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Making of the Auden canon

Joseph Warren Beach
Copyright Date: 1957
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 324
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    Making of the Auden canon
    Book Description:

    No poet writing in English is more representative of the intellectual trends of the thirties and forties than W. H. Auden. British born, Oxford educated, American by naturalization, and now returned to Oxford to occupy the chair of poetry, he is widely regarded as the spiritual guide and keeper of the conscience of the age, at the same time that he exemplifies the gradual passage from ideological left to right so characteristic of the period. This study of Auden’s poetry and revisions has far-reaching implications for an understanding not only of Auden’s own writing but that of his contemporaries as well. Considering that 1945 Collected Poetry as the Auden canon, or authorized version of the poems, Mr. Beach examines the process by which Auden selected poems to be admitted to the canon. He shows that the poet eliminated many that were at odds with his later style and thought, discreetly revised others to bring them into line, and, at the same time, left unaltered some of the pieces from his unregenerate days. Auden’s sytem of selection and revision reflects the winding course of his thought, and, by tracing this course, Mr. Beach endeavors to penetrate the poet’s diverse masks in an effort to get at the identity of t he man himself.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3695-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Preliminary Statement of Aims
    (pp. 3-4)

    The following is meant to be a record of the facts in regard to W. H. Auden’s procedure in making up the texts of the Collected Poetry (Random House, 1945) and the Collected Shorter Poems (Faber and Faber, 1950), in the following matters: textual alterations made in the poems as they appeared in earlier collections and/or in periodicals; excision of passages of some length in the poems reprinted; elimination of entire poems published in earlier collections and/or periodicals. Suggestions will be made as we go along as to the probable reasons for the revisions, excisions, and eliminations noted, in terms...

  2. 1 “In Time of War”: Revisions in the Commentary
    (pp. 5-10)

    In 1937, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood were commissioned by the English publishing house of Faber and Faber to write a travel book about the East. They left England in January 1938 and returned at the end of July. The Sino-Japanese War was in full swing, and the two writers spent nearly four months traveling in China, conferring with people of many races and brands of opinion and visiting several battlefronts. Early in 1939, in London and New York, was published their Journey to a War. The account of their travels and impressions was here given in a prose...

  3. 2 Certain Peculiarities of Auden’s Method
    (pp. 11-29)

    As this study proceeds, we shall come upon many instances of this process of improvement or sanctification by slight verbal alterations and the excision of dubious passages, some of them of considerable length. More striking still is the total abandonment of many poems, very often for apparently ideological reasons. And in one case, we shall find Auden reprinting in the Collected Poetry a long prose sermon from The Dog beneath the Skin, which was there a satirical parody of ecclesiastical eloquence employed in the interest of political propaganda, but which, as reproduced word for word in the canonical volume, is...

  4. 3 Further Significant Verbal Alterations
    (pp. 30-43)

    The excision of stanzas from poems retained and the entire suppression of important early poems is much more revealing in Auden than the mere verbal alteration of the text. But I have noted a number of poems in which significant verbal revisions serve the same purpose of giving the piece a more acceptable religious or ideological tone, and others in which verbal alterations, as well as the elimination of stanzas, serve to reduce the autobiographical element and tone down the partisan personal reference to adversaries in the ideological battles of the thirties.

    Thus in the piece entitled in 1945 “I...

  5. 4 Passages Eliminated for Ideological Reasons
    (pp. 44-48)

    Much more drastic than these verbal emendations is the sort of revision that consists in leaving out of a poem that is retained passages of appreciable length running anywhere from four to twenty-eight lines. Of this sort of revision I have noted a considerable number of striking instances.

    In some cases, it is fairly easy to make out the probable reason for the excisions made by Auden in 1945. Thus in the poem entitled “Consider,” taken over from No. XXIX of Poems 1930, beginning “Consider this and in our time.” This is one of many poems in which Auden warns...

  6. 5 Passages Eliminated for Reasons Less Clear
    (pp. 49-63)

    In the case of half a dozen poems from which one or more stanzas were omitted in revision, we enter a dubious border region where our speculations as to the author’s reasons are more hazardous. There may be “ideological” reasons which we do not penetrate, or there may be reasons of artistry which are not clear to the naked eye. Whether or not the poem was actually improved by the excision of these passages, it happens almost invariably that their absence from it in the present form means a loss of something that throws fuller light on the author’s original...

