Young Wystan

Ian Hamilton

W.H. Auden once revealed his ‘life-long conviction that in any company I am the youngest person present.’ This confession, made when he was 58, perhaps raised a shifty smile among those of his acolytes who had grown used to the crotchety, old-womanish persona of his later years – the early nights, the carpet slippers, and so on. Old when young and young when old: the ageing of our most-wrinkled-ever poet has always seemed a somewhat mysterious process.

Most people who knew Auden when he really was ‘the youngest person present’ were struck by his air of being much older than his years. Memoirists of his schooldays speak of him as having been almost spookily unboyish. Even Christopher Isherwood, who later on would enjoy noting his friend’s ‘stumpy, immature fingers’ and ‘babyishly shapeless’ ankles, found it hard to view him with full-hearted condescension: ‘I remember him chiefly for ... his smirking, tantalising air of knowing disreputable and exciting secrets.’ This was at prep school, when Auden would have been nine or ten years old. And Isherwood was not the only one to be impressed by little Wystan’s ‘self-assurance’, his ‘clinical detachment’, his ‘air of authority’. Among his school-fellows, says Isherwood, he had the ‘status of a kind of witch-doctor’.

This talk of clinics and doctors mainly had to do with Auden’s precocious know-how about science – and not just the smirking kind of science he had picked up from studying ‘anatomical manuals with coloured German plates’. Where other boys collected stamps and conkers, the young Auden liked nothing better than to potter around factories, machine-shops and power-stations. He also had a big thing about limestone and derelict lead mines. His nursery library, as he would later report it, included works like Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, and Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moors. Another of his boyhood favourites was Dangers to Health, a Victorian treatise on plumbing.

These curious interests were sparked by Auden’s father. George Auden was a medical doctor by profession but he was also a Classicist, linguist and all-round heavy reader. He had what used to be described as ‘an enquiring mind’: there was nothing much he didn’t know, or want to know. But he did not confine his son’s reading to the merely knowable. Auden’s nursery library was also stocked with Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear and Harry Graham. And George had a passion for Norse legends, believing as he did that the Audens could themselves be traced back to the land of Thor: ‘In my father’s library, scientific books stood side by side with works of poetry and fiction, and it never occurred to me to think of one being less or more “humane” than the other.’

For a long stretch, though, of his childhood and early adolescence, Auden liked to present himself as the icily preoccupied boy-boffin, his playbox ‘full of thick scientific books on geology, metals and machines’. He disliked games and was contemptuous of most of his teachers – ‘hairy monsters with terrifying voices and eccentric habits’. When he ‘grew up’, he said, he would become a mining engineer. He would go underground.

His mother had more elevated plans for him. Both of Auden’s parents were the children of vicars, but so far as Wystan was concerned, it was Mother who took charge of matters spiritual. George was a burrower; Constance was disposed to soar. She tried to counterbalance her son’s passion for the subterranean by directing him towards the airy stuff of music and religion. And by all accounts, she was a formidable teacher – domineering and possessive. For Auden, Father stood for ‘stability, commonsense, reality’, Mother for ‘surprise, eccentricity, fantasy’.

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