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Auden in 1928
AUDEN IN THE NORTH
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) has been described as the most important English poet of our time. Uniquely among the major poets of his century, he was greatly drawn to northern Europe; many of his early poems are influenced by Anglo-Saxon verse, and he frequently resorted to virtuoso alliteration then and later. Im Nordic myself, he says in one poem and claimed that his name was of Icelandic origin. He translated a number of the Norse sagas and in 1931 spent time in Shetland; some of whose place-names appear in The Orators, published in the following year. Subsequently he made the celebrated voyage, which resulted in Letters from Iceland (1937). In May 1961, at the age of 54, Auden fulfilled a lifelong ambition by visiting Hammerfest in Norway, the most northerly town in the world. He revisited Iceland in 1964, and even at the end of his life was supposedly intending to spend half the year in that country whose harsh and sunless climate appeals to him, as the London Evening Standard put it. In 1938, Christopher Isherwood had ascribed Audens low spirits on their China-bound ship to his being uprooted from his beloved chilly North, and writes of him:
His romantic travel-wish was always towards the north. He could never understand how anyone could long for the sun, the blue sky, the palm-trees of the south. His favourite weather was autumnal, high wind and driving rain.In December 1947, in an article for House and Garden entitled I Like it Cold, Auden wrote:
Though I was brought up on both, Norse mythology has always appealed to me infinitely more than Greek; Hans Andersens The Snow Queen and George Macdonalds The Princess and the Goblin were my favourite fairy stories and years before I ever went there, the North of England was the Never-Never Land of my dreams. Nor did those feelings disappear when I finally did; to this day Crewe Junction marks the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends and the North, my world, begins.This world was, to be precise, the high limestone moorland of the North Pennines, in particular the remains of the once-thriving lead mining industry, which provided him with a never-failing source of reference whatever the ostensible subject of his verse.
Because literature thrives on metaphor, it is easy to forget its origins in the real, tangible world. The almost universal critical response to Audens topographical predilection, consequently, has been to gloss over his direct allusions to an area remote from metropolitan centres (the title of his 1949 poem Not in Baedeker is significant), preferring to interpret them as wholly symbolic of the poets wider religious, psychological and sexual themes. While this approach in itself is broadly valid, there is no doubt that Audens love for the North Pennines was also a profoundly personal response to the landscape, and it is a matter for concern that so little research has been done on the actual locations which so powerfully prompted or mirrored the poets preoccupations. The published biographical material has been, on the whole, extremely vague in this area: the popular reference works fail to mention the North Pennines at all. Auden, however, remained steadfast in his allegiance. Though he was to travel a great deal in Britain and abroad, it is the wild region between the Tees and the Roman Wall which provides the backdrop to many poems and plays of the 20s and30s, and echoes at intervals throughout his life. In America in 1947, an Ordnance Survey map of Alston Moor hung on the wall of Audens chaotic shack on Fire Island (and later in the house at Kirchstetten), while he told Geoffrey Grigson in a letter of 17 January 1950: My great good place is the part of the Pennines bounded on the S by Swaledale, on the N by the Roman wall and on the W by the Eden Valley.
Born in York in 1907, Auden was only eighteen months old when the family moved to Birmingham. Auden remarks that the Solihull gasworks there was an awe-inspiring sight to 'a bronchial boy' (a reference to the contemporary belief that breathing in gas fumes was beneficial for respiratory complaints). This unconventional poetic attitude gives the reader of the early Auden an odd exhilaration. By contrast with older poets, we sense a voice at home in the industrial landscapes of Britain. In Letter to Lord Byron (1937) he states unequivocally:
Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,and goes on, after evincing a distaste for the antiseptic objects of the future, with the wonderful lines:
But give me still, to stir imaginationThough untidy and rather clumsy, and apparently possessed of little mechanical aptitude, Auden was obscurely stirred by the symbolism of place-names and the industrial plant and processes associated with them. From Letter to Lord Byron again:
And from my sixth until my sixteenth yearAt Oxford, his favourite walk was past the gasworks and the municipal dump. A version of him figures as Nigel Strangeways in the detective novels, which Cecil Day-Lewis wrote as Nicholas Blake. Like Auden, Strangeways prefers to sleep under vast piles of blankets to remind him of being underground. When staying with friends, Auden himself would occasionally pile the curtains or even a stair carpet or framed picture onto his bed. His upbringing in fact encouraged a scientific approach to life altogether; his father was an eminent doctor, and his brother John was to become a geologist. In the last year of his life, Auden remarked to Michael Standen (see below) that the only magazines he took were Scientific American and Nature.
It was family holidays in Wales, and Bradwell in Derbyshire between 1913-16, it appears, which had first given rise to Audens fascination with underground spaces and mining machinery; a photograph exists, published in Charles Osbornes biography of the poet, showing Auden by himself as a boy at Goathland on the North York Moors in 1913. His first fateful visit to Rookhope in Weardale was in 1919, as mentioned in the poem Amor Loci and stated to Sid Chaplin (see below).
The public library in Keswick has a copy of the third edition (1913) of J. Postlethwaites Mines and Mining in the Lake District signed W.H. Auden, with the date 15.8.21. The book, evidently purchased from the Wordsworth bookshop in Keswick, had been part of Hugh Walpoles library (Walpole lived on the Brackenburn estate in Borrowdale for the latter part of his life). It contains a number of loose captioned photographs of Lakeland mine workings, possibly taken by Auden himself, which would seem to indicate that the poets earliest explorations were to the west of the Eden valley, accompanying elder brother John, then a student at Cambridge. John remembers that the brothers visited the mine workings on Carrock Fell and also that the family took a cottage at Wescoe, near Threlkeld, in 1921 or 1922. Previously they had stayed at one of the two cottages at nearby Derwentfolds.
At Christmas 1918, Auden received as a present from his mother, E.H. Davies Machinery for Metalliferous Mines (London, 1902) and at some point he also acquired Stanley Smiths Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor, an HMSO publication of 1923. In later life, Auden recalled this as being in his youthful library along with such significant fiction as The Child of the Cavern and Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, King Solomons Mines and the Alice books. Present also was An Account of the Mining Districts of Alston Moor, Weardale and Teesdale by Thomas Sopwith. As land agent for the Blackett-Beaumont Company in Alston and adjoining areas from the 1820s to 1871, Sopwith left a diary in 167 volumes, covering 56 years of his life. Since he was keenly interested in engineering progress and social reform, this diary is of unique importance in recording mining life.
