Accustomed to his face
Forewords and Afterwords W. H. Auden (Faber and Faber £3.95)
For the poet, the discipline of prose writing is necessary but subsidiary. It demands too much assertion, it confesses too much. It's difficult, then, to be both poet and critic but actually far more difficult to be both poet and reviewer. The critic — like T. S. Eliot — will be forming a description of his poetry in the criticism he writes. But the occasional reviewer is prohibited from any grand design; he writes to a stated length and, to a deadline. He writes, honourably enough, to earn a living. Mr Auden's Forewords and Afterwords is a collection of just such reviews. It ranges over his favourite interests of poetry and opera, religion and sex. We have grown accustomed to this, but the speed with which this collection was assembled underlines the familiar obeisance with which his work is treated. But before we accept the work, we should see it for what it is. There are obvious comparisons. Where Eliot pares down his critical range in order to create the vocabulary of a new tradition, Auden is personal and eclectic. Where Wallace Stevens attends continually to the precepts of his chosen art, Auden's references to poetry are random and occasional. It is a criticism that is at once strongly individual, and yet with a total effect that can be disconcertingly impersonal and bland. Despite the general opinion, it is an advantage to know a great deal before setting about the task of reviewing. This is not a
question of fact and detail, but rather an instinctive rightness of emphasis — the ability to set the context for a particular work without making that context too obtrusive. Auden has this gift of unobtrusiveness but his perspective is one of personal temperament rather than of cultural history. There is a weakness here, of course. For in areas which have some connection with his life and needs, Auden writes with an unerring directness. But in intellectual and doctrinal matters, he sometimes comes unstuck.
In the essays upon classical culture and upon existentialism, for example, Auden tende to summarise an argument without comment; he gives a potted cultural history which is neutral and occasionally tedious. And he gives the disconcerting impression of' possessing only information which comes from the book under review. This is a perfectly proper means of reviewing (and one more difficult than people imagine) but in Auden's work I expected something more, a pra-sonal colour and an original argument. It is not unjust here to refer to certain of Auden's poems: there is that same facility for presenting an argument rhetorically without any personal involvement in its content or its implications.
But, also with the poetry as with the prose, the hallmark of Auden's manner is a certain down-to-earth tone, an ability to see the human truth of situations and the refusal to be fooled. In the best of these reviews there is this tone. I can think offhand only of a trivial but illuminating example — when Auden describes the tortured antics of a Russian aesthete, he comments, " No Englishman could possibly do such a thing." It is a voice, at once accurate and ironic, that cannot be easily described; it is, as Auden says of that of another poet, one that can only be imitated or quoted. For it is the voice of a particular civilisation that connects these reviews. It is a voice that celebrates the instinctive and permanent forces of human community, and the necessity to be decent and a good sport. It can, of course, become uncomfortably bland, but it has great force when it evokes themes which interest Auden deeply. I am thinking here, for example, of the essays about Tennyson and Dag Hammarskjold. It is a voice that seems strongest in one of the finest essays of the book, ' As It Seemed to Us.' And it is not coincidental that this last is also the most autobiographical of the collection, for this is the root of Auden's achievement as a prose writer. In those essays that are purely formal and argumentative, there is an absence of point that manifests itself in the abstractness and imprecision of the writing.
I only labour this point to underline that Auden is a great reviewer despite himself. Or, rather, despite his professed opinions. For the constant theme of these reviews is that the life of the writer is coincidental and irrelevant. The corresponding interest is, naturally, in the technique of writing rather than in selfexpression or the bugbear of experience.' But it becomes obvious from a reading of this book that the best writing of Auden emerges in those reviews which have a personal and instinctive origin. It is in this sense that Auden remains a reviewer rather than a critic. He does not have the theoretical exactness of a great critic, but he has that flair and virtuosity which are the hallmark of a fine journalist.