Sunday, 25 May 2014

W H Auden: 1907-1973 Part 2

I've been trawling through the archives at the library again, and in particular for Sundays, "The Pilot" which was the monthly magazine for the Church of England in Jersey for many years. Every month, there would be pieces from the minister of each church, along with various other articles of interest.
In 1995, the Reverend Tony Keogh began a series of articles in "The Pilot" under the umbrella title "God and the Poets", and here is the part of his three part series on W.H. Auden. I thought it was a shame that it should be buried in the past, so I've transcribed it for my blog.
God and the Poets: W H Auden: 1907-1973 Part 2
By Tony Keogh
Wystan Hugh Auden was born at York on 21st February 1907, the third son of a physician who was also a classicist and an antiquarian. His mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell, was the more powerful influence of his parents and long after her death in 1941, he would judge his actions and sentiments by whether or not they would have met with her approval. She was a devout Anglo-Catholic.
The Audens were of Icelandic descent and the sagas on which he was brought up greatly influenced all his writings. The name "Wystan" was of a Mercian prince, murdered in 849 after objecting to the marriage of his widowed mother to his uncle, contrary, to Canon law; Auden thought it very Hamlet-like. It was given to him partly because Auden's father had been educated at Repton where the parish church is dedicated to St Wystan.
The family moved to Birmingham when Wystan was a year old as his father was .appointed the Schools Medical Officer. After wartime service with the RAMC in some of the most dangerous theatres: of war, Dr Auden became part-time Professor of Public Health at Birmingham University.
Although Wystan spent five years at St Edmund's School, Hindhead, where he: first met his' lifelong friend Christopher Isherwood, he was never an English "southerner." The midlands and the north spoke to him much more than the trimmed lawns and leafy suburbs. The industrial devastation and the disused mines and. factories came to possess his imagination. As he wrote in a poem of the 1930s, "Letter to Lord Byron":
"Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has stamped on.
The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton"
Limestone, .not chalk, was his landscape the Pennines, not the Downs his spiritual home. The poem, "In Praise of Limestone," written in 1948, his own favourite is, in some sense, a personal testimony: The landscape moves him as he gazes on it, but also because it symbolises his own temperament, inconstant: limestone dissolves in water and is secretive with its underground: streams and caves. The poem recalls that statues and fountains are made out of limestone rock, which reminds him that:
"The blessed will not care what angle
they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. "
Yet he ends, immediately after, with the supreme gift that limestone has bestowed on-`him:
"Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless
Or the life to come, what I hear is the
murmur of underground streams, what I see
is a limestone landscape."
At thirteen, Auden went to Gresham's School at Holt in Norfolk. He was confirmed in 1920 and went through a period of Anglo-Catholic enthusiasm which, at Gresham's, he came to suspect as arising from "quite straightforward and unredeemed eroticism." Gresham's religion was "nothing but a vague: uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda: water," while most who attended the Anglo-Catholic church in which his family worshipped at home seemed to him in some way handicapped, loving God because no-one else would love them. Christian images began to repel him when they did not seem risible. Yet he continued to go to church and loved .singing hymns as he did for the rest of his life. He left school, so he said, "a. confirmed anarchist individualist."
He began writing poetry whilst at school and his vocation suddenly dawned on him when a friend asked him what he did. He went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Natural Sciences but changed to English.
He had a famous conversation with the English don, Neville Coghill, the memory of which appalled him later:
"And what' are you going to do, Mr Auden, when you leave University?"
"I am going to be a poet."
"Well, in ... in that case you should find it very useful to have .read English."
(After a silence) "You don't understand, I am going to be a great poet.
Next month: W H.Auden's early career, the Spanish Civil War and his road back to Christianity.

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