W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden also organized his commonplace book, A Certain World, under thematic headings arranged in alphabetical order. So, for example, the first two are Accidie and Acronyms, while the last two are Word and Writing—apparently he could not come up with anything worthy of citation for X, Y, and Z. Auden does not comment on every entry, preferring instead to keep his own reflections, particularly those that might be viewed as autobiographical, “to a minimum and let others more learned, intelligent, imaginative and witty than I, speak for me.”

Nevertheless, his intermittent annotations are far from impersonal. For example, before listing passages from Proust, Ruskin, Goethe and others in the section on Ageing, Auden writes:

"I was both the youngest child and the youngest grandchild in my family. Being a fairly bright boy, I was generally the youngest in my school class. The result of this was that, until quite recently, I have always assumed that, in any gathering, I was the youngest person present….It is only in the last two or three years that I have begun to notice, to my surprise, that most of the people I see on the streets are younger than I. For the first time, too, though still in good health, I am almost able to believe that I shall die."

What could be more autobiographical than that? And a few pages later, before quoting a poem, Park Concert, under the heading Bands, he recalls:

"When I was young, brass-band concerts were a regular attraction in the public parks of cities. Am I mistaken in thinking that they have become rarities? All I know is that this poem fills me with nostalgia."

And under his last heading, Writing, after citing several passages concerning this topic, he comments: “Most of what I know about the writing of poetry, or, at least, the kind I am interested in writing, I discovered long before I took an interest in poetry itself.” He continues with a two-page recollection of various experiences that influenced his work as a poet.

In a review of A Certain World, Benjamin DeMott considers one of the questions that led me to look closely at my own commonplace book, namely what it might reveal about the underlying patterns of a person’s life. DeMott suggests one can learn a great deal about the kind of person Auden is from the entries in his commonplace book. He writes that aside from what we already know about him,

"You make out too that he’s not young, that he’s often melancholy and self accusatory, that he finds life short. And you can assume only a little speculatively, that he lends excitement to the lives of his friends not alone through his writing…..[and is] a rueful, deep, humorous, loving man."

It would not be a stretch to conclude that Auden’s comments in his commonplace book are a good deal more personal than he is willing to admit. So too, I imagine are the entries in most commonplace books.

Commonplace Books

It isn't often that I read about commonplace books on the literary or scientific blogs that I read. But a couple of months ago I did see the term used in a blog known as The Front Cortex (http://scienceblogs.com/cortex) written by Jonah Lehrer, the author of Proust was a Neuroscientist.

In his September 9th blog on Mania, Lehrer writes about an Oliver Sacks essay on manic depressive disorder that was published in the New York Review of Books. After quoting a couple of paragraphs in Sack's essay, Lehrer says:

"I would love Sacks to create a commonplace book featuring all those quotes that he so effortlessly places throughout his prose. (Auden wrote a great one.)"

What a fine idea I thought, although I can't imagine publishers would be interested in publishing a person's commonplace book on a single or set of topics, unless of course they were well known like Sacks and Auden.

I could readily put together a book on the major themes of my Commonplace Book. But in today’s “market” even highly respected authors would have difficulty publishing such a volume.