Home | Sitemap | Books | Poems | Recordings | News | Notes | Criticism | Links | Newsletter | Archives | Members | Copyright | Search

Newsletter 3 (April 1989)

April 1989

The W. H. Auden Society


Recollections of Auden At the Downs School

". . . and we have Mr Auden who is a biologist."

With these words Geoffrey Hoyland, headmaster of the Downs School, introduced W. H. Auden to his pupils at the beginning of the autumn term in 1932. Auden did in fact conduct the biology hobby and there are photographs of him in the school records, looking pretty cold and miserable while his charges paddled about in ponds hunting newts. But his main activity was, of course, teaching English.

I have no clear recollection of his English lessons but they must have been fairly inspired for they left us boys with some idea of the power of words and the enjoyment of them. But the games he used to organise when the class was unreceptive to serious work do stick in my mind.

He was fascinated by the way small boys' minds work and on one occasion decided that we should imagine ourselves on a sledge being chased by hungry wolves in Russia. The wolves were gaining on us and we took votes to decide which boy should be thrown out to delay their attack on the sledge as a whole. This was repeated until all but one of the class - the most popular boy - had been disposed of. We felt rather sheepish at first, not wanting to be seen to throw out the least popular boy, but Auden was clearly thrilled to see what we thought of each other. I think he would have enjoyed a similar vote on the staff even more.

In another game he read out words backwards and we had to write them in our exercise books the right way round. After a series of fairly ordinary words such as "pots" for "stop" and "ekil" for "like", he said "esprog". It took us a moment to work this out and then the whole class burst out laughing because "Gorpse" was the nickname we applied to the headmaster's aunt, a venerable and elderly Quaker lady. Of course we were amazed that a member of the staff knew our nicknames.

I do remember that Auden was very imaginative in the essays he set us and fairly exacting in marking them. He did not care for sloppy thought or careless phrasing. In particular I remember one essay he set; he said "You can write what you like but the essay has got to begin `In Spring when a young man's fancy ...' " 12 and 13-year-old boys, with one or two exceptions, made very little of that and I remember floundering hopelessly and not producing an essay which he enjoyed reading.

One of the highlights of his time there was a revue he produced in 1934, in which the whole school took part. I was his stage manager. I cannot believe I really did much stage management but at the end of it all he gave me a book called Play Production in which he wrote "To Gurney Thomas, stage manager, from Wystan Auden".

I still remember the opening chorus of the revue which went something like this:

I also recall part of another song which I think was written by Auden for that revue:

Auden was particularly alert to boys' interests and encouraged me in a number of technical projects. I was a keen photographer and he asked me to take his passport photograph. I managed a good likeness but did not develop it enough so that the picture is rather dark. I do not know whether he used it or not.

On another occasion, in the run-up to "Exhibition" (Downs terminology for Speech-cum-Open Day) he asked me and another boy to take a number of photographs of members of staff and school activities. H gave us detailed instructions on posing the staff and we took the photographs in complete ignorance of his purpose. Then, on Exhibition Day, a fake prospectus of the school appeared on the blackboard in the big school-room. Captions by Auden offered alternative interpretations to our photographs. Thus school shoe inspection was captioned "Particular attention is paid to gymnastics" while a birdwatching member of staff with binoculars was interpreted as "Careful watch is kept on the boys at all times".

One of my prized possessions at the time was a huge meccano set with steam engine, enabling me to make models which worked under steam power. But methylated spirits, on which it ran, was not obtainable from the school shop and we were not allowed into town. When I told Auden this, he said "Oh, give me the bottle. I'll pop down to the chemist for you." So I kept my steam-powered lorry going up and down the school drive and no-one asked how I managed it.

However, one evening I left the meths in the school corridor where the headmaster found it. I was summoned to his study and came under suspicion for breaking bounds. I am afraid I let Wystan Auden down and said that he had got it for me. Auden did not bear a grudge and after a decent period I was even allowed to have the meths back, with instructions to be more careful.

