In the fall of 1941, during a stint as a visiting faculty member at the University of Michigan, the poet W.H. Auden offered an undergraduate course of staggering intellectual scope. “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” as it was titled, is not anything he is known for. Indeed, it is a sad reflection on the preoccupations of literary biography that, while we know far more than any sane person would ever want to know about Auden’s desperately unhappy love life, we know little about the origins or trajectory of this remarkable course. It is mentioned only in passing in some of the biographical accounts of Auden’s life and in a few testimonials from students who took the course (including Kenneth Millar, better known by his detective-fiction pseudonym Ross McDonald). Otherwise, it has gone largely unnoticed or unremarked upon.
That is, until recently. Seventy-one years after “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” came and went, a faded, marked-up copy of Auden’s original one-page syllabus was posted online by the literary scholar Alan Jacobs of Baylor University. Soon an image of that copy was circulating far and wide on the Internet, eliciting a surprising amount of commentary. Scholars and writers were excited by the syllabus, originally uncovered by Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, because it provided them with a list of texts that Auden himself, one of the greatest poets and critics of the twentieth century, considered central to the Western intellectual and literary tradition. It was like a guided tour of the essential furnishings of a great poet’s mind.
And it was enormous. Teachers and students alike could not help but stare in disbelief at the audacity of the reading list. It was as if Auden had put together an idiosyncratic and mainly literary version of a Great Books curriculum, and diabolically compressed it into a single semester, a literary boot camp to end all boot camps. Beginning with the Greek tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles, the course covered the Roman poet Horace, then Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a small collection of Shakespeare’s plays (including, oddly, Henry IV, Part 2, without Part 1), Pascal, Racine, Blake, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Moby-Dick, The Education of Henry Adams, Rilke, Kafka, Eliot, and other greats; added lesser works like Volpone and Peer Gynt for spice; tossed in some then-classic scholarship about culture (Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Robert Lynd, C.S. Lewis); then washed it all down with the bubbly delights of nine (count ’em) opera libretti, works from Orpheus to Carmen to La Traviata. All in a single semester. Who could survive such a feast, let alone digest it? Auden presented his undergraduate students at a large American public university with nearly six thousand pages of required reading for a one-semester, two-credit-hour class. Incredible.