A groundbreaking reassessment of W. H. Auden’s early life and poetry, shedding new light on his artistic development as well as on his shifting beliefs about political belonging in interwar England.
From his first poems in 1922 to the publication of his landmark collection On This Island in the mid-1930s, W. H. Auden wrestled with the meaning of Englishness. His early works are prized for their psychological depth, yet Nicholas Jenkins argues that they are political poems as well, illuminating Auden’s intuitions about a key aspect of modern experience: national identity. Two historical forces, in particular, haunted the poet: the catastrophe of World War I and the subsequent “rediscovery” of England’s rural landscapes by artists and intellectuals.
The Island presents a new picture of Auden, the poet and the man, as he explored a genteel, lyrical form of nationalism during these years. His poems reflect on a world in ruins, while cultivating visions of England as a beautiful—if morally compromised—haven. They also reflect aspects of Auden’s personal search for belonging—from his complex relationship with his father, to his quest for literary mentors, to his negotiation of the codes that structured gay life. Yet as Europe veered toward a second immolation, Auden began to realize that poetic myths centered on English identity held little potential. He left the country in 1936 for what became an almost lifelong expatriation, convinced that his role as the voice of Englishness had become an empty one.
Reexamining one of the twentieth century’s most moving and controversial poets, The Island is a fresh account of his early works and a striking parable about the politics of modernism. Auden’s preoccupations with the vicissitudes of war, the trials of love, and the problems of identity are of their time. Yet they still resonate profoundly today.
The Island is a Copernican Revolution in Auden studies, a revelatory and often exciting book that presents a new and convincing account of Auden’s early years. It explores, for the first time, the deep connections between the inner workings of his poems and the worlds of politics and economics. By bringing to light Auden’s ambition to be a national poet, Jenkins transforms our understanding of not only Auden himself but all of modernist literature.
A superb, deeply researched study of Auden’s early work and identity. Jenkins’s understanding of young Auden as a poet shaped and haunted by the First World War—assimilating the influence of Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, and W. H. R. Rivers—is convincing, original, and poignant. Fusing biography, cultural history, and literary criticism in innovative and elegant ways, The Island is a landmark publication in modernist studies.
Nicholas Jenkins is one of our most perceptive and resourceful critics. In this wonderful study of the early Auden, he brings to bear history, biography, and an acute sense of the artistic moment to fashion for us a young genius who is conservative, bucolic, gay, a patriotic adherent of post-imperial Little England. Most people work backwards from a writer’s ultimate reputation, but Jenkins gives us a new, unexpected image of a poet developing in the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of modernism.
This trenchant study of Auden’s relationship to English national identity reanimates the young poet and his early work. Jenkins puts Auden into personal, social, and political context, leading us to new and exciting readings of his life and poems. A revealing and original reexamination of one of the great twentieth-century poets.
- 768 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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