Myers Literary Guide:
WYSTAN HUGH AUDEN (1907 - 1973)
Auden, widely regarded as the greatest English poet of the 20th century, was born in York, but spent most of his life before 1939 based at the family house in Birmingham. His father was an eminent doctor with wide scientific interests, something which greatly influenced Auden; it is not hard to discover in his verse a scientific approach, a detached hawk's-eye view of human affairs, a quest for unambiguous truth through cerebration rather than feeling.
It was on childhood holidays in Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Wales that Auden developed an obsessive interest in underground mine workings, and their associated machinery. Though he had little mechanical aptitude himself, he was fascinated by the names, functions and drawings of pumps and engines, particularly those associated with lead mining. Despite living in Birmingham and attending school in East Anglia, Auden's mind was irresistibly drawn towards the North. In December 1947, in an article for House and Garden entitles 'I Like it Cold', he wrote:
'Though I was brought up on both, Norse mythology has always appealed to me infinitely more than Greek; Hans Andersen's The Snow Queen and George Macdonald's 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.'The family bought a holiday cottage at Wescoe, near Keswick in the early '20s and Auden stayed there frequently until his departure for the USA in 1939. It was Alston Moor across the Eden valley in the North Pennines, however, and the adjoining regions of Durham and Northumberland which Auden came to love more than any other locality. He kept an ordnance survey map of the area on the wall everywhere he lived throughout his life, and 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.'
What gripped Auden's imagination was the once-thriving lead-mining industry, whose poignant remains lie scattered around these wild whaleback moors. A poem of the early '20s entitled 'The North' celebrates the high fell country. 'Alston Moor' and 'Allendale' also date from 1924, as does the poem entitled 'Rookhope (Weardale, Summer 1922)'. What Auden indicated as the seminal moment in his creative life seems to have occurred when he dropped a stone down an abandoned mine shaft in Rookhope, probably in 1919, when he first visited Weardale (see below). It is a recurring image in his verse. The poem regarded as the first of the mature Auden, 'Who stands, the crux left of the watershed' (1927) was originally entitled 'Rookhope'. His 'charade' Paid on Both Sides openly uses North Pennine village names - Rookhope, Brandon Walls and Garrigill, for example. The two houses named in the play, Lintzgarth and Nattrass, still stand. London reviewers took all these strange names to be saga-based inventions.
At Easter 1930, Auden and his friend Gabriel Carritt stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland after a walk along the Roman Wall. Carritt recalls Auden loudly calling for champagne in the public bar before striding over to the tinny piano and launching into Brahms. Next day the pair bathed in the freezing Derwent before setting off to inspect abandoned mine workings. Auden's poetry and plays of the pre-war period are studded with references to northern locations and images of lead mining and of fell, farm and valley, rock and water, curlew and ring-ousel. The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) for example, mentions Bellingham and Scots Gap, together with a sonorous roll-call of Pennine fells. The village of Pressan Ambo in that drama is probably based on Blanchland.
In his unfinished and unpublished alliterative epic 'In the Year of my Youth...' (1932) Auden describes Blanchland and the Lord Crewe Arms in some detail. He also dreams of visiting a cathedral on a rock. The cathedral is floodlit and Auden is overwhelmed:
Casting the shadows upwards was a cairn so nobleClearly Durham Cathedral is meant here, the Minster being of course York Minster.
Auden continued to make use of North Pennine imagery at intervals for the rest of his life, and made it clear that the area constituted one of the bedrocks of his poetry. Amor Loci (1965) is a particularly poignant evocation of his 'great good place'.
On 25 November 1937, Auden and Benjamin Britten were present for the broadcast of their radio documentary Hadrian's Wall from the BBC studios in New Bridge Street in Newcastle. Britten's setting of perhaps the most celebrated section 'Roman Wall Blues' has, alas, been lost. Auden introduced Britten to Janet Adam Smith and Michael Roberts (q.v.) whom Auden had visited at 13 Fern Avenue in Jesmond that September - curiously, in the very week that the People's Theatre were staging The Ascent of F6.
. On Sunday 17 December 1972, Auden was once more in Newcastle, performing in the University Theatre, Haymarket. He stayed at the Turk's Head in Grey Street, and was clearly in a poor way, both mentally and physically. Paul Bailey, the novelist, recalls that Sid Chaplin (q.v.) was among those present. When he mentioned that he too wrote, Auden responded: 'Oh, I see, a regional author'. Chaplin said no more. It would have been a bitter irony had the two writers most associated with lead mining in Weardale been unable to make contact, but the encounter did not end there. Chaplin's notes on this occasion have been found by his son, Michael Chaplin, tucked inside his father's copy of Auden's Collected Poems. Auden, it seems, was persuaded to go for a drive to the edge of his North Pennine haunts, the George at Chollerford. He was silent until revived by drinks and food. When Chaplin mentioned that he had been a miner, '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 Foster's Sections of the Strata from Newcastle upon Tyne to Alston. Said I was the first person he'd met who had read the latter. My note: “Obviously little or no feeling for folk - I doubt if he'd ever made friends with a Weardale or Alston lead miner.”'
Auden and Chaplin were photographed by Michael Standen in the car-park of the George, and it is pleasant to relate that Auden sent a print to Chaplin later, inscribed: 'With very best wishes to Sid - Wystan'. Auden declined a walk to Chesters fort, a few minutes away. The Roman wall he had once hymned was now a landscape of the mind. Back at the theatre, Auden performed in the carpet slippers he had worn throughout, and it was clear that his famous memory was failing him. 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.
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