According to his brother John, Auden came to love Alston Moor more than any other place, despite it being in the North Pennines, far to the east of Wescoe, across the Eden valley. The poem entitled Alston Moor dates from 1924, as does Allendale:
The smelting-mill stack is crumbling, no smoke is alive there,In December 1924, Auden was writing about The Engine House at Greenearth Fork, filled with excitement at the processes of lead mining, including crushing and vanning, a reference to the mechanical separation of ore. The North of 1924 or 1925 conveys Audens delight in the high fell country, while a poem describing the pumping engine at Cashwell mine on the slopes of Cross Fell dates from 1925. The Old Lead Mine (February 1924) refers to what Auden in New Year Letter (1940) was to define as the seminal moment in his life as a civilised, creative human being, when he dropped a stone down an abandoned mine-shaft in Rookhope. It is a recurring image in Audens verse. Another poem entitled Rookhope (Weardale, Summer 1922) dates from April 1924, while the work usually taken to be the first of the mature Auden, Who stands, the crux left of the watershed... (1927) was also briefly entitled Rookhope.
The 1925 poem Punchard alludes to the farm of that name in Arkengarthdale, while late 1925 or early 1926 saw the composition of Helen, which concludes:
She took the stony track which led acrossThe first two farms lie a mile or two beyond the Roman Wall, while Seldom Seen is probably the one on the south side, on the Stanegate, almost midway between Housesteads Fort on the wall and Haydon Bridge. However, Auden wrote a poem entitled Farglow in March 1924 whether he had been there or not.
According to his Juvenilia* Auden seems to have been in Allenheads between August and September 1926 (see below with reference to Not in Baedeker) and it was in that year that he published Leads the Best in Oxford Outlook. Here, he refers to Threlheld granite quarry, though this may actually be Threlkeld - Audens writing is extremely difficult to decipher. At all events, Threlkeld granite quarry produced large numbers of setts for street paving in northern cities. We also find Greenearth Side again, where:
...the west vein showedAuden mentions the typical lead miners pillowcase bag:
With bags like pillows slung across their shouldersThe poem describes the life of the lead miners, toiling to place a roof on noble Gothic minsters. The tone is elegiac, in keeping with the passing of a once-thriving industry. The poet is aware that he is a mere observer:
The bleak philosophy of Northern ridgesThere was a solar eclipse on 29 June 1927, total in a band some thirty miles wide from North Wales across the North of England. Auden had been in Appletreewick, his favourite Yorkshire village, when visiting Robert Medley in 1923. Now he went with Cecil Day-Lewis to work (staying at the New Inn) and to witness the eclipse. He returned home in July. In A Certain World (1970), Auden includes Virginia Woolfs account of her visit to the Pennines on this occasion, accompanied by Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and Quentin Bell. It was at this time that another poem was written - I chose this lean country, composed at Appletreewick, but with the lead-mining areas further north very much in mind. The poem includes the verse:
Last night, sucked giddy downThe oily rail image also occurs earlier in The Engine House, where references to slimes-house and vanning shed make it clear that we are in lead-mining territory. The mildewed dormitory mentioned later represents death, but may also be an oblique allusion to the sleeping-quarters of lead miners in the companys lodging shop, where fifty men might occupy sixteen bedsteads, amid festoons of drying garments.
The poem Who stands, the crux left of the watershed... of August 1927, shows us the same landscape as in Leads the Best of the previous year. Again the tone is mournful, the industry in decline, comatose. The poet sees below him dismantled washing floors and once more the observers detachment is indicated:
Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stockThe point is reinforced in Paid on Both Sides (see below):
On northern ridgesThe phrase northern ridges also occurs in Leads the Best, After (1926-27), and Narcissus (1927).
In The Secret Agent of January 1928, Auden writes:
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a damThese repeated references to Greenearth (Side/Fork) or Greenhearth are tantalising. It is tempting to think they refer to the Greenhurth mine (spelled Greenearth in the first O.S. maps) at Low Green, above the Cow Green reservoir in Upper Teesdale. However, though this mine is not far from the waterfall at Cauldron Snout, which Auden mentions elsewhere and clearly visited, it was flooded out in 1902. In Leads the Best the allusion may be to the rich Greenside mine, not very far from Keswick.
Audens poems of the late 20s are full of images of lead mining set against a background of fell, farm and valley, rock and water, curlew and ring ousel. Missing, written in Berlin in January 1929 is another example:
From scars where kestrels hoverAuden found derelict mines and gear symbolic of lost belief, the silent chimneys unable to furnish answers. It should be remembered that the lead-mining industry of the North Pennines, the largest in England, and once of world importance, had been virtually killed off by cheap imports even before Auden came to the area.
The early charade Paid on Both Sides, written in 1928, and published in 1930, may be based to some extent on Wilfrid Gibsons Kestrel Edge (1924), a tale of revenge set in that poets beloved Cheviots. As Laurence Heyworth has pointed out, the title actually comes from Beowulf (That was not good bargain, that they should pay on both sides with the lives of friends). The charade openly uses village names from the area around Nenthead - Rookhope, Brandon Walls and Garrigill, for example. Both Nenthead and Garrigill had been built by the London Lead Company. The two houses in the play still stand where Auden places them, Lintzgarth, close to Rookhope, and Nattrass, where the house and grounds are now a barn and farmyard, south-east of Alston on the road to Garrigill. The area around Sedbergh further south, where Auden had been in December 1927, also supplies locations mentioned in the charade - Barbon, for example, and Cautley. Hammershield near Alston Moor no doubt appears as Hammergill, Coalcleugh in West Allendale as Colefangs. Critics took these outlandish names to be saga-influenced inventions. The use of the word mill however, led William Empson to hazard that the work might be set in modern northern England. He had in mind textile mills of course, but Auden makes clear in his 1954 Vogue article (see below) that his beloved landscape starts above Keighley, north of the drab millstone grit of the industrial West Yorkshire towns.
