The essays in this collection were written as reviews, mainly for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, on books by or about Alexander Pope, Vincent van Gogh, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and A. E. Housman, or as introductions to editions of the classical Greek writers, the Protestant mystics, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Tennyson, Grimm and Andersen, Poe, G. K. Chesterton, Paul ValÃ©ry, and others.nbsp;nbsp;Throughout, these prose pieces reveal the same wit and intelligence--as well as the vision--that sparked the brilliance of Auden's poetry.
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.