Rieff Was Right
Eleanor Morton Is Funny

Auden (et. al): Night Mail

Some months ago I picked up Humphrey Carpenter's biography of W.H. Auden from the discard shelf at the local library. That it was there is a sad state of affairs, and I almost made it sadder when, after a few months of seeing it on the shelf and leaving it alone, and under a self-imposed mandate to get rid of books that I'm pretty sure I will never read, I decided that I probably didn't really want to read five hundred or so pages about Auden's life. I'm generally unenthusiastic about biographies of artists, and Auden is not my at the top of my list of favorite poets (high, but not at the top), though several of his poems are near the top of that list. So I decided to throw it back into the library's giveaway pile and hope someone else would give it a good home.

But before doing that I leafed through it, read a few bits and pieces here and there, and decided it seemed interesting after all, and that if nothing else I'd like to read about Auden's conversion to Christianity. That required getting some of the background, so in the end I decided to keep the book at least long enough to read the whole thing. 

I'm glad I did. I'm less than halfway through it, and am finding it quite interesting for the most part, though like most biographies it occasionally frequently goes into more detail than I care to follow. 

For six months or so in 1935-36, when Auden was in his late twenties, he worked in the Film Unit of England's postal service. I know, that sounds very strange--why did the post office have a film unit? But it did, and it made a documentary called Night Mail about the train that made a nightly mail run from London to several cities in Scotland. Auden wrote some verse for part of it, and Benjamin Britten provided music.

On YouTube there are several clips of the few minutes that include Auden's poem:

Several of the YouTube commenters say that it's an early form of rap. They sort of have a point.

I'd really like to see the whole film, which is less than half an hour long and which, on the basis of that clip, is very poetic in a very 20th century inter-war period way. But the only place I can find it is at the British Film Institute's streaming service, and I don't want to see it badly enough to subscribe. 

"Inter-war period." What a ghastly thing to say, but it really is a reasonable way to describe the 1920s and '30s. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

LOL Mac. I have two Dickens biographies, and one on Thomas Hardy. Have never cracked any these three books. But perhaps one day. These are people I have read a great amount of. I cannot imagine garnering any interest in the life of a poet. But of course, to each their own. I remember an English professor at SHC saying to me, "Why read about a writer when you can just read the writer?"

One on Mailer might be interesting, since he was sort of a roustabout and jerk. :-)

Interesting. I like writer biographies and have read quite a few: Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hardy, Wordsworth, Clare, Lewis, Tolkien, etc. I think the last two I bought were David Jones and Ivan Illich.

The full film is available on Kanopy, a streaming service many public libraries subscribe to.

It's also up at Dailymotion, but without captions. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7utm3o

Great, thanks, Marianne!

Stu: "...cannot imagine garnering any interest in the life of a poet". What? Why would that be any different from a biography of a novelist? Your SHC prof is pretty much of the same mind as me on the general subject.

We can all be glad we will never have Auden as a house guest. He was horrible. Among many other things, constantly leaving cigarette burns on things. When he left one on one host's piano and the host complained, Auden said "I don't see why you're upset. It doesn't change the tone."

I have the Dilworth biography of David Jones but have not read it. I really only bought it because someone, maybe you Rob, told me it's hard to understand a lot of Jones's work without it.

My son tells me that someone made a Lego stop motion version of this.

That would be pretty awesome.

Don't think it was me, Mac. I haven't read much of Jones' poetry, and one of the reasons I got the biography was for it to serve as a sort of introduction. But I did buy it based on a review, so maybe I'm the one who passed the review on to you.

I don't get that professor's take at all, but then I've long been interested in trying to understand what makes favorite artists tick. I can't imagine saying, "Why spend time reading about Bach when you could just listen to his music?" for instance. Of course, the interest varies with the artist. I most likely would not read the life of an artist whose work I'm only marginally interested in.

Actually it isn’t so much “better to spend time on the works” as a sense that the biography is as likely as not to diminish my respect for the artist without a corresponding increase in appreciation of the work. That, and the amount of detail, usually far more than is of any use in understanding. Auden’s trip to Iceland: that it happened, a few interesting anecdotes, reflection on how it affected him, fine. But a detailed account of every day and night is more than I’m interested in.

Yeah, that's true. I guess that's why in most cases I tend to read the more general biographies as opposed to the massive dive-into-the-weeds things.

I read in Tolkien's letters (better than bios in my opinion) that they used to photograph letters to the front and send the film by air. Was that what he did?

The same letters made me not like Auden much.


Not sure I understand your "what he did." But if you mean Auden in the post office, no, they actually made movies. Odd.


I know what you mean about Auden and Tolkien's letters. But Auden was a very vigorous enthusiast for Tolkien's work. He said something with which I've always agreed: that he would never entirely trust the judgment of anyone who disliked The Lord of the Rings.

Speaking of stop-motion animation: somewhere close to twenty years ago the son of some friends of mine did one of Ozzie Osbourne's famous bat scene. It was quite funny, partly just because he had done it--I mean, what a goofy thing to do, it must have taken many hours. He was maybe 12 or 13 at the time. I don't know what he grew up to be.

Last evening as my night moved towards a close and I found that I couldn't stand to watch any movies or shows I found myself looking at YouTube on my television watching Helena Bonham Carter recite poetry. Of course I thought of you, and Auden, and these other poets that you sometimes mention. The only poetry I read is when an author of prose fiction will put a snippet before the beginning of a chapter, or of a novel. But watching a charismatic Englishwoman who I find appealing reading it is apparently another story. It also had me thinking that some day I should watch Season 4 of The Crown...

I wonder if there are any videos of Ozzy Osbourne reciting poetry? I suppose it would need to be Poe.

I will happily leave that investigation to you.

Poets and poetry fans are always saying that poetry should be read aloud, but I tend not to enjoy that. I'm not sure why. It actually seems kind of a distraction, I guess.

Stu, aren't you an English prof or something? Never met one of those that didn't read poetry.

LOL, I have a BA in English, Rob but that's about it. College Registrar. Master's in Theology. For pleasure I mainly just enjoy novels, and prefer long ones to shorter. I really loved the poetry courses I took in college, but it has not carried over to post academic life. What I loved about it had a lot to do with the classroom experience of going over poems with someone who had some expertise on the subject. My last experience of that was a visiting Jesuit at Spring Hill who did a lecture one night on Gerard Manley Hopkins, reciting The Windhover from memory, then explaining each line, and at the end reciting it again. It was thrilling in a way that me picking up a book and reading it would not be. The next day all I remember is that it was an exciting evening! I think that's why I like long books, it gives my memory a chance to take it all in.

I can't remember whether Mac attended that lecture. I think the guy was from John Carroll.

I think I did. If not there was more than one such lecture. What I recall is that he made sense of one of the Hopkins poems that had always baffled me. "Spelt From Sibyl's Leaves," maybe? I'm not sure. Anyway it was a very good lecture.

Thanks for the clarification, Stu. I started off as an English major but switched to Religious Studies, eventually teaching both at a small Christian high school for some years.

The poet Malcolm Guite has some great talks on poetry on youtube. They're done in a very conversational style and are generally rather brief -- usually less than 20 min. I recently watched two of them, one on C.S. Lewis as a poet and one on Wendell Berry. Both were very good. He's got a new one up on Larkin but I haven't watched it yet.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)