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Newsletter 10-11 (September 1993)

September 1993

The W. H. Auden Society


Biography and Memoirs Double Issue

Nancy Spender's Recollections of Wystan Auden

Nancy Spender now lives in Hampstead, surrounded by portraits. Many of her paintings (exhibited under her professional name of Nancy Sharp) are of clergymen, since she takes particular delight in reproducing the black of their robes. Among these portraits is her early study of Louis MacNeice, last exhibited in London at the 1976 Writers of the Thirties exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, where it will eventually find a home. Our conversation, attended by an affectionate, long-haired, grey cat, was wide-ranging; besides dealing with Auden, its subjects included the low status accorded to women students at the Slade between the wars and the challenge of teaching in comprehensive schools.

Nancy was living with her first husband and fellow painter William Coldstream when Auden came to stay with them as a lodger in 1935. The Coldstreams lived in a ground-floor maisonette in Upper Park Road in London and both Auden and Coldstream were working at the G.P.O. Film Unit on films including Night Mail and Coal Face.

Auden was, Nancy Spender recalled, "a splendid lodger. He was "very family," and I loved him dearly." Her description of him at that point tallies with other recollections-he was very pale, with colourless hair and extremely clumsy. He was also very good-natured and enjoyed playing with the children.

Bill Coldstream had temporarily given up painting for his film work and Nancy had let her own career take second place while her husband became established. She had two daughters to care for-Juliet, then aged three, and the baby, Miranda. Her own work was fitted around caring for children and the home. She had no studio; her portrait in oils of MacNeice was painted, at his urging, in the attic with the sitter perched on a bed. Auden does not seem to have taken Nancy's art seriously. He did, however, believe that she needed an outlet and suggested she might find this by joining the Communist Party!

However Wystan Auden does seem to have been good for Bill-"they formed a mutual admiration society," Nancy commented. It was apparently Wystan who persuaded Bill to go back to painting. But we have Nancy to thank for saving the often-reproduced Coldstream portrait of Auden-had it not been for her urging, her husband would have thrown it away.

A typical day would begin at breakfast with the Coldstreams fully dressed and Wystan in his dressing-gown. After Bill had left for work, Nancy would take Juliet to nursery, leaving Miranda with Wystan in his bed. Miranda was still being breast-fed and Wystan would complain, "She refuses to try to feed off me." Only after Miranda had been removed would Wystan get dressed. He would then draw the blinds, turn on the electric light, eat toffees and write poetry.

The evening ended early-life was far from Bohemian. No-one could afford any alcohol to drink in the evening, just cups of cocoa, and the household was in bed by 9.30. This suited Wystan's love of regular habits. Young Wystan was "good company," even if "barely house-trained." He had a great fund of gossip and Nancy loved to gossip with him. There were also visits to friends living nearby. "It was a close group," said Nancy, "almost incestuous." Upstairs lived musicians who possessed two pianos; Wystan would visit with Benjamin Britten and they would play duets and ragtime-Wystan's particular fondness for playing hymns was also in evidence. John Layard lived within walking distance. On one occasion, Nancy recalled, the film director Alberto Cavalcanti was invited to supper. She took a lot of trouble with the meal and was justifiably annoyed when the return invitation excluded her, being addressed to Bill and Wystan only.Another frequent visitor was Louis MacNeice. His friendship with Wystan was very close-Nancy suggests that Wystan's friendship with Louis was even closer than that with Stephen Spender. Louis came to dinner on many occasions-on one of these Louis, Bill and Wystan began an argument as to who had the finest hair. Both Louis and Wystan were sure their hair was the finest so eventually the hair of each was examined and Bill pronounced the winner-an outcome which annoyed everyone.

On some evenings Bill would cross-examine Wystan about his poems, which he and Nancy found exciting but very difficult to understand. Wystan would explain them patiently, line by line. However Nancy did understand "Miss Gee" and, then as now, found it "disgusting." She told Wystan so, before publication. There would also be excursions to productions by the "eccentrically professional" Group Theatre, sometimes at the Westminster Theatre where The Dog Beneath the Skin was a tremendous success.

Wystan could intervene in family arguments. On one occasion Nancy had visited an expensive restaurant with Louis MacNeice and saw Leslie Howard's wife, whom she recognized from a magazine photograph. When Howard joined her, looking disappointingly pink-eyed, Nancy insisted to the reluctant Louis that she must have the film-star's autograph. Nancy composed an appropriate note (she had read in a magazine how it should be phrased) and Louis bribed a waiter with £1 to convey the note to the star. Howard did not, Nancy explained, behave like a "first-class person" who would either have given the autograph or said no at once. He pretended to ignore the note for a while, then showed it to his wife who smiled, then played with it, and finally summoned the waiter to send back the autograph. When, next day at breakfast, Nancy told Bill and Wystan what had happened, Bill became very angry at the way she had behaved. "I hope you didn't use my name," he said, to which Nancy naturally replied, "Of course I did, it's my name too."

"If you ever do such a thing again," Bill declared, "I shall leave you," only to have his fury punctured by Wystan's comment, "Oh don't be so Victorian, Bill."

On another occasion Wystan was less successful at stopping an argument. Hearing Bill and Nancy quarrelling, he came into the room singing "He took her for better or worse but she was worse than he took her for." Nancy was furious and threw a cup of tea at him. It just missed its target and smashed on the wall behind. Wystan went out, returning with an apology and two bunches of violets.

Nancy found Wystan attractive ("I knew he was queer, which was slightly disappointing") and he seems to have been attracted to her as well. Sometimes, on a Friday evening when Bill was teaching, he gave Juliet flowers to give to her mother. Then, one evening when Bill was out and he and Nancy were sitting together, he started to turn out the lights and create an atmosphere which was "very intime." Expectations were shattered when the front door opened; Bill had come home early-his lecture had been cancelled. Nancy later heard the somewhat altered account of this event which Wystan had given his brother John-"I was on the verge of having an affair with Nancy Coldstream but just in time I remembered that all women are destructive."

Wystan also had a younger boyfriend at the time who came to stay with him at the Coldstreams; Nancy recollects "lots of flirting over the toothbrushes."

Nancy was devastated when Wystan went to Spain. He came back disillusioned, having been "very Left" before.

During the war Nancy and Bill were divorced and Nancy subsequently married Michael Spender, Stephen's brother, who had also climbed mountains with John Auden. Michael was killed on the last day of the war ("which was totally devastating") leaving Nancy with their baby son, Philip. Wystan became Philip's godfather.

When Wystan visited after the war Nancy, amazed by his religious conversion, asked him, "How in the world did you get religion?"

"Well, you catch it, you know," Wystan replied.

"You catch it?"

"Yes," he said, "I caught it from Charles Williams."

Nancy and Wystan met on a number of occasions after that and she remembers his "exaggerated American voice." He was "not placid," she recalled, and late in life could be "cross like an old woman." At their penultimate meeting they had arranged to have lunch at a restaurant in Charlotte Street. Nancy was 25 minutes early and the waiter told her that no table had been booked in Auden's name. To save herself embarrassment she left the restaurant and walked around, returning three minutes after the appointed time. The table had been booked and Wystan was there, angry at her unpunctuality. He started to tell her off for being late until friends arrived and he calmed down.

In March 1973 Nancy had a commission to paint Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney. She asked him if she could do him any favour and he replied that he would like to meet Wystan Auden. They decided on October when Auden would be in England and Nancy wrote to Wystan telling him that any day but the fifth would be convenient. Wystan's reply suggested 5 October. (John Auden said this was typical of his brother-"He only reads the first four lines of any letter.") An alternative date was eventually arranged. But on 29 September Auden died in Austria and the meeting never took place.

This account of our conversation was compiled from notes and subsequently approved by Nancy Spender, who preferred to talk without a tape recorder running.


"Writing As A Career": An Early W. H. Auden Lecture in the States

In the course of researching Auden's 1946 term spent at Bennington College, it came to light that Auden had visited the small, fledgling college in Vermont shortly after he took up residence in the United States. The visit was one of his first literary jaunts in America. Leaving England, Auden had arrived in New York on 26 January 1939,1 less than four months before he came to Bennington. On 17 May 1939 Chester Kallman wrote Auden: "you are probably on your way to Bennington or some such outpost of Education." This reference, brought to my attention by Nicholas Jenkins, provided the initial hint that Auden had come to Bennington before he taught there in 1946. Further inquiries revealed a remarkably detailed, if tantalizingly incomplete, record of that visit.

On Thursday, 18 May 1939, Auden was to read his poems and to speak on "Writing As A Career," a talk otherwise unknown and unrecorded. According to Jenkins, the term "career" would have been a pejorative one for Auden at that time; he looked askance on such conventional views of ordering life and pursuing goals. Thus what he would have had to say might hold considerable interest.

What survived in 1993 in the records of Bennington College and in the memories of those present in 1939? Would a copy of his talk by chance turn up? In those days, Bennington College was blissfully informal as to its archival responsibilities; moreover, the files had been moved a lot in the intervening half-century, suffering diminution, an unselective loss of institutional memory-just as those who met and heard Auden might not remember the occasion 55 years later. While he was a celebrity in New York literary circles from the start of his American residence, Auden was far from universally regarded as famous. Still, many of the students present at his reading were well aware of his reputation, and more. Vida Ginsberg Deming, a student present at the talk, recalls, "Eliot was the God-head, and the four young-Auden, Spender, Isherwood, and MacNeice-the demi-Gods." Bennington students with a literary bent were in touch with important movements of the day as much as anyone in New York, and she goes on to remind us that "we were the generation that read Four Quartets as they appeared."

Yet for others there would have been no call for them to inscribe their memories with details of an occasion that was not quite momentous. In either case, both faculty and students were expected to attend all these meetings-and discuss them, advisor with advisee, the following day. Even so, to the poet Ben Belitt, a member of the faculty that spring, it came in 1993 as a "great surprise" to learn that Auden had visited the college then. The local newspaper, The Bennington Evening Banner, can be scrutinized in vain for reference to Auden-before, during, or after his visit.

Auden, on the recommendation of Richard Eberhart, was spending a month as a guest teacher at St. Mark's, the traditional prep school outside Boston, a bastion of propriety and 19th century values. It was an old private school, not unlike the English public school; "it sets out to be an American Eton," Auden remarked (Carpenter, 264-65). Bennington must have offered a contrast, since it was a young, experimental, liberal arts college (scarcely a decade old) for women.

Bennington College was elitist but more radical than conservative, an informally rigorous college where students studied under artists such as Paul Feeley, composers like Otto Luening, or writers such as Wallace Fowlie, Ben Belitt, and Francis Fergusson, (all on the faculty in 1939); the students "learned by doing" at Bennington, where "education was a performance art." The college regularly sponsored talks, readings, and performances by the likes of Carl Sandburg, James T. Farrell, Katherine Anne Porter, and Martha Hill. There was strong interaction between students, faculty, and guests: at a reception given by the Luenings, a senior, Faith Jackson, danced for Carl Sandburg, and he sang for her. The place must have been attractive enough to Auden; and the 1939 occasion must have been a pleasant one on both sides, for the college would invite Auden to teach at Bennington twice, in 1944 and 1945, and Auden did return to teach there in 1946.

The first visit, however, was not without hitches. What follows here is the record, insofar as it remains and/or can be reconstructed, of this New England trip which Auden made so early in his American sojourn.

On 11 April 1939, literature faculty member Henry Simon (brother of the founder of Simon and Schuster) wrote Auden inviting him to give "a reading or lecture to the college community," suggesting dates and reminding him that the invitation had already been presaged by Mr. Willert of Oxford University Press and a Mrs. Brown. Simon wrote Auden at the Oxford University Press and suggested he come up from New York by train, either to be met in Albany or to go straight through to North Bennington-a service then available daily. He also hoped that Auden "might find it possible to stay for a day or two." Auden replied briefly in an undated note from 237 East 81st Street:

Dear Mr Simon,

Thank you for your letter. I suggest May 18th. I hope to be teaching then at St Mark's School in Southborough, Mass and could run[?] over.

I wonder if you could tell me what fee you suggest.

yours sincerely

W. H. Auden

Simon replied for the Literature Division on 19 April, discussing routes to Bennington; fees (he "thought that Mr. Willert had mentioned the fee" which was to be $25 "and expenses" which were to be $10); asking for "the topic of the meeting"; stating that William Troy, the Chairman, would introduce him; and again expressing the hope that Auden could stay over-so that Simon could meet him (since he had to be in New York on Thursday evenings).

The correspondence then breaks off until 15 May. It is three days before the event, and-evidently-the college has not heard from Auden as to his topic or his travel plans. Dorothea Hendricks, Secretary of Evening Meetings, wires Auden at 81st Street on 15 May:

Would greatly appreciate your letting us know at what hour to expect you Thursday and, if possible, the topic of your talk or reading.

Someone evidently relayed this request to Auden at St. Mark's. Auden telegraphed Hendricks the following day:

A little uncertain on being driven over. Hope about six p.m. Title "Writing a Career" and will also read.

It is signed, "Auden, St. Mark's School." The day following, 17 May, at 2 p.m.-now but one day before Auden's talk-the poet wires Hendricks:

Arrangement about car very difficult. Could you possibly fetch me? Wire collect Western Union.

Southborough, Massachusetts, is over 100 miles from Bennington. 45 minutes later Dorothea Hendricks wires Auden back:

Sorry not possible to send car to Southboro. Could you take 1:36 train from Framingham, or 2:10 from Worcester, arriving Pittsfield 5:05? daylight saving time? Car could meet you there. One hour drive to Bennington. Please wire if we are to meet this train.

The "one hour" drive is something of an exaggeration on Hendricks's part; even today it takes an hour, if traffic is light, to make the trip between Pittsfield and Bennington, and the roads are improved. The next morning, 18 May, the poet wired:

Arriving Pittsfield 5:05.

Wystan Auden

Auden arrived in time to have (a brief?) dinner in the Commons (senior Barbara Livingston "waited table in the Faculty room" and remembers serving him). He would have settled into the guest suite; the dining room was a floor below these rooms, which were across the hall from the "College Theatre" where he spoke. The program, with a checklist of his books, announced, "Tonight Wystan Hugh Auden will speak on `Writing As A Career'. He will also read." The meeting took place at 7:30, so the dinner must have been hurried, though spirits were served; and there would have been very little time indeed for him to relax or prepare.

The meetings took place on the third floor of the College Commons, in the College Theatre, a large room with a raised, proscenium-arch stage from which speakers delivered their talks. Vida Ginsberg Deming remembers:

He was lank, loose-limbed, blond young man, reasonably drunk and speaking with as unintelligible an Oxford accent as one could aspire to in caricature. In fact his whole limp-fair posture was something we greeted with ambivalent pleasure. To see the feet of clay of our stars gave us a charge.

Phyllis Wright Turner was a senior then and in attendance; she corroborates Deming's memories with some pointedly circumstantial recollections:

Auden seemed decidedly ill at ease, standing more stage-right than at the center. He was tall, slim and somewhat slouched[,] with a bad haircut-or perhaps just cowlicky hair. He avoided looking at the audience and set his gaze on a point about ten feet up the middle of the left side wall. I remember turning to see what was there. Nothing I found.

Faith Jackson has similar recollections, though she recalls him seated-perhaps he both sat and stood. (And evidently she was seated in the path of his gaze, as opposed to Turner, who presumably sat on the opposite side of the hall.) Jackson recalls nothing of the talk ("I never embraced Writing as a Career until much later") but was probably "wool gathering," as she says, because she had just given her senior dance performance; yet:

I have a strong sense of him.... I can tell you exactly how he sat, sideways to the audience, his legs seemingly crossed more than once, his head turned in our direction like an alert sparrow. The rest of him sloped. Today I would compare him to one of those over-long draped figures by Beardsley. He was all one color, or seemed so, his voice, and his suit, hair, skin, a yellow-beige.

It is interesting to note that Auden on this occasion inspired visual memories strongly, but not auditory ones; doubtless the fact that he was difficult to understand plays a role in these painterly recollections.

For Faith Jackson, there was something off-putting about Auden-as well as for Phyllis Turner and Vida Deming. Trying to account for her lapse of memory as to what Auden actually said, Jackson concurs with the others:

I have to say in my defense that there was something about him that short-circuited a response: did he hold us in contempt? Was he painfully shy? Was he too cerebral? He was rumpled. His eyes were way back in his head.

Vida Deming has more judgmental recollections:

In general his performance was rather down the nose & snide. He hadn't yet decided to teach and clearly felt awkward dancing for the peasants for money.

"Remember, too," she continues,

it was a female college. His vulnerability because he was so inept and graceless touched our literature-beguiled hearts & didn't affect our pleasure in his poetry. It was a poignant side-show, also irritating.

The poet's talk, as we have seen, was not reported in the local newspaper. But The Bennington Evening Banner nonetheless evinced a local passion for the English, and for poetry. The newspaper ran a weekly column, "Today's Poetry," and it will illustrate the cultural time-lag in a small Vermont town. But the major story in May 1939 was the visit of George VI and Queen Mary to Canada; Bennington was obsessed with it, and there was front-page illustrated coverage day after day. Yet The Banner also followed Bennington's concerns over the threat of war by running a front-page story with photos of the German submarine fleet. The mood of impending conflict may have been a reason for printing-two days after Auden's talk, as it happened-a page-length, double-column "Today's Poetry" consisting of poems from the First World War. Siegfried Sassoon was represented by the full text of "Counter-Attack" and "Does It Matter"; there were two poems by Wilfred Gibson. English poets were in vogue in Bennington, but Auden's day had not come. Bennington students knew his work and admired him as a celebrity. Yet to the town of Bennington, Anglophile as it was, Auden-who just 18 months before had received the King's Gold Medal for Poetry from King George himself-meant nothing.

After Auden's talk and reading there was a brief question-and-answer period, of which no record remains. Then the faculty, and perhaps a senior or two, retired to a party, given by Francis Fergusson at his residence on "Faculty Row." Catharine O. Foster, a member of the Literature Faculty, remembers that Auden rose suddenly around 10 p.m. and, clapping his hands together, excused himself, saying he had to go to bed and get his rest. Whether he went back to the Commons guest suite with a guide or found it himself, no one remembers; or whether he stayed for "a couple of days" or left the next morning. (At any rate, he was probably in New York that weekend.) And the essence-or even any details-of the tantalizing talk "Writing As A Career" appear to be lost forever, along with the rest of this minor occasion only partly rescued from oblivion here.


