“What W.H. Auden Can Do for You” by Alexander McCall Smith (Princeton University Press, 152 pages, $19.95)
When Isabel Dalhousie runs into a morally ambiguous situation in her job as a detective in Edinburgh, she is more likely than not to quote the 20th-century English poet W.H. Auden for inspiration.
Auden may seem like a surprising mentor for a detective. But once you understand Dalhousie’s creator’s affinity for the poet, everything quickly falls into place.
Alexander McCall Smith has built his literary reputation on a series of mysteries set in Edinburgh and Botswana, “The Sunday Philosophy Club” and “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.”
Immensely popular, the books combine all the classic elements of a detective story with a bit of high-minded philosophizing. It is a rare and winsome combination.
What proves even more surprising than a philosophy-spouting sleuth, however, is learning that Smith’s true love remains poetry, in particular the poetry of Auden, which he discovered 40 years ago while browsing the stacks of Belfast University’s library.
After decades of reveling in the master’s craft, Smith finds in him a rich and reliable guide to living well. That, too, surprises when you consider that Auden wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
But Smith stands undeterred. When he reads Auden, he says he taps into a reservoir of help for finding and keeping a spiritual purpose in life, for learning to love, for remembering the importance of community, and for appreciating the meaningfulness of everyday things.
Not only does “What W.H. Auden Can Do for You” express Smith’s deep admiration of Auden’s poetry, but his paean to the messy maestro also makes for a charming, honest look at Auden’s failings.
Of course, in the end, we have to recognize that Auden was a poet first, not a philosopher. And few poets set out to create a moral roadmap for their readers. They may, however, aim at profundity.
In such resounding poems as “Spain,” “September 1, 1939” and “In Praise of a Limestone,” Smith traces Auden’s “complex skein of ideas about humanity and history, about art, civilization, and violence.”
The message Smith teases out of this skein reads like an ancient Greek maxim: “every day in sleep and labor, our life and death are indeed with our neighbor.” For Smith, Auden looms as the great healer of division, both within the human heart and among our fellow human beings.
And that is the essential message Smith wants to spread in his praise of the poet, a message awaiting those who come fresh to his poems: “I believe that reading the work of W.H. Auden may make a difference to one’s life.”
Certainly art causes us to recognize some truths that have escaped us, as Smith rightly points out. And by understanding these new insights, we may possibly be equipped with a type of virtue. But it’s highly doubtful that the “shambling, unkempt figure” of Auden – “his clothing covered in cigarette ash and assorted stains” – aimed at instructing anyone but himself.
Still, Smith’s passion for the poet cannot help but inspire us. He calls Auden “the greatest literary discovery of my life.” “Thereafter there would be no writer who made as profound and lasting an impression on me.”
Perhaps Smith’s most original contribution in helping us appreciate Auden anew is his contention that the poet joined Eros and agape, that he demonstrated how “Venus enables us to feel what he describes as ‘supernatural sympathy.’”
Auden gained a newfound popularity when the 1994 film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” featured his “Funeral Blues,” part of which reads:
He was my North, my South, my East and West.
My working week and my Sunday rest.
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
Smith thinks that Auden got much right as well. And he wisely counsels us to turn to the poems themselves to assess how much light they shed on our lives and loves.
We won’t be disappointed.
For as Isabel Dalhousie knows so well, reading poetry may put us on the right track, after all.