The Major Works

Seamus Perry writes:

When Auden announced in his preface to a new selection that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of all the English poets he must have known that he was asking for trouble. Trouble duly came in the shape of Sir Desmond MacCarthy, who doggedly stood up in the Sunday Times for the quality of Tennyson’s mind, deplored Auden’s account of the great man as ‘very patronising’, then sought to out-patronise him in turn: ‘It reads as if Mr Auden had been feeling while he wrote it like a middle-aged schoolmaster preparing a report on little Alfred’s work and behaviour.’ That counted as rough stuff in 1946. The magazine English devoted its front-page editorial to an excited account of this ‘spirited controversy’, and Auden himself evidently felt he had been knocked about a bit. ‘Desmond MacCarthy took me to task severely,’ he told a young admirer back home in New York: ‘He’s the Grand Old Man of English criticism … now the publishers over there are advertising it as “that controversial volume”.’ Auden had endured controversy anyway since his move to the US shortly before the outbreak of the war: MacCarthy was springing to the defence of a great and loyal Englishman of the old style. ‘I became Public Cultural Enemy No 1 over the Tennyson preface,’ Auden wrote to a friend, ‘a little comic seeing that T is one of my favourite poets.’

(LRB 20 January 2011)