Poet Stephen Sandy is a Professor of Literature at Bennington College.

Auden at the League of American Writers in New York

In autumn 1939, while I was his secretary, Auden invited me to attend a conference of the League of American Writers. I eagerly accepted. The event took place in an auditorium of the building on West 52nd Street where, in April, he had read with Isherwood. This was where Chester Kallman and I had met them for the first time. Not yet entirely estranged from the Leftist cause, I looked forward to meeting the Marxist writers who had influenced students and intellectuals during the Depression. I was also excited because I would be alone with Wystan. Chester, whose interest in politics was non-existent, had refused the invitation.

We took the subway from Brooklyn and arrived at the meeting hall, where crowds of middle-aged and older writers milled around in the lobby. At thirty-two Auden was younger than most, and I, who had just turned twenty-three, was by far the youngest there. Rather awed by the presence of so many literary elders, I was also aware that Auden, indisputably the only Big Name, was recognized. Yet he was utterly ignored. Nobody approached him except a short-haired, dumpy woman with grey bangs and low heels who stomped over, questioned him curtly about his work, then left abruptly. Why were they so hostile, I wondered? As we entered the auditorium and searched for seats among hundreds of jabbering writers, heads turned and again we were met by dour glances. I began to feel quarantined and Wystan looked tense.

Though I was thrilled to be his companion, soon my feelings turned to dismay and disgust for the Party hacks. Several writers on-stage began the proceedings, which were so dull and protracted that I suffered an attack of terminal boredom. On top of that, they all argued heatedly with one another. What the subjects of these arguments were I can't say, for I was in a comatose condition, but it was mostly hair-splitting and nit-picking on what was or wasn't permitted in writing. Auden sat frozen stiff with annoyance.

What remains vividly from that awful scene was the intensity of the wrangling that gained in volume for the better part of three or more hours. Writers rose and hogged the floor, haranguing the assembly with deafening speeches. They did not sound peace-loving or utopian to me, which was my chief expectation from revolutionary idealists. The men, who far outnumbered the women, hacked the air, bellowed slogans and platitudes, and stiffly extended one arm in a clenched fist in the manner of Bolshevik posters of the twenties. Everything was stylized: Eisenstein film postures, political cliches, and rhetoric. A tall man seated beside Wystan stood up and clutched the back of the seat in front of him with one hand so hard that the whites of his knuckles showed; with the other hand he punched the air, ranting and raving for twenty minutes in a booming voice.

"Does he think he's Mayakovsky?" I whispered. Auden shushed me, but I couldn't conceal my contempt. These literary commissars enforced strict censorship based on a rigid political agenda. All writing must deal with the "class struggle" as defined by "dialectical materialist philosophy"-i. e., they must follow the correct party line. When they condemned a literary effort they uttered the death-sentence, a short, guillotine-like phrase: "no social significance." If it wasn't Marxist it lacked literary merit. If you weren't politically correct you were dead.

One regimented idiot shrilly condemned John Keats as a "worthless ivory-tower poet" and nobody laughed. Auden and I rolled our eyes in dismay. The only major writer there, he was shunned, but now I understood why. Like me he was not a card-carrying member. They were both suspicious and envious of him. In any case he must have had some prior misgivings about the conference-when he invited me he had warned, "Don't expect it to be fun." An understatement indeed-it was funereal. We were witnessing the burial of literature.

Auden attended the conference, I believe, because he needed to network, to make connections for earning a living by writing articles and reviews and giving readings. He had no other means of support, except teaching, and very little money at the time, having only recently left England.

Many years later I realized how homophobic the communists were. That was the other, perhaps the biggest, reason why they snubbed him. His fame precluded any doubt about his sexual orientation, and our appearance together clinched it. I looked ridiculously young, about eighteen or less. This hatred of homosexuality they shared with their foes, the fanatical Nazis and religious crazies of the extreme Right. How did they actually differ from them? They, too, showed no tolerance for "deviant" behavior, social or sexual. Anything of which they disapproved was labelled deviant or decadent.

As we left the Writers' Conference Wystan said glumly, "What's wrong with them is their rhetoric and bombast. Party Line stuff. This, I'm afraid, doesn't make good fiction or poetry. Or communication, for that matter."

"The correct Party Line is inhuman," I said. "Their cure for society kills the individual. They lack humanity."

"Quite," said Wystan, his face lighting up with that bright, eager look he had when approving something you said. "Then you're not a fellow-traveler, Harold?"

"God, no!" I exclaimed. "At college I thought the revolution would bring free love and human rights, but I've since learned otherwise. This only proves it."

Chester, who always talked about me to Wystan, must have told him of my college flirtation with the Left. This was probably one reason why, besides not wanting to go alone, Wystan had invited me to the conference. The Depression had left its scars on my childhood and there was tremendous peer pressure in my teens to join "the Movement." In the thirties it was hard to find a student or intellectual who had not succumbed to it.

"Well, what have you put in its place?" asked Wystan, looking at me expectantly, like a professor during a quiz. "What's your political position?"

"I have none," I said. "I'm a homeless radical."

Shortly afterwards I read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, a profoundly influential work. The choice, said Koestler, was unavoidable: it was between the Yogi and the Commissar. Yet at the time the Yogi, to most intellectuals, seemed incongruous and absurd.

"Yeah, huh!" grunted Wystan as we walked to the subway. "Well, join the club," he murmured with an audible sigh. I had given the right answer.

I didn't know then that he was leaning towards the Yogi by way of returning to the Episcopalian (High Anglican) Church. I spoke of the communist culture, the worship of Russian films, for example, with their version of the Eternal Triangle: a man, a woman, and a tractor.

"Where does that leave us?" I said. "I mean homosexuals? They won't tolerate the Homintern-the Homosexual International."

"That's a marvelous portmanteau word, Harold," he said. "Very clever. Did you coin it?" I nodded.

"Chester often quotes your witticisms," he said.

I was pleased but didn't know that Wystan would use my "witticisms" in his writings. They are now regarded as Audenisms, though "Homintern" and "hideola" are mine.

We continued discussing the inhumanity of the communist line. I said, "Intimacy is counter-revolutionary, like independent thought."

"Yes, they've sacrificed both in favor of conformism and obedience to dogma. They want monolithic thought and action rather than the position of the writer as independent observer. You can't have both, you know."

" `Perfection of the life, or of the work'," I said, quoting Yeats' poem. "But what about Brecht? How does he manage both? His communism is an integral part of his work."

"Yes, but his writing demands his greatest devotion. What's left goes to the Party. He'd chuck the Party in a minute if it interfered with his work. He would never give up his colossal ego, even for the Party."

"Didn't Isherwood say that a writer must have a colossal ego?" I asked.

"Yes, but I think Christopher meant it in a very specific context. For instance, E. M. Forster, who is a friend of ours, has a very inconspicuous ego. I think Christopher meant that to survive, as a writer, you must have an ego that can weather hostile criticisms, neglect, and opposition, not to mention competitive rivalry and envy."

Returning to Brecht I said, "But in Brecht's writing he does follow the Party Line."

"He is an exception," said Wystan. "Genius is above the law. In his case, and in his society, the combination works somehow. It's more conceivable, given the background of Germany and its recent history, than in English or American society. In Germany the male ego as an authority figure is monstrously developed, so that even the bus-driver or janitor is a lord in his own hovel."

After a thoughtful pause he added, "In any case, Harold, genius makes it own laws."

The experience at the Writers' Conference turned me from communism forever. As for Auden, it may also have proven to be the decisive factor in determining his return to religion and abandonment of leftist politics, a step he had already begun to consider at that time.


© 1993 by Harold Norse

An autobiographical article by Harold Norse, in the Fall 1993 encyclopedia of the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (Gale Research), features excerpts from unpublished letters to him from Auden in the '30s and '40s.

Recollections of Auden in Austria

During the summers of 1970-72 I met Auden quite often in Austria. Many years earlier I had taken full term courses and workshops with him in New York, in 1946 at the New School for Social Research and again in 1955 at the Poetry Center. There had been some classroom conversations and we had some mutual acquaintances but I had never met him privately outside the classroom situation.

In 1969 my eyesight failed. Family relatives in Europe arranged for me to spend the following summer in a vacation home for the blind near Vienna. A few weeks after my arrival I heard on the Austrian radio an interview with Auden in which he mentioned that he lived in Kirchstetten at the edge of the Vienna Forest. I too lived in that neighbourhood and, upon inquiry, found out that Kirchstetten was about ten minutes away by car. As I felt rather lonely in my unfamiliar surroundings I decided to write to him. He replied immediately, telling me he was going to England for a few days and would visit me after his return. So he did. Afterwards he came to see me quite regularly about once a week or invited me for lunch at his home in Kirchstetten during this and the two following summers.

He soon realised that he did not have to conform to some legend or image I had of him but could talk in whatever way he wished without constraint. He never became chatty; everything he said was carefully thought through and worded. Our talks ranged over a wide area, often changing abruptly from one subject to another. I knew there were topics he would never mention to me and I carefully respected these limits.

I noticed that he sometimes had slight breathing difficulties when he talked for a longer period. We therefore tended to exchange brief remarks, often almost aphorisms, which sometimes developed into a kind of verbal table-tennis which he seemed to enjoy. His conversation was agile and precise, laced with a fine sense of humor. He still felt very intensely about many problems and events. Even his contradictions and sometimes unpredictable moods had a stimulating effect. An intellectual power emanated from him, a transfusion of energy that helped me greatly at this time in my life.

