W. H. AUDEN: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
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W. H. AUDEN: A Biography

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Simply as a scrupulous gathering of data--much of it from previously unavailable sources--this literate, sensible, yet oddly unsatisfying biography will take a secure place on the Auden shelf; and such slighter efforts as Charles Osborne's casual W. H. Auden (1979) will now seem even less reliable. Carpenter (J. R. R. Tolkien) views the young Auden's by-now-familiar ""ideological muddle""--from post-Freudian psychologies (interestingly detailed here) to disillusioning Marxism to the liberalism of the selflessly loving ""Agape""--with dry shrewdness . . . though he gives more serious weight than most to Auden's pessimistic, WW II conversion-back to the comforting ""absolute"" of Christianity. (Carpenter has also written on Jesus and C. S. Lewis.) And the problematic private life is painstakingly detailed without lapses into gossip-mongering: the ""satisfied lust and unsatiable love"" of Auden's cheerful early promiscuity; the liaison with lsherwood (""they could become schoolboys by getting into bed together""); the tendency toward impossible, unrequited passions (perhaps ""he entered into such relationships . . . in order to stimulate his art""); the longterm attachment to ""remorselessly promiscuous"" Chester Kailman in New York and Europe; a heterosexual affair in the mid-'40s; the uppers and downers (""he liked drugs because they made him efficient""); his role in many friendships as a self-appointed ""analyst-leader-healer."" But somehow Carpenter's thoughtful, decade-by-decade documentation--travel, homes, collaborations, moods--doesn't add up either to a strong projection of personality or a convincingly developed life history. And his treatment of Auden's writing itself (which makes no claims to literary criticism) is descriptive and annotative rather than illuminating, with especially detailed summaries of the dramatic works; only in the last chapters does Carpenter tackle the poetry head-on-in an unpersuasive defense of late Auden, which was not a decline, he says, but ""an attempt to purge his poetry of false rhetoric and to make it serve the interests of truth at whatever cost."" (This revisionist view seems parallel to that of Auden-executor Edward Mendelson, Early Auden, p. 669). Not a commandingly involving or enlightening biography, then, but an expansively informative one which is also crisply readable and reasonably balanced.

Pub Date: Sept. 4th, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin