There are few monuments to WH Auden in York, the city where he was born. In fact, York has come under scrutiny from the National Press and former poet-Laureate Andrew Motion for under-representing and under-celebrating WH Auden’s centenary festival in 2007. As a casual reader of Auden’s poetry, however, I have never come across York in his poems or essays, and in most biography his birthplace serves as a mere introduction to the man and the myth. I wonder what debt York owes to one of Britain’s best loved poets who appears almost entirely ignored the city in his serious verse.
Motion criticised the centenary celebration and said “I think it’s a great pity York has decided not to celebrate Auden’s centenary in a properly central and grateful way.” Apparently the lack of celebration was due to funding. The City of York’s Auden Society complained of lack of council funding, and the council boringly responded that it was already the most funded society of its kind. Bureaucratic conflicts aside, the centenary events seemed to be less than adequate across the board. However, alongside the small plaque on the side of Auden’s place of birth on Bootham a bust of the poet was also unveiled to coincide with academic events held at Bootham School and the University of York.
A casual passerby could easily miss the the small plaque on the building now used for office space. But Auden was born here in 1907 and spent a whole year of his life there before moving to Solihull in the West Midlands. Aside from believing that Icelandic Vikings came to York and established the Auden family, there is very little influence that can be traced back here. In Auden’s longer poem “A Letter to Lord Byron” he names the saga character Auðun Skökul as one of his ancestors. The plaque is the only visible monument to the poet in York.
One memorable nod to Auden in York was when local cab drivers decided to recite his poetry to their passengers in preparation for the centenary. “Night Mail” was amongst the poems chosen. An odd choice for a local celebration given that the poem is about Scotland rather than Yorkshire. However thematically, Auden’s poems are accessible to a wide range of people interested in, with at risk of sounding hackneyed, “the human condition.”
Motion says that “Auden is one of the two or three greatest poets of the last century, and wrote brilliantly about the landscape of his childhood – among other things.” I think that “among other things” may be the biggest understatement of the century. Suffering, war and religion dominate Auden’s work – his roots in the midlands certainly come into play, but there is very little on the town of his birth.
York and Auden’s relationship has been sketchy in the last few years. I hope, as a poetry fan and Auden enthusiast who lives here that the “healing fountain [will] start” and we celebrate the poet more in the city. Maybe, in Auden’s own words say it best: “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.