I sometimes asked him about his health. In 1970 he told me that he felt all right but that he needed a lot of sleep. At this time I found it difficult to keep up with him when we walked together and, when he gave me his hand to guide me, his grip was very firm. In 1972, however, he told me that during the last winter his lecture tours in the States had sometimes been a strain. On one occasion he had been flying from Canada to Philadelphia when the plane was diverted by a blizzard and had to land at Harrisburg. He was driven to Philadelphia and felt exhausted when he arrived, just in time for the reading. Yet he told me he was planning another lecture tour in the States for the 1973-74 season. After his death I found out from the obituary printed in the Southern Review that a poetry reading had already been arranged at the University of Louisiana.

I think it was in 1971 that Auden had given a poetry reading in a large auditorium in London. When he came back I asked him if he would recite a couple of poems for me, as I was aware that he usually knew them by heart. To my surprise he did not speak in a low voice, as he usually did when quoting from a poem, but full strength as if for a large audience, although I sat only a few feet away from him in a relatively small room. It was not so much the volume of the sound that impressed me as the intensity with which the words seemed to flow from some source deep inside him. I had the odd feeling of being in the presence of the sheer power of English poetry. I knew he would not like any direct comment so when he stopped at last I asked him what meter he had used for these poems. He explained to me that one was an ancient Greek meter and the other syllabics. Form, in particular meter, was extremely important to him. He sometimes tentatively called himself a formalist or a neoclassicist. During this period he was particularly interested in Welsh poetic forms and tried to adapt these for his purposes. He intended to continue this work on Welsh meter after his return to England. In 1972 he still spoke of poems he would no longer write and poems he was not yet ready to write. Once he mentioned to me that he might consider writing a longer poem again, something along the lines of Wordsworth's Prelude. He never mentioned to me his translations of Pår Lagerkvist's Evening Land, which he must have been working on at the time but which he did not complete. The book did not come out until some years after his death, when I admired the beauty of the language.

Auden was quite aware that the move from the cosmopolitan world of New York to the very English atmosphere of Oxford would not be easy on him. He felt that he was a citizen of the world and yet, when he once mentioned to me the title of C. Day-Lewis's last collection of poems, The Whispering Roots, he said the words with the intonation he reserved for something which had a very private meaning to him.

When I was invited for lunch at Kirchstetten, which happened twice each summer, Auden picked me up at the Home. During the trip we usually kept up a light conversation and I felt perfectly safe with him as a driver. In 1972 he told me that his housekeeper had obtained her driving license and could now do the shopping for them and also take him to Vienna or the airport, sparing him the effort of the long drive on the crowded highways.

The first time I visited him at Kirchstetten other guests had been present. In the second and third year I was alone with him and Chester, which I preferred. In 1970 there had been a slight tension between Kallman and me, perhaps because of my German background. The next year I told Auden that I would like to know Kallman in his own right and not only as someone connected with him. He seemed to be pleased and soon a routine developed. After we arrived at Kirchstetten, Auden and I had drinks in the garden or, if it rained, at a small table in the dining room, while Kallman prepared the meal and set the table. Then we had lunch. Afterwards Auden cleared the table and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen while Kallman and I talked together. Kallman was a rather good conversationalist. When Auden returned we all went into the garden or remained at the dining table until it was time for me to leave and Auden brought me home. Sometimes when all three of us were present I would say something to which I expected a rejoinder from Auden but Kallman replied, as if he were answering for both of them, while Auden remained silent.

Auden told me that he did not listen to the radio or watch television but he seemed well-informed. Events could stir him deeply-with anguish, with apprehension and occasionally with pleasure. It seemed to me that one of his strongest points was that he could feel so intensely about many questions and events in the fields of religion, politics, literature and, above all, human relations. His reactions did not always point in the same direction but he was aware of his contradictions and saw in them one of the sources of his art.


Two book of poems by Emma Kann, Zeitwechsel and Im Anblick des Anderen, were recently published in Germany.

Notes and Queries

Auden and Lenin?

In a review of Look, Stranger! in the January 1937 Criterion, Janet Adam Smith loftily forecast "a Ph.D. waiting for the industrious student who in fifty years' time grubs up Auden's sources, tracking certain of his phrases back to Irving's `Romance of Mountaineering,' ... and the works of Lenin."2

Her mention of Lenin alludes to "Our Hunting Fathers," the poem often said to contain Auden's most inspired and prominent borrowing from the Russian revolutionary. The last two lines of that lyric suggest that in its latest stage, the ambition of the evolutionary urge of Love is to sink itself into human ligaments and "To hunger, work illegally, | And be anonymous".3 "Our Hunting Fathers" was probably composed in May 1934; Auden used the phrase in a different sense and in a slightly different form in a review of B. H. Liddell Hart's T. E. Lawrence that he wrote at around the same time: "The self must first learn to be indifferent; as Lenin said, `To go hungry, work illegally and be anonymous.'"4

Slightly more than fifty years after Ms. Adam Smith's overly-optimistic review, I can report that, despite Auden's attribution (and the universal assumption by scholars that the phrase must be lying hidden in some uninspected corner of Lenin's works), the words, or words to that effect, are not Lenin's at all. They were written by his wife Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, and they come originally from her account on page 129 of Volume 1 of her Memories of Lenin (London, 1930) of Lenin's meeting in Geneva in 1905 with the worker-priest Father George Gapon.

Timing strongly suggests that Auden read Kruspkaya's praise of Lenin's disciplined submission to the status of exile and outlaw in the English Marxist Ralph Fox's triumphalist Lenin: A Biography (London, 1933). The book was published by Victor Gollancz in August 1933 just a few months before Auden wrote his poem. On page 123, Fox quotes Kruspkaya on:

the weaknesses of Gapon, his essential difference from those who were eventually to destroy the Tsar. "To live illegally, to go hungry, and remain totally anonymous, was quite different from speaking at crowded meetings without any risk at all...."

If I am right about the date when Auden came across Krupskaya's phrase, it may also be worth noting that this would be the second instance within a relatively short period of Auden seizing on the words of a widow about her heroic spouse. In July 1933, reviewing Lady Clifton's book about her explorer-husband Talbot Clifton (a prototypical "hunting father"?), Auden had exalted the redemptive powers of love. A year or so later in "Our Hunting Fathers," a poem that reassumes for a moment the cryptic, monitory style of Auden's earliest writing, the contemporary experience of love has been almost totally ironized. What remained a liberating source of creative possibility for Auden was the spell of unfading closeness between hero and elegist, husband and wife.


Private References in The Dog Beneath the Skin

The opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin declares that the precise location of Pressan Ambo is left to the audience's choice:

We would show you first an English village: You shall choose its location
Wherever your heart directs you most longingly to look.

However, close examination of the 1933 Ordnance Survey map of the Alston area points to Edenhall, below Alston Moor in Cumbria. The chorus preceding Act II, Scene 2 provides a helpful clue, directing the knowledgeable reader's attention to the Alston-Penrith Road since Hartside and Twotop are hills which flank the summit of the road while Thack Moor and Muska Hill rise from the Eden Valley some six miles to the east of Edenhall.

The same 1933 map even shows a model for Honeypot Hall to the south of Edenhall village. While the Hall's owners have no direct relevance to the play, their family seat was originally Eden Hall, demolished in 1934-35, the years of the play's composition. Auden had already used the Alston area as the location of Paid on Both Sides and Edenhall is just off the direct route between Alston and the Auden family's holiday home at Threlkeld.

Meanwhile, for the story-line of the play, the search for Sir Francis Crewe, the missing heir, the location must move south to Marple in Cheshire, for the secret subject of the play is Isherwood's personal myth-his imagined search for his dead father, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Edward Bradshaw-Isherwood, probably but not certainly killed in action near Ypres on 8 or 9 May 1915. The Lieutenant-Colonel's body was never recovered; while he probably died in the course of an attack on the Germans, heavy British casualties necessitated withdrawal and the loss of previously held ground. The first news came in a War Office telegram which reported that Isherwood's father had been wounded on May 9th. He was not listed "killed in action" until four months later and this was on the not wholly conclusive evidence of his identity disc and belt having been handed to the Red Cross by a German prisoner. In the meantime, the North Cheshire Herald had printed several conflicting reports of sightings and on 26 June, they suggested that the missing hero might have been taken towards Germany in a captured ambulance. Alan Norman's discovery of Sorbo Lamb, drug-addicted and unable even to wish to return to England, may suggest a phantasy of the authors that, if the Lieutenant-Colonel had not been killed but very seriously wounded, the morphine needed for pain relief might have turned him into an amnesiac or drug-addict, needing to be searched for by his son in the Berlin of 1929-33. Of course, Isherwood's father was never his own father's heir, being a second son, but as his elder brother remained childless he would, in due course, had he lived, have succeeded his father, Sir John Bradshaw-Isherwood, under the entail.

