Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Notes And Comments

The Auden Course

Who could survive such a feast, let alone digest it?

Wilfred M. McClay

W.H. Auden around 1964; John Kjellström, Svenska Dagbladet via IMS Vintage Photos; Wikimedia Commons.

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 Macdonald). 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.

And yes, even a bit ridiculous. But what an intriguing idea for a course. From the moment I heard about it, I began thinking about ways to replicate it, or something like it. Though the rumpled presence of Auden himself would be central to reproducing the original course, exhuming him would not be an option. But a modified version of the course, leavened with copious examples of Auden’s poetry and prose? Now that seemed an experiment worth trying.

And so I joined forces with two adventurous colleagues, and we created a two-semester syllabus, carefully augmenting some of Auden’s readings, cutting the operas back to two, dividing up the lecturing duties. Then we set forth to see if we could recruit some daring students.

We needn’t have worried. Almost as soon as the course opened for registration, it filled up. The same thing has happened every successive semester. Each semester we raise the ceiling for course enrollment; each semester we run out of space and must turn away students. Those who are busy lamenting the death of the humanities might want to take note of this experience.

We make Auden the poet (and pilgrim) a constant presence in the course. We look at the works on our reading list not only as freestanding entities, but also as they were likely filtered through Auden’s own sensibility. When we read the Aeneid, we also read and discuss Auden’s poem “Secondary Epic,” which represents his witty and penetrating response to Virgil, or we unpack Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” its bleak images a pointed contrast to the triumphant ones depicted on the Shield of Aeneas. When we study Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, we also read Auden’s observations, from extensive experience, about the relationship between composer and librettist. When we read Augustine’s Confessions, we also read Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” with its call to “love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” Almost every class and every reading present similar opportunities.

All this Audenization of the Great Books serves a high purpose. It relieves those books of the burden of being monuments and lets them breathe. Students see how such texts could sustain the imaginative life of a great creative artist, a man who was more or less our contemporary. They can take the books as their own sustenance, and learn to see from him—and, if less impressively, from their teachers too—how this is done, what it looks like, and how a life of intense creativity and searching moral imagination rooted in the rich and various literary inheritance can also be theirs for the asking. By concluding the course with Derek Walcott’s magnificent postcolonial epic Omeros, a Caribbean revisiting of Homeric characters and themes, we again show how it can be done.

It’s a difficult course, but it helps that we have approached it in a spirit of fun and adventure. We end it with a party at my house on the final day of classes, and there is conversation into the night, piano playing and singing, and an overwhelming sense of shared accomplishment. During our first year, students even created a T-shirt featuring an engraving depicting Aeneas’s departure from Troy with his father, Anchises, on his back. But in Anchises’s place, they Photoshopped a giant pile of books. “I Survived the Auden Course!” the shirt says. The illustration shows that the books are also surviving, carried on the students’ backs.