Cracking the books with Wystan



“What is this tattered sheet of paper?” you may ask.  It is reproof.  For somewhere in my garage, I have my very own copy of this syllabus, issued by W.H. Auden to his semester class on “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” when he taught at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, way back in 1941-42.  I asked for it a decade or two ago, and would have been the first to put it online had I not misplaced it.  Now it’s all over the internet – I knew the game was up when The Atlantic put it on tumblr a year ago.  In any case, it has influenced my life in strange ways.  For example, it’s the reason why Shakespeare‘s Henry V, Part 2, is the only work of literature on my Droid, besides the King James Bible.  I still have some catching up to do to finish the list.



“What I find fascinating about the syllabus is how much it reflects Auden’s own overlapping interests in literature across genres – drama, lyric poetry, fiction – philosophy, and music,” Lisa Goldfarb, Associate Professor and Associate Dean at NYU’s Gallatin School, told the New York Daily News earlier this year. “He also includes so many of the figures he wrote about in his own prose and those to whom he refers in his poetry: especially “The Tempest” of Shakespeare; Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Melville, Rilke, as well as the opera libretti on the syllabus.

“By including such texts across disciplines – classical and moderliterature, philosophy, music,anthropology, criticism – Auden seems to have aimed to educate his students deeply and broadly.He probably would have enjoyed working with students on the texts he so dearly loved.”

Now it’s over at Flavorwire, along with the course instructions and syllabi for David Foster WallaceKatie Roiphe, Lynda Barry, Lily Hoang, Susan Howe, Zadie Smith, Donald Barthelme.  Check them out here.

But for me?  I’ll still take Wystan’s list.  It’s cherce.

(P.S.  I have a hidden motive for posting this syllabus. Now I can’t lose it.)

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2 Responses to “Cracking the books with Wystan”

  1. James Harris Says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Thank you so much form The Book Haven blog!

    Here’s something about Auden’s reading list that you may not know. Kenneth Millar, better known as Ross Macdonald, was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, and took Auden’s course.

    Auden’s including opera libretti shows his high estimation of popular art forms, including fantasy and detective fiction. I write detective fiction, and hope that reading widely and deeply in great works will inform my writing half as much as it did Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series.

    I’m looking forward to working my way through Auden’s “cherce” reading list.


    James Harris
    Stanford University Libraries

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You and me both, James! You probably know Auden wrote a good deal of opera libretti himself: including a libretto for Benjamin Britten’s “Paul Bunyan,” and, with Chester Kallman, “The Rake’s Progress,” written for Igor Stravinsky, and “Delia,” written for Stravinsky but never set to music. With Kallman, he also wrote two libretti written for music by Hans Werner Henze, “Elegy for Young Lovers” and “The Bassarids,” and the duo also adapted “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” composed by Nicolas Nabokov.

    Good luck with your own detective fiction, and stay in touch!