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W. H. Auden: complex poet of a complex age; W. H. Auden: The Life of A Poet, by Charles Osborne. New York: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich. $17.95.

W. H. Auden was one of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century, and his work of demonstrates a sympathetic and insightful approach to the issues of human suffering and hope. Though not without its dull or merely fashionable stretches, his poetry takes the risk of defending the human soul against serious aggressors -- greed, political and social egotism, harmful psychological dogma of all kinds. It achieves difficult yet moving visions of the power of love and reason in a world of diminished love and reason.

Charles Osborne has taken on the challenging task of presenting Auden's complex life in his complex age. To grow up at the beginning of the 20th century was often to experience both extraordinary innocence and extraordinary, at times terrifying, worldliness; Auden was spared little of either. Osborne's account of the poet's early years at Oxford is gratifyingly detailed, describing the sheltered atmosphere that allowed him to gain some sense of his artistic powers as well as to forge some celebrated friendships. A devout student only of that which interested him, Auden read widely and without great discipline; he went down from Oxford with "a rather poor third-class degree."

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Yet he had already written some important poetry and cast his literary taste and ambitions throughout the Oxford scene. No less than his talent, his quiet audacity had drawn him valuable friends: Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, esteemed 20th-century poets, and Christopher Isherwood, another well-known writer, first made Auden's acquaintance during their undergraduate days at Oxford. Osborne quotes Spender's recollection of his first private meeting with Auden:

"Auden derided most contemporary poets and admired few. . . . He thought that the literary scene in general offered an empty stage. 'Evidently they are waiting for Someone,' he said with the air of anticipating that he would soon take the centre of it."

Auden was not long in beginning to fill the role he had carved out for himself; his first poems were received, and his first play, though hardly a popular success, earned the esteem of as influential a writer and publisher as T. S. Eliot.

Auden's life was by no means filled with purely literary concerns, however. Expecting to support his Communist leanings in action as well as words, he volunteered as an ambulance driver on the side of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. His experience left him wounded not physically but emotionally: he was hurt to find that his services were not needed, that his main value to the Loyalists was as a source of propaganda. He was also disenchanted with the practice of communism as he witnessed it in Spain -- a practice far from his ideals.

With Isherwood, Auden also traveled through China during the Japanese invasion of 1937. Expecting to write a book on his experiences for the publisher Faber & Faber, he showed the ardent yet unfocused desire for social purpose that motivated many of his generation. In explaining his trip to China, Auden claimed, "We need a war of our own [to write about]."

Nor were the dramatic moments of his life limited to purely political or social spheres. His turning away from Christianity, his rediscovery of a strong religious impulse in himself, and his eventual conversion to Anglicanism all indicate an interior searching as intent as any worldly quest. In 1933, for example, he experienced a moment of spiritual enlightenment that, by his own admission, inclined him toward religious faith; and Osborne observes both the immediate importance and the long-term implications of this incident.

Osborne views the conversion as Auden's attempt to embrace a dogma less dangerous than Marxism, to find some supernatural protection against "unknown terrors", and to secure for himself a "quiet life." Though engagingly approaching the question of Auden's religious experience, Osborne in fact sets up a contradiction that he never aknowledges: the contradiction between Auden's allegedly expedient conversion to Christianity and his apparently genuine spiritual insight.

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This is not a critical biography, and Osborne makes no judgments about Auden's self-image; but he does seem to delight in his subject's frequent pranks and "naughtiness," which grow tiresome rather quickly. To be sure, the author attempts to balance this inclination toward the gossipy in his biography with some account of Auden's crucial long-term relationships. But what is absent is an attempt to probe the character of these relationships -- to evaluate seriously Auden's needs for human companionship and the ways in which he sought to fulfill these needs.

Though sometimes dull and sometimes superficial, this biography will serve both those who revere Auden and those who question his achievement. The book is broad in scope, offering accounts of relationships with many of the celebrated artists of the 20th century. It also organizes and clarifies some of the lesser-known facts of Auden's life, such as his delightfully authoritarian managing of an artists' rooming house in Brooklyn. While not wholly satisfying, the biography does bring together the whole of the poet's life; and in doing so, it sheds some valuable light his complexities.


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