What W.H. Auden Can Do for You

What W.H. Auden Can Do for You

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What W.H. Auden Can Do for You

ISBN: 9780691144733
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: first published 29 October 2013 by Princeton University Press

In this book McCall Smith has written a charming personal account about what Auden has done for him.

Part self-portrait, part literary appreciation, the book tells how McCall Smith first came across the poet’s work in the 1070s while teaching law in Belfast, a violently divided city where Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” a poem about the outbreak of World War II, strongly resonated. McCall Smith goes on to reveal how his life has related to and been inspired by other Auden poems ever since.

An enchanting story about how art can help us live, this book will appeal to McCall Smith’s fans and anyone curious about Auden.

Reviews

‘What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is a wonderful work, one that more than holds its own with the other authors canonized in Princeton’s series, Walt Whitman, Susan Sontag, and Arthur Conan Doyle’
New York Journal of Books
‘Poets need readers who aren’t poets, and it is delightful to see an established novelist answer the call’
Times Literary Supplement
‘At its most interesting when its author analyses WH Auden’s poetry, with insightful passages on agape love and the powerlessness of childhood, or on the worm effect of certain poems, which stick in the mind long after reading. McCall Smith resists the temptation to idolise Auden, highlighting the poems that have enchanted him but also the meretricious quality of some of the poet’s work’
Irish Times
‘The book is written in the voice we have come to know from McCall Smith’s fiction: calm, reassuring, able to disentangle complicated ideas and emotions and to express them in ways we recognise and understand as our own. To those with a passing interest in Auden it will provide affirming delight’
The Scotsman
‘McCall Smith does not approach Auden as a scholar or critic, although he writes thoughtfully on serious questions about the poet’s life and craft. His emphasis is on the profound ways Auden has influenced his life, and the ways he might influence ours. No bloodless icon, but flawed and human and humane, his Auden offers a modern reader the great gifts of charity, forgiveness, and comfort. That’s an offer we can hardly refuse.’
Prospect Magazine
‘Introduces one of the great masters of 20th-century verse to those readers of Mr. McCall Smith’s fiction who know Isabel Dalhousie, a lady philosopher-detective with an affinity for Auden, but who may know very little about the poet himself’
Wall Street Journal

Excerpt

In the early months of 1940, with Europe embarking on what was to prove the greatest conflict of the twentieth century, W.H. Auden a celebrated—and controversial—English poet who had recently moved to the United Strates wrote a gravely beautiful poem. It took him some time, as this was no brief ode dashed off in a moment of inspiration—this was over one thousand lines, carefully and studiously constructed. Its title was…

In the early months of 1940, with Europe embarking on what was to prove the greatest conflict of the twentieth century, W.H. Auden a celebrated—and controversial—English poet who had recently moved to the United Strates wrote a gravely beautiful poem. It took him some time, as this was no brief ode dashed off in a moment of inspiration—this was over one thousand lines, carefully and studiously constructed. Its title was “New Year Letter,” and it was addressed to Elizabeth Mayer, a refugee from the depredations of Nazi Germany, a translator, and a close friend. Like many of his works, this poem is conversational in tone but contains within it a complex skein of ideas about humanity and history, about art, civilization, and violence. At the end of the letter, though, there occur lines that are among the most beautiful he wrote. Addressing his friend, he draws attention to what she brings to the world through her therapeutic calling:

We fall down in the dance, we make
The old ridiculous mistake,
But always there are such as you
Forgiving, helping what we do.
O every day in sleep and labour
Our life and death are with our neighbour,
And love illuminates again
The city and the lion’s den,
The world’s great rage, the travel of young men.

These lines are about the person to whom the poem is addressed but when we read them today could be about Auden himself. He would never compliment himself, of course, but I believe that he is clearly one who is forgiving, who helps what we do, and if there is anything to be learned from his own work, it is precisely this message: that every day in sleep and labour, our life and death are indeed with our neighbor. And yes, in reading his poetry we see love illuminating our world.

It is this view of Auden’s work that has prompted me to write an entirely personal book about the poet, about the influence he has had on my life, and about what this poet can mean for somebody who comes fresh to his work. I believe that if you read this poet, and think about that he has to say to you, then in a subtle but significant way you will be changed. This happened to me, and it can happen to you.