Early Auden poems discovered in school magazine from 1920s

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The Independent Online

A collection of previously unknown poems, thought to be early examples of the work of W H Auden, have been unearthed in a school magazine.

The poems, which will form part of centenary celebrations for Wystan Hugh Auden at Gresham's School next week, were discovered by John Smart, a former head of art, who chanced across them while researching the life of another literary old boy. Mr Smart is writing a biography of John Hayward, a close friend of T S Eliot and an important critic of his work. In the course of his research, he read old copies of The Gresham, the magazine Hayward edited during his time at the school in Holt, Norfolk, where he was a pupil a couple of years before Auden.

In one of the journals, Mr Smart came across a poem entitled "Evening and Night on Primrose Hill", which, like most of the verse in the magazine, was unsigned.

In her definitive collection of Auden's "Juvenilia", the author Katherine Bucknell refers to a sonnet the poet wrote about Primrose Hill in north-west London, which had been lost. The poem was also published opposite "Dawn", which is accepted as one of Auden's early works.

Although what he had found was not a sonnet, Mr Smart detected some Auden hallmarks, including the rhyme of "hill" and "still" and "the way that he likes to end his poems with almost an epiphany". The poem was published on 16 December 1922, the year in which Auden decided to become a poet while on a walk with his friend Robert Medley. During the walk, in March, Medley asked Auden whether he wrote poetry. Years later, Auden recalled his reply in his poem "Letter to Lord Byron": "I never had, and said so, but I knew/ That very moment what I wished to do."

Auden knew Primrose Hill, from his visits to stay with Medley, who lived in London. The poem describes how: "City men in bowler hats, return now day is done/ Rejoicing in the embers of the sun."

Mr Smart believes a second poem published in The Gresham, on 28 July 1923, entitled "To a Tramp met in the Holidays in Monmouthshire", can also be attributed to Auden. The poet, whose family hailed from Birmingham, was a regular visitor to Monmouth, and it is unlikely that many of his fellow pupils at Gresham's, the most easterly public school in England, would have known the area. And again, the poem contains Auden's trademark rhyme: "hill/ still".

There is less evidence to link a third poem, "Enchanted", to Auden, but Mr Smart argues that its subject matter – an enchanted pool where "Merlin shall entice thy feet", reflected the poet's debt to Walter de la Mare's poems on magic and fairies.

Mr Smart said: "None of the poems I've found I could claim was a great poem." But, he added that the juxtaposition of "Evening and Night on Primrose Hill" and the more traditional "Dawn" in 1922, the year in which T S Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses were published, showed "the modern, put against the old way – two totally different styles".

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