The Case of the Helmeted Airman by Francois Duchene (Chatto & Windus £3) NOT since Richard Hoggart's study of W. H. Auden has such a wise, constructive and helpful book as Francois Duchene's critical examination of this poet appeared. He takes his title from a phrase in one of Auden's own poems. This book covers all the volumes of poetry and the critical work up to the present day.
While intensely sympathetic towards Auden, Duchene is prudent, probing and shrewd; he moves right into the poems and then stands back and appraises and elucidates. Briefly, this is the very best kind of criticism, written in an easy style which is quite lacking in critical jargon — a rare accomplishment these days.
Had Auden not become a naturalised American (despite his recent decision to live in Oxford at his old college, Christ Church). there would be no doubt that he would, indisputably, be regarded as this country's major poet.
Yet such long residence ie New York, Ischia and latterly Austria, has had an effect on his style, for Auden has always been adaptable, quickly alert to new surroundings, situations and people.
This Duchene points out. But he sees the two major crises in Auden's life as man and poet as the time when he elected to live in the United States in 1939 and his earlier conversion to Anglicanism. Duchene declares that religion came to Auden not as a Winding vision but as a rational conviction. He was not a seer, but a moralist, a man much concerned with ethics.
Duchene makes the following extremely interesting statement fairly late in this study "Almost every one of the young Auden's ideas are to be found changed but not displaced in his later work."
For myself, I find "The Shield of Achilles" the last richly lyrical of this poet's work; aridity seems to intrude in the later volumes, but the liveliness of mind is still present in the later volumes, but it comes as ideas lacking music.
In his prologue Duchene says that Auden's "art . . . derives from the struggle with living and thinking on. living." He finds this both in early and late poems.
He notices also two important things; the first is the fact that this poet has a gift for light and occasional verse and the second, which is far more important, the fact that there is a 'breadth of horizons and variety of scenery . . . (which) carry the marks of a major talent."
Then, chapter by chapter, this extremely able critic examines Auden's poems chronologically. He comments on the "compression" of the early work, the "precision" of thought and, of course, the political attitudes.
From a greatly gifted, almost carefree young poet. Auden is shown to us, after his earliest poems, as an uneasy writer, one who is not entirely sure of his commitments, though he can write about these problems in poems of increasing clarity.
The 1930s were not only a period of political but also of "personal" crisis. Duchene, most convincingly, explains Auden's surprising conversion to Christianity when he says that he was "intellectually more absolute than most of his contemporaries."
Also, and this is very important, he was, and is, a man who needs a world picture, an ordered universe. He cites the importance which Auden, even as a young man, had placed on free will. The volume of poems called "The Age of Anxiety" does, in this critic's view, "usher in (Auden's) post-war style."
Duchene is, rightly I think, adamant in thinking that Auden's later poems have nothing like the power of Yeats' late poems or Eliot's "Four Quartets"; indeed, he finds his whole attitude "coarse-grained, even as a craftsman" in comparison with those two great poets.
I do not think mahy readers would dispute this view, but few could present the case so cogently, convincingly and profoundly as this extraordinarily sensitive and highly intelligent critic. Intellect can never be allimportant with an important poet, but it is the most marked characteristic of Auden's •re cent work and probably accounts for the increasing dryness of tone and texture.
In his epilogue, Francois Duchene examines "the broad range" of Auden's poetic development, but most readers would surely agree with him when he says that the early and middle periods of his work are more successful than the recent ones.
Duchene's reason for stating this is that, in the earlier poems, "the major experiences" of Auden's life were able to "mobilise his talents."
This is an ambitious study of a complex poet; its value goes beyond the usual volume of literary criticism because Duchene confronts Auden closely and lingeringly. The result is a book of lasting value.