Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing prose: 'unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day,' he told his friend James Stern, 'I feel ill.' Spurred on by these complementary inducements - the need to make money and the need not to be sick - he wrote quantities of prose. It appeared, over the years, in an impressive range of journals, from Eliot's Criterion and Leavis's Scrutiny to Vogue and the New Yorker; from the Daily Herald to many and various obscure little magazines. He reviewed books of almost all sorts and found further occasions for writing prose - lectures, pensées, forewords, afterwords, theological essays, opera programmes and sleeve notes - and by no means all these pieces could fairly be dismissed as what Milton called writings of the left hand. He looked into other writers for thoughts that might help him shape his own meditations, his repeated attempts to express his own peculiar versions of the truth about God, history, the natural world, love. Some of those writers were fashionable, some not; he seemed indifferent to such considerations, and for the most part addressed himself as thinker or as artist to whatever topic attracted his attention in either capacity. For example, he admired, as if he were a modern expert, the professorial medievalist W.P. Ker, and regarded George Saintsbury's Historical Manual of English Prosody (1910, useful to poets and other interested parties, but now, I daresay, rarely consulted) as his authority on that subject.[*] He was all for making it new, but not in quite the same way as Ezra Pound. At one point he too could have produced a reading list of essential books; but as time went by he seemed to care less than he had in his wilder, more assertive days about convincing or converting others.
LRB 7 February 2008 | PDF Download