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This review is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

THE PARADOX OF AUDEN W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, Faber & Faber, £8.50.
 
The strong built-in sense of irony which W. H. Auden possessed was not necessarily incompatible with a capacity to recognize a need for action or to respond to a call for action. No doubt, though, the ironic individual will tend, through action either performed or merely contemplated, to confirm and develop awareness of the starry distances between ideas and real situations. Having first read Auden in the early fifties, I remember being perplexed by the general disapproval for Auden's poetry expressed by elder acquaintances at that time. His decision to leave England just before the beginning of the Second World War-an action which nobody (including Auden himself) has been able satisfactorily to explain-was inseparable in their minds from his renunciation of poetry as social spur, or, at least, catalyst. For them, Auden had simultaneously betrayed a political-moral cause and poetry in its proper function. To me, on the other hand, Auden's work of twenty years seemed to show a more consistent development. The achieved liberal, urbanely civilized, somewhat quirky and mannered Christian man of letters had always been present in embryo in the bitingly observant young poet of the thirties, with his cold yet exciting images, his curt rhythms, and spare, strange diction. What to many of Auden's contemporaries of the thirties had been shameful dialectical failure, to the fifties seemed a more natural and seamless artistic growth.

Nobody understood better than did Auden himself the ways in which a dead poet's words must be 'modified in ...


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