Images of North Pennine industry are numerous in the subsequent plays too. In The Enemies of a Bishop (1929), we find such trappings as mills, pyrites and the Old Mountain Lead Company, an obvious allusion to the Vieille Montagne Zinc Co. of Belgium, which arrived in 1896 to build modern mills at Nenthead. Windyacre Mine is also mentioned (and occurs elsewhere in these early dramas) though it is unclear which actual mine is meant. The wife of the under-manager there is a Mrs Stagg - conceivably a reference to Robert Stagg (1781-1864), the celebrated agent of the London Lead Company. The Fronny (1930) mentions Runswick bay, near Whitby, perhaps visited during the North York Moors trip of 1913, when Auden was photographed at Goathland (see above). We also find the following, evidently drawn from Audens own early experience:
Item, to Cushy the unshaven ScotThere is a Miners Arms in Nenthead, suggesting that Hackwood Pit was close by (perhaps Haggs Pit). Hackwood itself, however, is actually part of Hexham well away to the north, and has never had a pit of any sort. On the other hand, there is a Miners Arms (of 1750) in Acomb, just north of Hexham. The Northumberland volume of Pevsners Buildings of England states that half a mile to the north of Acomb lie Half Way House Cottages:
One cottage is a picturesque conversion of the ENGINE HOUSE of the former Fallowfield lead mine, built in 1779. The three-stage chimneystack still functions as the cottage chimney. The second cottage to the E was the miners shop or lodging house.Whether this is the engine house of Audens youth is a matter for conjecture. The Fallowfield coal mine did not close until 1940, and Acomb lasted until 1952. Hackwood is also mentioned in the 1932 version of The Orators, more specifically Hackwood Lodge, where one Abel is said to reside.
Auden had been at the Wescoe cottage in the summer of 1928, in August 1929 and in December of that year. He was there again in the summer of 1930, when he visited Garrigill and the lead-mining country (and worked on the abandoned play The Fronny). Letters of 20 and 28 July 1932 show Auden to have been at the cottage again, starting on a new project The Dance of Death, this time in the wearing company of his mother. He invited Arnold Nob Snodgrass to visit, and in the afternoons would take him round old mine workings. Auden was also at the cottage for Christmas 1932 and 1933.
Late in 1932, Auden was working at Wescoe on his unpublished alliterative epic In the year of my youth... much of which is taken up by a dream, in which Auden is taken by one Sampson (based on Gerald Heard) on a tour of an unnamed city. The name Sampson, incidentally, is not found anywhere else in the Auden biographical material. It is a curious fact, however, that the 1ft 10inch gauge locomotive which ran between the Cornish Hush mine at Frosterley in Weardale and the Whitfield Brow dressing floors, part of the London Lead Companys Bollihope development, was called Sampson. It was built in 1847 by Stephen Lewin at the Poole Foundry, Dorset. There is a picture of this engine on p. 88 of Life and Work of the Northern Lead Miner by Arthur Raistrick and Arthur Roberts. The setting of the epic is, apparently, a country town, with a cathedral and a choir school. The location Washtub Wood, later included in The Chase is mentioned, as is the recurrent Auden image of a man rubbing an oily rail with a rag. These serve to locate the action in lead-mining country. Auden sees the unemployed:
... some slackly standing,The reason for their plight is that cheap Australian imports have destroyed the lead-mining industry. Sampson and the dreaming Auden then see the cathedral on its mighty rock, compared to the enormous cones at Dufton and Knock, which reappear in New Year Letter. The cathedral is floodlit and Auden is overwhelmed:
Casting the shadows upwards was a cairn so noble
There can be no doubt that the only building to make York Minster seem second-rate is Durham Cathedral. As Pevsner writes:
Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to the eyes of those who appreciate architecture... The group of cathedral, castle and monastery on the rock can only be compared to Avignon and Prague.Audens description of the building after he has climbed up the dark stairway cut out of the rock, verges on the ecstatic. The carvings described, however, do not belong to Durham. The other urban trappings of this section - the luxury hotel, the trams (Durham never had any) and the power station, also seem to relate to some larger urban centre, conceivably Newcastle, which is mentioned in The Fronny.
The Chase (1934) includes Leadgate, south of Alston; Daddry in Weardale; Yad Moss, a fell close to the B 2677 some six miles south of Alston, and the Sedling Mine at Cowshill on the A 689 in Durham. The theme of the opening chorus is again the decline of the lead industry and the cheap imports, which were to blame. No doubt at Isherwoods behest, the list of locations in the chorus was pruned in the later version of the play The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) - along with the sub-plot involving a strike at Windyacre Mine. The lunatics do speculate, however, that someone has been sent to the lead mines - a fate probably unique in drama. What is significant is that Auden wanted to include this plethora of mining references in the first place. The excised material includes:
Before the Romans built their rational roadsMidge Pits is part of the Sedling Mine at Cowshill, while Softly Side is the local name for the B 6278 from Stanhope to Eggleston in Teesdale. Skeers no doubt refers to various Skears locations, part of the Hudeshope valley operations north of Middleton-in-Teesdale. Hardshins Mine lay near the headwaters of the Tees, at the foot of Hard Hill, some distance west of Greenhurth Mine. Hubberdale Pipe is far to the south in the Derbyshire, Peak District near Bakewell. After this, we are given a list of exotic names for mining seams. However, the great days are gone:
The shafts are filled with water; the mosses grope over the washing-floor.Flemings Chimney is a reference to the Coniston Mines in the Lake District, while Noonstones was a farm (now disappeared) below the hill of that name some two miles south of Garrigill. Washtub Wood may be a combination of Washfold, a significant mining area near Keld, in Swaledale, and Ashdub in Teesdale. Broken Hill (in Australia) is shorthand for imported Australian lead.
We are invited in The Dog Beneath the Skin to choose the village location of Pressan Ambo:
Wherever your heart directs you most longingly to look;These lines, like much else in this opening chorus are derived from Anthony Colletts The Changing Face of England (1926). Auden elects to set the action beneath Pressan fells and Edenhall has been suggested as Pressan Ambo, with Honeypot Hall, mentioned in the play, close at hand. Lines from New Year Letter lend support:
There, where the Eden leisures throughNevertheless, all of Audens specific mining references in the play lie much further east on the heights around Nenthead on Alston Moor. Hartside Pass, at nearly 2000 feet a celebrated viewpoint on the A 686, is on the way to Alston, well beyond Edenhall. The motorist in the Act II chorus is actually changing up at last after the climb to the moors, lying east and south, Audens favourite hedgeless country, the source of streams..
