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W. H. Auden: A Biography

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W. H. Auden disapproved of literary biography. Or did he? The truth is far more equivocal than at first seems apparent. There is no denying he delivered himself of such unambiguous pronouncements as 'Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.'; and that he asked for his friends to burn his letters at his death, but, against that, Auden himself W. H. Auden disapproved of literary biography. Or did he? The truth is far more equivocal than at first seems apparent. There is no denying he delivered himself of such unambiguous pronouncements as 'Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.'; and that he asked for his friends to burn his letters at his death, but, against that, Auden himself often reviewed literary biographies and normally with enthusiasm. Moreover he argued for biographies of writers such as Dryden, Trollope, Wagner and Gerard Manley Hopkins as their lives would tell us something about their art. Humphrey Carpenter himself nicely summarizes Auden's ambiguity on this question. 'Here (referring to literary biography), as so often in his life, Auden adopted a dogmatic attitude which did not reflect the full range of his opinions, and which he sometimes flatly contradicted.' Although the biography was not authorized it did receive the co-operation of the Auden Estate which gave permission for letters and unpublished works to be quoted. The result is a biography that was widely praised on first publication in 1981 and which continues to hold its own. Now is the obvious time to reissue it with the character of Humphrey Carpenter playing an important role in Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art. "In his introduction Alan Bennett writes 'When I started writing the play I made much use of the biographies of both Auden and Britten written by Humphrey Carpenter and both are models of their kind. Indeed I was consulting his books so much that eventually Carpenter found his way into the play.'" " "" ""'Carpenter is a model biographer - diligent, unspeculative, sympathetic, and extremely good at finding out what happened when and with whom . . . admirably detailed and researched study.' John Bayley, "The Listener" "" ""'an illuminating book; full of information, unobtrusively affectionate, it describes with unpretentious elegance the curve of a great poet's life and work' Frank Kermode, "Guardian" "" ""'sharpens and usually lights up even the most canvassed parts of the Auden life and myth . . . a deeply interesting book about a deeply interesting life' Roy Fuller, "Sunday Times" "" ""' . . . the story of a remarkable man told by one of the best living biographers' David Cecil, "Book Choice "


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W. H. Auden disapproved of literary biography. Or did he? The truth is far more equivocal than at first seems apparent. There is no denying he delivered himself of such unambiguous pronouncements as 'Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.'; and that he asked for his friends to burn his letters at his death, but, against that, Auden himself W. H. Auden disapproved of literary biography. Or did he? The truth is far more equivocal than at first seems apparent. There is no denying he delivered himself of such unambiguous pronouncements as 'Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.'; and that he asked for his friends to burn his letters at his death, but, against that, Auden himself often reviewed literary biographies and normally with enthusiasm. Moreover he argued for biographies of writers such as Dryden, Trollope, Wagner and Gerard Manley Hopkins as their lives would tell us something about their art. Humphrey Carpenter himself nicely summarizes Auden's ambiguity on this question. 'Here (referring to literary biography), as so often in his life, Auden adopted a dogmatic attitude which did not reflect the full range of his opinions, and which he sometimes flatly contradicted.' Although the biography was not authorized it did receive the co-operation of the Auden Estate which gave permission for letters and unpublished works to be quoted. The result is a biography that was widely praised on first publication in 1981 and which continues to hold its own. Now is the obvious time to reissue it with the character of Humphrey Carpenter playing an important role in Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art. "In his introduction Alan Bennett writes 'When I started writing the play I made much use of the biographies of both Auden and Britten written by Humphrey Carpenter and both are models of their kind. Indeed I was consulting his books so much that eventually Carpenter found his way into the play.'" " "" ""'Carpenter is a model biographer - diligent, unspeculative, sympathetic, and extremely good at finding out what happened when and with whom . . . admirably detailed and researched study.' John Bayley, "The Listener" "" ""'an illuminating book; full of information, unobtrusively affectionate, it describes with unpretentious elegance the curve of a great poet's life and work' Frank Kermode, "Guardian" "" ""'sharpens and usually lights up even the most canvassed parts of the Auden life and myth . . . a deeply interesting book about a deeply interesting life' Roy Fuller, "Sunday Times" "" ""' . . . the story of a remarkable man told by one of the best living biographers' David Cecil, "Book Choice "