  7. 6 Poems Eliminated for Ideological Reasons
    (pp. 64-76)

    And now we come finally to those early poems that were eliminated in their entirety, and first those that were seemingly rejected on philosophical or ideological considerations.

    In the case of the lyrical pieces eliminated from the early volume of Poems, we have to distinguish between those included in both the first edition of 1930 and the second edition of 1933, and those included in either one of these but not in the other.* In 1933 seven new poems replaced an equal number not retained from 1930. So far as I can make out from the list of opening lines...

  8. 7 The Orators: Poems Discarded and Poems Retained
    (pp. 77-98)

    From The Orators: An English Study (1932) more poems were discarded in 1945 than from any other volume of Auden’s poems except the plays. But during the thirties this volume of poetry and prose in its entirety had a large part to play in establishing the prestige and influence of Auden, being included in the collected Poems 1934 (another printing 1935), along with The Dance of Death, Paid on Both Sides, and the lyrics from Poems 1933. And The Orators calls for special consideration both for what was kept and what was rejected in 1945. It is made up of...

  9. 8 Light Verse, Including the Three Jolly Ballads
    (pp. 99-110)

    Besides those already discussed there are some half-dozen-odd poems discarded for a variety of reasons hard to bring under a single heading, but in general classifiable as artistic.* Some of these will be discussed in the Supplementary Notes (see p. 265). In this section we shall consider certain poems either discarded or retained that may be characterized as “light verse,” the term employed by Auden in his learned and valuable compilation known as The Oxford Book of Light Verse (first published in 1938) and by Oscar Williams in the “Little Treasury of Light Verse,” which forms Part II of his...

  10. 9 Uncollected Poems of Serious Ideological Import
    (pp. 111-122)

    Thus far we have considered revisions and eliminations in the case of poems which have been published by Auden in book form. But we should also take into account the more than a dozen of Auden’s poems published in magazines and anthologies between 1930 and 1941 and never (so far as I have found) included in any collection made by the author. For many of these have great interest both for his thought and his artistry as a poet.

    The year 1933 was a red-letter year for Auden in more ways than one. He was now confirmed (for some time...

  11. 10 More Uncollected Poems
    (pp. 123-135)

    One cannot hope to hunt out every poem of Auden’s, orphans of his prodigal genius, published in magazines and anthologies of the thirties and left to gather dust on library shelves. But I will mention here or in the Supplementary Notes such others as I have run down, treating here those that have the greater interest for our study and relegating to the notes those which mainly serve to make the record more complete. In this chapter, we will begin with more of the light verse, take note of certain more serious pieces, and have something to say of poems...

  12. 11 Letters from Iceland
    (pp. 136-142)

    There is another group of poems not included in the collections of 1945 and 1950, and the most extensive of all such exclusions except for the lyrics not kept from the plays. This comprises all but three of Auden’s poems which appeared in his and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (1937). The only ones to be collected were “Journey to Iceland,” which appeared separately in the Listener for October 7, 1936, and in Poetry, January 1937, and Nos. XXVI and XXVII of the Songs and Other Musical Pieces, both of which were also published in magazines in January 1937·

    But these...

  13. 12 Paid on Both Sides and The Dance of Death
    (pp. 143-154)

    Between 1930 and 1938 were published five dramatic compositions, two of them written by Auden, and three by him in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood. All of them contain many passages in verse interspersed among the prose: choruses rhymed and unrhymed, songs in ballad-like rhyming stanzas, dialogue exchanges in blank verse or in rhyming verse. Many of these passages fall naturally into poetic units susceptible of being taken separately. From three of these plays, Auden reproduced a considerable number of such poetic passages in the Collected Poetry: from Paid on Both Sides, The Ascent of F6, and The Dog beneath the...

  14. 13 The Dog beneath the Skin
    (pp. 155-170)

    The dog beneath the skin (1935) was the first of three plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood. I suppose we may assume that it was Auden’s assignment to write the verse for these plays. Any poetry written in whole or in part by Isherwood would naturally be unavailable to Auden for reprinting in the Collected Poetry.* The Dog beneath the Skin contains more than two dozen detachable pieces in verse—songs, choruses, etc. And Auden was able to salvage from this play five poems for the 1945 collection, as well as a prose sermon. In the case of this...

