Shocking Austen

Between July and October 1936, WH Auden wrote a long, amusing poetic letter to the long-dead Lord Byron. Among other things, Auden catches the poet up on literary trends in the time since his demise, and among these is the triumph of the novel. And in this context he includes some famous observations on Jane Austen:

I must remember, though, that you were dead

Before the four great Russians lived, who brought

The art of novel writing to a head;

The Book Society had not been bought.

But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,

Under the right persuasion bravely warms

And is the most prodigious of the forms.


She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;

If shares remain the characters they were,

No doubt she still considers you as shocking.

But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare,

How much her novels are beloved down here.

She wrote them for posterity, she said;

‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.


You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effect of “brass,”

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

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