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Reference group
Auden group (act. c.1930–1939) is the name frequently bestowed by scholars on a collection of writers, musicians, and painters who, as members of what T. S. Eliot described as a ‘definitely post-war generation’, were thought to be more or less closely affiliated during the 1930s with the poet W. H. Auden. The thirties was a period in which party, class, and bloc solidarities commanded widespread loyalty in Britain. At a time of social crisis and conflict many citizens defined their own identities, and understood the identities of others, in terms of collective groupings. In this sense perception of the Auden ‘group’ was typical of the time. Its participants were characterized by their use of less floridly experimental literary styles than those prevalent in the 1920s; by an in the main left-of-centre political stance; and, to some extent, by an ethos of sexual dissidence.

None of those most closely involved ever used the phrase the ‘Auden group’ about themselves, and some authorities have claimed that the group was a mere fiction of copy-hungry journalists. Certainly the Auden group had no explicit programme, no delimited membership, and no regular meetings. However, the poet and editor Geoffrey Grigson, whose periodical New Verse (1933–9) was one of the main outlets for Auden and for others in his orbit, did articulate at the end of the decade the pervasive sense that Auden was one of the focal points of thirties writing and that there was a group of writers with shared values clustered around him. Operating with the benefit of inside knowledge, Grigson remarked that a book in which Auden featured prominently, Lions and Shadows (1938), the youthful memoir of Christopher Isherwood (the writer more closely aligned than any other with Auden) was ‘a reference and key book of the Auden Age and the Auden Circle’ (G. Grigson, ‘Education in the twenties’, New Verse, 29, March 1938, 19). The Auden group was something amorphous but real in the 1930s.

A deep sense of aloneness was the primary characteristic of Auden's first canonical poems, which are set in bleak, post-industrial northern landscapes. But even as Auden's own work seemed to emerge from an almost autistic isolation, he was, if his friend Stephen Spender is to be believed, intent on creating around him a faction that would seize the centre of the literary stage. At Oxford, Spender wrote, Auden ‘had the strongest sense of looking for colleagues and disciples, not just in poetry but in all the arts … A group of emergent artists existed in his mind, like a cabinet in the mind of a party leader’ (Spender, 57). There was perhaps a kind of salon des refusés dimension to this mental ‘cabinet’, a counter-grouping that Auden was engineering in order to assuage the regret he felt over being ostracized from Oxford's main undergraduate aesthetic set focused on Maurice Bowra at Wadham College.

In time Spender himself would come to be closely connected in the public mind with Auden and the Auden group, as would Isherwood and the poets Louis MacNeice and C. Day Lewis. More peripheral figures—members of Auden's circle of acquaintances and occasionally associated in one way or another with the Auden group or publicly supportive of it—included the novelist Edward Upward (1903–2009) and the poet–editor John Lehmann. In a non-literary context the musician Benjamin Britten and the painter William Coldstream were also deeply involved with Auden and his work.

Verbal network: myths of themselves

As Britain lurched through the traumas of the 1930s, the Auden group went through several distinct phases, first mythic, then practical, and, in the end, largely notional. At first the group was largely constituted in verbal terms from the enigmatically meaningful cross-references these self-dramatizing authors made to one another in their books, so creating (in MacNeice's phrase) ‘myths of themselves’ (L. MacNeice, ‘Poetry’, in Grigson, 56). Worshipful early public references to Auden appeared in Day Lewis's Transitional Poem (1929). Meanwhile Auden's ‘Paid on Both Sides’ (1930) was dedicated to Day Lewis and alluded to what would soon be talismanic names, such as ‘Stephen’ (Stephen Spender), ‘Rex’ (Rex Warner), and ‘Edward’ (Edward Upward). The book in which ‘Paid’ appeared, Auden's first, Poems (1930), was dedicated to Isherwood, that ‘severe Christopher’ as Auden had called him in a poem (‘I chose this lean country’, in Auden, 439).

