Seamus Perry: Welcome to the LRB podcast. My name is Seamus Perry, and I teach English literature at the University of Oxford, and am a contributor to the London Review of Books. And I’m talking to Mark Ford, who is a professor of English at University College London, also a contributor to the LRB, and also a poet. This is the second in a series of conversations about literary figures who have appeared as subjects in the London Review of Books. Our first subject was Philip Larkin, and today we’re talking about an earlier poet, and indeed an influence upon Larkin: W.H. Auden. So perhaps a place to start, Mark, would be to say something about Auden’s origins – his background, and where he came from.
Mark Ford: There’s something particularly English, I think, about Auden, and ways in which his poetry connects with the English landscape; and though he moved to America later, I think that his Englishness is vital, and it’s a particular kind of Englishness – it’s a provincial Englishness. He was born in York, but his parents moved to Birmingham the following year; he was born in 1907 and they moved in 1908. His father was a medical officer for Birmingham schools, and Auden grew up in I suppose what we’d call an upper-middle-class environment. And I think it’s worth remembering a lot of his forbears were in the church. There can be something that seems a bit preachy or didactic about Auden’s poetry, and I think, if you think of him in a pulpit and think of his forbears in a pulpit, that makes a great deal of sense; and someone like Stephen Spender has commented on the extent to which Auden liked to feel in control of his material, and to deliver it in a somewhat, seemingly didactic mode. So, the extent to which his ancestors belonged to the kind of clerical tradition I think is worth pointing out. But he was also very interested in science, and particularly interested in mining and engineering – and he talks very often of how the early landscapes of his youth were essential to creating a sense of mystery and magic in landscape, and that they recur not only in his very influential early poems, but even in late poems he’s always harking back to the disused mines of the kind of Pennine region.
SP: Yes, Auden himself speaks in several places, doesn’t he, about the oddity of his parents’ match, because his mother represents that churchy interest that you’ve just been talking about – she was very high-church Anglican – and his father was a psychiatrist, and had shelves of books about psychiatry, and started that whole interest that Auden has throughout his life in ideas of clinical mental analysis, and clinical psychiatric analysis.
MF: Yes, and his father’s essays were influential on his own ideas – you can trace links between essays of his father’s and Auden’s own attempt to diagnose; and he did love diagnosing, and that sort of derived from his father. But the artistic side, especially the love of music, would have derived from his mother’s side – they used to play Wagner duets together. And he was very close to his mother, and that parental relationship was, I think, probably more vexed than the one he had with his father. He travelled with his father to Germany, and got on with his father in a fairly straightforward way; but I think his relationship to his mother was more complex, and might have had more to do with his becoming a poet, especially one interested in psychiatric oddities, than his relationship with his father.
SP: I’m sure that’s right, and certainly he attributed large amounts of his adult personality to his relationship with his mother – not least his sexuality – didn’t he?
MF: Well, I think that is a key thing about Auden was that he was gay, and he was at a time when it wasn’t as difficult as it became in the fifties to be gay, but his homosexuality was something that set him apart. I suppose the other crucial aspect of his upbringing, which affects his poetry from beginning to end, is that he went to public boarding schools, and he often said later in life that he understood how a totalitarian regime worked because he’d been to a boarding school. And even in a long poem like The Orators, which is a kind of revolutionary poem, there’s also a sense in which it’s an exposition of what happens in Officer Training Corp at a boarding school in the 1920s.
SP: Yes. The school was Gresham’s School in Holt, which I’m sure these days is an impeccably liberal establishment, but in those days does seem to have been a rather strange atmosphere of discipline pervaded the whole thing, with what they called the Honour Code, which was the invention of a particularly influential headmaster. He didn’t like school much, did he? But the great thing about Gresham’s, I suppose, is that it gave him a scientific education, wasn’t it? That’s one of the things that characterised the school – you didn’t do classics and a traditional education like that, you did the sciences, the natural sciences. And it was with a scholarship in the natural sciences, wasn’t it, that he went up to Christchurch in Oxford, to become an undergraduate.
MF: Yes. Just a couple of things more about his schooling, I think, worth remembering. One is that he met Christopher Isherwood, even at the prep school – they were at prep school together; there’s a photo of them, Auden at the feet of the mistress and Isherwood behind, and they already look a mischievous pair. And when he was at Gresham’s he played Caliban in The Tempest, and he rather identified with Caliban in some ways, more than with Prospero – or, he identified with Prospero, Aerial and Caliban at different … in different ways; but the sense of being an outsider and someone who was anti-establishment, someone resistant to authority and institutions, and that remained with him all his life. You could call his life overall a rather bohemian one: he didn’t bed himself down into any institution; he didn’t become part of the establishment; he lived … to some people, it was a very slovenly existence, but it could be seen as a bohemian existence, and one consonant with that sense of being in opposition to those in power. I think another crucial thing from his schooling as well, in 1922, Robert Medley, his friend, said, Have you ever thought of being a poet, Auden? And Auden replied, Medley, I’m not just … that’s exactly what I’m going to be. And he decided there and then …
SP: It was the first time it was struck him, wasn’t it – that’s right, yes.
MF: Never occurred to him. So he was, what, fifteen at this time. And he decided there and then not just to become a poet, but to become a great poet. And, extraordinarily for an undergraduate, he did write great poems while he was still in his very, very early twenties – or twenty, in fact.
SP: Yes, so shall we have a quick look at one of those? So, he publishes a volume called Poems in 1930, and before that T. S. Eliot has published a verse play that he’s written called Paid on Both Sides in his journal, called The Criterion. So this is a very striking debut, isn’t it? He’s very young, and he’s been taken up by what is by far the most important publisher of contemporary poetry in England.
MF: Yes, and I think his poetry becomes good at the moment that his early saturation in the works of Thomas Hardy – he said he read nothing but Thomas Hardy for two and a half years, Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, and the English tradition. That saturation received this kind of electric jolt in 1926, when he read ‘The Waste Land’ four years after it was published. And I think the meeting of this English tradition with high modernism, as exemplified by ‘The Waste Land’, was what completed Auden, at a very young age, as a poet. So he could write the most astonishingly assured, authoritative, convincing, original verse when he was still twenty, twenty-one, and an undergraduate at Oxford.
SP: So the poem, when it appears in the volume Poems, just has, in a very chaste way, a roman numeral as its title, but is later titled by Auden ‘The Secret Agent’ – it’s a very good example of that early voice, don’t you think? The first few lines:
Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.
How would you characterise that sort of voice? I mean, there’s nothing like it before, is there?
MF: There’s nothing like it. I think one of the key factors in its mesmerising power is its indeterminacy – that you’re not exactly sure who he is, what the key is, what the passes are, whether they’re passes as in some frontier district, or they’re passes as in some kind of sexual advance to someone. There’s a kind of mystery about the lines; but it ties in, as well, with a sense of menace, of threat, of some kind of obscure crisis which is overhanging the protagonist, who is somehow an every person – he’s a trained spy, but he’s one who has failed: he’s been seduced by the old tricks. And that sense of failure, which is dominant in Auden’s poems, struck his early readers as particularly important, that it connected with the zeitgeist. My own sense of one reason for that is that Auden can be seen as one of the first, or perhaps the first, post-imperial poet – that the England that he describes is one which is losing at this point, that the Empire is collapsing, and the machinery’s rusting and the industry is comatose, and so on; and its spies are unsuccessful in their … whatever battles they are facing with spies on the other side.