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Young Wystan.


THE THIRTIES WAS a period of poetic preponderance
On the burgeoning weight of a Guilty Generation
And its slippery grasp of an approaching apocalypse
Of moral composure, a scorched catastrophe
At the fag-end of ashtray hiatus, a Moment
When Poetry and Politics, Art and Action,
Would converge, become symbiotically one—
Such hopeful projections gushed donnishly from
The graduate pen of one Wystan Hugh (W.H.)
Auden whose vaguely Nordic-sounding surname
Beckoned Icelandic ancestors cut from basalt crags
Of black gabbroic sagas and volcanic ash
In his fanciful imagination—though its
Etymology was more probably Anglo-Saxon,
From Ealdwine, meaning ‘Old Friend’, or Alden,
Meaning ‘Half-Danish’, while his own
Generational roots were in Birmingham,
A city singed into a vastly contrasting Black Country;
In the mid-Thirties, he penned to his old prep-
Friend, Christopher Isherwood, a polemical
Birthday poem in which he augmented his
Private anguishing in the ‘squalid shadow
Of academy and garden’ as to some guiding
Light to ignite their beleaguered generation,
To ‘Make action urgent and its nature clear’;
And here the young Oxford-finished smoky
Hope of Rookhope (his ‘sacred landscape’)
Would see his name leased out to a mystical
Meta-terrain, which he termed a ‘fabulous
Country’—a truly fabular landscape where
Unicorns would not be out of place—
Which came to be commonly canonised
As ‘Auden Country’: actually more a county,
But a parabolic county of sunny uplands
Sprawled somewhere between the Midlands
And crinkled Home Counties, or further-flung
Durham, or, figuratively, ‘Between the idea/
And the reality/ Between the motion/ And
The act’, where falls the etiolated shadow—
Eliotian night—of hollower realms shocked
With reticent corn of moral doubt, scorched
Conscience, indecision, Hamletic hesitation,
And self-prickling cacti of ‘Sin’-preceding
Angst, Skaldic bleakness bespeckling;
A metaphorical place, a figurative territory
Without frontiers or turrets between
Literature and action, a quilted inertia,
One rinsed of Cartesian cadastrals scattered
Like patchworks across partitioned pastures
Warped by one-upmanship, class distinctions,
Neuroticism, grimacing scarecrows,
Leafless winter hedgerows cauterising
Essential seams that once stitched together
Old gnarled bedfellows of private art
And public action; sprouted lustrous trees
Of self-expression branching rich scrolling
Foliage of Socialism, filigrees of fellowship—
Where now are only knuckled stumps,
Stubble fields, overcast skies, a simmering
Fascism of the shires, a bite of rosehip…

From the outset of his self-transcending bardic
Dialectic, his distinct, self-influenced ‘Audenic’
Discipline, the brilliant boy from Solihull,
Embryonic Brummagem Bard, third of three sons
Born in York to physician Charles Augustus,
And the picturesquely named Constance Rosalie
Bicknell, missionary nurse, Young Wystan—
Graced with the cloistered face of a scholarly
Twelfth-century friar, carved eyes bevelled
With the belfry-dark of meticulous craft
On parchment and illuminated manuscript,
Skin freckled like bookish foxing—sent out
Mixed signals, sparring shadows always
Latticing his path: first he was for defining
An authentic political poetry—then, for
Obfuscating such lofty tolls for the subtler peals
Of ‘parable-Art’ (but surely all Art was parable?);
In his Introduction to The Poet’s Tongue
(1935), Auden coined this Grail again
As ‘The parabolic approach’, the quintessence
Of which was Poetry; this Parabolic Poetry
Would teach us ‘Love’ but not ‘ideology’,
Would bear us messages in paradigms,
The sides, ours to decide—rather than being
Didactic, it would lead us out from dingy
Dorms and gloomy schoolrooms of ethical
Tutelage, moral rhetoric, out to Echoing
Greens of chainless heart-intelligence,
Or up to flights of self-enfranchisement
Through Hermeneutic Choice, personal
Responsibility for interpreting the parable
With whichever messages seemed to strike us
First in the figurative tapestry—and this
Was where Anxiety entered, gingerly,
With its weighted gingery grin: neurosis,
A residue sourced from a species’ rinsing sin,
The ‘dizziness of freedom’, Chagrin of Choice,
The choking chain of impossible office,
Or whichever Kierkegaardian coinage
One picked, Anxiety was the defining
Temperament of the time—in tandem with
Ennui—not only for the Audenites,
But also for their initialled progenitors:
Nottingham’s flame-haired David Herbert
(D.H.) Lawrence, and cat-like trans-
Atlantic catch, Thomas Stearns (T.S.)
Eliot who had once admitted to himself:
“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity”—
Thunderstruck lightning-charge of Damascene
Anticipation; Auden would augment his
Moment to neurotic crescendo with
The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue
In Anglo-Saxon consonance, his definitive
Break from formative verses, first twist in
The latticing path away from Young Wystan
Through blue smoke and milky cocktails to
Chunky onyx ashtrays and wrinkled skin
—A pickled walnut in Manhattan…

Alan Morrison was born in Brighton in 1974. His poetry collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (Waterloo, 2009), Keir Hardie Street (Smokestack Books, 2010), Captive Dragons (Waterloo, 2011), Blaze a Vanishing/ The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (Lapwing, 2015), Tan Raptures (Smokestack, 2017), Shabbigentile (Culture Matters, 2019), Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, 2020), and Anxious Corporals (Smokestack, 2021). He was joint winner of the Bread & Roses Poetry Prize 2018. His poetry has been awarded grants from Arts Council England, the Royal Literary Fund, the Society of Authors and the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust. He edits the international webzine The Recusant.


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