A string of named locations is said to be visible (clearly read off a large-scale map, Audens eyesight was not good): Deadstones above Redan, Thackmoss, Halfpenny Scar, Two Top and Muska, Pity Mea, Bullpot Brow. Of these, Twotop Hill adjoins Hartside; Dead Stones lies just across the Durham border to the east, past the B 2677; Muska Hill lies south-west between Cross Fell and Melmerby Fell, and there is a Thack moor behind it. Redan is a tiny stone shooting-lodge, while Bullpot lies well south near Sedbergh; Windyacre Mine is the only one working near Pressan Ambo. There, Mr Fordham has:
..................... installed the latest machineryThe processes mentioned here, however, refer to zinc rather than lead, and point to a location close to Nenthead, where there were rich zinc deposits, rather than further down Weardale, where the Sally Grain (rising under Dead Stones) is a stream running into Burnhope Burn, and thence via the reservoir into the River Wear at Wearhead. The price of zinc was maintained and so cushioned the worst effects of the decline of the lead industry in areas like Nenthead. At the beginning of the century, the various lead-mining companies were building new dressing-mills with new power sources, entirely superseding the old open-air dressing-floors. The Vieille Montagne Companys new mill in Nenthead, for example (under construction in 1909) was on a formidable scale and used a magnetic separator for iron.
All these locations are a long way from Edenhall, so it seems that we must look for Pressan Ambo elsewhere. Not a common word in English place-names, Ambo, with its implications of two/both, might at first sight refer literally to the Weardale villages of Westgate and Eastgate, which once marked the boundaries of the Bishop of Durhams hunting forest, the second largest in England after the New Forest. The Cambo Keels mine between them also seems to suggest a verbal link. The obscure lines in the celebrated guardians chorus, which comes very closely after the excised material:
You are the town and we are the clock.may, as they are taken from In the year of my youth... refer to the powerhouse clock mentioned in that poem, and the gate described as being in the rock below Durham Cathedral. Less obviously, they could allude to the numerous lead mines which possessed substantial stone portals, sometimes with an inscribed tablet above. Cambo Keels has one such, as has Greenlaws mine nearby. When one considers the amount of specific lead-mining imagery which Auden cut out of Dogskin as he and Isherwood called the play, such speculation is by no means far-fetched, especially when combined with the fact that Westgate possesses, as well as the requisite vicarage, an eye-catching clock over the road - prominent enough to be mentioned in the Shell Guide. It should also be noted that there is a widespread local tradition that Auden stayed in Westgate, as well as at a cottage in Rookhope.
As for the name Pressan, it is possible that the Derwent lead mines under Bolts Law, north of Rookhope, can supply the answer. The Presser Shaft, with engine-house, boiler house and chimney still standing, comprises the only substantial building complex among a maze of flues, railways and mine installations. This is the only name in the area which remotely approximates to Pressan. The Presser Shaft lies off the road over Rookhope Moor from Westgate to Blanchland, where Auden and Gabriel Carritt stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms at Easter 1930. Carritt remembers Auden calling loudly for champagne in the public bar, and striding over to the tinny piano to play Brahms. He also recalls inspecting mine workings near Blanchland after the pair had bathed in the icy Derwent next morning. In his Vogue article of 1954 (see below), Auden says: It is many years now since I stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms, but no other spot brings me sweeter memories. On the sixth day Auden indicates the 'wildest, most beautiful and least-known' route into Scotland via Bellingham and Scots Gap (sic). Having possibly misremembered Anthony Collet's book (see above), he seems to imply that Scots Gap is further on than Bellingham, perhaps actually on the Scottish border. In fact it comes well before Bellingham on the line from Newcastle. This suggests that Auden had not actually travelled that route himself. Incidentally, Algernon Swinburne used to alight at Scots Gap when visiting the Trevelyans of Wallington Hall. On Easter Day 1930, quite possibly in Blanchland, Auden wrote one of the best-known poems of the early period:
Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to ownThe ever-recurring episode of the stone dropped down the shaft at nearby Rookhope, a site probably revisited at this time, appears once more.
In the dining room of the Lord Crewe Arms, the portrait of Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham 1674-1721, hangs alongside that of his bride in old age, Dorothy Forster, whose niece and namesake helped her brother General Tom Forster the leader of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, to escape from prison in London and flee to France. Dorothy, disguised as a servant, rode pillion to London behind a Northumberland village blacksmith and extricated her brother in a daring operation involving duplicate keys. Her ghost is said to haunt the Bamburgh Room in the Lord Crewe Arms. The celebrated bishop did much work in beautifying the diocese, and it is quite conceivably his name and the land owned by the bishops, which Auden had in mind in The Dog Beneath the Skin.
The ancient family of CreweInterestingly, Auden had originally used a specifically northern word here:
The fells, the fields on which we standIn the year of my youth... does, however, seem to lead decisively away from the notion of Westgate/Eastgate as Pressan Ambo. It would appear that Blanchland is, in fact, a much more appropriate choice. Part II of the poem sees Auden and Sampson preparing to join an expedition to round up absconding workers in the hills. They drive out of the city (presumably Durham, going by Part I), and eventually reach a gateway:
Beautiful arabesques of wrought iron
This is remarkably like the mediaeval entrance into the village square at Blanchland, now minus its gates, and in his Vogue article (see below) Auden states: One enters the village through a battlemented arch. Blanchland is set, as the Shell Guide puts it, in the gloriously remote moorland country, where the River Derwent divides County Durham from Northumberland: woodlands of larch and oak conceal the few signs of habitation. Audens description of a gravel drive running round a lawn encircled by fourteenth century houses, ivy meeting over mullioned windows is also very reminiscent of Blanchland, where much mediaeval fabric was incorporated into the eighteenth century metamorphosis of abbey into village. Identification comes especially close when Auden describes a room indoors:
The third wall
The room in the Lord Crewe Arms which has the French window is the Hilyard Room with its vast fireplace and priest-hole that concealed Tom Forster in 1715: it was here that the Kneller portrait of Lord Crewe originally hung. It has been cleaned since Audens day and is now in the dining room of the hotel.