Auden's reputation in the poetry world rose extraordinarily fast. As early as spring 1931 Ezra Pound was ridiculing the ‘Auden craze’ in Britain. This vogue for Auden's work was inseparable from the sense that he was not simply an individual poet but the foremost figure in a circle of writers. Francis Scarfe, in the first critical book written entirely on Auden's work (in 1949), commented that Auden's Poems (1930) ‘at once set him at the head of the advance guard of poets, and for a decade he set the tone and the fashion to his contemporaries’ (Scarfe, 12). Auden's work was featured prominently in two significant anthologies, New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), the latter of which featured talk of ‘revolution’ and in which Auden's ‘A Communist to Others’ appeared. Thus Auden's fame, and his status as the leader of a ‘cell’ of radical literary comrades, coalesced on the basis of works sometimes cliquish, sometimes apparently insurrectionary. As they did, elements of Auden's poetic iconography—what the critic Samuel Hynes calls ‘Auden Country’ with its ‘frontiers, passes, railheads, engines, turbines and mine workings; and climbers, soldiers, airmen, and miners’ (Hynes, 73)—began to diffuse into the work of others poets, as did some of Auden's characteristic stances and stylistic habits. By June 1933 one of London's leading literary journalists, Bonamy Dobrée, was announcing a new ‘school’ of literary ‘communists with an intense love for England’ of which ‘W. H. Auden is leader, round whom are grouped in particular Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis’ (B. Dobrée, ‘New life in English poetry’, The Listener, 14 June 1933, 958). The actual term the ‘Auden group’ appears to have been in circulation among commentators as early as 1936 and it became commonplace in subsequent decades.

Within a few years of Dobrée's suave evangelism, George Orwell, that determined nonconformist of the left, would be referring grumblingly to the ‘the high-water mark’ of socialist literature in Britain being ‘W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling, and the even feebler poets who are associated with him’ (G. Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937, ed. P. Davison, Complete Works of George Orwell, 1998, 5.170–71). In 1937, in the Auden ‘double number’ of New Verse, the poet George Barker, criticizing the ‘snobbery of clique’ in the writing produced by Auden and his friends, complained of his sense of ‘a sort of general conspiratorial wink being made behind my back to a young man who sometimes has the name of Christopher, sometimes Stephen, sometimes Derek [a reference to a mysterious character in Auden's The Orators (1932)] and sometimes Wystan’ (G. Barker, ‘Sixteen comments on Auden’, New Verse, 26–7, November 1937, 23). In a vain attempt to revive by then long-vanished complaints and fears of this kind, in 1946 the right-wing satirist Roy Campbell synthesized the collective creature ‘MacSpaunday’, a foppish literary hydra compounded from the names of the most prominent young leftist poets of the 1930s—MacNeice, Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis.

Auden was later inclined to dismiss the idea that there had ever been such a thing as the Auden group. For example in the 1960s he recalled the time when ‘there stalked through the pages of literary journalism a curious chimaera named Daylewisaudenmacneicespender’, arguing that ‘what we happened to have in common was the least interesting thing about us’ (‘A letter of introduction’, in G. Handley-Taylor and T. d'Arch Smith, C. Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate: a Bibliography, 1968, v). He also asserted, inaccurately, that the first time he, Day Lewis, and Spender had come together was in Venice in 1949. (In fact they had gathered at least once in the 1930s, when they participated in a live BBC broadcast in 1938.) Here as elsewhere, though Auden was a powerful critic of others' writings, he was not the most reliable guide to his own history or work. Deliberately or not, in the early 1930s Auden and his friends did create for readers the myth of a coherent literary movement, which in a chastened, ‘public’ style considered discredited middle-class values and the attempted regeneration of a national spirit and culture.

Group partnerships

By the mid-1930s, as the sense of historical encirclement in Europe increased, the second phase of the Auden group's existence began. The verbal group effect turned into something much more like a group practice. Juxtaposition of Auden's career in the mid-1930s with the far more solitary writing habits of, say, T. S. Eliot—the most prestigious poet in London in the 1920s—shows that Auden's activities were marked to an unusual degree by all kinds of anti-individualistic collaborations. Many of his associates also began to work together in such collective contexts as the theatre. These activities consolidated the idea that the Auden group was not just a circle of back-scratching friends from a shared upper middle-class, public-school background, nor just one of what Cyril Connolly described as the cliques of writers who ‘ascend’ the ‘moving staircase … in groups of four or five’ (C. Connolly, Enemies of Promise, 1938, 123), but a cluster of artists with shared aesthetic and political values. The open secret of the homosexuality of some of the group's key members, including Auden, added for sympathetic readers a further element to the group's radical identity, because, as one author wrote, ‘Every illicit sexual act seemed a blow struck in aid of an ideal theoretical freedom’ (Symons, 33). In turn Orwell lumped together and denounced the group members' pansy natures, literary and erotic, and correlated this with their apparently servile reverence, in truth far more imagined than real, for the Communist Party.