30 review for W. H. Auden: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Domhnall

    This biography tells Auden’s life story very well and offers many interesting insights. The discussion of his writing is not detailed and it is not a sufficient support for a detailed reading of the poems. There is only limited exploration of Auden’s thinking, so that for example it comes as a surprise to encounter him delivering ambitious lectures on highly sophisticated topics which have not been mentioned up to then. We know how many hours he spent reading and writing, but not so much what he This biography tells Auden’s life story very well and offers many interesting insights. The discussion of his writing is not detailed and it is not a sufficient support for a detailed reading of the poems. There is only limited exploration of Auden’s thinking, so that for example it comes as a surprise to encounter him delivering ambitious lectures on highly sophisticated topics which have not been mentioned up to then. We know how many hours he spent reading and writing, but not so much what he was reading or writing about. We know of important friendships – for instance, with Marianne Moore – without any information about the ideas exchanged or the discussions and debates taking place. The book is non judgemental, which is certainly appropriate for Auden’s personal life, but possibly not really so helpful when considering the major decisions and choices Auden made in his public life, notably in his views about the poet’s role in society. His encounters with Fascism in the thirties – including his marriage of convenience to the daughter of Thomas Mann in order to rescue her from Nazi Europe - do not seem to have produced in him the kind of visceral response one might have expected, leaving for me the impression of a privileged life, rather outside of the existential battle for survival taking place around him. It is impossible not to be impressed by Auden but this biography – albeit highly readable and hard to put down - does nothing to make me admire him. Some quotes: He once said of this: ‘It’s awfully important that writers aren’t afraid to write badly... The moment you’re really afraid of writing badly ... then you’ll never write anything any good.’ [p134] He [...said...] in an interview towards the end of his life. ‘It was extremely difficult as a writer [during the 1930s] to be quite honest with oneself, because there was always conflict between what one was really interested in, and a mixture of social conscience about what was going on, and also I think sheer conceit and a wish to be important.’ Yet he was not especially ashamed of the fact that his poetry at this period preached ideas to which he did not really subscribe. He declared that, though a poet’s emotions must be involved in his work, in poetry ‘all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.’ [p153] Geoffrey Grigson, reviewing New Country as soon as it was published, scorned the notion that Auden and his friends were a ‘Group’. He asked: ‘What joins these writers except paper? How, as an artist, is Auden united with Day-Lewis, Day-Lewis with Spender, Spender with Upwards? ... Spender’s article, Auden’s poems and Day-Lewis’s “Magnetic Mountain” prove it stupid to keep in fancy these three as triune.’ And Auden himself said thirty years later; ‘Even when we seemed to share some common concern – political, let us say – our approached to it, our sensibilities and techniques were always different.’ This is not to deny Auden’s influence on several of the contributors to New Country, and of course at Oxford he thought in terms of a Group or Gang of his friends. But by the time these friends did begin to wield some power in the literary world, he himself had lost interest in such a notion and was concerned almost exclusively with his own problems as a poet. [p156] ...in the summer of 1933 he began for the first time to involve himself, in his poetry, in the experience of being in love – in exactly the way he failed to involve himself in the experiences he presented to himself in ‘In the year of my youth.’ ... Partly the new lyricism in his love-poetry was the result of a desire to ‘loosen’ his poetic style. Looking back on this stylistic change he wrote, in 1937: ‘I used to try and concentrate the poem so much that there wasn’t a word that wasn’t essential. This leads to becoming boring and constipated.’ He modelled his new loosened style largely on Yeats, who became, during this period, as important a master to him as Hardy and Eliot had been in earlier phases. [p199] ...he believed that popular writing, even more than ‘serious’ poetry, demonstrates clearly the differences between the sensibilities of different ages of civilisation, since it usually reflects not one man’s taste so much as the taste of his audience. ‘Light verse can be serious’, Auden wrote in the introduction to the [Oxford Book of Light Verse] ... ‘It has only come to mean vers de société, triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has only been in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to forget themselves and their singing robes.’ [p231] Quite apart from his unhappiness about English society in general, he felt, it seems, that he was himself in an increasingly impossible position within that society. His role as what Edward Mendelson has called ‘Court Poet of the Left’ had its attractions, and at first he had played the part expected of him. But The Ascent of f6 expressed his fears about the dangers of public success and by 1938 the role had become intolerable simply because he did not have the political beliefs to sustain it... He admitted that ‘Liberal Democracy’, with its belief in the innate goodness of human nature, was too weak to withstand Fascism, but his only proposal for change was the introduction of what he called ‘Social Democracy’, which would admit that ‘man is not born free or good’ and would take steps to curb extremism. But even this modified liberalism did not really reflect his true state of mind. The fact is that he was beginning to lose all interest in politics. [p245] As to patriotism, it was not a concept that Auden was prepared to to accept without question. He was of the opinion that ‘to regard nationhood as anything more than a technical convenience of social organization – and few do not – is idolatry.’ And some years later he wrote: Patriots? Little boys, obsessed by Bigness, Big pricks, Big money, Big bangs. [p246] In Paris [1938] he met the English poet David Gascoyne. ‘Even at the age of 40,’ Gascoyne wrote of Auden in his diary, ‘he will carry the head of an undergraduate on his shoulders. At 31, he still has an air of disguising only with a difficultly acquired social manner the petulance and embarrassment of an adolescent.’ [p248] ...he wrote to Mrs Dodds: ...‘The real decision came after making a speech at a dinner in New York to get money for Spanish refugees when I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogue speech and have the audience roaring. I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.’ And he told her: ‘Never, never again will I speak at a political meeting.’ This decision was reflected in the lines that he now added to his poem about Yeats... ‘Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen.’ ... In these lines, all Auden’s attempts during the previous ten years to involve his poetry in politics and society were categorically rejected. He reiterated that rejection... in his obituary article on Yeats... ‘Art’, he wrote, ‘is a product of history, not a cause ... so that the question fo whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal.. If not a poem had been written, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.’ Auden was to repeat this, in similar words, again and again for the rest of his life. [p256] He had now come to believe that all poetry should involve a technical challenge for the poet. ‘My own feeling’, he said in 1945, ‘is that every new work one writes should, among other (and of course more important) things, attempt to solve new technical problems for oneself, of metre, diction, genre, etc.’ ... ‘Forms are chosen by poets because the most important part of what they have to say seems to go better with that form than any other... and then, in its turn, the form develops and shapes the poet’s imagination so that he says things which he did not know he was capable of saying, and at the same time those parts of his imagination which had other things to say, dry up from lack of use.’ He was also fond of citing, as a description of the interaction in a poet’s mind between form and imagination, some words that E. M. Forster attributed to an old lady: ‘How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?’ It was for this reason that he so rarely wrote free verse, but almost always chose a formal scheme of prosody for his poems... he wrote to Stephen Spender: ‘My objection to most free verse is that I cannot feel any necessity behind it... The trouble today with so many would-be artists is that they see, quite correctly, that many of the greatest works ... are so extraordinarily free and easy ... and think that they can start off writing like that. But that sort of grace is the end point of a long process, first of learning technique (every technique is a convention and therefore dangerous) and then unlearning. It is much easier to learn than to unlearn, and most of us will not get further than the learning, but there is no other route to greatness, even if we get stuck half-way.’ [pp339, 340] The Age of Anxiety... was Auden’s last long poem. This was partly because he had now journeyed through all the stages of emigration, conversion, and sexual crisis which marked his progress to maturity, and which had formed the subject of his long poems. From now on, when he wanted to write a poetic work on a larger scale he chose to construct not a single long poem but a sequence of shorter pieces linked by one theme. [p348] He chose as his subject ‘The Romantic Iconography of the Sea’. The lectures were afterwards published as The Enchafed Flood. Auden’s aim in them was to explain the nature of Romanticism by examining its treatment of a single theme, the sea... The Enchafed Flood is so closely-argued and condensed that it is not an easy book to read, but it is the most sustained of, and therefore one of the most interesting, critical writings by Auden. [p362] Yet another, and perhaps deeper, cause of the change was his desire not to be self-imitative, not to continue writing the sort of thing that he knew was expected of him. ‘Having spent twenty years learning to be himself,’ he wrote, ‘[the poet] finds that he must now start learning how not to be himself.’ [p365] In about 1964 he wrote to Stephen Spender: ‘I am incapable of saying a word about W. B. Yeats because, though no fault of his, he has become for me a symbol of my own devil of inauthenticity, of everything which I must try to eliminate from my own poetry, false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities... His [poems] make me whore after lies.’ Elsewhere he said that Yeats, together with Rilke, made him ‘write poems which were false to my personal and poetic nature.’ [p416] Auden liked to boast that he had now written a poem in every known metre, and he was always searching for new forms... Form continued to interest him as much as content. [p419, 420] The publication of the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems served to confirm in the minds of many critics (especially British) the suspicion that Auden had been in a steady and discernible decline as a poet since he went to America. This gradually became the accepted or even standard view of Auden and it has largely remained so, despite the fact that it does not fit the evidence. For a start, it takes no account of his achievements in the long poems of the 1940s... Perhaps most importantly, [...it] does not bother to understand what Auden was trying to do from the 1950s onwards. Never for one moment content to stand still as a poet and repeat mechanically the kind of performance his readers expected from him, he set out during this period of his life to refine and pare down, to cut away what now seemed to him to have been a large element of falsehood in his pre-war poetry... Whether his readers benefitted from the revisions is another matter; the new versions of his earlier poems may be more ‘honest’, but they are rarely more attractive as poetry. On the other hand the new poems that he wrote during his later years show the process of refining and paring down at its best. [pp430, 431]

