W.H. Auden’s famous poem receives an impressionistic, idiosyncratic examination from fellow poet, mystery writer, and jack-of-all–literary trades Sansom (English/Univ. of Warwick; December Stories I, 2018, etc.).
Don’t expect conventional literary criticism or an exegesis of the poem’s historical and autobiographical underpinnings in this rambling, fitfully stimulating work. Structured as a stanza-by-stanza exploration, the text is in fact extremely scattershot; Sansom takes 100 pages to get through Auden’s first stanza, leaving 200 breathless pages for the next eight. Indeed, the text generally has a breathless, tossed-off air, though the author tells us he has been trying to write about Auden for 25 years. The plethora of literary extracts scattered throughout, by Auden and others, might testify to Sansom’s deep knowledge of literature—or might just signal an author substituting quotation for inspiration. He certainly knows a lot about Auden, and there are flashes of genuine perceptiveness: “that weird combination in [Auden’s] work of mental toughness and piercing insights, and also a deep, sweet sentimentality.” (Sansom takes a more jaundiced tone about Auden’s sentimental tendencies when he gets to the poem’s most famous line, “We must love one another or die,” and dismisses it with a brisk, “No. Just, no.”) Sansom never conveys the sense of personal connection that presumably led him to grapple with Auden and his work. Instead, we get uninteresting personal trivia, such as the author’s feelings of inferiority to real Auden scholars like John Fuller and Edward Mendelson or the fact that he, like Auden, reads a lot of crime fiction. The latter remark is followed by the vague claim that “it’s hard not to imagine Auden as some sort of detective…one of those professional amateurs beloved of crime writers.” Whether a reader finds this sort of aperçu charming or not is a good forecast of what their overall reaction to the book will be.
Knowledgeable and occasionally insightful but also undisciplined and self-indulgent.