Poem: ‘A Letter to Wystan Auden, from Iceland’

Francis Spufford

for the maker of ceramic pots


Dear Wystan Auden, as I lay last night
    Unsleeping on a hard Youth Hostel bed,
The windows pearly with the pale twilight
    That glows on constantly up here instead
    Of proper dark, a thought traversed my head:
How fine if I could summon down from heaven
The flax-haired you of Nineteen Thirty-Seven.

I’m low, I must confess, and need a prop
    For a project sagging even as I speak.
May I rehearse to you da capo (from the top)
    The reasons why my outlook seems so bleak
    In the herring-scented streets of Reykjavik?
I have one precedent I can rely on:
Your own impulsive Letter to Lord Byron.

I can’t cast you as you cast suave Lord B. –
    An anti-fascist pal, who if alive
Would give my views his raffish sympathy
    And see the present through my decade’s eyes.
    This letter’s no post-haste recruitment drive.
I shall only air a small artistic problem
Or two, and hope your friendly ghost can nobble ’em.

To business, then, anachronistic Wystan.
    To limn the details of my situation
I’ll reach into my past, adopt the system
    Of self-portrayal – I know, no innovation –
    Yet still the true strange ground of most creation.
You always thought that kindly diagnosis
Begins by looking at the child’s neurosis,

So I hope you’ll pay attention. I was born
    In Cambridge; both my ma and pa were dons;
But they moved where bricks were redder and the lawn
    I first recall stretched down toward two swans
    In Keele University, the origo et fons
Of the post-war educational expansion
Centred round a bankrupt mining magnate’s mansion.

Keele was ugly, but its ugliness had charm.
    Its campus had eclectically collected
One sample each, constructed to disarm,
    Of modern styles that wiser heads rejected.
    I never thought its buildings looked dejected,
But best of all its concrete arms enclosed
A Georgian park, serene, designed, composed.

Keele had enough material to supply
    Scenes for almost every story that I read:
Narnia, Elidor, Hephaestos’ falling cry
    Happened within shouting distance of my bed
    Down the wooden stairs across the road that led
To the metamorphic forest – which Bettelheim has found
To be the young imagination’s vital proving-ground.

I read a lot, I read and read. My God I did.
    Now it occurs to me to wonder why?
There is one fact that I’ve so far omitted,
    Which is, I had a sister. By and by
    We knew that one day she was going to die.
My parents shuttled back and forth to London
But what her genes had done could not be undone.

What we were first colours what we are later,
    No more; the connection’s far too often overdone.
When Wordsworth says the child is the pater
    Of the man, I feel inclined to run.
    But I must admit – it’s very little fun –
That while I was still deep in my minority
I gave Art and Life a quite reversed priority.

The few times that I tried to be comparative –
    To set Narnia against the daily hum –
I found living to be sadly short on narrative –
    There were no wardrobes for an academic’s son.
    Almost before I can remember I’d begun
Seeing books as tempting doors marked EXIT
Not as records of the heart, and trials that vex it.

Of course my heart was not inactive, then or late.
    I felt, all right, but kept that quite apart
From books’ beguiling otherness. O data
    Of the page – for you I put the cart
    Before the horse, made you my chart
Of happenings I might have had direct
If I’d learned a less abstracted dialect.

Now let’s leap forward (may I pose a mo as Mao?)
    Over years of usual pang-filled growing-up:
The question looming over me (and how!)
    Was, in what way I could earn enough to sup
    My adult crust; and, till I pushed daisies up,
How I’d satisfy the gnawing addict’s pain
And maintain the flow of print into my vein.

I didn’t fancy teaching in a prep school,
    I’d had enough of school to last for ever;
I didn’t think my conscience or my cool
    Would survive advertising, though the clever
    Can sometimes service its fertility and never
Lose their own. As for me, I’d rather beg
Than find a cream bun sexy, on travel on an egg.

You say you found your calling in a field:
    A friend suggested poetry and then
You felt your other predilections yield
    And shortly afterwards took up the pen.
    Well, I flicked through your biography again
To see if matters were so genuinely easy –
And it seems they were, a fact that makes me queasy.

I knew that I should have to work with words
    But I doubted my own words would ever soar;
My few attempts were fat and flightless birds
    Gobbling, ill-designed, upon the floor.
    It wasn’t that I lacked the wit, but more
That I lacked the feeling that I ought to put in.
When I wrote I used my mouth to put my foot in.

The full text of this poem is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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