A Letter to Wystan Auden, from Iceland

Francis Spufford

for the maker of ceramic pots

I

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.

So I became a literary technician
    Adjusting words that other hands had made;
I loved a blurb; and, in the publishing tradition,
    I scorned the books that didn’t make the grade.
    I knew far better what they should have said.
Where was my charity? It grew, alas, precarious
As it must do when pleasure’s so vicarious.

Let’s leave me working, surrounded by MSS.
    Happily buffing up the prose of this and that;
And yet a not entirely unforeseen distress
    Would nag at my attention as I sat.
    Did I hope for more? Is Bernard Manning fat?
Do chat-show hosts wear unconvincing toupees?
Do sudden breezes tend to deflate soufflés?

Yes, yes and yes; but how and when and why
    I chose to do what brought me here –
Where water smells sulphurous, and the sky
    Scorns the little houses, scorns the brave veneer
    Of habitation laid on thin – where boat and pier
Ask the sea’s forbearance – that must wait
Until the next convenient posting date.

II

There hasn’t been much Iceland in this yet,
    You may have noticed: you have my contrition
Although you strayed at every chance you met
    Subjecting travel-notes to a benign sedition,
    In favour of a looser composition.
I’ll make it up, I promise. How about
A call at a museum? Yes? Shall we step out?

The Icelanders have kept their sagas but
    Their other past has mouldered quite away,
Except the sparse and spartan treasures shut
    Into a few glass cases, a confined array
    From which the visitor can deduce play,
Blood, work, a Viking handful, no extravaganza.
I’ll squeeze a catalogue into a single stanza:

First off, a knight defeating dragons on a door
    That once led to a church; then pieces
Carved in bone, the game’s rules lost; a score
    Of wicked swords; the amber beads somebody’s nieces
    Might have worn; a toothy comb for fleeces;
A nuptial bed-post, topped off with a minister
Whose sin-surveying gaze is blank and sinister.

I hope you like my rapid list. I know
    At times you liked a list yourself,
The neatest way of putting in a row
    A batch of modern types; an off-the-shelf
    Display of social grasp. In compact wealth
The style that critics called ‘the Audenesque’
Tots up the sly, the guarded, the grotesque.

Which brings us, not by chance, to me again.
    The interesting topic of the list
Gave me my ticket out, the way I could attain
    The half-way status of anthologist –
    Maybe not quite a writer, yet some grist
To the unharnessed word-mill of my mind,
Not sure at this stage what it ought to grind.

Now, you thought novels were the higher art
    Where other virtues must give wit the heave-ho;
There, cleverness plays just a minor part;
    The maker humbles and subdues his ego
    To slip inside the skins of others. So
You say. Your praise is only fishy
In being an adroit plug for your friend Ishy.

And yet I have no doubt your envy’s real,
    No matter how abundant your own gift.
What can it be to be so patient, to reveal
    So much so indirectly, in the drift
    Of ordinary happenstance, the shift
Of emphasis in talk uncovering so lightly
Another’s shadow; or where they burn most brightly?

Lights and darknesses fall differently
    In every separate soul, we’re told,
By no less a practitioner than Eliot, G.
    A poet’s on his own, free to be bold,
    Mad, bad and dangerous, or even cold;
But capturing the human chiaroscuro
Demands a social touch that’s more secure-o.

Although to write a novel must be very lonely
    A novelist can’t wish to be alone –
Can’t say: ‘My smart idea would thrive if only
    I could somehow do without the drone
    Of all these people.’ Sociable, his tone
Sees to the needs of many different voices
And, like a self-effacing host, rejoices.

I’m sure that if I tried to write a novel
    The cast party I held would be a flop.
I’d be the wallflower, or I’d simply grovel,
    And all the characters would never stop
    Gesticulating. An aged peer would try to hop;
A dour divine would Charleston; close to tears,
The strong and silent one would play on others’ fears.

A catastrophic prospect. Wiser, you will agree,
    To first try something rather smaller,
Requiring of these skills a less complete degree.
    That way my judgment may grow slowly taller,
    And I’ll learn how to entertain a caller –
Not one that I invented – someone real and dead
Whose passions need to be interpreted.

Biography itself won’t do. I much distrust
    The blithe biographer’s insinuation
That they’re the friend who never would have fussed
    Over their subject’s messy dissipation,
    Nor envied, awkwardly, his elevation.
Biographers whose manner’s buddy-buddy
Strike me, quite honestly, as bloody-bloody.

No, the passions whose elucidation I
    (A Galahad of literary scruple)
Propose encompassing must not deny
    Less sticky work to a less practised pupil.
    What I need most’s a literary loophole,
A special case that, at the risk of odium,
I can use to creep up crabwise to the podium.

I’d like to say that searching for my subject
    Was an exhausting task that lasted years;
I’d like to say that weary, pure and abject
    I brought myself close to the brink of tears,
    Burdened by severe stylistic cares.
It’s unfortunate for me that from my crib
I’ve not been capable of such a fib.

