Forewords and afterwords

by W. H. Auden

Hardcover, 1973




New York, Random House [1973]


Critical essays illuminate Auden's thoughts on literature, civilization, and human vision.

Media reviews

Times Literary Supplement
As a volume conveying Auden’s European magnitude as an artist, this collection of his ancillary prose could scarcely be bettered. In its casual way (casual in the happenstance of its occasions and compilation: there is, of course, nothing casual whatever about its thought and craft) it is a testament not just to Auden’s culture but to culture – the European artistic civilization which, we can now see, Auden was as effective as Eliot in comprehending and maintaining. And he was more at ease in it than Eliot. In every sense he was at home... On top of these things there is the insistence that the facts of art are concrete and practical, and that educating yourself in them is a matter of finding out about them, and that years might go by before the truth reveals itself. By returning to this point over and over – by always insisting that of finding things out there is no end – Auden creates, unbeatably, the feeling that education is lifelong, addictive, playful. In him there is no element of the self-immolating drudge. He would never have been capable of Eliot’s sermon on the necessity for the student to embrace boredom.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cynara
Done! This was my traditional Christmas Eve book from my mother, and I've been picking at it since then. I finally gave myself permission to skim essays about books I hadn't read, which made it much more enjoyable. I've loved Auden's poetry since I was about thirteen, but I hadn't read much of his prose until now.

There are some real gems here. Auden's essays on Wilde, Houseman, Kipling, Wagner, Poe, Pope, Cavafy, and Caroll are all highlights for me (the Wagner is even very funny), and some of the lines have been familiar to me out of context for years: "From the beginning Wilde performed his life and continued to do so even after fate had taken the plot out of his hands."

There are also essays that pointed me towards interesting books; The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher is intriguing (and his way of referring to her as "Mrs. Fisher" throughout the essay is so period, and so characteristic of him). I'm also very curious about Henry Mayhew's research among the London poor of the 19th century; London Labour and the London Poor is the volume mentioned, and Auden makes it sound absolutely riveting.

Auden's Freudian bias pops up sometimes. I mean, is it really true that when a man becomes a chef, he's imitating women's breastfeeding, but if a woman becomes a chef, it's because she's establishing that her worth doesn't rely on her ability to breastfeed? What, Wystan? Really?

Then, there are the times he feels himself qualified to make sweeping statements - for example, about the characters and motivations of all gay men everywhere. He says that it is "very rare for a homosexual to remain faithful to one person for long" because they can't have children, and lack that common interest. This is, frankly, just plain wrong from where I'm sitting, but then Auden had his own troubles with Chester Kallman, etc. Earlier in that same essay he writes that "few, if any homosexuals can honestly boast that their sex-life has been happy." I can imagine that in mid-centry America, a time of rampant hatred of gay men and women, when homosexuality was considered among the mainstream population to be truly depraved, this was more true than I can imagine.

And, if his essays tend to have a magesterial tone and to betray some personal quirks, well, so much the better. They're interesting, illuminating, and no-one else could have written them.
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