Crewe, the other element of Sir Francis Crewe's name, may well be derived from the Cheshire railway town of the same name. However, in The Chase, Francis Crewe's father is named Sir Vauncey Crewe, a name that can be found in Burke's Peerage for the early years of this century. Sir Vauncey, the tenth and last baronet of the family, died in 1924, the same year as Isherwood's grandfather. The historic Sir Vauncey's principal seat was at Calke Abbey in South Derbyshire, close to the village of Repton with its Saxon church and the empty tomb of St Wystan. Both Isherwood and Edward Upward were sent to Repton School and Auden's father also knew the area and retired to live in the village.

The names Hotham and Luce, both of which first appear in Auden's unfinished 1933 poem "In the year of my youth ...", together provide good evidence of Auden's conscious participation in Isherwood's private myth. Isherwood's most famous forbear was John Bradshaw, the regicide, President of the Court which condemned Charles I to death. General Hotham has similar 17th century references. In The Dog Beneath the Skin he introduces himself with the lines:

This identifies him with the General Hotham who fought for the Protestant Bohemian Estates against the Imperial armies, some of whom were Spanish, in the first years of the Thirty Years War. After he returned to England he held Hull for the Parliamentarians but was later executed as a traitor on suspicion of divided loyalties.

The authors' hostility to the safely retired General Hotham can be connected to the not uncommon situation behind the unsuccessful action in which Isherwood's father died. Major Wylly's soberly written history of the regiment (published in 1930) reports that the attack was essentially a diversionary exercise, planned by those higher up the chain of command. Hence there was `little or no preliminary bombardment or covering fire' and five of the six officers directly involved were either killed in the action or died of wounds.

Luce is a very uncommon surname. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that Mildred Luce, the minor character who frenziedly urges Alan Norman to kill every German, is a caricature of Madge Reid (née Luce) who was the principal emotional support of Isherwood's mother in the months of anxious waiting between May and September 1915. However it should also be observed that Luce was the maiden name of Isherwood's grandmother. Indeed, a Sir William Luce is listed, with Isherwood himself, at Sir John Bradshaw-Isherwood's 1924 funeral.

As for the name of the hero, Alan Norman, Norman may be an oblique reference to Isherwood's close friend and confidant Edward Upward. Upward's unused middle name, Falaise, is that of the birthplace of William the Conqueror, founder of England's Norman dynasty. Alan meanwhile may be a tribute to the memory of the writer Allen Upward, who belonged to the authors' private martyrology as a delayed victim of the First World War, for he shot himself late in the night of Armistice Day 1924.


Norman Williams, formerly a bookseller, has engaged in research on several expatriate writers. As well as visiting Marple and Alston, he has travelled to Iceland and Cape Wrath.

Auden, Isherwood, and the Censors

Now available in the British Library's Manuscript Room are the readers' reports, internal memos and correspondence dealing with the Auden and Isherwood plays. The actual playtexts submitted for licensing are catalogued and available to Manuscript Room readers who put in a request in the usual way. However the reports and correspondence were not catalogued when I saw them and had to be requested separately in writing in advance. While I found no difficulty in gaining access to these items, the absence of cataloguing information and call numbers seemed appropriate for the papers of a department so long shrouded in secrecy.

In the 1930s there were strictly laid-down procedures for a theatre manager putting on a public performance of a new play. The management of the theatre had to submit a complete text of the play to the Lord Chamberlain's office. (This could be a published play-text since books were not subject to pre-censorship and could be banned only on grounds of obscenity, blasphemy or libel.) The Lord Chamberlain's office was empowered to ban a play, require amendments or lay down conditions about its staging on grounds of obscenity, blasphemy, depiction of living characters or political inappropriateness. There was no formal right of appeal but managers could and did enter into negotiations with the Lord Chamberlain's office. The only checks on the Lord Chamberlain lay with Parliament, which was unlikely to intervene, and the possibility of mockery in the media. The power the Lord Chamberlain's office wielded is hinted at in a note below the Reader's Report on The Dog Beneath the Skin dated 22 October 1935, which describes it as "An unnecessary play for public performance", as though it were up to the Censor's office to search for plays which it was necessary to perform!

In the second half of 1935 a number of members of the Lord Chamberlain's office were extremely worried by the works of Auden and Isherwood. In July the Westminster Theatre submitted the text of The Dance of Death which had previously received private, club performances. In 1934 The Dance of Death had been paired with the medieval play The Deluge (possibly unacceptable because of its treatment of a religious subject); now it was to be paired with T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. The reader, G. S. Street, was appalled by Auden's play; the opening line of his report describes it as "The most incomprehensible play I have had the misfortune to read", an opinion endorsed in a second hand at the foot of the report: "I agree this is a most incomprehensible play, but I suppose some people will say they understand it!"

The report on The Dance of Death does include a fairly typical assessment of the play for revolutionary and subversive elements-a theme to recur in later readers' reports. But the capacity of The Dance of Death to inspire revolution was seen as minimal:

It is fair to say that the Announcer describes the play as "a picture of the decline of a class" and so on, and that the Dancer is Death. But I decline to believe that I have lost my wits and therefore assert that no meaning arises from the text.

This makes clear the political agenda of the Lord Chamberlain's office, a theme that recurs in Street's report on The Dog Beneath the Skin. This warns: "Many people will object to the whole play as Communist propaganda but it cannot wisely be banned on that score...." But again incomprehensibility is seen to render this aspect of the play harmless: "probably most of the audience will take it simply as a joke, partly unintelligible." Street finds the satire as "difficult to follow in detail" as that of The Dance of Death. In obtaining a license for public performance, lack of precision was evidently a desirable quality. Nonetheless Street still looks for political offence, whether by representation of other countries or the presentation of subversive ideas. He was unable to find a precise identification for Ostnia. Despite this, at some point in production its European setting was amended to what was then regarded as a less contentious Middle Eastern one, complete with Sultan, Sultana, Grand Vizier, Head Eunuch (for Archbishop) and Janissary in Chief. Meanwhile the lunatic asylum scene in Westland was read as "an obvious attack on Germany" on which account, the reader suggested, "I should be inclined to ban the whole scene". The political stance of the authors was also investigated and found suspect; Street refers to the authors' "hatred of society" and later comments that "The underlying idea of Vicars and Generals etc oppressing the poor is out of date nonsense". Combined with this investigation of socio-political attitudes is a broader consideration of the play's supposed acceptability to the public, including issues of religion, sex and "bad language".

In the religious category there was not only an objection to "the parody of religious ritual in Latin before the executions" but even the comment, on the Vicar's sermon, that "there is too much about God, especially in the beginning." Predictably the words "bloody" and "Christ" had to go as did the line "Let the vicar lead the choirboy into a dark corner" while at this stage the Reader requested the omission of the Red Light district scene in its entirety. But the Censor was also concerned about the presentation of unpleasant scenes; Street felt that, in addition to its political problems, the lunatic asylum scene might be "too unpleasant" and commented that "The Ladies of the Court admiring the corpses is a horrible incident". (Three months later, after much internal correspondence in the Lord Chamberlain's department and negotiation with the Group Theatre, it was decided that this scene could stand because it was "merely a matter of exceedingly bad taste".)

Auden's role as co-author of the play gave the Lord Chamberlain's office additional problems. Had The Dog Beneath the Skin been by an unknown playwright it would probably have been banned in its entirety but Auden already had a considerable reputation. In the circumstances, although it was hoped that a long list of cuts would discourage performance, actual banning was seen as problematic. A report was therefore sought from Lord David Cecil, who was able to report on Auden's status as well as questions of literary merit. Cecil opposed outright banning, explaining:

Mr Auden is one of the most considered of our younger authors-and though personally I do not care much for his work, I think it original, sincere and talented, intended neither to shock or to court notoriety but genuinely to express his literary and other views. Nor is he an eccentric, not taken seriously: he has a large party of admirers among reputable and sober critics.

Cecil seems to be suggesting that intention should be treated as a factor-that a play which shocks from sincere motives need not be banned. Even originality becomes a criterion. However the most important factor is evidently that the playwright is "taken seriously" by "reputable and sober critics". Cecil's judgement makes comparison with George Bernard Shaw's Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, one of several plays previously referred to Cecil for a further opinion.

But while Cecil defends Auden as a serious writer-and Isherwood's contribution and status are not mentioned here or elsewhere-he also addresses the question of the social and political effect of the play. He held that what he called its "conventionalised" (presumably stylised) presentation would detract from any dangerous impact, explaining that the play "cannot possibly have a demoralising effect, any more than a modernist ballet". In addition, like the earlier readers, he cited its incomprehensibility to the general public as a factor in permitting its performance-"I should think that none but a very `high-brow' audience could make head or tail of it". Presumably only "low-brow" or working-class audiences who were either in need of protection, or, in the political climate of the 1930s, thought to present a danger to the state. Cecil was concerned both with public morals and with politics as his comments reveal. He suggested:

Any bedroom farce has more contact with reality and therefore-if its tone is bad-is more capable of stimulating unwholesome realism.

But still he recommended that the Red Light District scene "had better go". And while he was "less sure of" the scene in the lunatic asylum, since "The lord Chamberlain is a much better judge than I, as to how far a satire on Nazism is politically to be discouraged", he thought that if there was any question about this it would be "perhaps better to leave it out". He concluded with the prediction: "I cant imagine such a play having much success", a comment which may have helped it obtain a license.