  2. 4 out of 5

    Keith Taylor

    This is a gigantic, exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) definitive biography. It hasn't been supplanted in the 40 years since it first came out, and it probably won't be any time soon. I'm not sure anyone is that interested in Auden anymore, to spend the length of time it would take to write a biography that would do more with Auden. Carpenter is the biographer of the Christian fantasy writers called "the inklings," associated with Oxford (Lewis and Tolkien and friends), so I suspect he is v This is a gigantic, exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) definitive biography. It hasn't been supplanted in the 40 years since it first came out, and it probably won't be any time soon. I'm not sure anyone is that interested in Auden anymore, to spend the length of time it would take to write a biography that would do more with Auden. Carpenter is the biographer of the Christian fantasy writers called "the inklings," associated with Oxford (Lewis and Tolkien and friends), so I suspect he is very sympathetic to Auden's Christianity, which has a central place in this biography. It's not overwhelming, but it is important. Carpenter is also very frank about Auden's homosexuality, and that is interesting too. He was so open about it in a time we think of as repressive. Yet he became a major figure while his sexual orientation was discussed openly. Perhaps it contributed to the fact that he didn't get the Nobel, but Carpenter doesn't even say that. There is a weight of detail in this book that slows it down (do we really need to know that Chester Kallman had a big, uncircumcised cock? Even though it is lovely gossip). But I always evaluate the big biographies of the poets about whether or not they take me back to the poems -- and this one didn't. I had the poems out in front of me, and looked at a few, mostly the famous ones, but I didn't feel the need for a deep dive into the work, and I was ready for it. But it wasn't a complete loss, because it helped me figure out why I have never been deeply involved with Auden's poetry. Not yet, anyway. He says over and over that Auden was simply not involved with the natural world at all. That he couldn't see it. And he knew this about himself. He talks of the world as simply "landscape" where people act. So he writes of relationships, history and ideas as if the trees and the birds. don't exist. Auden admitted, and Carpenter quotes him, that he couldn't SEE the natural world, even when he tried to look. He had a wonderful ear and a deep knowledge of the meters and forms of English verse. That's why some of those poems are so memorable. And my imagination is visual, maybe even primarily visual. I will give Auden's poems more chances. Always. But this big biography didn't bring me any closer to loving them, although it probably explained to me why I don't.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dean