In Jim Brown's book Tracing the History of the Downs he says, "Woe betide the boy who took advantage of Wystan Auden." This was certainly true and while he was a source of fun we were also somewhat in awe of him.

One of my contemporaries reminded me of Auden's chain-smoking and nail-biting; his fingernails were in an awful state. This was certainly disconcerting but I do not remember looking on these characteristics as anything but unusual and perhaps wishing a little that he wouldn't.

He was very short-sighted and I have a faint recollection that he never really liked wearing glasses. Certainly I recall the appearance of his face when his eyes were screwed up to try and see something in the distance. But this only attracted serious comment when he drove his car - a bull-nosed Morris, I believe. I remember it going up and down the road outside the school and members of the staff tut-tutting, "He can't see a thing, you know."

I left the Downs School in 1935 and went to Bryanston. During my first or second term Auden arrived - I think he was interested in a job there - and of course he looked up us Downsians. But although he was his old self somehow the magic had gone and after that I lost contact with him.


The Editor, who adapted this article from a tape of Gurney Thomas's recollections, would like to draw readers' attention to the Auden-Isherwood Plays, p. 504. The first song recollected by Gurney evidently precedes the opening chorus given there, while the second would fit the heading "In Quarantine".

Auden on Christianity - A Memoir

I met Auden on a Sunday afternoon in October 1971 when I was a young curate at St Mary's Parish Church, Hanwell. I had written to him in the previous year with two chief concerns. First, I wanted to tell him about Humphrey Moore, one of my teachers who became a close friend and left me his Auden collection and manuscript poems. Second, as an ordained priest with an interest in psycho-analysis, I wanted to ask Auden whether he considered the two pursuits compatible.

Auden opened the door for me and immediately remarked on the fact that I was not wearing my dog-collar. I had spent some time trying to work out whether to wear it or not and had evidently come to the wrong conclusion. However this did not detract from the warmth and kindness he showed me that afternoon.

After our conversation on Mr Moore, Auden turned to my own situation. "Be a priest and a psycho-analyst," he said to me. I asked him whether he thought transference would be effective with a priest therapist and he said he thought it would. The quality, he told me, that he looked for above all in both priest and psycho-therapist was goodness. "There are few really good psycho-therapists because there are few really good men," he commented. However he felt that anyone capable of it should do their own analysis, which was "far less expensive"; he had always acted as his own analyst.

Next, Auden outlined the relationship between medicine and art. In his theology the "cure" is in the nature of things and the best art is aligned with a perception of this healing order. He also alluded to the strong antithetical contrast between mental illness and art. This led to a discussion of Freud in the course of which Auden remarked that he had no time for "Jungian religiosity".

After a break for tea - organised by Auden, who operated the electric kettle - our conversation turned almost exclusively to the subject of Christianity and the Church. "I don't believe," he began, "that humanistic values can stand without a religious substratum." Morality, he asserted, is written into the structure of the universe, not imposed from outside. But while there is a natural order created by God, man constantly misuses the freedom he enjoys within that order. It is in the very nature of things that we suffer for our sins. Because man will not limit himself he needs the unconditional Absolutes - the commands of God. These, like humanity's basic freedom, are written into the moral structure of the universe but man in his hubris takes a longer and harder path to discover them. (The mediaeval theological formulation of this standpoint was surely that the universals are there in rebus not ante rebus.) While God's order is unalterably good we must choose whether to live in that true order, to rebel and desecrate it or, worst of all, to live as if the divine inherent order did not exist. Rebellious pride is therefore the worst of sins. "All we need really fear," Auden commented, "is ourselves." And, putting it another way, "The truth is that some people are in hell simply because they insist on being there."

Having expounded these basic aspects of his theology, Auden's conversation ranged discursively over many Christian topics. In general I believe he had fairly little theology of "the Church". His Christianity was intellectually individualist. Nonetheless he was a regular and devout worshipper. And unlike Yeats, for example, he had no religion of poetry. He really knew about the religion of the Church just as he really knew about science. Intellectually he wrote from the standpoint of a constant religious quest taking account of both the religion of the Church and the findings of science.

