EARLY AUDEN by Edward Mendelson


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It is clear that Mendelson, the young executor of the Auden estate, is gearing up for a revisionist defense of late Auden--presumably in a volume to follow this one. So, for him, the young Auden is the lesser one: anti-modernist, public, truth-telling, possessor of a ""Brechtian art, conceived independently of Brecht,"" yet also one effectively paralyzed by fears of intellectual fraudulence and dishonesty. Because of this implicit bias, you will have to look elsewhere for a sufficient examination of early Auden's bravura facilities, the almost scary stylistic panache; Mendelson is interested almost exclusively in poetry's ideas, not poetry's music. As a study of Auden-the-young-thinker, then, this is serviceable (though inferior to Samuel Hynes' The Auden Generation). Here, in clear focus, are Auden's tender intellectual stages: apolitical at Oxford, Nature-Lover in Berlin, social revolutionary in the late '20s, agape in the '30s, with a prematurely crotchety faith in History--capital H--after Spain and before leaving for America. Auden's distressing Ãœbermenschen (The Airman in The Orators, the savior parable of The Ascent of F6) are addressed at length, if confusingly (the organization here is poor, with turgid lapses). But never do you get much of a sense of Auden as writer of English, as prosodist or poet. Hewing strictly to an approach that hunts for aphoristic wisdom in poetry (an approach which will flatter the later work), Mendelson makes the early Auden into a kind of change-partners-and-dance-man of promiscuous ideas; and the stresses of these changes are rarely looked for in the art itself. Clive James, in an essay on Auden collected in the recent First Reactions (1980), has far more insightfully looked at both the technique and the dialectic tensions of early Auden (convincingly, he stresses the anxiety, disappointment, and hope generated by Auden's homosexuality). By comparison, Mendelson's hard-working but fustily academic and tunnel-visioned treatment seems particularly limited, stiff, and unexciting.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking