The best of Auden’s poems are so many, so varied, so technically accomplished and so witty that he stands with the greatest poets of the 20th century. My list of favourites includes:
“O where are you going?” said reader to rider
O what is that sound that so thrills the ear
A shilling life will give you all the facts
Look, stranger, at this island now
As I walked out one evening
In Time of War
Musee des Beaux Arts
In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun
and what many consider the greatest love-poem of the last 100 years:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm”.
There is a universality about Auden’s depiction of relationships, an indeterminate quality that allows his thoughts to be applied to all people. This is in keeping with the fact that he was gay, and writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal. It provides an unexpected strength for his verse.
And yet, and yet… all of those poems listed above were written before he turned 33. He lived to age 66, writing longer and longer works, moving further and further away from traditional verse, and with less of the memorable genius of his youth.
It is therefore somewhat depressing to read these “Selected Poems” because they are set out chronologically, and the writing gets less interesting the further you read. Halfway through the book you run into the poem sequence “The Sea and the Mirror – a commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest”, which includes 25 pages of prose crammed with dense imagery and argument. Apparently Auden preferred this prose section, “Caliban to the Audience”, over all his other work. This preference was expressed at the time that he was rewriting the excellent poems of his youth to reflect his newer American, Christian, self-important academic personality. I found it unreadable.
The first edition of “Selected Poems” (selected and edited by Edward Mendelson) contains 100 poems. A more recent edition adds another 20 poems, “broadening its focus to better reflect the enormous wealth of form, rhetoric, tone, and content in Auden’s work. Newly included are such favorites as “Funeral Blues” and other works that represent Auden’s lighter, comic side”.
Unfortunately I only have the 100-poem version. If you buy a copy of this book, make sure it has the 120 poems!