Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Auden’s Longer Poems

The next book on the bedside shelf is W.H. Auden’s Collected Longer Poems.

Most anglophones will know at least part of at least one of Auden’s shorter poems. Even people who claim to hate poetry are likely to be familiar with the poem read at the graveside in the popular film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. (Incidentally I knew briefly the woman for whom the poem was written.) Poetry, for most of us including myself, means lyric poetry: individual pieces about the length of a sonnet, at any rate no longer than a page: something like a Sestina is pushing the limits of the lyric; the limits of ‘real’ poetry: poetry is the quintessence of language, and you just can’t keep it up, either reading it or writing it[i], for very long: one can drink a whole bottle of wine, but a whole bottle of whisky would make even me ill.

So ‘Long Poem’ is a contradiction: ‘Long verse’, it should be called. Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ and Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Gate’ are verse, not poetry. They are none the worse for that; one doesn’t criticize a Clydesdale for not being a racehorse. Even as fine a work as Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ is verse rather than poetry, and contains lines worthy of Alfred Austin, such as

            Her brother is coming home tonight,
            Breaking up my dream of delight.

(I may not have quoted exactly, but it’s something just as awful.) But ‘Maud’ also contains ‘Purple Passages’ that can be lifted out to stand alone as very beautiful lyrics, and ‘Maud’ has other, ‘non-poetic’ virtues: virtues more usually associated with the novel.

Auden’s longer poems are not so much like novels as like essays. ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, for which I specially wanted this book, is a deep examination of just what Shakespeare was up to in ‘The Tempest’. The long section ‘Caliban to the Audience’ — which is surely not even verse but prose— says more than most people want to know about a play that is often regarded as mere pantomime.

But having read or rather re-read ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ I then embarked on ‘The Age of Anxiety’, so this book must stay in the bedside slot at least until I’ve finished that.

I think, were I obliged to ‘weed’ a garden, I should probably decide nothing was a weed.

In later years Auden’s face looked, as he said himself, ‘Like a wedding-cake left out in the rain’:


[i] An exception is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, which is not for the faint-hearted.

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