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This article is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.

Gossip in Eden: Auden's Prose Rhian Williams
Edward Mendelson, ed., The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, 4 volumes (Princeton University Press, 1996-2010), 3148 pp.

Embarking on the fourth volume of W.H. Auden's prose, in this beautifully presented edition, I was surprised - even concerned - to read that, having been appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956, Auden 'lived and worked during these five years with a profound new sense of menace and dread, as if he were subject to judgement by a censorious and unforgiving eye' (IV: xiii). Not that the sentiment wasn't familiar (indeed, it echoed my own feelings as reviewer of these magisterial volumes), but that such feelings were experienced by one so prolific, charming, intelligent, and elegant in the mountains of prose I had read in the previous three volumes of reviews, essays, travel books, talks and lectures gathered from the years 1926 to (in this one) 1962. That someone so used to, and adept at, addressing the public as a literary commentator could be subject to such crippling feelings of inadequacy might seem to reveal a deep-seated immaturity, or even bad faith, in the would-be lecturer, but to accuse Auden of vanity would be to overlook the characteristic endeavour of all of his prose, which this faltering spirit importantly illustrates and these volumes vitally evidence: a profound sense of what may be called literary responsibility. Edward Mendelson's Herculean work of precise editing, together with introductions that are models of efficient illumination fused with appreciative warmth, bring such contradictions into ...


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