Auden: The lost poems

Stop all the clocks. A collection of unpublished work by WH Auden has been unearthed in the archives of his old school. John Walsh reports on an extraordinary literary discovery that reveals the troubled adolescence of a poetic genius
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For a man regarded by many as England's greatest 20th-century poet, surprisingly little fuss has been made about WH Auden in 2007, the centenary of his birth. The 100th anniversary of his schoolboy contemporary, John Betjeman, was marked by 12 months of TV documentaries, reissues, reminiscences, and discussions of his views about everything from architecture to single-branch railway lines. Auden's Oxford contemporary and friend, Louis MacNeice, also born in 1907, is the subject of an academic symposium in Belfast next week, and a PEN event in London. The Auden centenary (21 February) has so far been celebrated by a handful of newspaper articles, a tribute day in June at Christ Church, his Oxford college, and some readings on the South Bank by Andrew Motion.

There are reasons for such apparent neglect. For one thing, there's no recognisable Auden Country, as there is so obviously a "country" of Yeats, Hardy, Hughes and Betjeman. There's no single masterpiece to which one can confidently direct sceptics – no Auden equivalent of Eliot's The Waste Land, or Yeats's The Tower, or Hughes's Crow; his most famous and popular poem is the essentially trivial "Stop all the Clocks," as featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And there's something about Auden that discourages ad hominem devotion. Far from being cuddly or romantic, he was a rumpled, dishevelled, chaotic, rather austere intellectual – dogmatic in conversation, impatient of unpunctuality and, according to an unimpressed Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, "he didn't bathe enough". Also, he has no direct descendants to keep his flame alive.

It's a regrettable state of affairs for a man who, when he died in 1973, was spoken of in the same breath as Picasso and Stravinsky. The Times's anonymous obituarist wrote: "Auden, for long the enfant terrible of English poetry, emerges finally as its undisputed master... It was Auden, above all, who showed how the full range of traditional forms could be revived in the service of the kind of moral and social realism that a world in crisis demanded."

But there is a corner of Norfolk where his rumpled shade is constantly celebrated, and passionate devotees of his work have made a striking new discovery. This is Auden's public school, Gresham's in Holt, Norfolk, which he attended from 1920 to 1925.

The school is immensely proud of the Auden connection. Next week, it is mounting a mini-festival called In Praise of Auden, with talks from Lord Gowrie, Craig Raine and Blake Morrison, performances of his cabaret songs and collaborations with Benjamin Britten, even showings of his films, such as the GPO documentary, Night Mail. It's also the place where a cache of his unpublished early poems has come to light.

The works are titled "Evening and Night on Primrose Hill" "To a Tramp Met in the Holidays in Monmouthshire" and "Enchantment". All three were published, unsigned, in the school magazine, The Gresham, between 1922 and 1925, when Auden was a clever, pink-faced 15-year-old. Two of them are among the earliest poems he ever wrote. But all three shed light on his major influences and the state of his adolescent mind.

The man responsible for their discovery is John Smart, the English master – latterly Head of Arts – at Gresham's for the last 15 years. An energetic figure with a shock of white hair and a fondness for bow ties, he has taught Auden's verse to successive generations of pupils. He once saw the great man reading his poetry at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in 1969, shortly before he retired for good to his alma mater, Christ Church College.

"He shared the reading with Richard Burton, who turned up in a Rolls-Royce and declaimed the lines very powerfully," says Smart. "Auden himself shuffled on stage in carpet slippers, pulled a pallid sheaf of moth-eaten poems from his pocket and read them with a very dry, tentative delivery."

Smart is a little ambivalent about the poet's appeal. "Auden is a very acquired taste," he says. "Other poets have a homogeneous style that's recognisable, but one can't say that about him. I think the centre of his work is probably in the poetry he wrote before he went to America in 1939."

These poems were collected in 2001 under the title The English Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson, who preserved the originals of many poems that Auden later altered or suppressed. His Collected Poems (also edited by Mendelson) were published by Faber in 1976 and revised in 2004. Juvenilia, a collection of teenage works edited by Katherine Bucknell, was published by Princeton University Press in 1994. And that, as far as we knew, was the totality of his oeuvre. Until John Smart started to investigate.