At this point, almost all the first half of the play appeared to be in danger; of the Ostnian scenes only a brief interview with the King was not under threat of banning, while the long Westland lunatic asylum scene seemed likely to be cut. This would have left a play which moved straight from Pressan Ambo to Paradise Park; criticism of individual self-indulgence would be permitted on the quest but criticism of the state would be left to the opening and closing scenes in the English village. However the license actually offered by the Lord Chamberlain's office was on rather less restrictive terms. The list called for seven amendments: the Vicar's sermons still had to be altered "to eliminate so many mentions of the deity", the vicar and choirboy line had to go, as did one use of "bloody" and the word "Christ" in the operation scene, while the parody of religious ritual in Latin also had to be cut in the execution scene. The scene in which the ladies of the court admired the corpses still had to be omitted, as did the scene in the Red Light District but the lunatic asylum scene was now to be permitted, "subject to a strong condition about the behaviour of the lunatics and the dress of the one described as `naked except for a bath towel'".

Meanwhile The Dog Beneath the Skin was being amended in rehearsal and every amendment had to be cleared with the Lord Chamberlain's office. Rupert Doone's contact was Major C. Gordon who passed the amendments back to G. S. Street. These amendments included substantial cuts to the Red Light District scene but these still did not satisfy Street. He commented that the new material (presumably the revised ending) was "full of Communist propaganda" but added "I think it need not be censored". At the same time as offering these amendments, Doone had invited a representative of the Lord Chamberlain's office to a private, Sunday performance of the play which was not subject to the Lord Chamberlain's control. This was presumably intended to reassure the Lord Chamberlain's office that the play need not be so heavily cut. A further member of the office, Mr H. C. Game, was asked to attend and did so on 12 January 1936.

Game was the first member of the office to enjoy the play, which he admitted in a slightly shame-faced manner: "I confess I liked this high-brow frolic. It has life and there is some good poetry in it." And he went on to describe the production of the play, which he said was "in the expressionist manner against the bare wall of the cyclorama, or a curtain, as a background and with as few and simple properties as possible." Considering the effectiveness of the play, Game particularly praised the execution scene and that set in the Red Light District, commenting that "The Queen's speech to the widows came over as the most bitter satire upon the relationship of those who govern to those who governed". However effectiveness was not always an aid to gaining a license. Game favoured allowing the inclusion of the scene with the ladies of the court admiring the dead revolutionaries on two grounds: firstly that its satiric intention was obvious and secondly that the characters wore half masks, which gave the scene "an unreality which lessened any unpleasantness". The greatest dangers, to Game as to Cecil, seem to have been posed by realism. Game approved the heavily cut version of the Red Light District scene, but commented that the inclusion of a child tout "gave an atmosphere of corruption to the scene that nothing else did". Needless to say, the child tout had to be cut.

In private performance, the lunatic asylum scene still had overt political references, with masks of Hitler and Mussolini, Nazi salutes and a swastika flag. For public performance these clear identifications had to be cut. And Game raised a new objection-that the Surgeon's Creed might offend members of the Church of England; this too had to go. But at this point it seemed that a text approved for public performance had finally been achieved and on 21 January 1936 Ormerod Greenwood, for the Group Theatre, agreed what seemed to be the final list of cuts. However the death of George V initiated further cuts; for the public performances the two scenes at the Ostnian court were finally omitted.

The final item in the file on The Dog Beneath the Skin relates to a projected performance by Merseyside Left Theatre. This group had presumably received the list of agreed cuts since, in a note dated "16/12/39" they requested permission "In view of the present changed circumstances" to identify Westland with Germany. Four months into World War II this identification was permitted.

When The Ascent of F6 was submitted for license in early 1937, a new reader was given the task of reading Auden and Isherwood's plays-Geoffrey Dearmer, recently rediscovered as a First World War poet. In him Auden and Isherwood found a far more sympathetic voice. The Ascent of F6 was approved for license without any trouble, although Dearmer could not resist the comment that "Modern poetry seems to be passing through the adolescent stage of startling aphorisms and daring metaphors". On the Frontier, however, submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's office in the wake of the Munich crisis, proved a much more difficult case. Germany was, after Chamberlain's treaty, simultaneously threat and ally, and the Lord Chamberlain's office seems to have held the view that any implied criticism of Hitler might endanger "peace in our time". Dearmer was of the opinion the On The Frontier should be licensed; he described it as an "interesting poetic drama of conflict between the two ideologies" (presumably fascism and capitalist democracy) and "equally critical of both philosophies". However he insisted that "impersonations of living personages must be avoided" and called for a number of cuts which would discourage identification of Westland with Germany. On this occasion all the cuts required were on political grounds and Dearmer's report is annotated in red by another hand with required cuts endorsed. The concern that no offence be caused to Nazi Germany led the Lord Chamberlain's office into some absurdities; for example, Dearmer instructs "Description of the Leader to be made as unlike any living person as possible." Some references to Europe had to be cut as did the names of countries, including Russia, Spain, England, France and America. However a reference to Germany as "bankrupt" was allowed to stand since this would discourage identification of Westland with Germany. References to shock-troops were to be cut, as were all German-sounding names. Even quite innocuous-seeming passages, such as comments on the Leader's views on art, had to be cut, since they were "obviously suggested by Hitler's desire to be a super art-critic".

But while Dearmer's cuts may seem excessive now, there was obviously some possibility that the play would be banned in its entirety. Dearmer's initial report, dated 14 October 1938, enlists Mr Game in support of the licensing of the play, stating that he "is strongly of opinion that the play should be licensed". This is followed by a further document, evidently an internal memo, dated 18 October, in which Dearmer re-iterates, in stronger terms, his view that the play should be licensed. This memo would hardly have been necessary had there been no difficulties with the granting of the license. Dearmer supports the play on three grounds: its poetic merit, the even-handedness of its criticism of ideologies and-surprisingly in a censor's office-the desirability of free speech. Dearmer's memo concludes:

A play that pleaded the cause for the democratic countries as opposed to the totalitarian would certainly be permissible, indeed to ban such would be to remove the right of free speech altogether, but this is over and above the anti-fascist question and is, therefore, all the more deserving of a license.

Great care has been taken to create an impersonal leader, but it is impossible to draw such a character without his resembling one of the two known living examples because they are to some extent mere advocates of a philosophy, a philosophy which it is the right, and duty, of modern poets to attack.

To forbid this would be to subscribe to fascist ideology.

Dearmer's memorandum received an immediate response, dated the same day. Its signature is illegible but may be "MG". This reprimands Dearmer:

At such a time as this the best interests of the country are served by avoiding any necessary exasperation to the leaders of the German people-even if this entails a certain muzzling of contemporary playwrights.

And although the author accepts some of Dearmer's points, he concludes sternly:

I agree that the Totalitarian principle is one which is abhorrent to the normal Englishman but I disagree that it is the duty of modern Poets to attack this principle.

Nevertheless on 9 November 1938, On The Frontier was licensed for public performance, with cuts to disguise its political relevance. These even included the word "Leader". However readers of the Star newspaper were alerted to the amendments, as a cutting in the archive reveals. A few paragraphs heralding the play's Cambridge premiere, include this passage:

Mr Auden is the young poet who was awarded the King's Gold Medal for poetry, and Mr Isherwood almost as distinguished an Englishman. Their plays are therefore of national importance these days, and, it seems, international importance as well. This is the only possible reason why the Censor, who has altered scarcely anything else in this new play about dictators, has cut out the word "Leader".

English poets, as it happens, are ingenious.

Their Westland dictator will be called Guidanto. That is Esperanto for "Leader".

It was evidently possible to play tricks on the Lord Chamberlain's office. However the level of concern about the Auden and Isherwood plays and the detailed censorship they suffered is a salutary reminder of the conditions under which the plays were written and the limits imposed upon their performance.


Edward Mendelson writes: The transfer of the Lord Chamberlain's papers to the British Library makes it possible to clear up a minor but deliberate obscurity in the notes to the recent edition of the Auden-Isherwood Plays. When these papers were still in St. James's Palace they were not normally available to researchers. The Public Records Office held all the papers that had been in the Lord Chamberlain's hands at the time of the death of Victoria, but all later documents remained the private property of the Queen. When I was preparing the edition a few years ago, the Lord Chamberlain's Office let me examine the papers that concerned the Auden-Isherwood plays, but under these conditions: that I could quote from playscripts, letters, and other documents submitted by the Group Theatre to the Lord Chamberlain, because copies of these might have been retained by the Group and therefore be available elsewhere; but I could not report where I had found these, nor could I quote from readers' reports, internal memos, and other documents prepared solely for the Lord Chamberlain and his staff. The Office allowed this limited access solely because I represented Auden's Estate; an independent researcher had recently complained in the TLS that she had been refused permission to see papers concerning early productions of plays by Oscar Wilde. When I asked at the Office when the Lord Chamberlain's twentieth-century papers might become available to the public, I was told that it would probably not occur "before the next change of reign."


Not Really The Point

John Whitehead. A Commentary on the Poetry of W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

John Whitehead dismisses as "not really the point" Auden's comment in 1968 that:

Four poets of more or less the same age, from more or less the same social background, confronted by the same historical events, will exhibit certain responses in common, but it should have been obvious that what we happened to have in common was the least interesting thing about us.

