Wednesday, July 16, 2008

W. H. Auden's Selected Poems: Differences Between Editions

W. H. Auden's Selected Poems -- edited by Edward Mendelson -- is an important book, more important than one might deduce even if one knew Auden's status as one of the great 20th Century English-language poets.

The reason for this is straightforward: among Auden's peculiarities was the habit of heavily revising, or even disowning, some of his best work. Thus, one of Auden's very best poems -- September 1, 1939 -- widely quoted in the wake of 9/11 -- is not, in fact, in his collected poems. Nor is "Spain"; nor Petition. Further, the explanations he gave for this disowning involved interpretations of them that would elicit C's from an undergraduate: clunky misinterpretations, nuance-less literalism, and the like. In other cases he simply eliminated great material, such as the three fabulous stanzas he eliminated from his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats (the 2nd - 4th stanzas of section 3).

But Auden's Collected Poems reflects -- appropriately, I suppose -- the poet's final wishes.

So if you want some of the good stuff, you have to go look at the Selected Poems, in which it's included. (Although, of course, there's a lot of terrific stuff in Collected that's not in Selected: get both books, is my advice.)

Well, I recently discovered that there's a new, expanded edition of the Selected Poems. The version I have has 100 of Auden's works; the new one has 120. (You can find the table of contents of the new edition here). And I was curious about what new works were included.

So herewith, I give you the fruit of my obsessiveness: the poems added in the "expanded edition" of W. H. Auden's Selected Poems.

29. Underneath the abject willow
31. Fish in the unruffled lakes
33. Funeral Blues
38. Johnny
42. Dover
45. O Tell Me the Truth About Love
53. Calypso
57. Eyes look into the well
63. Leap Before You Look
75. A Household
80. Their Lonely Betters
81. Nocturne I
85. Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier
90. The Old Man’s Road
91. The Song
98. A Change of Air
104. Amor Loci
105. Profile
116. A Shock
118. Aubade

(This is assuming that the poem that comes between "The Willow-Wren and the Stare" and "Bucolics" -- called "Nocturne" in the first edition and "Nocturne II" in the second -- is, in fact, the same poem. (I'm working off a physical copy of the old edition, and the electronic contents of the new, so I can't tell myself.))

One of these -- "Funeral Blues" -- is the poem made famous by its inclusion in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Its fame postdated the first edition of the book, so it's completely unsurprising that it was incorporated into the new edition. (Before the film, it was one good Auden poem among many, and its omission was unsurprising; after, it rapidly became a glaring omission. Such is the power of cinema in our culture.)

As for the rest, one or two are ones that I was sort of surprised to realize hadn't been in the first edition; others I don't know. (O Tell Me the Truth About Love is the major one in the first category.) Nor do I know if any of them were excluded/altered in the collected poems.

But they're Auden, so they're probably worth reading. He's probably my favorite post-Yeats poet when all is said and done.

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