W.H. Auden observed that biographies “are always superfluous and usually in bad taste,” but Edward Mendelson’s book on him, Later Auden, is neither. In fact, he calls the work not a biography but “a history and an interpretation of W.H. Auden’s work.” In it he presents the poet’s life and art so vividly as to illuminate the major works and bring out neglected ones.
Auden, who was born in York in 1907, stands highest in the group of British literary figures of the thirties that includes the poets Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice and the dramatist Christopher Isherwood, all of whom hoped socialism would end the prevailing political despair. Born two decades after the great American poets T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, Auden renewed Eliot’s vision of cultural ruin and, by his own account, studied Moore’s syllabic verse to structure his homely and elegant, irreverent, conversational art.
Mendelson contends that the most dramatic changes in Auden’s life occurred between 1936 and 1947, years that enclose the stirrings of Nazism in Europe and the aftermath of World War II. Here, Mendelson emphasizes poems written during and just after the war, and, more boldly, celebrates work done during the last fifteen years of the poet’s life. The book follows Mendelson’s Early Auden, in which the poems he considers include “Paysage Moralisé,” “As I Walked Out One Evening” and “Musée des Beaux Arts.” From the earlier work, the new volume rises in intensity.
Later Auden begins in 1939, the year of the poet’s great elegies to Yeats, Toller and Freud; “At the Grave of Henry James”; “The Unknown Citizen”; and the classic that Auden later renounced, “September 1, 1939.” On January 26, eight months before Britain and France declared war on Germany, Auden came from England to what he called “an absolutely free America.” (He was to establish citizenship here in 1946.) Mendelson uses the language of Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” to describe his arrival with Isherwood “in the dead of winter, while a light snow disfigured the public statues.”
At this time, Auden was torn between conflicting creeds. He believed simultaneously that the artist could not redeem an unjust world and that art could not serve public causes, such as suppressing fascism or achieving a humane social democracy. Mendelson maintains: “Almost everything he wrote in 1939 was an attempt to clarify his mixed feelings about the rival claims of private gift and public good.” That tension heightens the Yeats elegy: The famous line “Poetry makes nothing happen,” referring to the artist’s effect on society, is answered by the closing quatrains, which celebrate poetry’s triumph over time and death. In an earlier poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Auden had invented fictional lovers and warned them, “You cannot conquer time.” Two years later, in the Yeats elegy, he affirmed that the artist’s gift alone defeats time and renews life: “Your gift survived it all.” The poem ends with a prayer for miracles only the poet can perform: