“The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on their walls as status trophies. Tourists can ‘do’ the greatest architecture in an hour’s guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still find indigestible.”

Anyone who says he has chosen a random passage is lying. I picked this one (from W.H. Auden, Prose, volume V, 1963–68, ed. Edward Mendelson, just published along with volume VI) because it was on page 119 — the last I was reading before passing out last night. It is thus my “reasonable facsimile” of a random passage.

The books (V and VI both) I lucked out on. They are very expensive, but some professorial type must have got review copies and dumped them in the BMV, where I found them while out walking, earlier last evening. Or else they have already been remaindered. (I walk a lot, and cannot stay out of bookstores, even those like Greater Parkdale’s BMV, which specialize in glitzy, never-touched, radically discounted, mostly second-hand copies of upmarket paperbacks and coffee-table volumes for the urban booboisie.)

And they are a pressing reminder, of just how wonderful Auden was, not only as poet but in almost every sentence that he wrote, including a frightful bulk of book reviews, other journalism, discursive essays, obituary orations, forewords, afterwords, and — all the other stuff poets write because, since the High Victorian era, they’re sure not going to make a living from writing poems.

He is one of those writers who seems, like the greats of old, or all Italian architects to the end of the Baroque without exception, incapable of producing anything genuinely ugly. Indeed, for me as for him, one of the motives for occasional retreat into the Middle Ages, and other expired cosma, is that ugliness itself was an (unnecessary) by-product of the Industrial Revolution (which, as Auden eagerly averred, also produced plenty more “useless beauty” on the side, such as canal and railway tunnels).

By beauty I mean to include “meaning.” That is to say, one cannot write a beautiful sentence that does not mean something, although a given reader may not know what on earth it means. (The test case here is the poems Friedrich Hölderlin wrote in his madness. Consider, gentle reader: In lieblicher Bläue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchthurm. … “In lovely blueness with its metal roof the steeple blossoms.”)

The world fits together in that way. The secret joins, or bridges, between the Platonic transcendentals (the beautiful, the good, and the true) carry traffic, and a writer of true genius as Auden, for all his (many and sometimes appalling) foibles, often and accidentally writes better than he knows. This is how he can read himself later, with admiration and thanks only to the grace of God, who has, for His own unaccountable reasons, spared him from the usual human ground condition of malicious idiocy.

Auden himself, in his exhilarating commonplace book, A Certain World, explained this by citing Lewis Carroll’s “Logical Exercises,” all of which I might be tempted to transcribe, were my wrists not aching. But let us make do with the first:

1. Everything, not absolutely ugly, may be kept in a drawing room;
2. Nothing, that is encrusted with salt, is ever quite dry;
3. Nothing should be kept in a drawing room, unless it is free from damp;
4. Bathing machines are always kept near the sea;
5. Nothing that is made of mother-of-pearl can be absolutely ugly;
6. Whatever is kept near the sea gets encrusted with salt.