Here’s why.

As I sautéed shallots and decanted a third bottle of Château Ausone, the Lesser Half reposed upon her chaise, idly reading from my copy — OK, my library’s copy — of Michael Hofmann’s thrilling critical essays Where Have You Been? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014). She had just begun Hofmann’s piece on Robert Lowell.

“So, this unattributed quotation that he starts with — ‘A shilling life will give you all the facts’ — it sounds vaguely familiar. Where have I heard that? In one of Lowell’s poems?”

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It isn’t enough, I guess, to wine and dine one’s Lesser Half, however elegantly. One must have to hand a body of literature — and be able to produce it on request. Nor with the least sign of strain. Or Googling.

“Not Lowell,” I answered. “It’s Auden. First line of a beautiful and rather acid sonnet that appeared in the volume called On This Island. In the late 30s, I think. Goes something like this …”


A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.