The circle's first true artistic partnership had begun as early as 1929, when Auden and Isherwood, the two writers at the very centre of the group, worked together on an unpublished and unperformed play, The Enemies of a Bishop. As the 1930s wore on the number of collaborations directly or indirectly involving Auden multiplied. He wrote a ‘masque’, The Dance of Death (1933), for performance by the Group Theatre, run by Rupert Doone (Reginald Ernest Woodfell, (1903–1966)) and Robert Medley. Their theatre company became strongly linked to Auden, and also gave the first productions to Auden and Isherwood's plays The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1937–8). Like a literary impresario, Auden was also the figure in the group through whom other artists connected with one another on separate projects. For instance the Group Theatre staged Louis MacNeice's translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus in 1936 and his play Out of the Picture (1937) at the time when he and Auden were co-writing a travel book, Letters from Iceland (1937). To increase the sense of the web of connections that radiated out from Auden, it is worth noting that Benjamin Britten provided the music for all these Group Theatre productions by Auden, Isherwood, and MacNeice (bar The Dance of Death and The Dog Beneath the Skin). At the GPO Film Unit, where Auden worked briefly from 1935 to 1936, he collaborated with Coldstream and Britten on several jobs, the first of them Coal Face (1935). Auden and Britten also worked together on the 1936 documentary classic Night Mail.

These collaborations from the mid-1930s emerged during the time when the Auden group had its most substantive practical instantiation. The years in which Britten was furnishing the music for the later Auden and Isherwood dramas, as well as working with Auden on Coal Face and Night Mail, were also those in which Auden provided Britten with a cycle of texts for cabaret songs to be performed by Hedli Anderson (1907–1990), including ‘Blues’ (‘Ladies and gentlemen, sitting here’) and ‘O tell me the truth about love’ (‘Some say that love's a little boy’). Anderson (who married MacNeice in July 1942) was also the first artist to sing the famous lyric now usually known as ‘Funeral Blues’ (‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’), set to Britten's music, in the 1937 staging of The Ascent of F6, which Doone produced and for which Medley provided the masks and costumes. More substantially, in 1936 Auden organized a set of texts, including two of his own poems, that were set by Britten in his first important song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, a musical parable with discernible political undertones about humanity's pitiless exploitation both of the animal world and of other human beings. Britten was later to call Our Hunting Fathers ‘my real opus 1’. In addition, in 1937 Britten provided Auden with the incidental music for Auden's radio play Hadrian's Wall. In the mid-1930s few artistic schemes by one member of the circle seemed complete without the involvement of one or more other members.

The cross-fertilizations were not confined to the theatre and cabaret. Another aspect of the collaborative ethos of the Auden group was the collective's involvement with painting. At one point Spender even briefly contemplated abandoning poetry for art. In 1936, the year that one commentator called ‘not only the middle of the decade, but also the heart of the Thirties dream’ (Symons, 51), Auden's interest in painting, and especially the painting of Coldstream and other artists of the Euston Road School, reached its zenith. In that year, he addressed one of his most important manifesto poems to Coldstream (‘This, Bill, is a little donnish experiment in objective narrative’) and included it in Letters from Iceland, the book he co-wrote with MacNeice and to which he had at one stage hoped Coldstream might contribute illustrations. In addition, Coldstream painted both Auden's mother and Auden himself in 1936–7, the latter being only the second known portrait in oils of Auden. (The first, painted by Robert Medley in 1927, is apparently lost.) In 1937 Coldstream also painted other key group members, Spender and Isherwood, thus giving visual solidity to the idea of the Auden group.

In spite of these numerous, multi-generic collaborations, it would be wrong to think that Auden was an indiscriminate co-worker. Indeed, like any poet, he was innately fastidious about the uses to which he would put his writing. One fine calibration of how close to the core of the Auden group, and hence to Auden, any individual was, is to notice the kind and intensity of the collaborations he had with Auden. By this measure both Day Lewis (with whom Auden did no more than co-edit a volume of Oxford Poetry while they were undergraduates) and Spender (with whom Auden had only vague, never realized, plans to go on a lecture tour in America in 1937–8, and with whom he otherwise managed to avoid working altogether) were not really key participants in Auden's supra-personal artistic vision. Much more important in this respect were other artists of considerable stature in their own rights: MacNeice, Britten, and Coldstream.