In the light of Audens first-hand descriptions, it has to be admitted that Blanchland, with its ancient Crewe connection and delightful twin village of Hunstanworth a step across the Durham border, would be a tempting choice for Pressan Ambo. Hunstanworth was also a planned village, this time a quirkily Victorian one, built entirely by a vicar and predictably boasts a more impressive vicarage than Blanchland. Both villages are close to mining sites, including the Presser Shaft a mile south towards Rookhope, and are the sort of sylvan retreats nestling under wild moorland fells, that one expects Pressan Ambo to be. Compared to them, Westgate and Eastgate seem rather too exposed. The most compelling evidence, however, lies in Audens remarks immediately after the mullioned windows:
At first I gazed on all Englands gloryThe line:
Life lurked there evil, envious, out of its epochis echoed in the description of Pressan Ambo in The Dog Beneath the Skin:
And life lurks, evil, out of its epoch.The location of the village has been a minor mystery for half a century, but in view of the above, Blanchland seems to fit Pressan Ambo and the sending-forth of Francis Crewe very convincingly. David Collard has recently suggested that in view of Audens affection for Blanchland and the Lord Crewe Arms (expressed again, for example, in Six Unexpected Days) some play on amo may be indicated in the name of the village (it is the local pronunciation of Wendens Ambo in Essex). You are loving towards it, Auden writes in the play, when suggesting an imagined locale. The word ambo he also points out, signifies a lectern or pulpit in early Christian churches - appropriate for a play which begins and ends in a vicarage garden and contains a good deal of preaching by clergymen and others. Auden imitating a clergyman with a cleft palate is mentioned in Not in Baedeker, published in 1949, but referring, it seems, to events in 1926. In that poem, a rotting gallery is used as a lectern. Ambo must have been a happy discovery whichever way round it occurred.
Auden was in the Wescoe cottage as late as the winter of 1936/7, and spent some time there with Isherwood after 4 March 1937. The famously controversial poem Spain was written at the cottage at this time. Audens well-known Roman Wall Blues comes from a BBC radio script of 1937, entitled Hadrians Wall, a documentary broadcast from Newcastle on 25 October in the BBC Regional Programme. Arguably the greatest English poet and composer born in the last century, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were present in the New Bridge Street studios, as scriptwriter and composer of incidental music. Janet Adam Smith recalled Auden introducing Britten to her and her husband Michael Roberts, who were among the audience. Auden had also been in Newcastle on 15 October in connection with the project, though he had written the synopsis in September.
John Mapplebeck, the film maker, discovered the music to the famous 'Roman wall Blues' in 2006. The 100-year-old retired bank official, whom Mapplebeck regularly drove to evensong in Bamburgh, had a copy in his house. He remarked that he had taken part in the 1937 broadcast, but that the (miserable) Blues were performed by a local band singer.
Michael Roberts, the editor, poet and critic who had published Auden in his influential anthologies, lived at 13 Fern Avenue, Jesmond in Newcastle, from June 1935 to April 1939. He was teaching at the Royal Grammar School, as he had done for some years in the 1920s. In Letter from Iceland W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice bequeath Snowdonia to Michael Roberts (he hadnt climbed it yet). Janet Adam Smith recalled that on 27 September 1937, Auden came to dinner. The couples baby was three weeks old at this time. Always fascinated by medical matters, the poet talked much with Nurse Laverick, the midwife in attendance, and elicited a fund of stories drawn from her Newcastle experience. He called again the following morning and was delighted to be shown the child. Janet Adam Smith recalled addressing baby Andrew with the words: Remember you once saw Auden plain. Auden had written to Roberts in April 1935, asking his advice about a teaching job and expressing the desire to see him in connection with the climbing aspects of his play The Ascent of F.6 (both Roberts and his wife were keen mountaineers). Curiously, the Peoples Theatre in Newcastle was staging the play in the very week of Audens Newcastle visit, on 23-25th September, and the programme note was written by Michael Roberts. That Auden was present in the theatre, however, is unconfirmed. This was the second provincial performance and the first amateur one. The Un-named Society had performed it in the Little Theatre, Salford on 18-20th February 1937, wearing the actual climbing gear used on the 1933 Everest expedition. The same clothing was used in the Newcastle production.
After Audens departure for America, North Pennine references continue. In The Prophets (1939), one of the earliest poems written for Chester Kallman, Auden tries to show that his love was foretold by his boyhood worship of mining machinery - Those beautiful machines that never talked. Nor, as has been pointed out above, was this merely a childish fantasy:
And later when I hunted the Good Place,It was in New Year Letter (1940) that Auden declared his Pennine allegiance in the clearest and most unequivocal form possible, defining the geographical area of his affection, naming precise locations and stressing the seminal importance of Rookhope in particular. The absence of Auden and Isherwood from Britain in time of war evoked a good deal of hostility in literary circles, and Audens 1940 response to the query: Do you care what happens to England? was significant both for the degree of uningratiating detachment displayed and for the Pennine reference specifically inserted: Qua England, not in the least. To me England is bits of the country like the Pennine Moors and my English friends.
Nevertheless, he carried the English language with him, and this, along with his memories, was a homeland: 'England to me is my mother tongue/And what I did when I was young.' As Katherine Bucknell says: ' Some of the most beautiful poems he wrote in America, from 'New Year Letter' to 'Amor Loci', are love poems to the [North Pennine] English landscape.'
In 1941, prompted by the death of his mother and Chester Kallmans desertion to California, Auden began work on For the Time Being, a supposed Christmas Oratorio, eventually published in 1944. Here we find in section V of Advent a typically disconcerting Pennine image:
The clock that dismisses the moment into the turbine of time.In section II of The Annunciation there occurs another thrilling passage, resonant with Audens English preoccupations of the 1920s and 30s:
... I have observedRobert Forsythe has pointed out that this scene is likely to have a Birmingham location.
In 1945 Auden, now an American citizen, had twice visited Wescoe, where his father was living, and was there again with Chester Kallman in 1948, when Dr Auden was selling the cottage. Auden did not approve of this, but his brothers were not as attached to the place as he was. The ashes of both Audens parents were eventually scattered in the churchyard at nearby Mungrisdale.