Auden spoke of clerics. "There are not many intelligent clerics," he said, "quite a few stupid ones, but the personality of the cleric is a secondary matter." He added, a bit wistfully, "One very much wants priests to be exceptional men but they seldom are." He then spoke of sanctity. "No-one ever disagrees about goodness in a man or woman - no voice ever dissents from acknowledging its presence. Good people always make you feel nicer, better, and even better looking." The drift of his observations was that humility is the very essence of goodness. As to how goodness could be promoted by the Church, he said, "It's no good endlessly sermonizing, telling people to be good or to be better; what is needed, or one of the things that is needed, is really good Biblical exposition; education is required more than the usual kind of moralizing."

Of his abhorrence for liturgical reformers, he remarked that his local New York church, St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, had become so uncongenial to him that he now went to a nearby Russian Orthodox church. "I would have kept the Latin at my local church," he said, and added, "Liturgy should be impersonal, remote, and mysterious."

Auden then rattled through a series of idiosyncratic views on Christian doctrines. On the Virgin Birth - "What does it say but that no-one can acknowledge that his parents had sex!" Of the Immaculate Conception - "It's anti-semitic. It says that God could not have been tainted by Jewishness." Of sex and pornography - "Sexuality is only truly appreciated within a loving relationship. `Be fruitful and multiply' says Genesis but gives as the primary reason for the sexes, `It is not good that man should be alone.' By contrast all pornography is Manichaean. Its purpose is to throw shame on the bodily functions."

He also admitted to one heresy, Patripassionism, which holds that God the Father partook of the sufferings of his Son. In her essay "Reality and Religion" (in Stephen Spender's W. H. Auden: A Tribute), Anne Freemantle recalls Auden attacking this view in 1931. In addition, Mary's lullaby in For the Time Being contains the lines "Sleep: what have you learned from the womb that bore you/ But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?" However by 1971 Auden took a more humanized view of God and could not believe the Father remained impassive while his Son suffered.

After about two hours' conversation, I could see that the time had come for me to leave and Auden gave me my cue by saying that he had to return to America the next day. Before I left he signed some books for me and as he did so he was more than once partially overcome by breathlessness. He clearly found physical exertion difficult. But I did get a strong impression of a man who was lovably good as well as great. He had been patient with me, answered my questions carefully and listened intently to all I told him, spicing the conversation with jokes. All in all he gave me his whole attention throughout the time I was with him.


Notes and Queries

Gay Slang, Baudelaire, and Wagner

In contemporary French slang, to "turn to the North-West" means tentatively to explore one's suspected homosexuality. Does anybody know if this was part of contemporary gay slang in the 1930s? If so, it would provide an interesting gloss on Auden and Isherwood's "North-West" passage (see Mendelson, Early Auden, pp 38-39).

The poem "Consider" seems to include a tantalising reference to Baudelaire who had a notice reading, in English, "It's later than you think" pasted over the face of his clock. Can anyone provide proof that this is what Auden is thinking of?

I would be interested to know if anybody has studied the influence of Wagner's libretti on Auden's poetry, particularly his earlier and more declamatory poems.


Worcester College, Oxford OX1 2HB, England

Hell and the Hangman's Dog

It was once suggested to me that the lines from New Year Letter, "The grinning gap of Hell, the hill/ Of Venus and the stairs of Will," (1671-2) might refer to a tale of Boccaccio's in which the female sexual organ is compared to Hell. Does anyone know which tale this might be? And do readers feel that "Will" is intended in the sense in which Shakespeare often used it? Or do readers have alternative interpretations of this passage?

Do readers feel that the line in "Terce", "After shaking paws with his dog", serves to animalize the hangman or humanize the dog?