He argues that these writers constitute a group because "not only did the four of them learn certain things from each other, but throughout the writing lives-as this study will time and again illustrate-they were also constantly aware of each other, both as personal friends and as literary rivals". Certainly, it is Roy Campbell's portmanteau jibe "MacSpaunday" which has stuck, though apparently Spender and Day Lewis at one time contemplated suing for libel. But for Whitehead it is actually the Thirties label which gets in the way of any attempt such as his own "to examine the poetry of these four poets in its totality." He lists a series of previous studies which in his opinion are fixated on the Thirties as "evidence of a collective hallucination that has for too long afflicted the critical scene", declaring that the term will hereafter be outlawed in his study. Had he written a little later, no doubt the excellent new study by Michael O'Neill and Gareth Reeves, Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry [reviewed below], would have been included in his list.

If "MacSpaunday" had any collective identity, however, it was what Whitehead dismissively calls the "pink decade" that did the collectivising. Geoffrey Grigson wrote in the Preface to his 1939 New Verse anthology of Spender as a "Rupert Brooke of the Depression" luckily rescued from the "superlative horrors of silliness" by the urgencies of the decade and the influence of Auden and MacNeice, to share in a poetry where "something actual has happened to the writers, something has been sensed, imagined, understood, and the poems present the commotion set up in that way." Though Grigson's anthology began with Day Lewis's period piece "The Conflict," the future laureate disappeared thereafter, and the Preface totally omitted to mention him. Reeves and O'Neill likewise see Day Lewis as a marginal, minor figure, sharing with the others little more than a contingent contemporaneity.

Like Whitehead, though, they start from some of the critical comments he, MacNeice and Spender made about each other and Auden in this period. For Whitehead this mutual admiration is primarily evidence that all four were "diligent promoters of each other's work" with "a common purpose," for whom Auden was by general agreement "the front runner". Reeves and O'Neill more interestingly pick out some salient aspects from the criticism to elucidate a shared "concern of the three poets with `voice', with mediating between possible styles of utterance and with discovering modes of address that sell neither writing nor living short," so that "issues of tone and mood are unusually important in a consideration of their work-and are often foregrounded by the poets themselves".

As his title indicates, Whitehead's sprucely-written account takes us on a Cook's tour year by year from 1925 to 1992 (a final section is called "Posthumous") of four briefly entwined careers which subsequently went their separate ways, interspersing biographical information about each of the writers with predominantly narrative, descriptive (and often prescriptive) accounts of their works. There are competent listings of metaphors, allusions and other stylistic devices, potted summaries of content and brisk, no-nonsense assessments which though often merely opinionated are always delivered with pontifical certitude.

As a "commentary" the book's model is that of the cricket match. Its narrative is all external: events, authors and texts succeed each other equably on the page (the chronologies and breakdowns in the various appendices are particularly useful) and its main strength lies in providing a parallel account, year in year out, of what each of these writers was concurrently up to. But it fails to use its chronological apparatus to bring alive the inner logic of historical moment as Hynes and Cunningham do in The Auden Generation or British Writers of the Thirties.

Whitehead is not good at annotating his sources. Other critics will be surprised, like me, to find their researches and insights transcribed without acknowledgement in an impersonal mode which might make them seem the author's own: "Local records have disclosed ..."; "several of its details ... being identifiable as local features". (This last draws on my own researches in Helensburgh without noting their brief provisional reporting in an LRB correspondence from which an aperçu of Craig Raine's is also culled unacknowledged.) Since the book's main value is as a quarry of chronologically-sifted information, such bad manners towards its sources is also unhelpful to its readers. The scrupulous annotation of a Mendelson or a Carpenter is the standard one would expect from this kind of study.

Whitehead's sources cannot however account for the idiosyncrasy of his snap judgments, from the oddest of all, "The Age of Anxiety, surely his masterpiece", through "the slapdash ragbag" of "The Orators", to the pronunciamento on New Year Letter, which "neither makes for easy reading nor ... ranks high as poetry; and since it is impossible to summarise its contents in a few paragraphs, nothing will be attempted here except to point out its highlights and to draw some general conclusions" (which in fact he does rather well). "Letter to Lord Byron" is dismissed with casual opinionation as "an overextended exercise in light verse, which for younger readers today requires, though perhaps does not deserve, an undergrowth of footnotes to explain its forest of topical references ... rambling, arch, conversational and often wearisome".

Whitehead is entitled to his opinions, which largely emulate Grigson's bluff iconoclasm without the wayward insight. But facts are sacred. The poem does not, as he claims, adopt "the stanza form of Don Juan ... ottava rima." Not only can he not count (it has a seven-line stanza); he also appears not to be able to read. The poem confides quite clearly that though "Ottava rima would, I know, be proper" its actual stanza-form is "rhyme-royal." But since younger readers today are authoritatively advised not to read it anyway, they'll never find out they've been misinformed.

The book is packed with information but for all the schoolmasterly authority with which it is delivered not all of it is accurate. Auden never "set off for Spain to join the International Brigade", for example; nor does he dismiss the expending of powers on pamphlet and meeting in "Spain"; he sees it (like murder) as a necessary evil. "Beside the Seaside, a film that was apparently never made", for which "Look, stranger..." was written, was shown on British television a couple of years ago. "September 1, 1939" may begin with an echo of "Easter 1916" (this point is not original), but not with an obvious parody of it, unless the meaning of the word has changed. Parody, however-self-parody possibly-characterises Whitehead's obiter dicta on what he will call "the rebel side during the `Troubles'", reviling the first Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, Michael Collins, as no more than an IRA terrorist, misspelling "Markiewicz", and attacking Day Lewis for "elevat[ing] such people to the status of homeric heroes". A similar Little Englandism underlies the jibe at the "provincialism" of "certain Belfast poets and critics" who "latched on to" MacNeice as "the harbinger of an Ulster poetic renaissance", and the dig at Dylan Thomas "whom the Welsh regard as a kind of regimental mascot".

Whitehead regularly invokes a normative "general reader" in need of care and protection, desirous of packaged opinions and snap judgments (which Whitehead is happy to supply). Spender for example in one poem "leaves the reader behind and finally loses him altogether"; it is "an allegory, but of what it is impossible to say"; in another poem he offers "an image that pictures nothing in the reader's mind"; in a third: "It is over-optimistic to present the reader with an unresolved chaos of words in the hope that he may be able to make something of it. With relief one turns to the two short poems ... that follow". That reader ("he") is really only a projection of the writer ("one"), in a cosy little hermeneutic circle where every received opinion circulates only to be received again with interest. Elsewhere we find MacNeice, after "confusing", finally "pleasing the reader with a shock of surprised recognition." If one is going to be shocked, it seems, it had better be into what we know already.

Auden's "Journey to Iceland", we are told, "though superficially arresting is less satisfactory on closer examination" (this sounds like a testy and testing John Patten). Its "opening prayer ... was probably not intended to mean what it says ... the awkward sentence "and the ports [instead of `poets'] have names for the sea" was due to Isherwood's misreading of Auden's handwriting which Auden decided to perpetuate .... The incongruity of its ending ... is due to the fact that these images were cannibalized, without regard to relevance." When "Obscurities intervene", our Tour Guide offers the reader a reassuring hand with a paraphrase of "the general drift ... that the traveller sets out hopefully" only to find "the worries of Europe inescapable".

When it comes to those subtleties of tone and mood Reeves and O'Neill address, Whitehead has the ear of a sergeant-major. Such lumbering paraphrases and tourist brochure resumes explain why, a page earlier, he had drawn a blank at the peculiar Auden magic of a line like "And the prams go rolling on": "If one could explain why that ... line instead of being ludicrous is strangely moving, one would understand more than is known about the poetic process in general and Auden's transfiguring talent in particular". Or at least, than is known about in "one"'s philosophies. Like Auden's (or Eliot's) traveller, Whitehead's Cook's tour of poetry shouldn't be starting from there. For as Auden wrote to a ghostly MacNeice, this "unpopular art":

And that, perhaps, is the point.


Stan Smith's essay "Persuasions to Rejoice: Auden's Oedipal Dialogues with W. B. Yeats" will appear in the forthcoming second volume of Auden Studies, W. H. Auden: "In Solitude, for Company": Uncollected Writings and Recent Criticism, edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins.

"The Language of Learning"-Auden and the Poetry of the Thirties

Michael O'Neill and Gareth Reeves. Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry. 242 pp. Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1992. Paperback: £9.99. ISBN 0-333-45118-X.

In many senses this is an impressive volume, which yields much valuable insight into the writings of the three poets during the era. Much of the text's clarity comes from the close-readings which form its base. These readings chart the development of the three poets, from early writings to works penned during the Spanish Civil War. Yet, as with many works dependent on close-reading, the text's chief strength, the exploration of the poems themselves, also constitutes its main flaw. This seems to be that while a close-reading of that poetry which might be termed political works well, the same technique applied to Auden's love poetry proves problematic. In the sections on The Orators, and on poetry by all three writers occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, O'Neill and Reeves write at their best, providing a commentary which is both illuminating and eminently readable. Indeed, poetry which arose from responses to a changing political situation is analysed fully, both in terms of what it attempted to say at the time and how it can be read with hindsight. Where the volume is less successful is in the aforementioned interpretation of Auden's love poetry.

