W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden was one of the great Anglo-American poets of the twentieth century. Like T.S. Eliot, he was an Anglican who became more so with age; otherwise they went in different directions. Eliot started out in Missouri and ended up domiciled in Britain, becoming a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39; Auden went just the other way, born in Great Britain and becoming an American citizen in 1946. Eliot was instinctively a man of the (sometimes anti-Semitic) right, Auden of the (briefly, totalitarian) left, though over time, he drifted as Mae West would put it: “I was born Snow White,” she once said, “but I drifted.” Eliot was a high modernist who had many literary affinities with Joyce and Pound; Auden’s poetry was less mannered and more direct. I admire them both tremendously; over the years I have spent more time with Auden. I suppose that’s because reading Eliot is like attending a formal dinner party where the conversation and the food are both excellent; reading Auden is more like sitting in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to have a chat with an old friend.
A bit of advice to younger writers or to people of any age seeking to develop your voice — whether you are interested in fiction, poetry, journalism or even wonking: spend some time with both these guys. They had fantastic ears for the English language; they bring a wealth and range of cultural associations to their work that gives it depth, resonance and authority; they know how to refract a subtle intelligence through language so that readers can see and appreciate their sensibilities; they can make themselves live on the page.
But it isn’t Auden the poet or Auden the essayist that I’m interested in this morning; it’s Auden the proto-blogger. In 1970 he published A Certain World: A Commonplace Book. In some ways this was a very typical Auden production: using an old literary form in a new way. But it was also a way to do something once very difficult in print that the internet has now made much easier: to show readers the inside of a cultivated mind by sharing with them the small delights and insights that the writer gets from reading. In A Certain World, Auden shows us how and what he reads on a wide variety of topics, often combining a short observation of his own with a longer quotation from another writer. Today we would have no trouble recognizing this as a blog and a very good one; Auden looked back to an earlier literary model, the ‘commonplace book’.
Back in those gloomy pre-civilized days before Google and Wikipedia, when information lay scattered inaccessibly in books that were often poorly indexed not to mention bulky and expensive, people used to keep notebooks in which they jotted down memorable quotations, useful facts and sources, notes from their reading, phrases from conversation and so on. For writers, these were important resources that greatly simplified the task of checking quotes and facts. By Auden’s time the practice of keeping commonplace books, widespread in the eighteenth century, had become rare. Books, though still clunky and, by Google standards, infuriatingly badly indexed (try googling a favorite phrase from a book versus trying to find it through a conventional index), had become much more available and most writers had access to vast university libraries of a kind that hardly existed when Swift and Addison were creating a new kind of literary culture in late-Stuart Britain.
So Auden’s commonplace book was, like much of his poetry, archaic in form: the conscious revival of a literary device that the rest of the world had left behind. Yet, like Auden’s poetry, the book also looks ahead — not only are many of the perceptions and concerns of the book ‘modern’ but the work as a whole anticipates a new kind of writer’s engagement with the public: a direct and much more intimate conversation and sharing of sensibilities than conventional essay can allow. It is a mosaic of a book: small, brightly colored fragments that, when you stand back, reveal something larger. This is what many of us are doing today on the internet with our blogs; Auden was doing it in print back in 1970 when the internet was only a small gleam in the mind of Al Gore.
The pebbles in Auden’s mosaic are topics: love, humility, enchantment, dreams, sparrows, war. They are arranged in alphabetical rather than thematic or chronological order — an excellent choice as it at once imposes some kind of order on the material but draws our attention to the way that the only bond that links the disparate subjects of the book is Auden’s interest in and take on the topics at hand. At times, this format allows him to pursue a single theme through several ‘posts': there are entries for Landscape, Basalt; Landscape, Cultivated; Landscape, Fens; Landscape, Limestone; Landscape, West of England; Landscape, Wild. At other times, the format stimulates the reader by making provocative jumps: from, for example, Napoleon to Narcissus to Nature.
Not all of Auden’s ‘posts’ are equally successful. The entry on Royalty takes us from a quotation from one of Ronald Firbank’s absurdly delightful novels to an anecdote about the invincibly Philistine Edward VII from Max Beerbohm, to an extraordinary story about Queen Victoria as told by Princess Marie Louise to two short and revealing quotes from George V. The entry on Double Entendre works less well; double entendres are very context and time dependent and Auden looks awkward and even a bit foolish — like the aged roues of a Thackery novel, flirting and simpering well into their seventies. Yet overall this is a book that instructs, stimulates and entertains.
Reading this book isn’t a complete education in itself, but it shows readers what kind of furniture you will find in at least one kind of educated mind. The feel is a bit like Badger’s house in Wind in the Willows; comfortable chairs, piles of books and papers lying about; perhaps a faint smell of pipe tobacco and a cozy fire in the den. Tastes differ; not everyone will want a mind furnished like Auden’s — but you will be better able to think about what kind of furniture you should acquire by looking at what he collected.
Dip into A Certain World. It will startle and divert you; it will make you laugh and make you think. It will give you an extraordinary window into an extraordinary mind; it will show you something new about what it means to be human. It sets a standard of excellence to which all blogs should aspire, though very few will ever reach it. This neglected classic will make you a better reader, thinker and writer; it will also make you a better and a more interesting person. I had a paperback copy for many years, but it finally wore out. I’m now on my second copy — second hand as the book is now out of print. That one too is showing signs of wear; for years I wondered why I kept coming back to the book, flipping through a few entries at a time and occasionally sitting down to read it almost from cover to cover. Now I think I know: unconsciously, I was preparing to blog. Auden knew that an old and discarded literary form somehow still had life in it and held a message for the future.
He was right.