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This review is taken from PN Review 16, Volume 7 Number 2, November - December 1980.

THE OUTER MAN Charles Osborne, W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (Eyre Methuen) £7.95

From his first day at school-and probably before-W. H. Auden stole the limelight. His intelligence and talent to amuse immediately made him the centre of attention. When it later became clear that he had genius as well, his fate as a public figure was sealed. By the age of twenty-five he had 'quite clearly emerged onto the English literary scene', and subsequently his work-not to mention his face-was celebrated to an extent commonly denied poets. In one respect such a conspicuous career encourages prospective biographers-it guarantees that memories and friends will be forthcoming. (Auden seems to have spent an extraordinarily large amount of time behind and in front of cameras. His fascination with them dates from the thirties, and it never flagged.) But in another way fame is the biographer's nightmare, since it often conceals the vulnerable and creative inner subject behind a screen of anecdotes, obiter dicta and rehearsed attitudes.

Charles Osborne's W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet gives an efficient account of the outer man, but the secret self eludes him completely. It is, so to speak, a 'shilling life' for £7.95, containing little more than facts which can be gleaned from existing printed sources. As a result, it sounds hollow, and when Osborne advertises his lack of proper authorial curiosity it looks hollow too. The treatment of Auden's relationship with his mother is a case in point. They were obviously very close, and when his doctor father went abroad with the RAMC ...

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