The English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born 100 years ago this week. He wrote over 400 poems, and he was always known by his initials – W H Auden.
When he was young, he was a radical, both in his politics and his poetry. But – like many of us – he became more conservative as he grew older. A lot of people did not like Auden or his poetry. In particular, they criticised him because he left Britain to live in America during the Second World War. But some of Auden’s poems have remained very popular. One of them is called Night Mail. There is a link from the podcast website to a site which has the full text of the poem. I am going to read you only a few bits. There is a grammar and vocabulary note for the podcast. It is on the website, and – as an experiment – I have also posted it as a pdf file which you should be able to download direct from iTunes. (You will however need Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer).
How did the poem come to be written? In the 1930s, the Post Office decided to make a short film about the mail trains which carried letters and parcels overnight between England and Scotland. The composer Benjamin Britten wrote music for the film and the Post Office asked W H Auden to write a poem as part of the commentary. The Night Mail was one of the famous “travelling post offices”. The men and women who worked on the train sorted the letters and parcels as the train travelled through the night. The Night Mail was of course pulled by an express steam locomotive. It was a magnificent sight as it thundered northwards. Auden’s poem began:
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb,
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Auden tells us about the letters which the train was carrying:
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations..
Of course, letters were much more important to people in the 1930’s than they are today. Today we keep in touch with friends and relatives by telephone or e-mail. Most of the letters I receive are what we call junk mail – catalogues for things I don’t want to buy, special offers on car insurance and mobile telephones.
At the end of the poem, Auden tells us about the people all over Scotland who are still asleep and dreaming.
But they shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Artwork from poster for the film Night Mail