New insights into Auden
Early Auden, by Edward Mendelson. New York: The Viking Press. 448 pp. $20. W. H. Auden, by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 495 pp.
In these bearish times, W. H. Auden's stock may appear bull-like. That is if these and other recent books are our indicators - Samuel Hynes's ''The Auden Generation,'' for example, a first-rate study of literature and politics in the 1930s, and Edward Mendelson's scrupulous editions of Auden's ''Selected Poems'' and ''The English Auden.''
If American poets in recent years have largely bypassed Auden's direct influence (Reed Whittemore and Howard Nemerov are exceptions), that may be the result of the later Auden's journalistic tone and moralistic temper, coupled with two decades of American poetry that is sometimes painfully self-reflective, sometimes surrealistic, and sometimes overly dedicated to the proposition that there are ''no ideas but things'' (a misreading of William Carlos Williams's ''No ideas but in things.'').
From the beginning in 1930, though, when at age 23 his first book, ''Poems,'' was accepted, by T. S. Eliot for what is now Faber & Faber, Auden took the center stage of English poetry; and for a while many American poems placed him in the same position.
What is it about Auden's work that so quickly and for so long made its impress? Stephen Spender wrote that ''he is one of the poets who is interpreting the events of our immediate life to us.''
Whether in ballads, short and long line stanzas, or intricate rhyme schemes, his quirky, sometimes telegraphic language was resonant with poetic authority. Nothing was impermissible: A vaudevillian sense of doggerel and slapstick combined with a Kafkaesque sense of foreboding. The recurring metaphors are spies, borders, and intrigue. He seemed to absorb the most avant-garde preoccupations - both intellectual and artistic - to a poetic signature that early on was recognizably his own.
Read the first books, and you are less impressed by the subject matter - it is often obscure - than by the poetic range. This private Auden is not the more public, accessible poet that students know from the anthologies in such poems as ''Musee des Beaux Arts,'' ''To an Unknown Citizen,'' and ''In Memory of W. B. Yeats.'' By the end of the '30s, Auden had journeyed from loneliness and a poetry of ''private faces in public places'' through personal crises, changes in psychological awareness and theological belief to a poetry of didacticism and moral responsibility.
The new books by Edward Mendelson and Humphrey Carpenter map the changes - Mendelson carrying the journey through 1939 and giving detailed attention in close readings of the poems themselves, and Carpenter in a more conventional biography covering the major events of Auden's life as well as some of his back-alley adventures.
Carpenter's book is to be appreciated for its careful attention to detail and accuracy even though at times it seems the author is too dogged in tracking down Auden's homosexual contacts. While these facts are obviously important and sometimes fill in the ellipses in the poems, illuminating the autobiographical shadows, they don't often - in Carpenter's prose - explain the transmutation from life to art. Finally, I don't know that we get behind the details to a sense of the inner life, that which is not circumscribed by what we know as the chronology, or outer life.
Mendelson is after the poet's mind, and he reads Auden's poems almost as charts from finely attuned seismic instruments that respond continually to the poet's personal, philosophical, and social concerns. To say that Mendelson illuminates the obscurities and intentions in Auden's poems is an understatement. His knowledge of the work is thorough; he is - and this is only a slight hyperbole - a Virgil through the Auden geography, guiding us in between the nooks and crannies of the poet's visions and revisions, from a poetry expressing threats of violence and a lost wholeness to a poetry acknowledging forgiveness and redemption. In the concluding stanza to ''As I walked out one evening,'' Auden wrote:
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.
Merging a good deal of quotation as part of the narrative, Mendelson's style is intense and often demanding. There are times when poems are discussed as if they are merely containers for ideas, and while Mendelson sometimes makes connections between changing ideas and changes in poetic style, these more often seem like afterthoughts. But this may be carping and asking for more than the author set out to do. Actually, ''Early Auden'' is a significant study of a great poet's work, and for those who have read Auden or for those who will, it makes the promised second volume worth waiting for.