The truth’s just this: I knew exactly what
    I hoped to do to educate my heart.
I’ve been fascinated by each human jot
    Of POLAR EXPLORATION from the start,
    And wondered how on earth to tease apart
The knots their souls are tied in (reef or bowline)
Who think the good life’s found above the snowline.

The classic polar expedition’s personnel
    Were capable, Edwardian and intense;
Good sports; good diary-keepers; fit as hell;
    Trained by their education to think tents
    Were the natural sites for virtuous events.
Yet these solid types made journeys that involved
Odder qualities than toughness or resolve.

I see them walking, always in a line,
    Pursuing an abstraction through the snow;
Above (thanks to refraction) six suns shine
    And wrap them round in whiteness as they go,
    Skin blackened, feet wrecked, agonisedly slow.
But it isn’t meteorology, or nature’s wild trompe l’oeil,
That can explain their journal entries, indicating joy.

If I’m to understand at all, I need a way
    Of obtaining for my book a steady fix
On emotions that you don’t meet every day –
    The atavistic ones, the muscly ethics
    You tried to grasp yourself, ascending F6.
It’s especially hard to find out what they mean
Because the censorship of laughter intervenes:

‘I’ve heard of Captain Scott, I know the myth
    That every schoolchild drinks in with his milk.
Snow’s supposed to be the test for moral pith,
    A zone of desperate beauty pure as silk,
    Where Death presents a bill that you can’t bilk.
For duty, for stiff-upper-lipped self-slaughter,
Give me – for God’s sake – rock and glacier-water!’

Then to giggling’s verdict add – oh, why not – Freud,
    Who noted in his analytic heyday
That dreams of ice are usually employed
    By the unconscious when it wants to say
    That the sleeper has gone sexually astray.
‘You dreamed of bergs? I see. You had a fright
Once, over something large und stiff und white?’

These may have some truth in them, but too thin
    For anyone to think they say enough –
Think what a state of outrage we’d be in,
    Were we so lightly labelled, off-the-cuff,
    As obsolete historically, erotically duff! –
Since I aim at more than being chicly cruel
Do-as-you’d-be-done-by is my rule.

You may have guessed already that the first
    Thing I felt I properly must do
Was to use the money Faber had disbursed
    To get myself to somewhere with a view
    That took in ice, like Iceland. You
Got wet in Iceland: I swore that I’d be bold
And learn everything I could, by getting cold.

III

I chose my destination, dear, by your advice.
    You said for flying visits the north-west
Corner of the country was the thing. So in a trice
    I’d booked a visit, bought a woolly vest.
    And was clinging to a stanchion as the best
Of Isafjödur’s speedboats sped us up
The slatey waters of the Isafjardadjup.

I stared out, dazzled, as if it were mine
    Across the snow-edged final space of sea.
The nearing jags of peak all wore a sign
    Scored on their white by sudden falls of scree,
    A # in black. I felt – but retrospectively
That first elation was naive. Acting the fool
Comes somehow easier in Ultima Thule.

At first I couldn’t make out our landfall.
    The fjord’s shore was blanched, severe and bare.
I didn’t register the distant dots at all
    As houses, until we were almost there;
    Then they grew solid, coloured, square,
Too close to waver in perspective’s games.
The map said all the hills around had names.

The namers had long gone; yet still had changed
    The nature of the wilderness they left,
When they upped sticks and sensibly exchanged
    Their lives for warmer ones. A warp and weft
    Of histories too simple to erase possessed
This waste. Unlike the poles, it wore nothing
Only by halves, only as winter covering.

I’d wanted utter blankness. Yes, my whim
    Had been for snowscapes as an outdoor lab
With me as subject for experiment. Lord Jim
    Would finally make sense to me, one grab
    Would tumble all machismo in my lap –
Which was absurd. Yet the destructive element
Still stretched out round me, harsh and elegant.

We made out ‘base camp’ in the village shop,
    A wooden shell with many wooden shelves
Which we filled up with dehydrated glop,
    Alarming biscuits, powdered milk in twelves,
    And other foods with which to fuel ourselves.
An icicle-y outhouse, fit for a troll or boggart,
Became a cold store for our breakfast yoghourt.

And after every breakfast we’d set out
    To trudge the contours of the empty land.
My head rode watchful on my body, a mahout
    Plying the goad of willpower, while the grand
    Slopes and escarpments shone on either hand.
Each night rewound my legs, then morning let them go
One-two one-two one-two on the snow.

A rubber-band-powered gait? Whatever metaphor
    I use to say my legs felt separate front me,
The million steps I took, I felt much better for.
    Sweating up heights, and resting in their lee,
    I saw, at least, some things I’d hoped to see:
Loose crystals winking on a snowfield, like a
Sheet of marble, picked out with glittering mica.

I saw, on cliffs a thousand feet or higher,
    The perching young of seabirds feed and fatten.
Their parents whirled round upwards in a spire
    That made of vacant air a social pattern,
    A city in the vertical, an aerial Manhattan.
Beyond, where most horizons fade and dim,
The glinting pack-ice lit the wide world’s rim.

