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This item is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.Inside Cover Portrait: David C. Ward on W.H. Auden
by Soss Efram Melik
Charcoal on paper 1972
Image: 46.5cm x 42.5cm (185⁄16" x 163⁄4"),
Accurate Sheet: 45.3cm x 30.2cm (1713⁄16" x 117⁄8")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution NPG.80.2
W.H. Auden 1907-73
English or American? When W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden emigrated to America in 1939 he was already established as a major voice in English literature; he became an American citizen in 1946. The move completed the famous dual migration of great poets with T.S. Eliot having moved to England earlier in the century. For Eliot, moving to England fulfilled his need for a traditional, structured community. Auden's emigration cannot be couched in national (or nationalistic) terms. The United States for Auden was not so much a society or a history (it was certainly not a politics) but a free space into which he could escape, both personally as a homosexual man and as a poet. America never bulked large in his poetry as a subject in the way that England did for Eliot; a reference to the 'dives' of 52nd Street in 'September 1, 1939' was one of Auden's few American references. And he is one of the few major poets actively to edit and re-write already published poems when he collected them. He scrubbed place, personality, and politics from such poems as his series on the Spanish Civil War and his eulogy to W.B. Yeats. Versus the austere constructions of Eliot or Wallace Stevens, Auden mastered a relaxed, ironic style that got at substance obliquely or even indifferently; he praised limestone because it dissolved in water. Auden's face grew into his style: he became wonderfully lined and shaggy, holding an omnipresent cigarette and wearing his trade-mark carpet slippers. A formidable erudition lurked behind this avuncular presence. In Auden - for example in his 'Musée des Beaux Arts' - there is often a sense of something going on somewhere else while you're distracted, something that will end up being more important than what you are focused on. Who else would end a poem on the fall of Rome with: 'Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast.'
DAVID C. WARD
This item is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.