As Greg Woods has pointed out (in "Absurd! Ridiculous! Disgusting!: Paradox in Poetry by Gay Men", Lesbian and Gay Writing, ed. Lilly (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1990), 175-98) the power of Auden's love poetry cannot be severed from the fact that it is homosexual love poetry-a fact implicitly denied by those who ignore or skirt Auden's homosexuality. While O'Neill and Reeves mention Auden's sexuality, they do not analyse a love poem such as "Lay your sleeping head, my love" in this context. While arguing that the poem is a major work, the text avoids exploring it as a gay love poem, by using terms which might appear to be "universal":

The poem may seem composed in the margin of Auden's historical concerns. But it earns its central place in Auden's poems of the decade by virtue of the skill with which it steadfastly affirms, even as it allows for the precariousness of, the unique, individual, particular and ephemeral.

This kind of comment offers no perspective on the gender of the poet and enables gay poetry to be read as if it functions in the same way as heterosexual poetry. The analysis of "Lay your sleeping head, my love" certainly bears out Woods's argument that such readings raise important questions about how gay poetry should be approached.

Another problem with this volume is that of a potential readership. Certain sections of the text, such as that on Auden's early poetry, work very well if one is familiar with the body of Auden's work. For a first year literature student, however, it might prove daunting, as knowledge of a work such as Paid on Both Sides is assumed. This text would be an ideal introduction to the poetry of the thirties were it not for this assumed knowledge. As it is, it might be best read by finalists and postgraduate students.

This criticism, however, should not detract from the immense strengths of the volume. Interesting and fresh comparisons between Auden and Laura Riding are drawn, which highlight links between Auden's work and that of a more neglected poet. Likewise, Spender's work is detached from Randall Jarrell's famous critique and both his poems and those of Louis MacNeice are given a fresh perspective. It is also valuable to look at the exploration of commitment in the text, both in a political and a personal context. Interestingly, the chapter on the Spanish Civil War which ends the volume is one of the best in the book, as it combines well-constructed political analysis with close-reading. It is to be regretted that this combination did not also form the analysis of Auden's love poetry.

Finally, what strikes the reader of this volume are similarities between the political tensions of the 1930s (such as unemployment, the rise of fascist groups in Europe, inner city poverty and crime) and the social problems of our own time. This is not to argue that the two periods can be regarded as the same but merely points out that many poems analysed in this text articulate cultural anxieties which are still present. An analysis such as O'Neill and Reeves provide seems, therefore, to be crucial.


Deborah Tyler-Bennett, a lecturer in English at Sheffield Hallam University, is just completing a doctoral thesis on Djuna Barnes.

Poetry in Motion

The British Documentary Movement: A seven volume videocassette collection of 20 British Documentaries, 1929-1951. Kino on Video: 333 West 39 Street, New York, NY 10018. Tel: (800) 562-3320; (212) 629-6880. $29.95 each, or $175 for the set + tax and shipping.

A generous selection of 20 films made by members of the British Documentary Movement has recently been released by Kino on Video. Kino's choice begins with John Grierson's early E. M. B. classics, Drifters (1929) and Industrial Britain (1933), and includes later, more sophisticated G. P. O. efforts like Cavalcanti's North Sea (1938); Humphrey Jennings's wartime London Can Take It (1940) and Target for Tonight (1941); the Desert Victory (1943) combat documentary; and, as a post-War coda, Jennings's Family Portrait (1951). The quality of the soundtrack on the cassettes that I watched was often impenetrably murky (for some reason especially during sequences when "real-life" workers were being allowed a voice), though this is doubtless due in large part to the deficiencies of the original recordings. But, grainy and slurred as they may be, it is good to have these historically-significant films dredged from the archival silt and made available in an easily accessible anthology.

Audenites will be most interested by "Benjamin Britten," volume III of the series, which includes Auden and Britten's two most famous contributions to the G. P. O. Film Unit: Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). (The cassette is rounded out with Britten and Muir Matheson's Instruments of the Orchestra (1947) and Steps of the Ballet (1948).) Night Mail in particular is an ambitious and intermittently successful film. Its early sections are aurally pontifical, but filled with interestingly stylized mail-bag-against-drifting-cloud art-shots and sly socio-archaeological vignettes of antelope-horn telephones and puddles of slopped railway tea, as well as some very Audenesque slag-heaps, moors and fuming Midlands factories. (Indeed columns of smoke and soot being poured into the air are an inescapable motif in these films, made in a sfumato age when, as the Coal Face commentary points out, one in every five workers was employed in a colliery. In Night Mail a steam-driven locomotive drags wagons filled with lighted cigarettes through an avenue of billowing chimneys.)

Yet, although Grierson had collected together such an abundance of talented artists from different mediums for his Film Unit, neither Coal Face and Night Mail is anything approaching the syndicalist Gesamtkunstwerk of pious daydream. In fact, it is striking how the various visual and auditory elements often seem to be undercutting one another in ways that are typical of the thirties aesthetic of juxtaposition and disruption, an instance of the use of "ironic antidote[s]" that Auden advocated in his 1938 Sorbonne lecture on drama. The best illustration is perhaps the patched-in feel of both of Auden's own contributions-literally the case with Night Mail, in which the poem was added only when the original version of the film was deemed too dry and factual. (There is nothing really "documentary" about Auden's poems in either Coal Face or Night Mail; and his lyrical, idiosyncratic words seem at odds too with the official and sonorously didactic tone maintained elsewhere by the Film Unit.) When, at the end of Night Mail, the collecting and sorting over, Auden's magnificent poem suddenly starts up, like a train bursting from a tunnel, its power threatens to drown out most of what has come before, rather as the choruses in The Dog Beneath the Skin constantly disrupt the dramatic picaresque momentum of the play. (Watt had to cut some passages from Auden's poem for Night Mail, because, amazingly for the cinema, there were sections where he rightly felt that no image could compete with Auden's words.)

In retrospect, the awkwardness of the fit between Auden's poems and the ethos of documentary film paradoxically emphasizes how Auden found ways of integrating the flow of public commissions into the private, inner dynamic of his evolving ideas. As the inclusive catholicity of the letters on the postal express hints, Night Mail heralds a new stage in Auden's thinking about models for his poetry. For a few years, in a transitional period between his early oral and later written ideals, his archetype was the letter.

N. J.


Memorial Tablet for Auden in Christ Church Cathedral

When in Oxford during his later years, Wystan Auden regularly attended the traditional 8 o'clock Communion service on Sunday mornings in the Cathedral. By kind consent of the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, a stone tablet commemorating him is to be set in the floor of the Military Chapel where this service is held, and the 8 a.m. service on the Sunday (19th September) before the 20th anniversary of his death will be specifically intended to mark this commemoration. The memorial stone is being funded by contributions from friends and admirers of Auden, and I would still be glad to hear from anyone who may still wish to be associated with this project. In the event of the cost being more than covered, any surplus will be donated to the Auden Society.


Christ Church, Oxford OX1 1DP

The Auden Plaque for One Montague Terrace, Brooklyn

I must sincerely thank all the members of the Society who have donated money for a plaque commemorating Auden's residence at One Montague Terrace, Brooklyn, his home from October 1939 to September 1940. Their generosity means that the Auden Society now has sufficient funds to pay for the (slightly higher than forecast) cost of its share of the plaque. Discussions with the building's owner have reached an advanced stage and everyone who contributed will soon be contacted by letter for their advice about the plaque's wording. All Society members are invited to attend an official unveiling next spring. Full details will be given in the next Newsletter.

N. J.

Recent Publication of Interest

W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings by W. H. Auden 1939-1973, edited by Edward Mendelson (1993). 758 pp. Princeton University Press, $49.50. ISBN 0-691-03301-3. (This is the second volume to appear of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. The book, to be reviewed in the next Newsletter, will be published in the U. K. by Faber in December 1993: ISBN 0-571-16341-6.)

Membership and Subscriptions

The W. H. Auden Society welcomes new members. Annual subscriptions are as follows:

New members and members wishing to renew subscriptions should send cheques (payable to The W. H. Auden Society) to Katherine Bucknell, 78 Clarendon Road, London W11 2HW, England. Receipts on request.

From the Editors

The Editors apologize for the late appearance of this Newsletter. The next number is scheduled to appear in January 1994. We would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters. All contributions may be subject to editing.

U. S. Editor: Nicholas Jenkins, 193 Prospect Place, Apt 4, Brooklyn, NY 11238.

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

The U. K. edition of the Newsletter has been produced with financial assistance from de Montfort University, Leicester.

Quotations from Auden's unpublished writings are copyright 1993 by The Estate of W. H. Auden.

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

1 Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography, p. 253. Other references to Carpenter are noted in the text. Kallman's letter is quoted by kind permission of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations). In writing this article, I am indebted to many: in the first instance to Nicholas Jenkins and Edward Mendelson. I am especially grateful to the Bennington students present on that day, in particular for the splendid thoughtfulness of Vida Ginsberg Deming, Faith Jackson, Phyllis Wright Turner, Hoima Forbes Chereau, Barbara Livingston, Dorothy Cousins, and Betty Mills Brown. I also want to thank Ben Belitt, Margaret DeGray, and Wallace Fowlie; Susan Sgorbati, Dean of Faculty at Bennington; and above all Tom and Kit Foster and Rebecca Stickney, Bennington resources and guiding lights.

2 Quoted in John Haffenden, ed., W. H. Auden: The Critical Heritage, p. 231.

3 Collected Poems (1991), p. 122.

4 The English Auden, p. 321.