My first introduction to Auden came from the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The poem that Matthew reads at the funeral of his lover Gareth comes from Twelve Songs, the one that begins Stop all the clocks, and I always cry during that scene, partly because it is so sad, and partly because the words are so beautiful (and, well, John Hannah does have a lovely accent). I was thirteen then, completely uninterested in poetry, but I have seen this film so many times that I nearly have this poem memorized. It is the second half of the poem that shatters me, the part that has stayed with me all this time. For some thirteen years it would be all that I knew of Auden's work.
Years went by, and I somehow never returned to Auden, except for this dimly remembered poem that lingered on the fringes of my consciousness. And then one day (as it so often happens), I was browsing through the bookstore and thought perhaps it was time to come back to him. There were two volumes, Selected Poems, and Collected Poems. The latter, I thought. It was a fat volume of all the poems that the writer had approved and preserved across the expanse of his time. I fell asleep holding it last night, the faintly textured paper cover cool under my cheek, wondering where and how to begin.
When I am faced with the vast collection of a poet's works, from youth to old age, I never know where to begin. Start at the beginning, follow his evolution across the years, his changes in style and theme changing with time and place? Or pick a point at random, flip back to see where he came from or ahead to see where he was going? Do I run my gaze through the titles and skip to the ones that catch my eye, or do I search for the poems I know, begin with the familiar, or explore new worlds? Or all of the above? Sometimes I begin at the end and travel backwards in time, and it is like watching smouldering embers slowly rekindle themselves and burst into flame.
I tell J. about my recent book-buying binge, about the ones I have begun reading and the others I have put away for another day. The talk turns to Auden, whom I confess I have never really read. He tells me that his favorite poem is In Memory of W. B. Yeats, but when I come home I first flip to Stop all the Clocks, which is everything I remember it being. Then I turn to the Yeats poem, read it aloud to myself, each word like a touch, a benediction, a good-night caress. On the internet (bless the internet) I find a recorded clip of Auden reading the Yeats poem, listen to that high, quavering Edwardian voice creaking from out of the past. The Queen of England has this kind of voice; she is the last of her kind. I cannot listen to it for too long, for it is more than I can bear.