Book Review: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W.H. Auden

This is the seventh book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found at“Poets on Poetry.”

More than any poet, I associate Auden with mountains because that is where I first seriously read him. I carried a volume of his selected poems into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness when I worked trail crew there for the United States Forest Service during summers in the early 1980s. At nights, after everyone else went to sleep, I would lay in my sleeping bag with a flashlight balanced on my shoulder and read his poems long into the cool, clear night.

Later I read this book, Dyer’s Hand – which I think I picked up at a used bookstore near the Toledo Art Museum – when I was living briefly back in Montana after I had decided to no longer be a Lutheran pastor. I read it while I was studying Irish Literature and fly tying.

As a poet, Auden is one of a handful of 20th century poets that can truly be called great. As a critic, Auden is inspiring, insightful, imaginative, and quotable as hell. There is no critic of poetry that I would recommend above Auden.

Opening now the battered paperback book I first read more than 25 years ago, I look at lines I underlined and margin notes I made in those long-gone mountain days. Flipping pages, I recognize themes and trajectories that have guided my reading and writing life. Themes quite familiar to regular readers of MontanaWriter.

There are so many fine quotes, I do not know where to stop. In the end, I include quotes from just a few essays here. Another time, down the road perhaps, I will look at a few more.

In the North Country, it is full Autumn now. The trees we see every day are turning or have already turned. The days are dry and the sky that vivid blue that only those of us who live in the land of four seasons will ever truly know. I sit on my deck reading Auden… and the long years melt away…. and the flat country I inhabit now melts away. I am in the mountains again.


“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” (cf. “Foreword”)

“To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same.” (cf. essay “Reading”)

“In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct….” (cf. essay “Reading”)

“A poet cannot read another poet, nor a novelist another novelist, without comparing their work to his own. His judgements as he reads are of this kind: My God! My Great Grandfather! My Uncle! My Enemy! My Brother! My imbecile Brother!” (cf. essay “Reading”)

“Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” (cf. essay “Reading”)

“The critical opinions of a writer should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are manifestations of his debate with himself as to what he should do next and what he should avoid. Moreover, unlike a scientist, he is usually even more ignorant of what his colleagues are doing than is the general public. A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely much of what he reads is modern poetry.” (cf. essay “Reading”)

“Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgement he respects.” (cf. essay “Writing”)

“Writers, poets especially, have an odd relation to the public because their medium, language, is not, like the paint of the painter or the notes of the composer, reserved for their use but is the common property of the linguistic group to which they belong.” (cf. essay “Writing”)

“The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.” (cf. essay “Writing”)

“No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while whether something he has written is authentic….” (cf. essay “Writing”)

“… whenever English poets have felt that the gap between poetic and ordinary speech was growing to wide, there has been a stylistic revolution to bring them closer again.” (cf. essay “Writing”)

“Nothing is worse than a bad poem which was intended to be great.” (cf. essay “Making, Knowing, and Judging”)

“In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.” (cf. essay “Making, Knowing, and Judging”)

“A young poet may be conceited about his good taste, but he is under no illusion about his ignorance. He is well aware of how much poetry there is that he would like but of which he has never heard, and that there are learned men who have read it. His problem is knowing which learned man to ask, for it is not just more good poetry that he wants to read, but more of the kind he likes. He judges a scholarly or critical book less by the text than by the quotations, and all his life, I think, when he reads a work of criticism, he will find himself trying to guess what taste lies behind the critic’s judgement.” (cf. essay “Making, Knowing, and Judging”)

“Whatever his defects, a poet at least thinks a poem more important than anything which can be said about it….” (cf. essay “Making, Knowing, and Judging”)

“…it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises.”(cf. essay “Making, Knowing, and Judging”)

“… unless the poet sacrifices his feelings completely to the poem so that they are no longer his but the poem’s, he fails.” (cf. essay “The Virgin & The Dynamo”)

“A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn a living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words.”(cf essay “The Poet & The City”)

“The poet cannot understand the function of money in modern society because for him there is no relation between subjective value and market value.” (cf essay “The Poet & The City”)

“… every artist feels himself at odds with modern civilization.” (cf essay “The Poet & The City”)

“In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is alsoHomo Ludens.” (cf essay “The Poet & The City”)

“…every artist who happens also to be a Christian wishes he could be a polytheist….” (cf. essay “Postscript: Christianity and Art”)

“To the imagination, the sacred is self-evident.” (cf. essay “Postscript: Christianity and Art”)

“A poet who calls himself a Christian cannot but feel uncomfortable when he realizes that the New Testament contains no verse (except in the apocryphal, and gnostic, Acts of John), no prose….” (cf. essay “Postscript: Christianity and Art”)

“As Rudolf Kassner has pointed out: ‘The difficulty about the God-man for the poet lies in the Word being made Flesh. This means that reason and imagination are one. But does not Poetry, as such, live from their being a gulf between them?” (cf. essay “Postscript: Christianity and Art”)



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