Best of Brit Lit
This week, The Times Literary Supplement published newly discovered hymns about Lenin that W.H. Auden wrote for a propaganda film. Plus more from the editor of the TLS.
“No father for his children did/What LENIN did for us” are not the lines for which the poet, W.H. Auden, would most want to be remembered. Nor these: "My face in a dark prison lay/And blind by life remained/No learning mine nor light of day, /A slave although unchained."
Yet any unpublished poems by Auden are a "scoop" of a kind, and this week the TLS prints his three hymns to Lenin for the first time. Research in the British Film Institute Library by David Collard has uncovered three manuscript pages in Auden’s best handwriting, “blue ink on cheap unwatermarked paper,” part of the soundtrack for the world premiere of a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Stalin to mark the 10th anniversary of Lenin’s death. By comparing the literal translation with the final version, writes Collard, there are clues not only to the poet’s own feelings, it is “also possible to see how Auden’s genius engaged with the unpromising source material.”
The Great British Crisis; 1918-1939
Other echoes of Britain in the '30s come from Richard Overy’s new study , The Morbid Age. The author notes an interwar obsession with “death and decay,” caused less by financial woes than by the general sense of a European barbarism at the gates. Nazism was the “occasion as much as the cause of that concern.” The TLS critic Richard Vinen finds the book “ambitious and stimulating,” but with too little note of the morbidity pouring out each Sunday from the pulpits of the Church of England. In the world of poetry, a volume of verse by the Christian sentimentalist Patience Strong sold 100,000 copies within a year of publication.
Andrew Motion’s Poetic Pains
Britain has a new poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, an old friend of the TLS and the first woman to hold the royal post in its more than 300-year history. The former tradition was for the laureate to keep his job for life. But Andrew Motion took it only for 10 years, and he is now free to resume a poet's life without the expectation that he will produce verses for the Queen's birthdays and other great national events. The last collection of his laureate years, The Cinder Path, receives a mixed reception this week, praise for its “poignant candor,” dissatisfaction that his language of high inspiration “has pitched its sights so low.”
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.