As Auden entered middle age, so far from discarding or exorcising some supposed boyhood fantasy world of mines and machinery, or, more properly, the pre-war Pennine hinterland of the English Auden, he was in fact planning to write a work entitled Life Underground in 1947. The Age of Anxiety, published in that year, though set in New York, and much preoccupied with the psychological states of the four protagonists, also contains Pennine imagery. We find in its dazzlingly alliterative pages (reminiscent of In the year of my youth...) references to smelting mills, and actual mines such as Wheels Rake and Rotherhope. In Part Three (The Seven Stages) there are curlews, whose haunting cry is so evocative of the high moorlands, kettle moraines, U-valleys, waterfalls, hollow hills, lead smelters and dwarves. A passage like the following suggests a high Pennine vantage point:
And so, on a treeless watershed, at the tumbledown Mariners Tavern (which is miles inland) the four assemble, having completed the first stage of their journey. They look about them and everything seems somehow familiar. EMBLE says:This may refer to the Tan Hill Inn, which Auden knew, or, more obliquely, Peel Fell far to the north in the Cheviots, one of the few places, as Thomas Sharp points out in the Faber Guide to Northumberland (1937), from which both English coasts are visible. Though Audens confusion over Scots Gap (see below) does not suggest a close personal familiarity with the Scottish border at this point, he may well have been familiar with Sharps book. Certainly the topographical references make more sense from this northerly point, the sawtooth range of the Lake District and the army training area on Stainmore falling neatly into place.
In Italy, in 1948, Auden wrote to Elizabeth Mayer: I hadnt realised till I came how like Italy is to my Mutterland, the Pennines. Am in fact starting on a poem, In Praise of Limestone, the theme of which is that rock creates the only human landscape. The poem was completed in that month and, as Humphrey Carpenter points out, it had a relaxed tone hitherto quite foreign to Audens poetry. It was a tone that would recur in much that he wrote in subsequent years. Auden had established a routine by now of spending the earlier part of the year in Ischia, and visiting Britain before returning to New York in autumn.
Perhaps the fruit of one such visit, the poem Not in Baedeker (1949) contains a wealth of specific references to the lead-mining country, mentioning St. Cobalt, a punning allusion to the mineral and, no doubt, to Saint Cuthbert, the great northern saint under whose banner the English armies had warred against the Scots. Auden mentions the day when engines and all stopped some sixty years before (the Allendale Mine, the largest silver and lead mine in the world, closed c. 1890). Two Englishmen are visiting in September, possibly that of 1926, when Auden was writing letters from Allenheads. The reference to roofs of great cathedrals also appears in Leads the Best, published in May 1926. The shot-tower mentioned stood near Tyne Bridge in Alston and is described by Thomas Sopwith as having embrasures at the top and, with the adjoining house, resembling a church. It was 56 feet high, with a pit of similar dimensions below.
Auden continued to visit the Pennines when in England, and a 1951 letter mentions a heavenly drive through the Peak District. During a two-week trip to England in 1953, Auden spent two days, including 22 June, in Swaledale, one of my holy places, a visit reflected in Streams, part of the Bucolics sequence:
Lately, in that dale of all Yorkshires the loveliest,In the same poem the god of mortal doting comically arrives in a cream and golden coach drawn by two baby locomotives reminding us that in Vespers of the following year Auden is still musing on lead-mining machinery and Eden: In my Eden we have a few beam-engines, saddle-tank locomotives, overshot water-wheels and other beautiful pieces of obsolete machinery to play with.
It is significant that in the group of travel articles published in the American edition of Vogue on 15 May 1954, there are pieces devoted to France, Greece and Italy, but Audens contribution is Six Unexpected days in the Pennines. It is a motor itinerary suggesting an alternative route to Scotland for American tourists, avoiding the Lake District. The moral compass must always indicate North as the good direction, the way towards heroic adventures, South the way to ignoble ease and decadence. The route runs northwards through a landscape which Auden identifies as that he would choose as his private Eden. We are informed, incidentally, that T.S. Eliot was very fond of Wensleydale cheese - but not the shop variety. After visiting Swaledale, the motorist is advised to go on from Keld to Dufton and High Cup Nick, via the Tan Hill Inn, the highest in England. The fifth day covers the high moorland round Nenthead and Rookhope the most wonderfully desolate of all the dales and is a paean to the lost lead-mining industry, the remains of which give Auden the same melancholy fascination which one finds among the ghost towns of the west. Of the Blanchland inn where he and Gabriel Carritt had stayed in 1930, he remarks: It is a number of years now since I stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms, but no other spot brings me sweeter memories. On the sixth day Auden indicates the wildest, most beautiful and least-known route into Scotland via Bellingham and Scots Gap (sic). Having possibly misconstrued or by now, misremembered Anthony Collets book (see above), he seems to think Scots Gap is actually on the Scottish border. In fact it lies some thirty miles south of that, well to the east of Bellingham in the direction of Newcastle. This seems to suggest that Auden had not actually travelled that route himself.
As is well-known, Auden was greatly impressed by J.R.R. Tolkiens quest trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and reviewed it for the New York Times and Encounter. The books enjoyed a huge vogue, and a photograph taken at this time shows Auden in a shirt inscribed GIMLI, the name of the relatively uncharismatic dwarf in the saga. Significantly, however, Gimli is the only character at home underground, and the most exciting episodes of Book I take place deep in the mines of Moria, the Dwarf-Lords ancient home, with its halls of stone, labyrinthine passages and drowned levels. The mines also yield a highly-prized form of silver, and we recall that silver is a valuable by-product of lead mining (there was a silver refinery at Blanchland Abbey). Audens enthusiasm for the books may owe a good deal to this aspect of Tolkiens work. We also recall that down the mine, the hobbit, Pippin, drops a stone down a shaft and disturbs something in the depths. This was a recurrent image in Audens early work and echoes Audens own lines in New Year Letter and elsewhere, describing his epiphany in Rookhope in 1922.