74, rue de la Republique, 37210 Noizay, France

The Flight of the Alone

In The Dance of Death, A declares that

This mystic flight from reality is undertaken by the Dancer and results in his death. It seems probable that the philosophy behind this flight derives from the neo-Platonist Plotinus whose Enneads end with the words:

This is the life of gods and of the godlike and happy among men; a quittance from things alien and earthly, a life beyond earthly pleasure, a flight of the alone to the Alone.

The translation is by Auden's friend E.R. Dodds in his Select Passages Illustrating Neo-Platonism (1923) which Auden may have read; in any case, he almost certainly discussed these matters with Dodds. Auden's opposition to any world-view which saw matter as evil was evidently present in his thinking long before his return to Christianity and may be seen as a constant in his personal philosophy.


37 Redwood Crescent, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England

Coghlan's Coffin Revisited

In response to Nicholas Jenkins' query in Newsletter 1, I once asked Auden (on behalf of John Fuller) what Coghlan's coffin was. It was in August 1968. He couldn't remember having written the line. I know this doesn't answer the query but perhaps it sheds light on the significance of the problem.


1 Bartlemas Road, Oxford, England

A Brief Introduction to Auden Material in the Britten-Pears Library

Readers of last September's issue of this Newsletter were reminded by Kathleen Bell of the important and fruitful collaboration between Auden and Benjamin Britten; her article was specifically about performances of two works, Paul Bunyan at the Aldeburgh Festival, and a Radio 3 broadcast of The Ascent of F6 given in June 1988.

Although arguably the four librettos written by William Plomer for Britten may be said to win in terms of bulk (these were for Gloriana and the three Church Parables) Auden was, in fact, the poet most set by this composer, who became in the process Auden's most prolific musical champion between 1935 and 1944. The full story of their first meeting in July 1935 (they were introduced by Basil Wright of the GPO Film Unit) has been told in Donald Mitchell's Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936 (Faber and Faber, 1981), hitherto the most important study of the relationship between these two great creative forces.

By the end of 1936 Auden and Britten had worked together on five films, including the documentary classics Coal Face - it was this which had brought about their introduction - and Night Mail. Britten's big orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers Op. 8, commissioned for the 1936 Norwich Triennial Festival, had been provided with a text by Auden, and music for The Ascent of F6 was already under discussion, to be followed in due course by On The Frontier. In 1936 Auden's Look, Stranger! came out, a book which contains twelve poems set by Britten over the years. The text of his Ballad of Heroes Op. 14 is mainly Auden (though it contains some lines by Randall Swingler), and the poem set in Britten's well-known Hymn to St Cecilia Op. 28 was written specifically for him.

The Britten-Pears Library at the Red House, Aldeburgh, (Britten's home from 1957 until his death there in December 1976) houses a remarkable collection of his books, music and manuscripts. Among these are printed copies of Auden texts (some with dates of poems and other annotations put in by the author), a few poems in Auden's manuscript or typescript, an early typed draft with manuscript revisions of For the Time Being - known as "Christmas Oratorio" by poet and composer before its title was finally settled - and Britten's copies of various stages of the libretto of Paul Bunyan with some pages in Auden's hand. There are eighteen letters or cards from him to Britten, ranging from 1936 to 1946; twelve more, covering the period from May or June 1939 to the early Spring of 1942 (when Britten and Peter Pears were living in North America) have found their way into the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The collection of Britten's musical manuscripts in his library at Aldeburgh is probably unique as a comprehensive record of one composer's output from childhood onwards, though it is unfortunate that some of the incidental music cannot be traced. Missing scores include Hadrian's Wall (1937), The Rocking-Horse Winner (1941), and The Duchess of Malfi (1946), all productions which involved Auden, and although four of the Cabaret Songs for Hedli Anderson have survived, at least two others ("Jam Tart" and "Give Up Love") cannot be found. Several major Britten manuscripts (among them Night Mail and The Ascent of F6) now belong to the British Library, but as these have all been placed on permanent loan to the Britten-Pears Library, they too may be seen in Aldeburgh by scholars and students.

