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’.

In 1914, George Auden joined the Army. ‘I was seven,’ Auden recalled, ‘the age at which a son begins to take serious notice of his father and needs him most ... and I didn’t see him again until I was twelve and a half.’ During these years, Auden ‘spent a great deal of my waking hours in the construction and elaboration of a private, sacred world, the basic elements of which were a landscape, northern and limestone, and an industry, lead mining ... my sacred world contained no human beings.’ In this way, he could keep faith with Father while succumbing to the sacralising influence of Mother. Mother, meantime, was becoming ‘very odd indeed. When I was eight years old, she taught me the words and music of the love-potion scene in Tristan, and we used to sing it together.’

By the time George returned from war, Auden had become his mother’s boy. Although he continued to draw on George’s stock of knowledge, the father-son relationship had stalled: the two ‘never really came to know each other’. Later on, Auden would remember his father as ‘hen-pecked’ and ‘too gentle’. In Auden biographies, George now tends to be a pallid background presence. Constance, on the other hand, is usually portrayed as a key source of unease. ‘Mother wouldn’t like it’ would become the mature Auden’s pat way of ramming home some moral point. In his adolescence, though, what Mother wouldn’t like became for him the thing to do, the thing to fear. In 1942, he told a friend: ‘You would be surprised how unpleasant too much parental love and interest can be, and what a torture of guilt it makes breaking away.’

Auden was 15 when his schoolfriend Robert Medley suggested that he might try his hand at writing poems.

Kicking a little stone, he turned to me
And said, ‘Tell me, do you write poetry?’
I never had, and said so, but I knew
That very moment what I wished to do.

At 15, Auden knew, too, that he was homosexual – indeed, Medley was the then-object of his ardour. He was careful, though, to keep this side of things out of the verses he began sending home to mother. Binding a small sheaf of his early work into a notebook, just for her, he added the following inscription:

To Mother

                    from her son, the author
You too, my mother read my rhymes
  For love of unforgotten times
‘And you may chance to hear once more
  The little feet along the floor.’

R.L.S.

The showdown came when Mrs Auden discovered a ‘suggestive’ poem of Auden’s about Medley, as seen in the school swimming pool. George was assigned to lecture both boys on the proper boundaries of male friendships, and from now on Constance would view her son’s writings with suspicion. Their appearance had coincided also with the seeming collapse of his religious faith. With touching ineptitude, Auden got one of his friends – not Medley – to intercede on his behalf. The friend obligingly explained to Mrs Auden that her son was a genius and thus had little further need for ‘a personal God – or for a Mother’.

Most adolescent verse is full of Self, and the teenage Auden had plenty of self-problems to get off his chest, it may be thought. But poetry was never for him a vehicle for personal emotion – not even at the start. Boys, God, his confused feelings about Mother: these subjects are all touched on, or are present, in his early work but without Katherine Bucknell to assist us, we would be hard pressed to locate them, let alone make out a case for their huge personal significance. Auden trained himself as a poet as he might have trained himself to be an engineer. Now and then he worried that he was not feelingful enough to make the grade, or that his poetical toolbox might be short of some important spiritual component, but such anxieties did not run very deep. Emotions could wait, he seems to have decided. What mattered was to master the technique, to find out how poetry was made, and how it could be mined. Ever the boffin, he set himself to analyse and replicate the strange alchemies of English Verse.

Juvenilia covers the years 1922 to 1928, and is really a kind of laboratory log-book, the record of an apprentice’s experiments, or of the progress of a pasticheur. Almost every ‘poem’ is an exercise in imitation. First it was the Romantics (Katherine Bucknell is particularly good at spotting Wordsworth echoes), then a few Georgian big-names of the day, then Thomas Hardy. As imitations, the boy Auden’s efforts are dutiful and dull. One never feels that there is anything of his own, by way of rhythm or vocabulary, pressing for a point of entry. As de la Mare, he can ‘see the fairies dancing in the ring’; as Housman, he exhorts ‘Take up your load and go, lad / And leave your friends behind’; as A.E. – the Irishman – he thrills to the ‘sweet unforgettable ecstasy of sound / Of leaves drinking the young dew’. Or was this meant to be like W.H. Davies? The submission to Hardy, while it lasts, is almost comically abject: ‘Who’d have dared to say / There would come a day / When, passing this spot, / I should not stay / But go on my way’; ‘For little we sensed of the delight/Hid in the laughter / Yes, little we recked of things that we / Would prize hereafter.’

Even with Hardy, where there was admiration for the poet’s personality as well as for his skill (Hardy’s looks reminded Auden of his father’s), the pasticheur is more interested in fathoming how the tone and rhythms work than in making use of them for his own purposes. From time to time, Auden’s ‘own purposes’ show through, but rather wanly. The author’s temper, so far as we can make it out, tends to the mournfully inert, yearning for silence and solitude but thrilled from time to time by sudden movements or sharp noises. Disturbance is both sought and fled. Up to 1926, the words ‘silence’ or ‘quiet’ appear in almost every poem, whatever the current model. ‘Silence is best,’ ‘I will be silent, Mother Earth,’ ‘Silent thoughts, so sweet, so deep’, ‘Beauty’s silent quiet attack’, ‘Silence more achieves than singing may,’ ‘Silence and Beauty sit enthroned, alone!’, ‘This is the place for you if you love quiet,’ ‘O there is peace here,’ and so on. ‘Silence’ can stand for sexual isolation (voluntary or involuntary) or for spiritual equilibrium, depending on who does the reading. Auden still liked to show his work to Mother but he also liked to pass it round among his friends. The cryptographer of later years can perhaps be glimpsed here as practising the rudiments of authorial evasion. More likely, though, he just didn’t have the words. Not yet.

