The Shield of Achilles

I’ve prepared two critical editions of long poems by Auden: The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (originally published in 1947) and For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (originally published in 1944). I love this kind of job.

It requires patient and thorough archival work — Auden’s notebooks and manuscripts are scattered in several locations, but the work he did after his move to America is largely held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas — and meticulous attentiveness to variations in published work. This latter is especially important for Auden, who was an inveterate reviser.

Then, once you have established the text, you have to annotate it carefully — not the easiest thing with a poet as learnedly allusive as Auden — and provide a synoptic introduction that will make difficult poetry comprehensible to its readers without inserting your own personality and preferences.

And maybe that’s what I like best about textual editing, and especially the preparation of a critical edition: Not one element of the job is about me. It’s completely focused on Auden, and on connecting him to his readers and potential readers. And then there’s this: Not one of the monographs I have written will last nearly as long as these editions will.

So I am extremely pleased to say that I am going to be editing another book of Auden’s — though this one will be a rather different enterprise. This time it’s not a long poem, but, in a first for the Auden Critical Editions series, a collection of lyric poems, The Shield of Achilles (1955). This is worth doing because of all Auden’s collections — counting them is complicated, but there are around ten — The Shield of Achilles is the most carefully organized and internally coherent. Individual lyrics, including the great title poem, sit in the middle of the collection, bookended by two magnificent sequences, “Bucolics” and “Horae Canonicae.” Teasing out the complex relations among these texts, and understanding the whole that they make, will be challenging but deeply enjoyable.

I am able to commence this task thanks to the invitation of Edward Mendelson, Auden’s best critic, literary executor, and editor of his complete works, and to the agreement of the fine folks at Princeton University Press. This will be my fourth time working with PUP, and the previous projects have been the best publishing experiences of my life, so I am looking forward to this more than I can easily say.

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