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Auden by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines
London 1996

Richard Davenport-Hines
New York 1999

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This biography is less ecce homo than Behold the Thought. We are not treated to an in-depth analysis of personality or behaviour, but then, this is not the author’s intention. Instead, we approach a rare biography of Intellect, which leads us through the development of one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets. In this, Davenport-Hines is more than successful. The writing is clear and jargon-free, and the handling of the apparent wealth of material employed is done with such finesse that one forgets the sheer effort involved in such a study.

The dust-jacket blurb pronounces Auden the greatest poet of the twentieth century; and Value-judgements are now more necessary than ever. Most reviews of contemporary poetry seem to shy away from asserting (or denying) Greatness. Instead, a poet may be ‘great’, ‘fun’, ‘talented’, ‘influential’— we have none of the critical courage of, say, Byron’s reviewers, who asserted he was the greatest poet since Milton. So, it’s refreshing to see a twentieth century poet treated with such reverence, a reverence that is perhaps denied contemporary poets. Yet, such reverential treatment does preclude any real critical insight. Indeed, Davenport-Hines turns even the most undeniable flaw into a misrepresented virtue. While Auden’s flight to America during the war should not have resulted in unfavourable reviews, as Davenport-Hines properly points out, the poet’s childishness, self-centredness, and apparent frigidity are portrayed as charming traits which glossed a deeper poetic centre.

Why should we care that Auden burst into tears in front of Stravinsky because his hotel-room was sub-standard? Why should we care that he took on the (rather calculated) role of martyr in his relationship with Chester Kallman? Why should we care that Auden was bitchy about his friends, when Davenport-Hines tell us that the life is secondary to the development of poetic thought? Because Auden claimed to be a poet of Truth — he despised in Yeats the wearing of masks, which he considered to be the appropriation of emotions for poetic effect. The fact is that Auden’s poetry is remarkably devoid of real humanity: his speakers and characters are quasi-allegorical symbols of ‘Thought’, ‘Emotion’, ‘Time’ and so on. We are never led to believe in his love for humanity, neither in his verse nor in Davenport-Hines’ rather smoothing analysis. Unlike Dylan Thomas’ astute biographer Paul Ferris, Davenport-Hines is too-cautious about marrying the man with his work. Thomas’ own childishness and self-centredness in relationships is seen by Ferris to be poetically represented by the sometimes in-bred lyricism of his work; and this associative ability is what we should demand from biographies of artists.

Further, what Davenport-Hines again calls a ‘charming’ love of ‘trashiness’ in Auden’s verse, can also be read as clumsiness. Auden has been claimed as a technical master, yet Davenport Hines does not even approach the subject. In fact, Auden’s own claims to metrical precision are rendered questionable when we really study the poems — there is a great deal of clumsiness apparent, beyond intentional, nursery-rhyme simplicity. Davenport-Hines is more interested in noting (rather than interpreting) poetic subject matter than stylistic subject matter.

Such is his focus on Auden’s genius, that Davenport-Hines fails to mention that Auden basically spent his life coming to the same conclusion he reached aged twenty — which is perfectly embodied in the poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’—that mankind is innately cruel, and cold, and that his loves are ephemeral, governed by Great Time. Davenport-Hines falls into the trap, too-well set by his idolisation of Auden, of avoiding any criticism of style, content, or the man himself — the result is an unabashed advertisement for a poet who does not need one.

Reviewed by Gregor Milne


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