24/06/2013

British Library acquires W.H. Auden’s previously ‘lost’ journal

  • Acquired for £47,475 on Wednesday 12 June

The British Library has acquired one of just three journals kept by W H Auden. The journal, which provides a fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations, gives an intimate insight into Auden during one of the most important periods in his life. Used by the celebrated poet between August and November 1939, the unpublished journal has been in private hands since Auden’s death in 1973 until last month when it was unearthed and put up for auction by Christie’s.

Auden’s reflections in the diary are particularly interesting as they were written during the turbulent period which saw the outbreak of war in Europe and after Auden leaves England for the United States with novelist Christopher Isherwood, a decision considered shamefully unpatriotic by the British media and which even occasioned strong criticism in Parliament.

Auden began the journal on his return from California to New York in August 1939, following what he described as ‘the eleven happiest weeks of my life’ after the beginning of his relationship with the American poet Chester Kallman. Auden had met Kallman at a public poetry reading and this meeting was instrumental in Auden’s subsequent decision to remain in the US and become American citizen.

Auden’s entry for 1 September 1939 comprises an extended narration on his activities and preoccupations on this date, which sheds light on his famous poem of the same name.

The journal later becomes a commonplace book of poetry, including drafts of Auden’s own poems, but also his opinions on other writers (John Steinbeck coming in for particular criticism) and his word-play and metrical games offering interesting insights into his compositional methods.

The acquisition builds on the British Library’s existing Auden collections. Two Auden poetry notebooks were acquired by the Library in the 1960s under the auspices of the Arts Council’s National Manuscripts Collection of Contemporary Poets. The Library also holds further manuscript drafts of Auden’s poetry and prose, including from his long poem The Orators (1931) and from his late sequence About the House (1966), along with correspondence, including letters to John Betjeman. Rare live and studio recordings of Auden reading his own work are also held in the Library’s collection of drama and literature recordings.

The journal was acquired at auction for £47,475 and will be on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery from August 2013.

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