The Auden Course: Who could survive such a feast, let alone digest it?

Wilfred M. McClay in The Hedgehog Review:

In the fall of 1941, during a stint as a visiting faculty member at the University of Michigan, the poet W.H. Auden offered an undergraduate course of staggering intellectual scope. “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” as it was titled, is not anything he is known for. Indeed, it is a sad reflection on the preoccupations of literary biography that, while we know far more than any sane person would ever want to know about Auden’s desperately unhappy love life, we know little about the origins or trajectory of this remarkable course. It is mentioned only in passing in some of the biographical accounts of Auden’s life and in a few testimonials from students who took the course (including Kenneth Millar, better known by his detective-fiction pseudonym Ross McDonald). Otherwise, it has gone largely unnoticed or unremarked upon.

That is, until recently. Seventy-one years after “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” came and went, a faded, marked-up copy of Auden’s original one-page syllabus was posted online by the literary scholar Alan Jacobs of Baylor University. Soon an image of that copy was circulating far and wide on the Internet, eliciting a surprising amount of commentary. Scholars and writers were excited by the syllabus, originally uncovered by Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, because it provided them with a list of texts that Auden himself, one of the greatest poets and critics of the twentieth century, considered central to the Western intellectual and literary tradition. It was like a guided tour of the essential furnishings of a great poet’s mind.

More here.