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This review is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

MNEH W. H. Auden: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Haffenden (Routledge) £19.95

'Dare I spot him as a winner?' asks Naomi Mitchison in her review of Auden's Poems (1930). She got it right, but John Haffenden's collection includes a number of eminent persons getting it wrong: Leavis, for instance, in a cocoon of uncertain pomposity, writing of the same book, 'But although we can sense his general meaning, it requires a kind of effort to discover the exact relevance of his allusions which, even when we are sure of having done so, destroys the possibility of real enrichment' - a sentence which looks pretty thin on meaning, general or otherwise. Auden's lifelong tendency to substitute ludicity for lucidity was not the only problem, however: 'Literary historians of the future,' predicted Bonamy Dobrée in 1932, 'are going to have a bad time of it. . . . It will certainly seem incredible that Mr Auden should be a contemporary of Mr Humbert Wolfe.' It certainly does. Who?

The early reviewers struggle to locate the precise tang of the Audenesque, and occasionally succeed. Graham Greene detects 'a slight smell of school changing-rooms'; while Wyndham Lewis notes 'He is all ice and woodenfaced acrobatics'. Both these quirky, concrete judgements support Edmund Wilson's view (in 1937): 'He is especially good at calling the roll of the lonely, the neurotic, the futile - of all the queer kinds of individuals who make up the English upper middle class.' Indeed, it is the Englishness of early Auden which constantly impresses his American reviewers, just as ...


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