“The Love Feast“ — me in the new issue of Harper’s (paywalled, I think?) on the immediately forthcoming two volumes of Auden’s complete poems:
In almost every reading of Auden, the familiar hinge of his career remains visible — and indeed is emphasized in the division of these two volumes, the first of which ends in 1939 and the second of which begins in 1940. But thanks to [Edward] Mendelson, it is now generally seen to mark a transition, not from excellence to incompetence, but from one kind of excellence to another. And this way of viewing the transition is now typically accepted even by those, such as Heaney, who prefer the earlier verse and lament what was lost.
All the themes of Auden’s later verse converge on a rejection of the heroic and triumphal modes, and the substitution of a different register, that of the repeated and the mundane. In the second half of his career, Auden patiently worked out, in both prose and masterful verse, the implications of his homemade anthropology — his own account of what his friend Hannah Arendt would later call, in a 1958 book, The Human Condition. That anthropology ultimately centers on two core propositions: that we are prone to trust and love what breaks our hearts, and that we are creatures alongside the birds and the social insects, albeit creatures who, as he says in one poem, have “assumed responsibility for time.” We must live simultaneously in nature and history, though we forever are tempted by those prophets who tell us we can only take full refuge in one or the other.
Photograph of Auden by Irving Penn, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation