Auden’s Northerliness

Sharpe, Tony (2010) Auden’s Northerliness. In: W. H. Auden In Context :. Cambridge University Press, pp. 13-23. ISBN 9780521196574

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When, soon after going up to Oxford in autumn 1925, Auden sat in Christ Church’s junior common room composing ‘The Carter’s Funeral’ (Juv, pp. 109–10), it probably wasn’t what the college had anticipated from its new Exhibitioner in Natural Sciences, and it probably wasn’t the sort of thing the room’s other occupants were doing. Indeed, his gloomily imagining the obsequies of an agricultural worker may have implied reproach of their more privileged lives. Auden’s choice of a communal area for what most would consider an antithetical activity seems self-conscious, even ostentatious; and early and late, whether swishing about Oxford in frock-coat or padding around New York dressed with a negligence increasingly divergent from the exactitudes of his personal routine, he could appear as someone over-committed to the role of being himself. But to defy expectation (as a scientist writing poetry) and to assert separateness within sociability (the private act within the public space) can be more positively conceived as strategies by which he fended off contexts others might propose. What I describe as Auden’s ‘northerliness’ was a more consistent and deeply felt tactic of resistance: a geographical preference emphatically at odds with the prevailing view. This chosen affiliation implied difference, within which the relation between private and public spheres became an active issue: as he told Isherwood, ‘North means to all: “Reject!”’ (Prose I, p. 185). Had he been gifted in cricket rather than poetry, his birth in York could have entitled him to consideration for the county team; but his relocation near Birmingham in infancy meant that he lived mostly in the Midlands, and his schooling in Surrey and then Norfolk, followed by Oxford, did little to reinforce connections with the North. From the early 1920s he was a regular visitor to the Lake District, where his family kept a holiday cottage near Threlkeld, but he showed little affection for Wordsworthian scenery, provocatively preferring the industrialized view between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (written in 1936). Nevertheless, what the North meant to him and his attachment to it form a constant in his writing, in which literary, political, sexual and religious elements are at various times visible, grafted onto some obscure – but, for him, resonant – locations. Thus Rookhope, a remote Weardale village that was formerly the site of vigorous lead-mining activity, has a claim to being one of the most important places on what, in ‘Prologue at Sixty’, he would call his numinous map.

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28 Jul 2020 09:55
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16 Jul 2024 04:57