Poetry for historians

Or, W. H. Auden and history

This book discusses W. H. Auden's poetry, and other poetry of the modern era; some of it concerns Auden himself. Auden was particularly important for thinking about the relationship between the extraordinary and the everyday as experienced by historical actors and in the histories written about them. Discussing the twentieth-century development of recording and writing systems among the Vai people of Liberia, anthropologist Jack Goody noted that several Vai records had been compiled by men who had worked as cooks at some point. To employ a poetical maid was a fashionable thing to do and literacy in a cook was certainly a useful commodity. The book explores to what did Auden pay homage to in 'Homage to Clio'; and why might a poet evoke the Muse of History. Auden wrote a number of poems about historical events; two are famous for his later renunciation of their historiography. 'Spain 1937' was about a civil war that had already been designated 'historical'. He had spent time in Spain, was witness to violence perpetrated by both sides during the Civil War. Historiography is to history as poetics is to poetry. In Homage to Clio, the poet reveals the Muse of History as a blank-faced girl, always, forever, present when anything happens, but with absolutely nothing to say. The book explores whether Auden's Historia is silent on the page as well as mute in her person.

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‘[This book] will be a must-read as much for literary critics of W. H. Auden as historians of the twentieth century…'
Jon Mee, University of York
Pre-publication endorsement

‘Witty, acute, eloquent, ruthlessly confessional and riveting, Poetry for historians refuses to leave poetry to poets.'
Roger Cooter, University College London

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