Wednesday saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of WH Auden, so the BBC has been stopping the clocks, catching the Night Mail and Telling the Truth about Love all week.
On his excellent blog, Bryan Appleyard calls Auden “the last great English poet.” This bold statement raises the ghost of Larkin. Years ago, Appleyard famously dismissed Larkin as an example of “repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity”, though he now distances himself from this dismissal.
He does however still claim that Larkin is major-minor, whereas Auden is major-major. Aside from the danger of coming over all Catch-22 (Major Major Major Major), this gives us an interesting method for categorizing poets.
Larkin is major-minor because he is brilliant but in a very narrow range – albeit the most important range. Betjeman is also major-minor because he is just on the wrong side of the style-substance balance. Ted Hughes, on the other hand, is minor-major, because he is epic and wide-ranging but not universal, ie. too obscure and self-indulgent.
Auden alone, therefore, is major-major, because he has the range, the style and the universality.
I can buy that, though I still like Auden best when he is Betjemanish (funny and rhyming) or Larkinish (writing about death). But possibly none of the other major-minors and minor-majors could have written something quite as different and brilliant as Moon Landing.