A DOG'S LIFE

This column describes a literary discovery that is of no importance and less interest. So please, turn the page. Unlike Garbo, who never said it, I want to be alone.

What? Still here? You are persistent. But so am I. I shall be rid of you. My subject is the influence of the 17th-century poet Anne of Winchelsea on the 20-century poet W H Auden. There now, that putter of footsteps was the last reader leaving, and in considerable haste. I am now writing only for my own pleasure. It's a strange sense of release.

I could now gallop off into a different paddock of material. I could write of sex or metaphysics or metaphysical sex - of which there's always an unacknowledged abundance - but I shall stay with Auden. Not that anyone will know.

Poet Wystan H. Auden standing at the gate to his home. Photo / Getty Images
Poet Wystan H. Auden standing at the gate to his home. Photo / Getty Images

I fell in love with Auden when I was 18 years old and he was two years dead. How could you not fall in love with the author of

Advertisement

The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed

I saw then and see now the great grey crumbling snout of the glacier hard up against the matchwood door of the cupboard, crushing it open and filling the room with icy inexorability, engorging even the bed where the desert sighs. Look again at that verb - sighs. Doom was never better put.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm

Auden filled my head with such images 45 years ago and they're as freshly there today.

Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead
From whose cold cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.

Auden wrote at his best in the 1930s when, as now, dictators were in the ascendant. Who could this be?

When he laughed respectable senators burst with laughter.
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.

A while ago the film Four Weddings and a Funeral made use of an Auden lyric.

Advertisement

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

It isn't one of his best. Dogs with bones don't bark. They slink off to gnaw them. But the film brought Auden a brief surge of popularity and I resented it. I was the jealous lover. I wanted to keep him to myself.

Then yesterday, in an anthology of 17th century verse, I came across a lyric by Anne, Countess of Winchelsea, born in 1661, dead in 1720, and famous principally for being a female poet in an age of male poets. Her poem The Soldier's Death naggingly reminded me of something. What, I couldn't decide. The harder I thought the further it receded.

It wasn't until I had stopped trying to bring it to mind and was walking with the dog after lunch that it came to mind. The subconscious works far better when left alone. Here's Anne of Winchelsea's lyric.

Trail all your pikes, dispirit every drum,
March in a slow procession from afar
Ye silent, ye dejected men of war!
Be still the hautboys, and the flute be dumb.

Rhythmically it's all but identical to the Auden. It opens with the same four flat beats. The first and fourth lines are both broken with a comma in the same place. The word "all" is in the same place in both. Both begin lines with imperative verbs. Both refer to music, to silence and specifically to drums. And both convey precisely the same sentiment, a universal compulsion to mourn.

There can be little doubt that Auden was familiar with Anne of Winchelsea. She's in most of the anthologies and he was soaked in English verse. But I am confident the influence was unwitting, the borrowing subconscious. It is in no way plagiarism. My observation of the debt is just an insignificant addition to the body of literary scholarship. It doesn't matter in the least, but it is my addition and mine alone, as anyone reading this must now acknowledge.

Except that there is no one reading this. Ah well. I'll see myself next week.