One of the few early poems that we know to have been based on a specific personal experience is ‘The Old Lead-Mine’ – a feeble piece about dropping a stone down a mine-shaft:

I peered a moment down the open shaft
Gloomy and black; I dropped a stone;
A distant splash, a whispering, a laugh
The icy hands of fear weighed heavy on the bone

I turned and travelled quickly down the track
Which grass will cover by and by
Down the lonely volley; once I looked back
And saw a waste of stones against an angry sky.

Many years later, in New Year Letter (1941), Auden describes this same stone-dropping moment as (in Dr Bucknell’s words) ‘the seminal moment of his life as a civilised human being and as an artist’:

                         There
In Rookhope I was first aware
Of Self and Not-self, Death and Dread:
Adits were entrances which led
Down to the Outlawed, to the Others,
The Terrible, the Merciful, the Mothers;
Alone in the hot day I knelt
Upon the edge of shafts and felt
The deep Urmutterfurcht that drives
Us into knowledge all our lives,
The far interior of our fate
To civilise and to create
Das Weibliche that bids us come
To find what we’re escaping from.

In 1924, the boy-poet had to make do with ‘the icy hands of fear’, the ‘angry sky’. The experience was his; the words, though, had to come from stock. And there was no point in calling on his usual masters – as he discovered a year later, when he had another try; this time with an assist from Robert Frost:

Like other men, when I go past
  A mine shaft or a well,
I always have to stop and cast
  A stone to break the spell

Of wondering how deep they go;
  And if the clatter end
Too soon, turn grieved away as though
  Mistaken in a friend.

In 1925, Auden went to Oxford and there discovered The Waste Land. ‘I now see the way I want to write,’ he told his tutor, Nevill Coghill, a year later. He had, he said, torn up all his early poems ‘because they were no good.’ There would be no further sub-Georgian trysts with Mother Nature. ‘Man’s got to assert himself against Nature ... I hate sunsets and flowers ... I loathe the sea. The sea is formless.’ The poet had a choice between Nature and Geometry. From now on, Auden would be geometrical, a Modernist, an individual talent who, by his apprenticeships, had already digested a fair dose of the tradition. Not only that: he was a scientist. In his first year at Oxford he read Natural Sciences and in literary circles he was once again able to parade his ‘clinical’ credentials. As Isherwood amusingly recalled, he ‘was peculiarly well equipped for playing the Waste Land game’.

For Eliot’s Dante-quotations and classical learning, he substituted oddments of scientific, medical and psychoanalytical jargon: his magpie brain was a hoard of curious and suggestive phrases from Jung, Rivers, Kretschmer and Freud. He peppered his work liberally with such terms as ‘eutectic’, ‘sigmoid curve’, ‘Arch-Monad’, ‘gastropod’; seeking thereby to produce what he himself described as a ‘clinical’ effect. To be ‘clinically minded’ was, he said, the first duty of a poet. Love wasn’t exciting or romantic or even disgusting; it was funny. The poet must handle it and similar themes with a wry, bitter smile and a pair of rubber surgical gloves. Poetry must be classic, clinical and austere.

Auden’s sub-Eliot period – as Isherwood suggests – is by far the most irritating stretch of his development, and is made even more so when he begins mixing in elements from Edith Sitwell. But it is also the first phase of his liberation, the phase that shows him beginning to itch for his own authoritative tones. His earlier enslavements induced pallor, correctness and humility. Eliot, though, taught him how to strut.

Eliot’s direct domination lasted for about a year and when it was over Auden was ready to step out on his own. By 1928, he had left Oxford where – he said – he would never have ‘found my own voice ... as long as I remained there I would remain a child.’ He had read Anglo-Saxon, he had been to Berlin, he had dabbled in psychoanalysis and briefly been enchanted by the later Yeats – the style, not the ideas. These were some of the ingredients: the recipe remains unknown. What we do know is that, some time in 1927 to 1928, Auden suddenly discovered Audenesque. His privately-printed Poems (1928), reprinted here as juvenilia, was not altogether free of Eliotic affectations, nor of other echoes, but it was in essence unmistakably his own. The Auden landscape was more or less in place and so too were the telegraphese, the admonitory rhetoric, the throat-grabbing opening lines: ‘Consider if you will how lovers stand’; ‘Taller today, we remember similar evenings’: ‘Control of the Passes was, he saw, the key.’ Many lines, fragments and whole poems from the 1928 book would soon reappear in Auden’s Poems (1930) – one of the century’s most weirdly original first books. Thanks to Katherine Bucknell, we can now ponder in detail how he got there: by way of what must be one of the century’s most rigorous and self-humbling trainee schemes – a five-year commitment to the second-hand. And in the end the mystery is still happily intact. Auden’s boy-poetry is good to have, and Dr Bucknell has edited the book with exemplary thoughtfulness and skill, but there is nothing at all in it to bring cheer to a boy-poet.