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Forewords and Afterwords

by W. H. Auden

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1911106,830 (4.5)4
Critical essays illuminate Auden's thoughts on literature, civilization, and human vision.

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» See also 4 mentions

Done! This was my traditional Christmas Eve book from my mother, and I've been picking at it since then. I finally gave myself permission to skim essays about books I hadn't read, which made it much more enjoyable. I've loved Auden's poetry since I was about thirteen, but I hadn't read much of his prose until now.

There are some real gems here. Auden's essays on Wilde, Houseman, Kipling, Wagner, Poe, Pope, Cavafy, and Caroll are all highlights for me (the Wagner is even very funny), and some of the lines have been familiar to me out of context for years: "From the beginning Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands."

There are also essays that pointed me towards interesting books; The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher is intriguing (and his way of referring to her as "Mrs. Fisher" throughout the essay is so period, and so characteristic of him). I'm also very curious about Henry Mayhew's research among the London poor of the 19th century; London Labour and the London Poor is the volume mentioned, and Auden makes it sound absolutely riveting.

Auden's Freudian bias pops up sometimes. I mean, is it really true that when a man becomes a chef, he's imitating women's breastfeeding, but if a woman becomes a chef, it's because she's establishing that her worth doesn't rely on her ability to breastfeed? What, Wystan? Really?

Then, there are the times he feels himself qualified to make sweeping statements - for example, about the characters and motivations of all gay men everywhere. He says that it is "very rare for a homosexual to remain faithful to one person for long" because they can't have children, and lack that common interest. This is, frankly, just plain wrong from where I'm sitting, but then Auden had his own troubles with Chester Kallman, etc. Earlier in that same essay he writes that "few, if any homosexuals can honestly boast that their sex-life has been happy." I can imagine that in mid-centry America, a time of rampant hatred of gay men and women, when homosexuality was considered among the mainstream population to be truly depraved, this was more true than I can imagine.

And, if his essays tend to have a magesterial tone and to betray some personal quirks, well, so much the better. They're interesting, illuminating, and no-one else could have written them.
1 vote Cynara | Jan 2, 2012 |
As a volume conveying Auden’s European magnitude as an artist, this collection of his ancillary prose could scarcely be bettered. In its casual way (casual in the happenstance of its occasions and compilation: there is, of course, nothing casual whatever about its thought and craft) it is a testament not just to Auden’s culture but to culture – the European artistic civilization which, we can now see, Auden was as effective as Eliot in comprehending and maintaining. And he was more at ease in it than Eliot. In every sense he was at home...

On top of these things there is the insistence that the facts of art are concrete and practical, and that educating yourself in them is a matter of finding out about them, and that years might go by before the truth reveals itself. By returning to this point over and over – by always insisting that of finding things out there is no end – Auden creates, unbeatably, the feeling that education is lifelong, addictive, playful. In him there is no element of the self-immolating drudge. He would never have been capable of Eliot’s sermon on the necessity for the student to embrace boredom.
added by SnootyBaronet | editTimes Literary Supplement, Clive James (Oct 12, 1973)
 

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Once upon a time there was a little boy.
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Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind. All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, particularly the ugly ones. This has always been so, and, probably, always will be. What is relatively new, however—it is scarcely to be found before the latter half of the eighteenth century—is a blurring of the borderline between the desire for truth and idle curiosity, until, today, it has been so thoroughly erased that we can indulge in the latter without the slightest pangs of conscience. A great deal of what today passes for scholarly research is an activity no different from that of reading somebody’s private correspondence when he is out of the room, and it doesn’t really make it morally any better if he is out of the room because he is in his grave.
In our culture, we have good reason to be skeptical when anyone claims to have experienced the Vision of Eros, and even to doubt if it ever occurs, because half our literature, popular and highbrow, ever since the Provencal poets made the disastrous mistake of trying to turn a mystical experience into a social cult, is based on the assumption that what is, prohably, a rare expcri-ence, is one which almost everybody has or ought to have; if they don’t, then there must be something wrong with them. We know only too well how often, when a person speaks of having “fallen in love” with X, what he or she really feels could be described in much cruder terms.
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Critical essays illuminate Auden's thoughts on literature, civilization, and human vision.

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