    This is a fine biography, and I give it 4.5 stars rounded up to 5. My recent interest in Auden arose when I read about his time living in St. Marks Place, New York City, a tale I encountered here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... In addition, Auden taught for several years during World War II at my alma mater, Swarthmore College. I was never a great reader of Auden's poetry, but I was drawn to his idiosyncratic character. Humphrey Carpenter's bio of Auden feels definitive. It is thorough This is a fine biography, and I give it 4.5 stars rounded up to 5. My recent interest in Auden arose when I read about his time living in St. Marks Place, New York City, a tale I encountered here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... In addition, Auden taught for several years during World War II at my alma mater, Swarthmore College. I was never a great reader of Auden's poetry, but I was drawn to his idiosyncratic character. Humphrey Carpenter's bio of Auden feels definitive. It is thorough, mostly linear, extremely well researched, crisply written. The writer depicts Auden's relationships with his modest but accomplished father, a physician, and his domineering mother. Auden was matter-of-fact about his homosexuality, and so is Carpenter. Though he was great friends with Christopher Isherwood, Auden had one great love: Chester Kallman, with whom he lived for most of the second half of his life. I did not realize the extent to which Auden and Isherwood, and later Auden and Kallman, wrote theatrical productions and librettos for operas. Auden and Kallman, in particular, worked with Stravinsky and had real success. Auden wrestled with many ideologies, notably (like many Englishmen after World War I) Communism, to which he was strongly attracted; and later Christianity, despite having left, and rejected, the Church as a very young man. In later life he discovered Kierkegaard, whose writings significantly influenced his desire to consider himself Christian. Auden sometimes worked in journalism, or something close to journalism, and he traveled to Iceland (where his father claimed historical origins, though that is in doubt), Spain (to cover the Civil War, though Auden correctly praised Orwell's writing about that War as much more important than his own), and China (to cover the Sino-Japanese War, where he met Chang Kai-shek and his wife). Finally, as World War II began, he emigrated to the United States, and later become a citizen, though he was strongly criticized by the English for "abandoning" his own country in the name of pacifism. Despite owning a shabby loft on St. Mark's Place, Auden and Kallman preferred to stay in the house Auden owned near Vienna. A great poet, Auden was a slovenly dresser who didn't care what anyone thought about his appearance. He was a generous man with his money when he had some (by the end of his life he had a handsome income). He took very poor care of his health, smoking 50 Lucky Strikes a day (and claiming he didn't inhale!). Past the middle of his life, he aged rapidly, drank far too much, and went to bed at 9 pm even when hosting his own dinner parties: he just left the room. Auden died in his bed of a heart attack, age 67. He had often said he did not want to die of a lingering painful illness. I was aware that Carpenter's book was superb on biography but short on thoughtful analysis of Auden's poetry. While he gives the poems context and sometimes explains their likely origins, it is true that he doesn't spend much time with poetical analysis. While reading the book, I didn't miss that. But now I do, so perhaps I need to find another kind of book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jim Coughenour

    I've been re-reading Carpenter's biography of Auden, and it's even better than I remembered. Carpenter is better known for his biographies of Tolkien and the C. S. Lewis coterie (both very good), but his now-almost-forgotten book on Auden is even better. Carpenter illuminates the poetry and demythologizes the man. He treats Auden's irritated homosexuality and Christian ranting with the wry skepticism it deserves, but never allows us to underestimate his accomplishment. And no one writes better a I've been re-reading Carpenter's biography of Auden, and it's even better than I remembered. Carpenter is better known for his biographies of Tolkien and the C. S. Lewis coterie (both very good), but his now-almost-forgotten book on Auden is even better. Carpenter illuminates the poetry and demythologizes the man. He treats Auden's irritated homosexuality and Christian ranting with the wry skepticism it deserves, but never allows us to underestimate his accomplishment. And no one writes better about the mid-century English mindscape.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    The biography is fine, but what a dully disgusting life.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

    Still the definitive biography of Auden.

  7. 4 out of 5

    William Gortowski

    Could have actually said more about the poems but still worth a read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  9. 5 out of 5

    Vinton Rafe

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marne

  11. 4 out of 5

    Clifton

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jill Jenkins

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Weisberg

  14. 5 out of 5

    Reed

  15. 5 out of 5

    Piet

  16. 4 out of 5

    Derk

  17. 4 out of 5

    Melanie Rightmyer

  18. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jonny

  20. 4 out of 5

    Steve Walker

  21. 5 out of 5

    Borisbadenough

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ciara Houghton

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mme H C M

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ash Giri

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gene Coatney

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ian

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth S

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jon Nalley

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dave

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