Entertaining, insightful, partial, digressive, the “biography” is at least as revealing about Sansom as the poem itself. He moves to Northern Ireland, begins to publish detective fiction, his children are born, grow up and leave home, and still he reads and rereads the poem, all the while accumulating more material, not just from new biographies and critical work but from Sansom’s interests in seemingly unrelated materials, so that we learn about Auden and detective fiction, Auden and teaching, Auden and “odour”.
This book’s main virtue is Sansom’s all-encompassing love of Auden; his familiarity with the poet’s works — the evolution of his themes and the gradual petrifaction of his verse — is plainly evident. To read Sansom’s critical opinion of other Auden poems such as The Age of Anxiety or Homage to Clio would, I am sure, be a pleasure. But this fey belletrist whimsy sets one’s teeth on edge.
There’s lots to love about Auden: a generous, eccentric, shambling genius. I could read trivia about him all day. I wish there was rather more of it in Sansom’s rambling book, which combines impressive gleams of insight and anecdote with baffling digressions into the Burj Khalifa, an Ed Sheeran concert and the author’s working habits. Some will be frustrated, others charmed. It’s a style that might have appealed to Auden, who once turned an attempt to review a biography of Evelyn Waugh into a rant about overpopulation. That creased face would find a sympathetic smile for his discursive disciple.