Tag Archives: W.H. Auden

Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.

Review: “Selected Poems” by W.H. Auden

Auden

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
Miss Gee
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!