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W. H. Auden: A Biography Paperback – November 10, 2014

4.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Humphrey Carpenter was born and educated in Oxford, and attended the Dragon School and Keble College. He was a well-known biographer and children's writer, and worked previously as a producer at the BBC. He wrote biographies of J. R. R. Tolkien, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Ezra Pound, C. S. Lewis and Dennis Potter. Among his many books for children were the best-selling Mr Majeika series. He also wrote several plays for the theatre and radio. A keen musician, he was a member of a 1930s-style jazz band, Vile Bodies, which was resident at the Ritz Hotel in London for a number of years. He died in 2005.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 534 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; Main edition (November 10, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571260098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571260096
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,763,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By M. A Newman VINE VOICE on October 9, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I think that some of the reviews of Humphrey Carpenter's book on Auden have undervalued its contribution to a genuine understanding of both Auden the man and his work.

To begin with, no life of Auden could avoid the taint of being "gossipy." Auden led a completely messy life complete with all manner of free and easy sexual encounters. Auden not only led this kind of life, but documented it for the amusement of similarly inclined friends. No one who examines the primary source documents, letters, diaries and even poetry can do anything more than to write a gossipy life. When not only menages a trois, but menages a quatre are the norm, it is impossible to write any other kind of biography unless the naughty bits were rendered in Latin as they were formerly in Suetonius..

What I liked about the book is that Carpenter breaks Auden's inner life into three distinct phases. At Oxford he was under the spell of D.H. Lawrence and even Freud. During the hungry thirties, like most European intellectuals, it was Marx and Communism. It appears that time in Spain contributed to Auden's disillusionment with "the God that failed." His third intellectual period was more orthodox embracing the Anglicanism of his youth and Kirkegaard coincided with his the beginning of his years in New York City.

For me, Carpenter's book filled in a number of blanks for me, mainly concerning Auden's emigration. Knowing more of the work than the man, I was under the impression that Auden decided to take up residence in America at the beginning of World War II rather than nearly a year before. His return to Oxford and Britain coincided with failing health and desire to return to his native land (though still an American citizen).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the second biography of Auden written, the first being by his friend Charles Osborne. Carpenter clearly had access to a lot more biographical materials, letters, diaries, interviews, the works, so his account can be called "full-dress", Osborne's more anecdotal. Anecdotal is also a fair description of some shorter books about Auden (AUDEN IN LOVE, WYSTAN AND CHESTER, etc.), and Davenport-Hines, though well-written and cogitated, is too short to be "definitive".

The trouble with the book is that Carpenter is insufficiently critical, though to be fair he says that he's writing a straight biography, not a life with literary criticism included. But the trouble with that is Auden didn't have a very eventful life, and the most interesting and exciting parts of it were his ideas and what he did with them in his poetry and criticism.

Mendelson's EARLY AUDEN and LATER AUDEN, which are intellectual biography, are, therefore, really a better choice to understand Auden's life, with Carpenter as a supplement for minor details.

But Carpenter's book is worth reading for what it is, and it would be very unAudenish to criticize him for not doing the job he didn't intend to do.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Considering that W. H. Auden was a marvelously accomplished enfant terrible while fresh from Oxford, and continued to produce talented works for 50 years, I would have to say that Humphrey Carpenter has given us a remarkable biography spanning the poet's entire life. There is little in this poet's life that is not touched upon whether it reflects on the man or the artist and the reader will have few questions left unanswered even though at time it borders on the tedious, but Mr. Carpenter knows his stuff and never falls over that precipice.

The Auden that we meet as a child and leave as he is interred, is as fascinating to us as such diverse elements in his life were to him.(lead mines in northern England, Icelandic Sagas, Opera, Screen Writing, Psychoanalysis, Religion and oh yes, poetry) The key to Auden, which is the major thesis of the book, is that Auden never stopped developing as a poet and the great controversy about whether his immigration to America is really a misunderstanding of his growth. What the twenty year old poet wrote is not the same as the fifty year old poet but there is a uninterrupted developmental line.

Readers may be surprised at the amount of space devoted to his involvement with screenplays, musical scores (he was once considered for writing the words to the music of "Man of la Mancha") translating but Auden had a burning desire to use the word in as many and varied ways as possible. And if you think that you are buying a glorified version of Cliff Notes for individual poems, you will be sorely disappointed. As a matted of personal interest, I found the relationship of Auden and T.S.
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Format: Paperback
Having read Carpenter's bio after February House, Wystan and Chester, and The Berlin Years, I feel as though I came to know the man (rather than the celebrity) only with Carpenter's portrayal. This bio is written in a dignified, articulate manner that does not, as one might fear with the 1981 publication date, censor the sexuality that is central to who Auden was.

Although Auden was an amateur psychoanalyst, Carpenter does not theorize about the poet's formative experiences as much as he presents the events in a way that lets the reader thread them together. In this way, we can see that the marital relationship to Kallman was a reflection of the maternal attachment that also was reflected in Auden's spiritual development, his political leanings, and his writing goals. We watch as his life changes after Kallman was largely residing in other countries without a formal break, and can speculate how the marital relationship grounded his friendships, teaching style, and writing. We witness the heartbreaking effects of stimulant and alcohol addiction on his face, his socializing, his memory, and his residence. We can enjoy the sweep of history that Auden participated in and become fascinated by his cohort.

The book is detailed without being dense. The poetry is vital to the story but this is not a literary analysis, rather a full-blooded biography. Auden was often a comical character as well as intellectual, giving Carpenter many chances to have the reader laughing out loud.
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