  15. 14 “Prothalamion” and the Vicar’s Sermon
    (pp. 171-180)

    But there were two more pieces from The Dog beneath the Skin which Auden chose to reprint in his canonical collections, one in 1950 and one in 1945. And here an old-fashioned reader must confess his inability to comprehend the reasons for the poet’s making the decisions he did. The first is a cabaret song from a farcical scene set in a corridor of the Nineveh Hotel. It is in celebration of the wedding of the hero to a shop-window dummy. Auden did not admit this to the 1945 collection; but in 1950 it is not merely admitted under the...

  16. 15 The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier
    (pp. 181-189)

    The ascent of F6 (1936) is not, like The Dog beneath the Skin, a set of loosely strung episodes made up largely of music-hall songs. It has a fairly well defined plot in which a serious psychological problem is developed in terms of dramatic action. There is much of the fantastic and “expressionistic” (or non-naturalistic) about it, with metaphysical arguments between a sort of Tibetan Abbot and a mountain climber, with apparitions and voices across space, and Demons and mysterious veiled Figures seen on the mountain top in the midst of hurricane and thunderstorm, with voices commenting from the stage...

  17. 16 Opera Librettos
    (pp. 190-205)

    Auden’s writing for the stage was not confined to the plays mentioned in the preceding chapters. From as early as 1937 to as recently as 1956, he has been much occupied from time to time in writing lyrics for operas and other dramatic compositions involving songs. Such songs were a frequent feature of the plays of Brecht and Toller, which may have turned Auden’s mind in this direction; and it is natural for one so much interested in the stage in general and opera in particular to associate himself with eminent composers in the production of work in which poetry...

  18. 17 The Three Long Poems
    (pp. 206-209)

    The Collected Poetry includes three long poems dating from the early forties, “New Year Letter,” “The Sea and the Mirror,” and “For the Time Being.” My undertaking does not call for any lengthy discussion of these works for the simple reason that the author found no occasion for revising any of them or leaving out any portions of them in making up his collection. “New Year Letter” appeared first in the Atlantic Monthly in the January and February numbers of 1941, and was republished without any essential alterations, first in the British volume New Year Letter and the corresponding American...

  19. 18 Collected Shorter Poems
    (pp. 210-218)

    The Auden canon for poems published up to 1945 was pretty well established by the Collected Poetry. But something further must be said about the Collected Shorter Poems, which corresponds to the American collection so far as the shorter poems are concerned.

    The British collection does not include anything from The Double Man (1941), or, in its British title, New Year Letter. “New Year Letter,” the title poem of that volume, is too long to qualify. And the author fails to republish either the Prologue or the Epilogue, entitled, respectively, in 1945, “Spring 1940” and “Autumn 1940.” Nor does he...

  20. 19 A Summary of Findings and Conclusions
    (pp. 219-243)

    My aim has been, first, to present the facts in regard to the revisions made by Auden in his poems when preparing the text of his Collected Poetry of 1945 — verbal alterations, the cutting out of passages of some length in many of them, and the entire elimination of others; and then, secondly, to determine, so far as possible, the considerations that probably moved him to make those revisions and eliminations. I have also wished to determine how far in the Collected Shorter Poems of 1950 Auden followed the text of the 1945 collection, and what probable considerations moved him...

  21. 20 W. H. Auden: The Question of Identity
    (pp. 244-254)

    Occasionally I have been asked by friends acquainted with the nature of this study how my findings here affect my estimate of Auden’s poetic work. And I might be expected to make at least a brief statement on this point.

    A close examination of his work in general, and of his dealings with it in making up the canon of 1945–50, has confirmed my original high estimate of his imaginative powers as applied in this or that poem or series of poems taken individually. Auden impresses me still as the most gifted of the poets who have been so...

  22. II Poems in the 1930 Volume Replaced by Others in 1933
    (pp. 279-283)
  23. III Check List of Poems in the Collected Poetry
    (pp. 284-294)
  24. IV Poems of Auden Not Reprinted in the Collected Poetry
    (pp. 295-298)