Davenport-Hines' 'Auden': his life, work and motifs

February 25, 1996|By Alan Wilde | Alan Wilde,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Auden," by Richard Davenport-Hines. Pantheon Books. 406 pages. $30

According to his most recent biographer, Auden "was a double man, and his poetry worked to restore the order and rhythm that the ordinary world marred from malice." The same, of course, might be said about any number of 20th-century writers, but given the psychological and existential messiness of Auden's life, Richard Davenport-Hines' description seems particularly apt. To what degree Auden achieved in his poetry the "all-arching reconciliation" he hungered for remains a question for literary critics. Mr. Davenport-Hines, whose interests are only rarely aesthetic, scours the poetry for the thematic threads that make up the tapestry of his subject's life; and since, as he notes, "his weaker poems are often those with the most distinct biographical content," readers can expect to be exposed to a good deal that is second-rate in Auden's impressive but uneven body of work.

Still, thematic analysis has its place not only in the rendering of a life but in an understanding of the writer's work, and Mr. Davenport-Hines is nothing if not scrupulous in elaborating the motifs of Auden's life: his masochism and inferiority complex, his diffidence and introversion; his concern with identity, both personal and poetic; his ruminations on love, sex, homosexuality, and, always, with order; his celebration of community and, after his emigration to America, of religion.

It is a richly detailed portrait; perhaps too detailed. Inevitably, it raises the question of audience, of what readers precisely "Auden" has in its sights.

Those who come to the biography by way of the poetry are likely to feel somewhat shortchanged by the absence of aesthetic exploration. More casual readers of "lives," on the other hand, whether in search of the exemplary or the scandalous, will probably feel they have been caught in a blizzard of names or marooned on an all-too-fertile island of literary history.

Presumably, anyone who picks up a volume on Auden can be expected to take in stride the names of major writers, but thanks to Mr. Davenport-Hines' overly generous attention to sources and influences, the book is awash with names familiar, and probably of interest, only to specialists.

Or to put the problem another way, in the classic battle that all biographers face between fact and design, Mr. Davenport-Hines comes down heavily on the side of fact, and the pattern that readers expect to find in a biography is frequently obscured by the steady drizzle of detail.

Though articulate and fluent, the book is dense, certainly too dense for its length. In the final analysis we learn more than we want or need to know.

Nevertheless, there is much to admire in "Auden": Mr. Davenport-Hines' remarkable evenhandedness as he marshals his chorus of witnesses to Auden's life and work; his account of Auden's relationship with his erratic companion, Chester Kallman; and, especially, his imaginatively sympathetic treatment of his subject's sad decline, as Auden, victim of a lifetime of benzedrine and booze, suffering from loneliness while Kallman roves Italy in search of boys, returns to Oxford only to find it worse than New York. For glimpses of Auden's much-cherished order, one needs to look elsewhere. As usual, the poetry takes precedence over the life.

Alan Wilde's five published books include "Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Post Modernism and the Ironic Imagination" and " Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction." Until 1994, he taught English at Temple University and, befor that, at Williams.

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