Auden wrote an astonishing number of early poems - around 200 by the time he published his first collection at 21. Katherine Bucknell has dredged various archives to retrieve this apprentice work, in the conviction that Auden is a great poet and that anything written by him, even before he was a great poet, is worth attention. This volume is the result of her fishing: a pondful of tadpoles, with a few fat frogs at the end.
What's striking is that so many before her had the same reverent attitude to Auden and the same retentive instinct. A S T Fisher, a contemporary at Oxford, started collecting his manuscripts when Auden was only 20. Christopher Isherwood saved the poems Auden began showing him at 18. Auden's mother kept work going back even earlier, and dutifully handed it over to posterity, or a trusty librarian, when her son was 33. The devotion of others kept Auden productive: out it all came. With friends like these, who needs enemas?
'California', the first poem in the book, explains what the fuss was about while also highlighting the problems the editor has had to face:
The twinkling lamps stream up the hill
Past the farm and past the mill
Right at the top of the road one sees
A round moon like a Stilton cheese.
If the date given by Fisher is correct, Auden wrote this at 15. But as Bucknell points out, it seems technically too accomplished. If not, the poems that postdate it are a regression: an effusion on Everest ('O triumph of the Moulder's hand]'), a whimsy on belief ('We do not know / If there be fairies now / Or no'), bags of poeticism, suitcases of Victorian linguistic clobber: thy and lo, ere and hereafter, hast and lest, ope and e'en and beauteous, handfuls of dost.
It isn't that Auden doesn't know what he's doing but that he doesn't know when he's doing it. One moment he can produce a marvellously grown-up line, the next it's back to gurgling brooks, merry old suns and 'O come to the fair'. Even when he is metrically accomplished, the note can be false, as in a jaunty reference to 'Isobel, who with her leaping breasts / Pursued me through a Summer'. No chance, Isobel . . .
You toil exasperatedly through such poems, and then you look at the date and realise Auden is still only 17; he must have written them between the tuck shop and learning to use a razor. By the time he's at Oxford, the familiar landmarks of his Thirties England begin to peer through the mist: a gasworks, a mail-train, young men in a Lyons Tea House, lead mines and quarries, a third-class railway station waiting-room, a charabanc full of day-trippers. Audenesque emblems recur, notably birds of prey: he keeps coming back to an image of a frozen buzzard, here 'caught upon the mill-hatch', there 'flipped down the weir'. His lodestone is limestone - the Yorkshire Dales, and 'the bleak philosophy of Northern ridges'. But much of what's here is 'nature poetry', written in imitation of Wordsworth, Hardy, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, and even when it is beautifully done - as in 'The furrow behind looking like a rope / That lowered the plough slowly down the hill' - there's a second-hand quality to it.
Among the poets whom the young Auden imitated and, as Katherine Bucknell puts it, in effect became, Eliot was the most important, teaching him to be tougher, more clinical, modern. But in the short term, Eliot made Auden pretentious, sub-Waste Land, sub-Sweeney: 'The bulb pillow / Raising the skull / Thrusting a crocus through clenched teeth.' Slowly, Isherwood helped expel the poison, and though Eliot's influence is still there in 'The Megalopsych' - an ambitious poem reworking (as Auden, no wastrel, often did) fragments from earlier discarded work - something truer to the chattier, homoerotic, public-school poet is emerging, too:
The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool vertigo, and stumps are drawn;
The last boy vanishes,
A blazer half-on, through the rigid trees.
The volume ends with the poems that made it into Auden's first book - full of borders, passes, exiles, valleys, gannets, 'snatches of tramline
running to the wood', 'the secrecy beneath the skin'. Auden was home. Auden was him.
There ought to be something heart-sinking about a scholarly edition in which the poems (in large print) occupy a modest place at the top of the page while the textual notes (in small print) creep up like a tide and nearly drown them.
That isn't the case here, in part because Auden merits the scholarly apparatus, in part because Katherine Bucknell is an exemplary scholar, for whom notes are an opportunity both for illuminating biographical snippets and literary criticism.
Poets are often said to 'find' their voice, rather as if it had been hidden under a gooseberry bush and merely needed the right person to walk past at the right moment. What this book traces is a long, hard, stop-start process, not of finding a voice but of constructing it. Auden may have been a prodigy, but he had to listen to, and parrot, all his masters' voices before he could hear his own.Reuse content