Smart was researching a book on John Hayward – a distinguished literary man, who edited the Penguin Book of English Verse and, inter alia, shared a flat with TS Eliot – when he discovered that Hayward had, in his final year at Gresham's, become editor of The Gresham. Smart decided to take a look at the magazines, something he'd never done in 15 years of teaching. He found Hayward's first editorial, on February 25, 1922, soliciting for contributions: "The Editor is never inundated with manuscripts, but we hope that the near future will produce a much larger mass of matter... from our point of view, the school is sorely lacking in budding poets."

How ironic. By coincidence, Auden, who'd turned 15 that very month, was experiencing a watershed in his life. He had won an open scholarship, had been moved up two forms as a result, and his English essays were considered so brilliant they were read out in class. He had become friends with the music master, Walter Greatorex ("the first schoolmaster to treat me as an equal human being"). He had started to lose his religious beliefs – the family had been staunch Anglo-Catholics – and, perhaps most significantly, he had discovered that he was sexually attracted to other boys. The first boy about whom he felt such stirrings was Robert Medley, then 16, slim and dark-haired, who had founded the resplendently bogus Sociological Society, which Auden described as a pretext for having "a grand time visiting factories in a charabanc".

He contrived to sit next to Medley on a trip to a boot and shoe factory in March, 1922. The following Sunday, they went for a walk together across a field and Medley, out of nowhere, asked: "Tell me, do you write poetry?" As Auden later recalled, it was his epiphanic moment. He began straight away. And he sent them to The Gresham, where they were published, unsigned. This was the trove that Smart has excavated from oblivion.


Gresham's School is vital to the public understanding of Auden, as the place where his poetic Muse first appeared, and the crucible of his contrarian spirit. When Auden arrived there in 1920, he was a precocious, self-assured 13-year-old. Born in York, he had grown up in Solihull in the West Midlands; his father became school medical officer for Birmingham. Early immersion in his father's extensive library gave the young Wystan an air of omniscience that impressed his peers: at 10, he could discourse airily about the Great Schism of the 14th century.

Despite his know-all brilliance, his self-assessment was damning. In an essay about his school days published in 1934, he wrote, "I was – and in most respects still am – mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever, in fact, a typical little highbrow and difficult child."

Photographs from 1920 to 1922 bear out this damning judgment: Auden in his early teens is an unlovely sight – puffy-cheeked and pouty, with alarmed, albinoid eyes and sticky-out ears. He looks like a schoolboy positively begging to be bullied by the school jocks and philistines.

His parents, who by 1920 had moved from Solihull to a suburb of Birmingham, seem to have chosen Gresham's because of its reputation for science. By 13, their youngest son had developed a passion for mines and engineering works – they were to be a leitmotif in his poetic landscapes – and assumed he would thrive in the sciences. He didn't. "My efforts at engineering," he wrote, "... must have been as distressing to the very nice military man who taught that subject as they were boring to me – the sum total of my achievement was two battered ashtrays and any number of ruined tools." His English and classics master "Tock" Tyler, by contrast, was a revelation: he "had the most magnificent bass reading voice I have ever heard, and from listening to him read the Bible or Shakespeare I learnt more about poetry and the humanities than from any course of University lectures".

Young Wystan liked the school buildings, mostly built between 1900 and 1919 under the headmaster George William Saul Howson, who transformed Gresham's fortunes and quadrupled its population. He liked the private studies, the warm classrooms, the "magnificent" library and "excellent" laboratories. Having evidently conquered his dislike of communal activities, he tried acting, scoring a muted triumph as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, despite "a poor wig and clothes that can only be described as shocking" (as reported in the school magazine).