(The sea, the sea ... that northernmost thalatta
    I only use the Greek to make the rhyme –
Would shrivel the equipment of a satyr.
    I’m not one, but I know, because its rime
    Did refrigerate my own from time to time;
Once I fell through crusted slush into a river,
And came out shrunken, far too chilled to shiver.)

I picked an Arctic mussel off the Arctic sand
    And have it on the table as I write,
Beside a mussel from a Californian strand.
    One shell’s from shallows rippling with light,
    A sun-rayed green, a chlorophyllic sight:
The other shell, that inky deeps have ravaged,
Is battered powder blue, is lapis lazuli turned savage.

I’m sure you see which shell I like the best,
    Which suits my taste for darkness and the poles;
But there’s a limit to what seashells can suggest,
    And nature study’s not among the goals
    For which I travelled. Let’s forget the shoals
Of other northern seafood I could mention,
Or I’ll be writing this until I claim my pension.

What did I learn that I could put to use?
    That primus stoves ignite each time with sounds
Of glock, rp rp, sssssssss chunka chunka hwush?
    Though quite as nice to hear as Ezra Pound’s,
    These sound-effects seem pretty sketchy grounds
On which to claim some insight fit to print,
Some understanding novel, pristine, mint.

It was from my companions that must come.
    I had to see if our short trip perhaps
Would point me up some polar rule-of-thumb
    That could explain the power of maps on chaps,
    The heart’s strange hungriness for cold mishaps.
And so I tried to tell if northern latitudes
Produced, in each of them, a change of attitudes.

LEN spoke intriguingly. When from his stock
    He pulled a word he liked a lot, he pounced –
‘Very pronounced, the banding in that rock,
    The banding in that rock is very pronounced’ –
    The words he dropped were painfully renounced.
He liked to share his views (views often stated)
And he was glad to find ‘abroad’ so corrugated.

EUAN was Scottish. Climbing in the Cairngorms
    Had stopped him drinking, so he said,
And stiffened up his life to mountain norms,
    Although two friends of his had wound up dead.
    Good, frosty nights in bothies cleared the head –
It made you think but. It was good for you.
Euan was big, and quiet, and twenty-two.

PHILIP ran marathons. He’d worked extremely hard
    To get his kit and beard right, all alone.
From us he wanted contact, but he’d barred
    The doors to conversation with a tone
    That discouraged voices other than his own.
His laugh was artificial. Soon I came to dread
His waggish quotes. Ha-ha! ‘As Ancient Pistol said ...’

The party’s leader, STEVE, walked as his work
    Not, like us, as a pause in normal lives.
He counted northern vistas as a worthwhile perk,
    And hated cities – overcrowded hives
    Where nobody lives properly, but just survives.
His sons spent half the year here – a deliberate trade –
No comfort, but no ‘wimpishness’. They’d grow up unafraid.

Imagine, if you will, these four men talking.
    Their differences, that might just ensure a
Glimpse into the passions I was stalking,
    They banished with a purposeful caesura
    Upon all lines of thought that might procure a
Noteworthy utterance. Forget their loves:
They talked of ‘Goretex’ draught-excluding gloves,

And three-ply gaiters laced up at the knee,
    And orange tents that showed up well at night,
And whether packs should have five loops, or three.
    Presented with some stark and subtle sight,
    They’d look, they’d say ‘Fantastic’, then slip right
Back into the endless discourse of equipment,
Like cargo-cultists waiting for a shipment.

IV

I listened hard, I promise, though I now
    Have simplified a bit to save you strain.
But how will all this muddled stuff allow
    Me to trace a pattern, curlicued or plain?
    My hunt for figures in the carpet may be vain,
For no form I can see (saving silly ones like this)
Will knit up my findings neatly. If I miss

The messy living part out of my scribbling,
    I might just as well have rested up at home,
And passed my hours in purely bookish quibbling.
    So the mess goes in, somehow; yet I can’t roam
    At-almost-random through it, like this pome.
I’m pincered by two needs, clamped in a sad vice:
I’m in desperate want of some impartial advice.

The mails to heaven only run one way;
    Were matters otherwise I might apply
For direct aid to soothe une âme distraite
    And ask you favour me with a reply,
    A good-sized envelope dropped front the sky,
Bulging with wisdom, franked ‘Elysium’,
And dusted with the gold of the empyrean.

But your time’s past for being talkative,
    You won’t be my wry deus ex machina,
You only figure here as mutely vocative.
    I’m not sure, anyway, that your demeanour
    Would suit the task in hand, by which I mean a
Plain observation, not sour grapes. You see
My problem’s shape: well, that’s the shape of me.

I’ve only found out as I wrote this letter
    How very much of me my plans involved:
For showing which, I am your humble debtor,
    And when at last I cry ‘My problem’s solved!’,
    If ever, I’ll know having here revolved
Its elements beneath your flippant gaze
Was worth the cost in pencils and in days.

          Reykjavik-London, June-August 1990