Caliban’s last sigh

Auden’s reworking of The Tempest is irritatingly didactic, but 60 years on, the imaginary worlds of The Sea and the Mirror are as solidly mysterious as ever, says Jeremy Noel Tod

Caliban's last sighThe Sea and the Mirror
by W. H. Auden, edited by Arthur Kirsch

Although it is now standard practice in academic publishing, it seems odd that “advance praise” blurb should have been provided for a reprint of a poem that first appeared in the 1940s. Odder still that the dust jacket should then quote, from Sylvia Plath’s Journals , a description not of the poem but the poet: “Auden…the naughty mischievous boy genius…gesticulating with a white new cigarette in his hands, holding matches, talking in a gravelly incisive tone about…art and life, the mirror and the sea. God, god, the stature of the man.”
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The publishers of this critical edition presumably sense that Auden’s stature is not what it was; Plath, though, should attract the attention of a large contemporary readership. It is also an expertly revealing sketch: Auden the compulsive lecturer; the chain-smoking, roving don.
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When Auden went off to America in 1939 his poetry, it is generally agreed, went off too. Philip Larkin’s diagnosis, in 1960, seems accurate: by emigrating, Auden lost “his key subject and emotion – Europe and the fear of war – and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns”. Instead, wrote Larkin disapprovingly, “he took a header into literature”.
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Read the complete review
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Read a commentary on The Sea and the Mirror
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An early reminder that on April 27 we will be reading and discussing poetry and other literature about, or inspired by, Shakespeare, his works and characters. Please bring your own selection of this genre for discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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