact. The other reason, though, is the sheer, imposing volume of his poetry, much of which is only implicitly Christian. While Auden’s voluminous post-conversion essays and reviews are often explicitly Christian, Auden very seldom wrote anything like devotional poetry.

The poets who are better known among American Christians—George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot—not only wrote numerous poems on explicitly spiritual themes, but they also wrote far fewer poems than Auden did, and the comparatively few poems they did write they worked over tirelessly in order to bring them to perfection. Auden, on the other hand, wrote hundreds of poems rapidly, often publishing them before he could revise them adequately. This new collection of Auden’s poems contains many gems, but we Christian readers do not always like to dig for literary treasure. We turn rather to writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, who give us memorable pull-quotes on every other page. Auden makes us work harder and dig deeper for similar moments of genuine insight. But as in matters of much greater consequence than poetry, those who seek will find.

Stephen J. Schuler is Professor of English at the University of Mobile. He is the author of The Augustinian Theology of W.H. Auden (University of South Carolina Press 2013).


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This