The thing he did not like about Gresham's, however, was the so-called "honour system", introduced by Howson. All new arrivals at the school would be interviewed by the headmaster and their housemaster, and asked to promise three things "on their honour" – not to drink, not to swear, and not to say or do anything indecent. If a boy broke these promises, he was expected to tell the housemaster. And if he saw another boy transgress, he should try to persuade him to confess and, if the boy failed to, it was his duty to confess himself. Boys were therefore steered towards moral righteousness by being burdened with "honour-guilt" and encouraged to grass on each other.

Auden was appalled. Years later, he wrote, "I believe no more potent engine for turning [boys] into neurotic innocents, for perpetuating those very faults of character which it was intended to cure, was ever devised." By appealing to boys' sense of loyalty and honour (the only emotions fully developed in a 14-year-old), he argued, "you can do almost anything you choose, you can suppress the expression of all those emotions, particularly the sexual, which are still undeveloped; like a modern dictator, you can defeat almost any opposition from other parts of the psyche." Even worse than the ingrowing of emotions, to Auden, was the obligation to inform on your neighbour. "It meant that the whole of our moral life was based on fear, on fear of the community, not to mention the temptation it offered to the natural informer, and fear is not a healthy basis. It makes one furtive and dishonest and unadventurous. The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school, I lived in a Fascist state."

So much of Auden's future output seems to have had its genesis in his tense relationship with "honour": from his first collections, his imagination was filled with spies, subterfuge, code-words, ambush, "whispering neighbours", authority figures with guns and dogs. His flirtations with Communism, his vocal support for the Republican forces in Spain, his long-smouldering contempt for the middle-class, were all engendered by his experience of enforced "honour". Boarding school, he later wrote, was "a not unimportant factor in my adoption of left political views".

In this, of course, he was not alone; the literary 1930s were full of fellow-travellers of the left. But when one visits Gresham's, and sees the agreeable tiled corridors, the elderly radiators, the thatched library, the knapped flintstone chapel, and the famous Theatre in the Woods where Auden acted in Elizabethan skirts and shawls, it seems an unlikely hotbed of radicalism. Then one is pulled up sharp by the lists of scholarship boys in the Great Hall: soon after Auden comes Donald Maclean, who defected to the USSR with Guy Burgess in May 1951. After him comes Cedric Belfrage, who spied for Russia in the US, and James Klugman, who recruited many spies in Cambridge. How could so English a place spawn a generation of spooks? Can it really have been the effect of the honour system?


When John Smart began to examine old copies of the school magazine, he realised he had struck gold. Some of the unsigned poems in the magazine had appeared in the collection of Auden's Juvenilia, but their editor, Katherine Bucknell, had never seen old copies of The Gresham. "I'd read there was a lost poem called 'Sunset from Primrose Hill' and I knew it must be the one in The Gresham. Because, of course, Robert Medley lived in Primrose Hill and Auden visited him often and stayed there."

It is, in other words, the most warily concealed love poem in literary history, with Wystan and Robert chastely together, at the still point of the turning world. (Smart also wonders whether it is the first mention of bowler hats in English poetry. They strike a very modern note among the wistful Georgian nature poetry of the time.)

In the same issue, Smart found "Enchanted", a poem that follows the prevailing idiom of the time, with its fairy mythologising, its gloopy pastoralism. But as he points out, Auden was at the time deeply enthralled by Walter de la Mare's verses on magic and changelings. It doesn't take a genius to see the 15-year-old Wystan tentatively projecting his newly discovered homosexual self through furtive night adventures, protecting his love object from concealed "dragons" – the dragon of exposure, the fear of having his true nature revealed to his peers, house- and headmaster.

The third poem, "To a Tramp Met in the Holidays in Monmouthshire", appeared a year later in the magazine, by which time Hayward had left school. Smart is convinced it is also by Auden. Not only did the family spend several holidays in Monmouthshire (a long way from Holt), but the poem is a double pastiche of two of Auden's key influences, AE Housman and William Wordsworth. The former made a fetish out of pastoral lanes of cherry and apple blossom. The latter wrote about meaningful encounters with rustic visionaries. "I think Auden was going here," says Smart, "for a Wordsworthian epiphany such as in 'The Leech Gatherer' – and it ends with a bathos which was not unknown to Wordsworth."