Auden was installed as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956, and in his inaugural address, delivered on 11 June, he describes his early enthusiasm for lead mining. He states that his childhood reading had to do with a private world of Sacred Objects, machines which created in him a passion of awe which might vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic and dread. Some years later, he was awarded an honorary D.Litt at the University of Durham, receiving the degree on 5 July 1962 at Newcastle, as the two institutions did not separate until 1963. An eyewitness, now living in Bellingham, recalls that Auden spoke and mentioned the influence of the local landscape on his verse. The Public Orator, Professor K.W. Britton included the following remarks in his address:
... It is the business of the poet (as Mr Auden has said) to offer homage to his Sacred Objects: to the Idiot Boy or the Old Bass Viol; to the Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor... In some of his earliest poems and some of his latest poems, he celebrates the landscape of Northern England. The fells and their minerals have a fascination for him; both the workings of the old high-born mining captains and the abandoned shafts of this century. He has not forgotten the peat-stained deserted burns that feed the Wear and the Tyne and the Tees. He is today in his own country.Durham University library in fact holds one of the few existing copies of Audens hand-printed Poems (1928). This copy, No. 24, was acquired in 1947 from Sheilah Richardson, briefly Audens fiancée in the late 20s. It seems that facsimiles were made from this copy and sold at the Ilkley Festival in 1973 (see below). Sheilah Richardson sent it in 1947 to a Dr Helen Mary Trudgian, a lecturer in French at Durham in the 40s and 50s. There is an accompanying letter, dated 22.10.47 in which Sheilah apologises for not sending the book before, but it had been buried among a lot of rubbish. This attitude accords with her signature being struck through in the book (see: Bucknell: Juvenilia: lxi and lxiii). She also encloses two photographs of Auden, one in profile and one wearing his famously irritating black hat (this has written on the back: Wescoe, 1928). No connection is known between the ladies, but Sheilah addresses her letter to Dear Dr Trudgian, which would seem to preclude any intimate acquaintance. It may be that Dr Trudgian had contacted Auden, who advised her to ask Sheilah for her copy, knowing that she might be happy to dispose of it.
In 1964, Chester Kallman took to spending his winters in Athens, instead of cold New York with Auden, who was much saddened. Auden revisited Iceland in 1964 and still found it holy ground; he went on to Sweden and then spent six months in Berlin, where he found the city of his youth had disappeared. In 1965, Auden began work on a new edition of his Collected Shorter Poems. The combination of all these events, conjuring up the past as they must have done, may account for the subject and tone of the poignant Amor Loci, reflecting on the North Pennine landscape as analogous to divine love, just as it had been of human love in The Prophets and of human nature as a whole in New Year Letter. It sounds as if Auden had actually revisited the North at this time, but confirmation is lacking. According to Edward Mendelson, Audens pocket diary refers to the Rookhope poem, the only candidate being Amor Loci (July 1965):
I could draw its map by heart,After a description of chimneys and decomposed machinery, and his own distance from the inhabitants of the place, living or dead, Auden goes on to say that the place offers few conventional pleasures:
To me, though, much: a vision,The Pennines are still present in Prologue at Sixty (1967) where, calling himself a Son of the North, outside the limes, Auden cites Cross Fell, Keld and Cauldron Snout as part of his numinous map. As late as 1972, the penultimate year of his life, he included these lines in Lullaby, echoing Vespers of 1954:
In boyhoodIn his anthology A Certain World (1970), the nearest thing to an autobiography he ever produced, Auden lists mining locations supposedly close to Tideswell in Derbyshire, but many actually lying much further north, within his great good place. Hunts Coldberry mine is in Teesdale, for example; Friarfold Hush is at Gunnerside in Swaledale, and there are other Swaledale references. The book also includes passages by Anthony Collett (see above) on limestone and basalt landscapes, the latter making much of Cauldron Snout, High Force and the line of the Whin Sill from the Pennines to Bamburgh and Holy Island in Northumberland. There is also a long extract from Thomas Sopwith describing a visit to a lead mine. Auden concludes the book with an extended statement on the fundamental importance for his poetry of the lead-mining industry and the limestone moors of the north. The private world he constructed for himself between the ages of six and twelve had relied on others, his parents mostly, to supply maps, catalogues and geological publications. When occasion offered, he was taken down real mines. From this activity he learned certain principles which he was later to apply to all artistic fabrication. In choosing between two machines, one of which was, he felt, more sacred or beautiful, but the other more efficient, it was his moral duty to sacrifice the aesthetic preference to reality or truth.
When, later, I began writing poetry, I found that, for me at least, the same obligation was binding... a poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true... What the poet has to convey is not self-expression, but a view of reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective, which it is his duty as well as pleasure to share with others.Auden elaborated on this theme in his lecture to the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis on 12 March 1972:
Trying my hand at a little self-analysis, I note firstly that, even aside from the man-made caverns of mines, a limestone cavity is full of natural caverns and underground streams. Then, looking at the cross-sectioned diagrams of mines in my books I realise that they are like stylised pictures of the internal anatomy of the human body. As for my passion for lead mines, I note, firstly, that the word lead rhymes with dead and that lead is, or was, used for lining coffins: secondly that mining is the one human activity that is by nature mortal. Steam engines may render stage-coaches obsolete, but this cant be foreseen. But when a mine is opened, everybody knows already, that however rich it may turn out to be, sooner or later it will become exhausted and be abandoned. Of this constructed world I was the only human inhabitant, although I equipped my mines with the most elaborate machinery, I never imagined any miners. Indeed, when I visited real mining areas, I preferred abandoned mines to working ones. Yet, whatever the unconscious relation between my sacred world and death may have been, [this?] I contemplated not with fear or grief but with intense joy and reverence.On Sunday, 17 December 1972, Auden was once more in Newcastle, reading in the University Theatre, Haymarket. One of the organisers was George Stephenson of MidNag, who recalls that the sound system left something to be desired. Auden had been in a very low state in his room at the Turks Head in Grey Street. The novelist Paul Bailey records that among those present was Sid Chaplin, of whom Auden had not heard. When Chaplin explained diffidently that he too wrote, Auden responded: Oh, I see, a regional author. Chaplin was reduced to silence. It was bitterly ironic that two men who had written so powerfully of lead mining in Weardale should have been unable to communicate, but fortunately the encounter did not end there. Chaplin, who was then chairman of the Northern Arts literary panel made notes which have been discovered by his son Michael Chaplin, tucked inside his fathers copy of Audens Collected Poems. Auden, it seems, was persuaded to go on a drive to the edge of his youthful haunts, the George at Chollerford. He was silent until revived by drinks and food. When Chaplin mentioned that he had worked in the mines, Auden at once reacted: Momentarily his eyes lit up. He talked of Rookhope, still lead mining when he knew it. When did he first go? At 12. His father a doctor interested in geology, his brother in Geological Survey. His two most treasured books, he told me, the Geological Survey of Weardale (1923) and Westgarth Fosters Sections of the Strata from Newcastle upon Tyne to Alston. Said I was the first person hed met who had read the latter. My note: Obviously little or no feeling for folk - I doubt if hed ever made friends with a Weardale or Alston lead miner. Auden signed copies of his Collected Poems by crossing out his printed name on the title page and writing his own in very small letters. Chaplin was annoyed by this but writes with compassion and forbearance. It is pleasant to report that Michael Chaplin has also discovered a photograph showing his father with Auden in the misty car park of the George. The warm inscription, doubtless written by Auden back in his Oxford room, reads as follows: With very best wishes to Sid - Wystan. Some of the ink has come off on the cellophane wrapping, giving a poignant sense of the poets presence.
