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December 12, 2007

family secrets

landed gentry.jpg The centenary year of Auden's birth is winding to an interesting and fruitful end. On the whole, I think it's been good. As it concludes, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that one of the "new directions" which Auden scholarship can now most profitably take lies along the path of defamiliarization.

Auden says somewhere (yes — we also desperately need a concordance to Edward Mendelson's magnificent multi-volume edition of Auden's Prose!) that a person's best-kept secrets are those which he or she keeps from themself. Obviously, Auden meant this provoking apothegm to apply to himself as well as to others. Like Auden, I'm not claiming that the keeper of such secrets is a liar, or even a fibber. What I am saying is that Auden scholarship may now be in a good position to go beyond Auden's own self-definitions and to understand better his inevitable historical cultural, and perhaps even sexual, blindnesses. But, in order to do so, it needs to knock over some crumbling walls so that we learn what was really "myth" and what "history", what "red herring" and what "figure-in-the carpet", in the copious comments which Auden made on himself and on his writing. The scholarship also needs to confront aggressively some of the poorly-sourced stories which a few commentators, for want of further or alternative evidence, have let sediment round Auden's work.

Part of my own contribution to this defamiliarizing effort has been to labour, with the indispensable and ingenious help of Anthony Andrews, Matthew Jockers and Edward Mendelson, on what would once have been called a "family tree" of the Bicknell and Auden families. (I know, I know — "a genealogy!?" "a family tree!?" What can I say in response except that all writers, even scholars, have to follow their intuitions, even when these lead them in the most anachronistic-looking or unpropitious-seeming directions…)

The genealogical database is intended for the unlimited use of all interested researchers. I hope to have a preliminary version of it online during the first half of 2008. Some will dismiss, or disagree with, both the general concept and/or the particular uses to which the database is put. I don't care much about that. I think the tree offers, in latent form, many tantalizing opportunities to rethink or recontextualize Auden's poetry. For here, for now, I'll give just two very small instances of what I mean by that claim, one from each end of Auden's life.

Auden's first published poem in anything other than a school magazine is "Woods in Rain", printed in Public School Verse: An Anthology in 1924, where his name is given as "W. H. Arden". It's always been assumed that this was a simple misprint, a compositor's error. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps it was actually a pseudonym? Auden was obsessed with names, especially his own family's names. The Dog Beneath the Skin is enough to show that. But does he ever mention the "misprint" of his very own name anywhere at the time?

Why "Arden"? Well, "Birch" was one family name which Auden was, in a double sense, familiar with. In 1920, the year in which Auden entered Gresham's School, Norfolk, as a 13 year-old, Wyndham Lyndsay Birch (1874-1950), a first cousin once removed of the young W. H. Auden, was the Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company. That is, Auden's relative was the head of the ancient institution which administered Gresham's, in effect W. L. Birch was the head of the Gresham's board of governors.

Another such name besides "Birch" which was known to Auden was "Arden". Auden's great-uncle (and Wyndham Birch's uncle), Henry William Birch (1825-1897), a former Governor of the Bank of England, had been married to a woman named Julia Arden (1830-1917). They had a son named John Arden Birch (1853-1896).

"Arden", then, like "Birch", was a "family name" for Auden — metonymically related to his own surname. However, at the same time, by the switch of a single letter of the alphabet, the name hides his identity from all those who did not know about this family link. Perhaps "Arden" in Public School Verse was a misprint. But I don't think that anyone will be able to claim for much longer that it certainly was a typesetter's mistake. Although very plausible, the new genealogical data renders that claim plausible but unproven.

In addition to being truthful, the literary historian also has to be interesting. The newer, alternative explanation (Auden appearing in print under a pseudonym) may get us closer to some fresh ideas about the need for some degree of clandestinity on the part of Michael Davidson. He was the East Anglian journalist (a member of the Walter Greatorex circle) whose friendship with Auden had around this time been forbidden by the school authorities and by Mrs. Auden and probably the person who submitted Auden's poem(s) to the editors of Public School Verse. Davidson singled out Auden's poem for praise when he reviewed Public School Verse in the Eastern Daily Press of 26 Sept. 1924. But of course he could confidently have expected Auden's Birmingham-based parents not to see anything, compromising or not, published in that Norwich newspaper.

The pseudonym hypothesis (I call it no more than that, and point out only that it could not exist if we knew nothing about the existence of the name "Arden" within Auden's mother's side of the family) might also indicate something about Auden's, and Auden's family's, ambivalence or unease about the diminished social position of poetry amongst the provincial gentry. Many will disagree, perhaps vehemently, with both notions. That's fine: argument is good. What I'm saying is that without the new ideas which the "tree" generates there can often be no argument at all.

Take another suggestion which the genealogical database throws up, this one from the 1960s. In that decade, Auden wrote a great many, still extraordinarily underappreciated, poems about modern science, such as "Moon Landing" and "A New Year Greeting". What is more (where is that concordance when I need it?), he remarked several times that the only magazine he subscribed to in the 1960s was Scientific American.

All this is significant enough in itself. But, for me anyway, a certain new tincture or coloration is projected onto these "scientific poems" and onto poems like them once one knows about a wedding which took place in 1966. That year Fridolin Mann — Thomas Mann's grandson, Auden's nephew — married Christine Heisenberg, one of Werner Heisenberg's daughters. From 1966 W. H. Auden was therefore a relation by marriage of one of the world's greatest theoretical physicists.

Irrelevant? I'll certainly be prepared to say so in public with an endearing smile on my face so just as soon as you have sent me the names of three other 20th century poets of substantial reputation working in any language who a) wrote repeatedly about science and b) were related to any one of the century's most prominent scientists.

In the meantime, as they used to say in the days before streaming media took over, "stay tuned."

Posted by njenkins at December 12, 2007 03:13 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins