Auden on Austen

No April Fool’s Day post here – just the usual first day of the month “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit'” salute to one and all!

Will share this very oft-quoted poem of W. H. Auden where he expresses his views on Jane Austen : 


Letter to Lord Byron

…There is one other author in my pack
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided I’d give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I’d no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.
You must admit, when all is said and done,
His sense of other people’s very hazy,
His moral judgements are too often crazy,
A slick and easy generalization
Appeal too well to his imagination.

I must remember, though, that you were dead
Before the four great Russians lived, who brought
The art of novel writing to a head;
The help of Boots had not been sought.
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society…


Auden ends this lengthy poem with:

 …I hope this reaches you in your abode,
This letter that’s already far too long,
Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road;
But here I end my conversational song.
I hope you don’t think mail from strangers wrong.
As to its length, I tell myself you’ll need it,
You’ve all eternity in which to read it.


From “Letter to Lord Byron”, Letters from Iceland, London: Faber and Faber, 1937.  Revised text in Longer Contemporary Poems, Penguin, 1966.

You can read the full text here.

Copyright @2011, by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont. 

One thought on “Auden on Austen

  1. Pingback: Katha Pollitt’s Rereading Jane Austen « Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two

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