Britten's diaries and letters are not yet available for study, but the first part of his Selected Letters (edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed) is now in an advanced stage of preparation and publication is expected next year. Provided with copious and illuminating notes, this will cover the "Auden years" and will undoubtedly prove of great importance to those interested in both poet and composer.

The Britten-Pears Library is open on week days to scholars and students, by appointment only. Small specialized group visits may sometimes be arranged. All enquiries should be addressed in writing to The Librarian, The Britten-Pears Library, The Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk IP15 5PZ, England.


Keeper of Manuscripts and Archivist, The Britten-Pears Library

An Evening of Auden's Poems

The reading of Auden's poetry at the National Poetry Centre on 20th October last year provided not only a delightful evening but also a wonderful opportunity to meet in the flesh - and over a glass of wine - poets who had been friends on my bookshelves for a long time.

Each poet had something different to offer, from John Fuller's scholarly exposition to Peter Porter's wry Australian wit. There was humour from Gavin Ewart, familiar and well-loved poems from Andrew Motion, and a discourse on punctuation from Roy Fuller, whose reading from Auden's 1933 sonnet sequence moved us all deeply. Above all, the presence of Stephen Spender added to an emotionally charged evening, making his audience feel that Auden himself was not so very far away. Charles Monteith presided over this sextet of poets with calm benevolence, contributing his own Auden anecdotes to conclude the evening.

The evening was one of considerable pleasure, yet it is a tribute to Auden that, even fifteen years after his death, the reading of his poems can still leave his admirers with a keen sense of loss.


Forthcoming Event

A READING of Auden's poetry by Douglas Dunn and Iain Crichton Smith.

Friday 18th August, 5.30 p.m., James Thin Booksellers, 53-59 South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YS, Scotland. Admission free. Wine and soft drinks will be served.

Further details from Kathleen Bell 0602-259846 or Patricia Britton 031-556-6743.

This reading takes place during the Edinburgh International Festival and is the first event organized in Scotland by The W. H. Auden Society.

Publications of Interest

W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Plays and Other Dramatic Writings 1928-38, ed. Edward Mendelson. U.S.: Princeton University Press, available, $39.50; U.K.: Faber and Faber, July 1989, £25.00.

Adolphe Haberer, Louis MacNeice 1907-1963 L'Homme et La Poésie, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, available, FFr 210. A two volume thesis, in French, which uses modern critical techniques to examine the life and poems of Louis MacNeice. Includes a detailed textual examination of nine poems as well as sections on his life and published volumes.

Michael Shelden, Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon, Hamish Hamilton Ltd., available, £15.95 (also available from Penguin Group companies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Europe). Although chiefly concerned with Connolly, Spender's involvement with Horizon is also detailed. There are also a few references to Auden.

James Stern, The Hidden Damage, autumn 1989, Chelsea Press. Autobiography covering the time Stern spent in Germany (with Auden) at the end of the Second World War. Acclaimed by Leon Edel and Malcolm Cowley when published in the U.S. in 1947, it has never been available on the European side of the Atlantic. Further details from Chelsea Press, 10 Blacklands Terrace, Sloane Square, Chelsea, London SW3 2SR, England.

From the Editor

The deadline for submissions to Newsletter 4 is 15 September 1989. I would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion.

Editor: Kathleen Bell, 37 Redwood Crescent, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England.

Assistant Editor: Eleni Ponirakis, Flat 5, 75 Kew Green, Richmond, Surrey, England.


Annual subscriptions have been raised to the following levels as from April 1, 1989:

New members and members wishing to renew subscriptions should send cheques (payable to The W. H. Auden Society) to Katherine Bucknell, 70 Lexham Gardens, London W8 5JB, England. Receipts on request.

Members of The W. H. Auden Society should receive an updated Directory with this Newsletter.

Return to home page or to top of this page or to general contents page.