BOOK REVIEW / An Audenary boy who went from bad to verse: Juvenilia: Poems 1922-28 - W H Auden, Faber, 25 pounds

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IN RECENT times there has been plenty of anxious talk about the harmful effects of violent videos, but what about the risks involved in letting innocent youngsters loose on Romantic poetry? In 1922 - a great year for literature, what with Ulysses and The Waste Land - an earnest schoolboy called Wystan Auden came upon Shelley, and then attended a lecture about Mount Everest. The consequences were frightening:

Far up into the amethystine vapours

Towers the ridge in white immensity

Gazing at the stars that burn like tapers

Deep in the sky that is Eternity.

It's all very well to blame the parents: of course they should have padlocked the Shelley. But how were they to know that W H was hard at work on his juvenilia? It was not widely understood, back then, just how susceptible teenagers were to these addictive and dangerous airs, how easily they might be overcome by amethystine vapours.

There are more than 200 poems in this new volume of Auden's early work - the collected works of an apprenticeship that began when the would-be poet had barely started to shave. Mainly, they are plaintive pastoral lyrics with adolescent shivers of fake world-

weariness; but a few of them, late on, reveal the emergence of a composed poetic voice. The introduction emphasises with something approaching maternal pride that Auden was only 15 when he decided to become a poet - seeming not to notice that this is an unremarkable ambition, one presumably shared by thousands of schoolchildren. Like many biographical reflexes, the implication is that for the six years embraced by this collection Auden was experimenting with his style, as if he knew already what sort of poet he might become, as if he was just having a long net, as it were, before going out to bat for real.

In other respects, though, this is an exemplary kind of biographical project - the best and most honest. Many literary biographies reveal their subjects to have spent a great deal of time having affairs and complaining about their parents; they do not always spend much time doing any writing - how could they, the solitude needed for literature being so very unproductive of anecdotes? But Katherine Bucknell's collection is a moving and rich tribute to Auden's early endeavours: we see a hopeful young man trying things out for size, checking his reflections in the mirror of fashionable forms, and altering them when he realises how worn out they are.

Bucknell has collated and edited with a fervent attention to detail that feels both scholarly and devotional. The notes accompanying the verses mention the type of paper Auden was using, pin down the dates and place names, provide relevant biographical information and include such thoughts of the poet as are available; Bucknell also draws attention to Auden's various poetic models - Hardy, Housman, de la Mare, Frost, Yeats and Eliot - and is quick to point out lines recycled in subsequent work. The result is lots of small print as follows:

'P(28), poem 1, 3-7, S, TS (carbon) on 'Croxley Extra Strong' with ink autograph revisions and further pencil revisions in Isherwood's hand, Spender's printed copy; AA, 6-8, fragment Fisher's ink autograph transcription of sections (a), (f) and (g).'

As will be obvious, this is aimed at the serious Auden enthusiast rather than the poetry tourist. But anyone will be able to tell at a glance that while some poets are born great, Auden wasn't one of them. These first poems might qualify as pastiche if they were not so portentous; as it is, they are remarkable mainly for being so unremarkable. Perhaps they help explain the self-lacerating dismay Auden later made seem so dignified. It is an unfair comparison, of course, but root around in Mozart's early life and you find classy symphonies, an opera or two, concertos, songs and almost certainly something for glass harmonica or bottletops. Auden, in contrast, did not spring fully formed: his metamorphosis was slower and more pained.

The distinctive and memorable works of his later life - In Memory of W B Yeats, September 1, 1939, Musee des Beaux Arts - introduced a singular voice into English literature, a kind of rapt, humdrum intensity, a silky mixture of tum-ti-tum rhymes and refined gloom which is impossible to see anticipated in these youthful doodles. Even Auden's fondest admirers will not find many of those famous murmuring cadences that have insinuated themselves so beautifully into the pantheon of modern verse:

He disappeared in the dead of winter

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost


And snow disfigured the public statues;

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

What instruments we have agree

The day of his death was a dark cold day.

This grave, ceremonious tone is prefigured in the early work by some precocious and unconvincing poses. As a schoolboy, Auden had a knack for rhyme and an enviable talent for reproducing the atmospherics of his favourite poets. But talk about straining for effect: whenever it rains, it rains on the young poet's soul. There are crocuses pushing up through the wintry earth just to remind us that life just kind of keeps thrusting on, if you know what I mean, and this old world keeps a-turning however unhappy we are that our bed is cold and love is fled, and there are angry buzzards in the trees and happy simple labourers and thrushes and all creatures great and small and God knows what else.

It is all hither and thither and wherefore and e'en so and where'er I tread and oft-times methinks it beseems me to tarry where O yon pale primroses that reck not this beauteous and unhallowed morn, etc. It seems almost amazing that a poet who later became so painstaking a modulator of his vocabulary should splash about in such garish motley for so long. If the super-assured later style is what we now think of as Audenesque, the only word for the juvenile voice is W H Audenary. The stunning part is not that he resolved to be a poet at so young an age, but that he clung to his ambition through so many kitsch Georgian sunsets.

The rare pleasures of the book were enhanced, however - for this reader, at least - by the following mysterious extract from a letter Auden sent to Isherwood in 1927. 'We walked into the school chapel and held hands,' he wrote. 'The sensible barriers crumbled. There was Winder too of course.' I have checked back through my diaries for the late Twenties, and am ashamed to report that they completely skip over this exciting incident. How wonderful to be reminded that I used to hang around the school chapel on the off chance of holding hands with Wystan. I guess I must have been experimenting with my style.