'The north, my world':W. H. Auden's pennine ways

Sharpe, Tony (2012) 'The north, my world':W. H. Auden's pennine ways. In: The Literary North. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 107-124. ISBN 9780230367401

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Where, in England, does the South end and the North begin? Despite a recent survey suggesting that on the western side of the country the economic boundary now falls between Gloucester and Worcester (a finding which the still more recent economic downturn may have rendered obsolete), other definitions have been more persuasive. Philip Larkin’s novel Jill (1946) shows Lancashire-born John Kemp, newly up at Oxford, meeting the mother of his public school roommate. She observes, ‘You’re northcountry, aren’t you?’ and herself admits, ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve never been farther north than Crewe.’ His response, ‘That’s funny – I’d never been farther south than Crewe’ (Larkin 1975: 91), confesses his own provincialism rather more than it offers a rebuke to her implied indifference: but for both of them, Crewe marks the spot where the South turns into the North – and, characteristically, southerners turn back. The following year, from across the Atlantic, W. H. Auden agreed: ‘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’ (2002: 335). Writing from New York City, he was even more remote than he had been when, in infancy, the family moved to Birmingham from his birthplace in York; but, distance notwithstanding, his attitude is resonantly different from Mrs Warner’s calm incuriousness: the ‘north of England’ constitutes for Auden a landscape of belonging, attachment to which repudiates the worldview of people like her in his active disdain for the ‘alien South’. Indeed, such is the power of Auden’s imaginative propulsion northward that Crewe Junction becomes a ‘wildly exciting’ point of transition – in a transfiguration likely to be at odds with most rail-travellers’ experience of its stubbornly prosaic actuality.

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28 Jul 2020 11:05
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18 Sep 2023 02:45