W. H. Auden – Poet
Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York on 21st February 1907. He was the youngest of three sons whose father was a doctor. Both grandfathers were clergymen, and Auden traced his love of music and language back to childhood church services. Although the family moved to Birmingham when Wystan was a baby, he always thought of the North of England as his spiritual home. At the age of eight young Wystan was sent away to boarding school in Surrey. In 1920, aged 13, he arrived at Gresham’s.
Auden joined Gresham’s in the year following the death of headmaster George Howson who is credited with reforming the School. The new head, J.R. Eccles, claimed that the broad curriculum was designed to produce an educated man, one who knows something about everything and everything about something.
The Chapel and War Memorial were reaching completion at this time and the School was starting to recover from its recent tragic losses. Howson had introduced a culture of ‘humane liberalism’ where caning was banned and sport and classics were replaced with science and a greater freedom of expression.
Concerts and plays were regular occurrences at Gresham’s, as were lectures, debates and outings. The School offered ample scope for individuality and creativity. One Cambridge tutor remarked of Gresham’s pupils, “I like your boys who come here very much, they do not look like they have been cast from the same mould.”
One contemporary described Wystan as “a small, slightly puffy little boy with pink and white cheeks and almost colourless hair.” Never bothering to show off, many thought Auden lazy. The youngster was soon found to be exceptionally bright, however, and awarded an open scholarship and moved ahead two years.
Auden reflected on his schoolboy self, claiming “I was – and in most respects still am – mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, very untidy and grubby, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever.”
Despite a natural self-consciousness, Wystan was already showing a talent for wit and mimicry. Attending an Officer Training Camp as an observer appealed to his sense of fun, whilst several masters were the target of his humour. Seen as ‘aloof but not alone’, young Auden would often go for long walks in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Wystan boarded in Farfield, a new house, opened in 1911 to accommodate 24 boys. The building was in the form of an ‘H’ shape, with one wing for the boys and the other for the housemaster. There were flowers and shrubs at the front, tennis courts and a kitchen garden at the rear. The house also had the benefit of ‘mod cons’ such as electricity and central heating.
Two dormitories, one for seniors, one for juniors, had twelve partitioned cubicles down each side of the room. Each cubicle had a window which had to be open six inches, summer or winter. Boys had an iron bedstead with mattress, one pillow and two blankets. Baths were a weekly luxury, being filled once, with poor juniors enduring cold and filthy water!
Auden remembered the in-house catering as ‘undistinguished’ but adequate. He also recalled the influence of the house captain, ‘Wreath’, who was “a born leader and the only person, boy or master, who ever made the conventional house and school loyalties have any meaning for me.” It was this prefect who helped Wystan reconcile himself to school life and to control his intense dislike of the housemaster Mr Robertson.
According to Auden, whilst at Gresham’s he was “never bullied or molested”, and was “allowed to make friends where I chose.” Taking everything into consideration, he recalled “being very happy throughout my time there.”
A lifelong friendship soon developed with Robert Medley who suggested to Wystan during a walk in the woods that he might try writing poetry. The pair met on a Sociological Society outing to a Norwich shoe factory and enjoyed many a late-night conversation and larking in the School swimming pool. In the holidays the friends would enjoy music and card games, visiting bookshops and the opera.
Another good friend was fellow writer John Hayward, who was editor of The Greshammagazine at the time. Appealing for more verse, Hayward wrote “From our point of view the school is sadly lacking in budding poets.” In April 1922 the unsigned poem ‘A Moment’ appeared with a note from the editor explaining his decision to print it despite technical errors as it shows great promise. This was probably Auden’s first published poem.
The poet John Pudney was a school friend of Wystan who continued to receive poems from him during Auden’s Oxford years. He recalled an incident when Wystan threw his poems into the School pond, declaring that he had “got poetry out of his system once and for all”, claiming that the human race would be “saved instead by science.” Luckily, the young man realised his mistake and later rescued his work. In all, Auden was to write 100 poems whilst at Gresham’s.
Auden claimed he owed an immense debt to two masters. The first taught English and classics, the latter music. C.H. ‘Toc’ Tyler had a magnificent bass reading voice, and Wystan loved to listen to him read the Bible or Shakespeare. Walter ‘the Ox’ Greatorex was Auden’s first grown-up friend, a first-rate musician and “an ideal schoolmaster” according to Wystan.
Although unacknowledged by Auden, charismatic languages teacher Frank McEachran, who joined the staff in 1924, was possibly another important influence. He was a leading light in both the arts and literary societies, and was responsible for launching the Grasshopper to which Auden later contributed. McEachran’s poetry was widely read and admired.
The teaching profession, which Auden was soon to join, came in for some typically acerbic comment. Whilst many were felt to be conscientious and hard-working, others he described as “earnest young scoutmasters” or just “generally dim”. One master, who caught Wystan writing poetry in prep, advised him not to “waste your sweetness on the desert air like this.” Auden could never recall the man without wishing him evil!
As a school where an absence of physical punishment was combined with academic excellence, Gresham’s was chosen with some care by Wystan’s parents. The atmosphere of liberalism, the modern curriculum, and the encouragement of individualism have been important in the shaping of many young minds. It was a science school for a boy who had already shown a scientific leaning. Wystan delighted in the magnificent library and believed that “real people” will always learn for themselves, given the opportunity.
Education was not simply the ‘Three R’s’ at Gresham’s in the 1920’s, but included lectures on topical subjects as diverse as broadcasting and the League of Nations. Lively debates took place on capital punishment and English supremacy, and outings to factories gave pupils a glimpse of a very different world. At Speech Day in July 1924 the headmaster proclaimed “The best investment … is a liberal education, with discipline through liberty opening windows in the mind.”
In his contribution to Graham Greene’s The Old School (1934) Auden took the opportunity to attack one part of his schooling that he found distasteful. The ‘honour’ system, introduced by Howson, and continued by Eccles, required pupils to promise not to swear, smoke, nor to say or do anything indecent. For young Wystan, who was becoming aware of his sexuality, the system seemed to be based on fear and merely made boys furtive and dishonest.
Auden chose to play the role of the monster Caliban in The Tempest in 1925 as a protest at what he saw as the unfairness of the honour system. He had already played several, mainly female, roles, in the annual Shakespeare play, but it was his performance as Caliban that won admiration both at school and in the national press.
As well as singing in the choir and arranging recitals of modern music, Wystan also won prizes for Latin and science. When he left Gresham’s in 1925 he had a scholarship to study Natural Sciences at Christ Church Oxford, although he eventually became a student of English.