Auden and Isherwood

In the late 1930s the nature of the Auden group altered again. By far the most significant of Auden's collaborators had always been Isherwood, whom Auden revered, once writing of him: ‘A brilliant young novelist? / My greatest friend? / Si, Signor’ (poem, dated ‘Dover. Sept 3 1937’, written into a copy of D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems that Auden presented to Isherwood; it was first published in B. Finney, Christopher Isherwood: a Critical Biography, 1979, 289). Together for much of the decade, Auden and Isherwood not only wrote the four plays previously mentioned, but also undertook a lengthy visit to eastern China in 1938, a journey that resulted in their important travel book about the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War. In the second half of the 1930s, as the idea of the Auden group became more of a public commonplace, privately the collaborative project at its heart was narrowing to a company of two: Auden and Isherwood. Auden liked to claim that in their collaborations his own exalting poetic voice needed the antidote of Isherwood's ironic prose. In fact, by the decade's end, their individual styles had come close to being almost a single, syncretic vision. The phenomenon is clear in their mutual fondness for mildly surreal similes. For example Auden writes of ‘poets exploding like bombs’ and Isherwood of birds calling ‘with sudden uncanny violence, like alarm clocks going off’ (‘Spain’ in Auden, 212; C. Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, 1939, in The Berlin Stories, 1945, 76) . Similarly, in the ‘Travel diary’, which Isherwood wrote up as a first-person narrative in his own voice for Journey to a War, he was able to synthesize passages from the notebooks that both men had kept during the visit to China. Small wonder that during their lengthy travels in the Far East some of the postcards they sent to friends in England were signed ‘Wystopher’.

It is significant that in 1938, when Isherwood published Lions and Shadows, he should have looked back to his ‘education in the twenties’ (the book's subtitle) and to the very beginnings of the Auden group. The volume was thus, among others things, an elegiac portrait of the group's beginnings written at the moment when it was falling apart. Predictably, by the end of the decade a younger generation of poets, such as the anti-Oxbridge circle of which Julian Symons, Alan Ross, and Roy Fuller were key members, was turning against what Symons disdainfully called the ‘Pylons-Pitworks-Pansy’ style (J. Symons, ‘Words as narrative’, Twentieth Century Verse, 1, January 1937, quoted in Cunningham, 31). Neo-romantic, pseudo-surreal, and rhapsodic poets, in particular Dylan Thomas, were becoming much more fashionable in Britain. At the same time, Auden despaired of his former nationalistic and regenerative ambitions for England, was wearying of his now familiar public role as group leader, and feared developing into what his brother once called ‘a court and establishment poet’ (John B. Auden to Humphrey Carpenter, quoted in TLS, 20 April 1980). This fear was probably well justified: Auden had accepted the king's gold medal for poetry in 1937, an act seen as a betrayal by some of his more politicized supporters.

The group ethos itself was fading in relevance culturally; the moment of the Auden group had passed. In January 1939 its battered nucleus, Auden himself and Isherwood, went to America, looking for new subjects and an escape from the insularity of British literary life. They hoped to write a travel book to be entitled ‘Address Not Known’. But within a few months, under the combined pressures of war, culture shock, and personal exhaustion, even Auden and Isherwood's once vital connection as artists had been largely eroded. Isherwood travelled to Hollywood while Auden remained in New York. In the United States, where existentialism and spirituality were in the ascendant in intellectual circles, Auden inaugurated one of the most prolific phases of his career. As had been the case more than a decade before when his earliest poems had expressed a deep sense of solitariness, it was a phase that he was beginning alone.

Nicholas Jenkins


W. H. Auden, The English Auden: poems, essays and dramatic writings, 1927–1939, ed. E. Mendelson (1977) · V. Cunningham, British writers of the thirties (1989) · G. Grigson, ed., The arts today (1935) · J. Haffenden, ed., W. H. Auden: the critical heritage (1983) · S. Hynes, The Auden generation: literature and politics in England in the 1930s (1976) · F. Scarfe, Auden (1949) · S. Spender, World within world: the autobiography of Stephen Spender (1951) · J. Symons, The thirties: a dream revolved (1960) · www.brittenpears.org/?page=britten%2Frepertoire%2Fresults.html&work=62, accessed on 17 April 2008