On any one day he could be brilliant, encyclopaedic, and then doddery. In Oxford in premature old age W.H. Auden would repeat himself. Hosts sometimes found him staring at a bookcase of his published works. The biographer says, “he kept going to the shelves and looking at copies of his own books.” This little library, relatively speaking, contained very many of the very many volumes of Auden. Yet it was vast in its scale if you were Auden, staring at his entire life’s work and remembering. Remembering what? The decades, the friends, the victories, the defeats. Everything and nothing? Time will say nothing but I told you so. Oxford the last time was his autumn. None of us can be Auden.
Most writers and poets do not start with a plan to make books. They start wanting to write. Books come later and when they come the world of books can envelope them. Very many envelopes to publishers, editors, colleagues, reviewers went from Auden’s hand. Writers’ adult lives turn into a book advance, a book chase, a book war. Since at least the 18th-century books became a contest about books. Born into such a world Auden was, we could say, a bookman from childhood. The move from making words into poetry to making poetry into books are supposedly logical moves in a print culture that values words. This is problematised when the same culture prizes sales and celebrity ahead of the words and their meanings, but that’s another matter. Auden lived out his life engaged in the contest of books, which means he himself accumulated quite an armoury. He would say, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” The drive to be among the remembered forced Auden to keep making books. For he also knew that a good book, like any good poem, is not about the object itself but about how its contents speak to us. As he remarked, “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us” Until the words speak to us in our place and time all we are doing is reading. We, listeners and readers, are fallible, but infallible about words that affect us. The book-object itself, that riffling thing of paper and glue, is merely container, status symbol, performance indicator, carrier, hand weight and relic.
In one late poem Auden ponders what works he may have written “if I was good.” The double meaning gives insight into this poet’s worldview, raising questions for all of us. If his writing was really “good”, in the sense of writing that was even greater and truer and more beautiful than anything Auden actually wrote in his life, what would that look like? Because he is troubled by the awareness that poetry is “born in sin”, a belief expressed in the epigraph to his Collected Poems, he must imagine what he may have written that was not “born in sin”. Very many of Auden’s poems are driven by this haunting concern. Then also, Auden’s sense of excellent goodness in writing drove both his creative and critical life. A writer like Auden reworked old poems and was never completely at ease, always striving to say something new and good. We consider him staring at his books in Oxford in autumn in old age, perhaps wondering what else he may have written, if he was good. Good too in the moral sense of being full of virtue and producing good works, rather than the messy and sometimes selfish person he knew himself to be. The image is kind of Dantesque, a poet fixed in time at the end of his life, standing before his library, thinking in reverie of what was, what had to be, and what could have been.
Quote from ‘W.H. Auden: a Biography’ by Humphrey Carpenter. George Allen & Unwin, 1981, page 445.