Michael Standen, then a member of the Northern Arts literary panel, was the driver on the expedition to Chollerford and remembers Auden smoking half-a-dozen Senior Service during the forty minute trip. Standen spoke to Auden of his own walks in the Cumbrian fells, and Auden remarked that it must be twenty miles to High Cup Nick, adding that it was one of the holy places of the earth. The curious method of book-signing, which irritated Chaplin at the time, was apparently copied from T.S. Eliot. Auden declined a walk to Chesters Fort, a few minutes away from the hotel. The Roman Wall he had hymned in his youth was now, like the North Pennines, a landscape of the mind.
Back at the theatre, Auden performed in the carpet slippers he had worn throughout (and had been prone to use since 1945). To Chaplin it was clear that the famous memory was failing. Standen, however, remembers the reading itself as rather more successful - 'coruscating and bitter... memorable, remarkable,' though Auden made no attempt, in the manner then fashionable to woo the audience, meet it half way or milk sympathy.
This was the first Christmas Auden had spent in England since 1937.
Perhaps it is fitting to conclude by returning to New Year Letter of 1940, which links the North Pennines of Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland to the human condition as a whole, and can stand as testimony to what the northern hills meant to one of the great artists of the century:
I see the nature of my kind
W.H. Auden Juvenilia: Poems 1922-28 Ed. Katherine Bucknell, Faber, 1994. This splendidly edited book supplies the early 1920s chronology.
University of Durham Gazette Vol. X (NS) 12/xi/1962. Appendix I. pp. 12ff. Honorary Degrees
[Autograph manuscript Berg, 17-18]
The accounts by Sid Chaplin and Michael Standen of their meeting with Auden in December 1972, were published in Northern Review Vol. 4 1996
Humphrey Carpenters fine W.H. Auden (Oxford University Press 1981, 1992) is the source of some biographical material and some of the post-war chronology.
The unpublished epic In the year of my youth... (1932) was transcribed from Audens almost indecipherable handwriting by Lucy McDiarmid and appears in Review of English Studies n.s. XXIX, 115 (1978).
Among the striking and informative photographs collected in Life and Work of the Northern Lead Miner by Arthur Raistrick and Arthur Roberts (Alan Sutton, 1984, 1990), there is a fine view on p. 88 of the village of Rookhope, showing Boltsburn Mine and the rope-hauled railway incline up to Bolts Law, the steepest incline in England, with the chimney (now gone) mentioned by Auden in New Year Letter.
Thanks are due to the late Janet Adam Smith and Gabriel Carritt for their personal recollections of events so long ago.
I am particularly indebted to Robert Forsythe for valuable suggestions and amendments based on his meticulous research into mining locations. His contribution to our joint publication W.H.Auden: Pennine Poet, North Pennines Heritage Trust, 1999, consists of a very detailed analysis of Audens Pennine places, with OS. map references, maps and photographs. His website is www.forsythe.demon.co.uk.
In May 2000, Radio 4 broadcast a documentary The Reservoir of Darkness on Auden in the North Pennines, with Sean OBrien and Robert Forsythe. Part of the TV programme in the same year on Audens loves showed the chimneys near Bolts Law in Weardale, as the voice-over read The Prophets (1939). There was an exhibition at Nenthead for two years, opened by Audens niece, Anita Money, and written up in the Guardian with colour photographs (9.8.99). Radio 4 also broadcast on 24 March 2002 Audens Eden which discussed Audens spirituality as symbolised in his Pennine poetry. Anita Money, Professor Stan Smith and Robert Forsythe took part.
John Fullers anthology entitled W.H.Auden (2000) refers in the introduction to
... his lifelong love affair with lead-mining, its psycho-geological ramifications, can be traced in...and then goes on to mention some of the poems he has included - The Watershed (The Secret Agent is also there); the relevant part of New Year Letter, two songs from The Age of Anxiety (When Laura lay on her ledger side... only four lines, and the section with To dales of driving rain... the original / Chasm where brambles block / The entrance to the underworld...) and In Praise of Limestone.
A plaque was erected in Harborne, Birmingham, on 9 October 2000. The Auden house has gone, replaced by a Mormon temple. The plaque has been affixed to the nearby Harborne Municipal Baths, which appear in Audens writings.
The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated a European Geopark by UNESCO in 2003, the first in Britain. This implies geology of world interest
2007 Observer 4.2.07 Katherine Bucknell wrote that some of Auden's most beautiful poems are about the English landscape, instancing 'New Year Letter' and 'Amor Loci' She didn't mention that these are North Pennine landscapes.
2007 February 18 The South Bank Show celebrated Auden. Melvyn Bragg commented on the low-key centenary. The film opened at Housesteads, then came film of the 2006 reconstruction of the 1937 Hadrian's Wall, at the Sage Music Centre in Gateshead. Britten's music for 'Roman Wall Blues', discovered by John Mapplebeck in Bamburgh was performed.
18 February 2007 Radio 3 broadcast a 45-minute programme in which the poet Paul Farley retraced Auden's 6-day Pennine itinerary as published in the American Vogue May 1954. Robert Forsythe was his guide.