Smart suspects that there may be other Auden poems lurking in the Gresham's magazines of the 1920s, "but I can't prove it. What would prove that someone wrote a poem? An autographed manuscript? All I can do is show there is strong evidence."

For now, he has put the poems before some heavyweight Auden scholars in the US – like Professor Nicholas Jenkins of Stanford University, and Bucknell – and is waiting to see if they add them to the canon. "I'm interested in going further," says Smart. "It's unthinkable that he shouldn't have been writing much more stuff at the time, which is not represented in the school poems."

Indeed. It's intriguing to look at these three mild-seeming verses and guess at the seething passions they conceal. Poetry, once Robert Medley had spurred him into it, opened out Wystan Hugh Auden's life into a dramatised battlefield, where the repressions of his childhood – and especially of the school's moral code – could be fought and overcome. In 1922, the high point of Modernism, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, the newly agnostic, newly sexualised, newly confident literary scholar burst on the scene. It would be 1928 before he published his first volume, Poems, and two more years before his enormous influence spawned "the Auden Generation". But the seeds were all sown at Gresham's. He left the school, he said himself, "a confirmed anarchist individualist".

In his last term, his final appearance in the Theatre in the Woods was in a production of The Tempest. He pleaded to be allowed to play Caliban, the bestial, subversive slave who plots against his master Prospero, and his performance was, by all accounts, remarkable. Robert Medley heard Auden speak about it later and realised why he had striven to get the part: "Wystan perceived that, implicated in Caliban was a protest against the honour system, under which he had suffered so much; the occasion for making a witty, personal and deeply felt send-up of the system was not to be missed."

Years later, in his long and celebrated prose piece, "Caliban to the Audience", he was still fighting, still haranguing the demons of his school days. As if he had never really left.

Auden: chapter and verse

By Boyd Tonkin

From the time of his Poems (1930), published a year after he left Oxford, W H Auden streaked through the literary skies like a modernist meteor. Precocity, it seemed, was his middle name. A new wave of British poets could swear allegiance to the miraculous boy king whose paradoxical style – cool but tender, industrial but lyrical, bang up-to-date yet rooted in the past – had somehow emerged fully formed from the tousled head of a Birmingham doctor's son.

Auden became a myth (or, as he put it in relation to Edward Lear, "a land") with stunning speed. By 1933, the adjective "Audenesque" was being applied to verse that mimicked the work of a writer still in his mid-twenties. What's fascinating, then, about the teenage poems discovered at Gresham's School is that they show the pre-Oxford Auden in a more modest light. These pieces comes from a clever adolescent parrot like a thousand others. If the smart but superficial exercises in pastiche feel at all "Audenesque", that only goes to show that many streams (to use his own favoured imagery) fed the limestone caverns of his imagination.

The fragmentary "Evening and Night on Primrose Hill" seems to tip its bowler hat to the jaded urban pastorals of the young T S Eliot, from "the lighting of the lamps" in "Preludes" to the women who "come and go/ talking of Michelangelo" in "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". After this avant-garde gesture, the young Auden scuttles back to the Romantic landscapes and attitudes approved by inter-war schoolmasters in "To a Tramp...". Here we revisit Wordsworth World, a theme-park staffed by philosophising yokels always ready with a wise word to the poetic rambler. If the poem's first lines echo Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and "Old Cumberland Beggar", the finale comes straight from the "Prelude".

"Enchanted", the poem with a question-mark over its authorship, certainly sounds a little more like the Auden music that still bewitches poets around the world. If it is authentic, then he pretty soon lost interest in the purely literary fairies on display in this verse. The Auden touch comes not so much in the imagery (although those lonely horsemen and spellbinding woods would recur) as in the rhythms, rhapsodic but somehow abrupt, with a trochaic trot that takes you riding with him into the dark places where magic lurks. Yet it still sounds very much like the mainstream verse of his boyhood, with W B Yeats and Walter de la Mare jingling along behind the newcomer at every step.