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.
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.