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What WH Auden Can Do For You | Alexander McCall Smith

The poet who knew better

W.H. Auden is one of those rare poets who continue to enjoy a robust afterlife in popular consciousness. Even those who claim to be unfamiliar with his writing may have encountered his poem, Funeral Blues, in the movie Four Weddings And a Funeral. Auden’s poetry, exquisite but often elusive, has baffled even his admirers, and inspired scholarly interest, most notably by Edward Mendelson, his literary executor.

Alexander McCall Smith, the much-loved creator of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, lavishes on Auden’s legacy the attention of one who has spent much of his life musing on the poet’s craft. With the empathy of a novelist, he communicates Auden’s great gift to readers. McCall Smith’s own introduction to Auden’s poetry happened while he was studying criminology in Belfast in the years when the Irish Revolutionary Army was wreaking havoc on England.

McCall Smith was struck by the honesty of Auden’s vision, which wrestles with problems of choice and responsibility, the two major concerns of his poetry. Years later, Auden’s ideas would enter McCall Smith’s fictional universe through the figure of Isabel Dalhousie, a moral philosopher and great Auden fan based in Edinburgh, solving mysteries using a combination of her keen learning and Miss Marple-like intuition.

W.H. Auden photographed in 1961. Photo: Fred Stein
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W.H. Auden photographed in 1961. Photo: Fred Stein

He recounts tales of Auden shuffling into lecture theatres in carpet slippers with his fly undone and continuing with his reading in spite of audible gasps from the audience. Notoriously disorganized, he would leave a chocolate pudding on top of the cistern in his bathroom to cool, only for a guest to mistakenly flush it down the toilet. Some of these stories have been chronicled by one of Auden’s biographers, Humphrey Carpenter, but these anecdotes, even in McCall Smith’s retelling, never lose their charm and poignancy.

Although McCall Smith denies that his tribute is a hagiography, his enthusiasm for Auden is palpable, even infectious. The best passages in the book focus on a close reading of some of Auden’s most difficult poems—not only stylistically but also because they remain semantically unyielding, in spite of their overall linguistic appeal.

Auden has been accused of using obscure words, with no regard to meaning sometimes, and it is a charge McCall Smith wonderfully defends him against. When words such as “deasil" (clockwise), “widdershins" (counterclockwise), or “hirple" (to limp) appear in Auden’s poetry, they may seem to have been used simply to pad up the metrical scheme, but a careful inspection, as McCall Smith goes on to show, reveals there’s more to it. His reading of In Praise of Limestone and The More Loving One is not just poetically alert but also filled with the generosity of a reader possessing a capacious imagination.

Although McCall Smith uses biography sparingly to interpret Auden’s work, he does not fail to mention Auden’s intrepid homosexuality, which led to his sympathy for radical causes such as communism (to the extent of being blinded by it). But the most powerful lesson to be drawn from Auden’s work, especially for contemporary readers immersed in an aggressively consumerist society, is not the need for rebellion; but, as McCall Smith says, the need to be thankful for all they have.

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