Our book today is Forewards and Afterwards, the collection of incidental deadline-prose written by celebrated poet W. H. Auden and published together in 1973. I'm told, by those who know, that Auden is a considerable force as a poet - I've scarcely liked a single line of his I've ever read, but then, poetry and I mostly parted ways with Kipling (my occasional forays into Poetry Class notwithstanding!). And certainly in this book he's working in a long tradition - poets have made consistently interesting and often powerfully original literary critics through the centuries. Every time I pick up Forewards and Afterwards (or its companion volume, The Dyer's Hand), I reflexively feel the same little anticipatory thrill that goes through me when I pick up Johnson's Lives of the Poets or Doyle's Through the Magic Door or the literary chunk of Gore Vidal's United States (the same thrill I'd feel in spades if Henry Adams had ever got off his reedy ass and actually compiled the similar volume he promised friends for decades).
And I'm disappointed every time, because Auden is something of a moron. At least when it comes to writing hack-criticism on deadline. Especially when he's writing about subjects other than poetry, which happens often in this collection.
Every time, I go in wanting this book to be the classic it's so clearly not. I open it at random, hoping that this time the great insights will outweigh - or hell, even temporarily occlude - the boneheaded groaners. But then I come across something like this:
It is not often that knowledge of an artist's life sheds any significant light upon his work ...
So far as I know, Goethe was the first writer or artist to become a Public Celebrity. There had always been poets, painters and composers who were known to and revered by their fellow artists, but the general public, however much it may have admired their works, would not have dreamed of wishing to make their personal acquaintance.
Others have been concerned with the corruptions of the big city, the ennui of the cultured mind; some sought a remedy in a return to Nature, to childhood, to Classical Antiquity; others looked forward to a brighter future of liberty, equality, and fraternity: they called on the powers of the subconscious, or prayed for the grace of God to inrupt and save their souls; they called on the oppressed to arise and save the world. In Kipling there is none of this, no nostalgia for a Golden Age, no belief in Progress.
And they just keep coming, like rocks hurled through a series of stained glass windows - not just contentious opinions (we're all entitled to those, after all) but weird-old-fart crank-ass assertions that wouldn't have made it past the second draft if they'd been written by some unknown freelancer churning out his thousand words to obtain his review copy. When Anthony Burgess writes book-essays like these (and I'm told he wrote about 100 times as many of them as Auden - or anybody else in the history of the world - ever did), he never fails to earn his supper: there's at least one memorable line in virtually every piece. But with Auden, most of what I come away remembering are the disasters, the crackpot stuff that isn't even worth arguing about.
Even when he tries for the more human tone of faux-humility (and it's always faux - the guy quotes from his own poetry during his reviews), it goes horribly awry:
Mr. Pope-Hennessey is probably the only person now living who has read all of Trollope's sixty-five books, the majority of which are in two or three volumes, and he devotes a good many pages to describing and assessing the little-known ones. For this I am most grateful to him. Like everybody who reads Trollope at all, I have read the Barchester novels and several others, but I had never even heart of He Knew He Was Right, which Mr. Pope-Hennessey thinks one of the best, and what he says about it makes me eager to read it at the first opportunity.
Yeesh. Confession may be good for the soul, but confessing (with such smug subdued pride - "As soon as I manage a spare moment, I'll straightaway ring up my lending library and ask them if they have this fascinating-sounding book I've just learned about") that you've never even heard of He Knew He Was Right - in the middle of writing about a Trollope biography - doesn't endear you to your readers ... it completely annihilates their faith in you.
At one point Auden proclaims, "No critic, however pontifical his tone, is really attempting to lay down eternal truths about art ..." Forewards and Afterwards would be a Hell of a better book if he'd really believed that, instead of trying to preach to his cake and eat it too. As it is, I don't really know why I keep going back to this wreck, this folly out in the yard. I just keep hoping it'll be better than I know it is. So come to think about it, maybe it's a good thing Adams never wrote his book ....