Edward Mendelson was handpicked by W.H. Auden as his literary executor. As the man who has overseen every posthumous edition of the poet's work, Mendelson has an intimate understanding of Auden's writings that few can match. While Later Auden is, of course, in one sense a sequel to Early Auden, it is also complete unto itself, and although it does contain some biographical elements, it is not strictly speaking a biography--more a work of literary criticism informed by biography. Thus, while beginning with Auden's 1939 arrival in the United States from his native England, Mendelson immediately launches into an extended analysis of the poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which in turn leads to a discussion of Auden's conception of the poetic "gift" in battle with his intellect. Ample space is given throughout the book for Auden's poetry and prose, revealing rather than describing his views on politics, literature, sexuality, and other issues. But Mendelson is always careful to show how, even when Auden is positioning himself at his most detached, the writings are always informed by his life's circumstances. Later Auden (along with its companion volume) is probably the closest we shall ever come to an indispensable guide to Auden's work--and perhaps the next best thing to reading the poems themselves.
From Publishers Weekly
This mammoth, accessible study ties the life of major English poet W.H. Auden to his ideas, and both to his poetry. MendelsonAa Columbia University professor who is also Auden's literary executorApicks up where his Early Auden left off, in 1939, when Auden emigrated to the United States. He sees in Auden two kinds of poetry, which he calls "myth" and "parable." The first stresses the impersonal and the aesthetic; the second, the voluntary and the ethical. Auden's best poems represent or acknowlege both; his weaker work adheres to one or the other. This intriguing interpretive scheme gets necessarily submerged as Mendelson tracks Auden's voluminous output, his life and his rapidly-shifting ideas. Throughout his writing life Auden's deepest beliefs changed frequently, sometimes faster than he could finish the poems he meant to embody them. (Some beliefs were strange indeed: in 1940 Auden thought that he had been granted true loveAin the form of longtime companion Chester KallmanAas a reward for his childhood attachment to lead-mining machinery.) Most usefully, Mendelson has read what Auden read, finding in now-neglected thinkers (Charles Williams, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, R.G. Collingwood, F.J.E. Raby and Owen Barfield) the seeds of this omnivorous and idiosyncratic poet's changes. Auden's successive reversals and self-repudiations can be dizzying; Mendelson's clear prose and copious citations do their best to help readers hang on. His focus on Auden's long poems and his defense of Auden's very late "domestic" poems will send many readers back to them. And the poet's own amply quoted manuscripts will give most readers one more source of pleasure: "You're so good," he tells one intimate, "and I'm a neurotic middle-aged butterball." (Apr.) FYI: John Fuller's W.H. Auden: A Commentary, published last year, is an exhaustive reader's companion to Auden's work. (Princeton Univ. $35 640p ISBN 0-691-00419-6)
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