The Derbyshire connections of celebrated poet and writer W H Auden

Time for reflection - the poet W. H. Auden around 1968 a few years before his death

Time for reflection - the poet W. H. Auden around 1968 a few years before his death - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life traces the local connections of the celebrated poet and writer

St Michael's church at Church Broughton where two Audens had a long incumbency. The poet W. H. Auden visited as a boy Photo ...

St Michael's church at Church Broughton where two Audens had a long incumbency. The poet W. H. Auden visited as a boy Photo Ashley Franklin - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire is scarcely renowned for native poetic genius. Despite producing some admirable poets the big names are lacking. But reflected honours can be garnered through ‘local connections’. A curious example is acclaimed 20th century poet W H Auden – popularly-recognised today for his moving 1930 poem ‘Stop all the Clocks’ from the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was neither born nor lived in Derbyshire, yet is irrevocably entwined with the county – and with Staffordshire too – through strong family links, significant visits, and key friendships.

His Derbyshire narrative embraces Repton, Derby, the Peak District and Church Broughton – while the Staffs-border villages Rolleston, Horninglow and Dunstall each feature in the poet’s ancestral fabric.

This bespoke Auden trail begins in the 19th century with wealthy Staffordshire landowner William Hopkins and his Newton Solney-born wife Anne Higgott. They resided first at Rolleston-on-Dove and later Dunstall Hall near Barton-under-Needwood. Three of their daughters – each considered beautiful – were married to three clergymen, all Auden brothers raised in Rowley Regis, Staffordshire.

Wystan Auden around the time of the First World War when he had ambitions to be a geologist or mining engineer

Wystan Auden around the time of the First World War when he had ambitions to be a geologist or mining engineer - Credit: Archant

By this convenient hat-trick the relatively straitened Auden clerics secured comfortable Church of England livings. Significant among them was John Auden (1831-76) who in 1859 at Dunstall had married Rolleston-born Sarah Eliza Hopkins (1838-1925).

In 1866 he took the living of St John’s in Horninglow, a splendid new church erected through the benefaction of his father-in-law William Hopkins. This established W H Auden’s indelible link with Horninglow – then a small village near Burton – for the Reverend John Auden was the poet’s paternal grandfather.

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One of John and Sarah’s eight children was the poet’s father George Augustus Auden (1872-1957) born in Horninglow. Sadly Reverend John Auden died in 1876 when son George was only four – this precipitated the Auden connection with Derby and Repton.

Widowed Sarah Auden moved her family first to 37 Hartington Street, Derby – a fine townhouse now converted to flats. Thus W H Auden’s father George was for a time ‘a Derby boy’, as was his brother Thomas Edward Auden (1864-1936) – the poet’s uncle – who attended Derby School.

The Auden family residence 'The Poplars' on Rolleston Road, Horninglow, The poet W H Auden visited as a boy to see his grandm...

The Auden family residence 'The Poplars' on Rolleston Road, Horninglow, The poet W H Auden visited as a boy to see his grandmother Sarah Eliza Auden - Credit: Archant

This Derby sojourn endured into the 1880s when the Audens removed to the substantial residence ‘Danesgate’ in Repton. When her children attained adulthood, Sarah Auden returned to another Auden stronghold, ‘The Poplars’ in Horninglow, but ‘Danesgate’ remained in continuous Auden ownership until very recently, having been home to successive members of the historic Burton legal firm Goodger Auden.

George Augustus Auden was educated at Repton School. On leaving he pursued a medical career and in 1899 married Constance Rosalie Bicknell. Had the couple settled in Repton their son ‘W H’ would have been ‘the Derbyshire poet’ – but Dr Auden established himself in York where on 21st February 1907 Wystan Hugh Auden was born, the youngest of three sons.

But of course Repton named him. Whilst there George Auden became a keen antiquarian with a particular fascination for the parish church of St Wystan and its Saxon crypt – thus Wystan was christened. The poet cherished the name, once stating ‘I should be furious if ever I met another Wystan’.

George and his family moved from York back to the Midlands the year after Wystan’s birth. When Dr Auden was appointed Birmingham’s first school medical officer the family settled in Solihull. This proved quite convenient for young Wystan’s trips to relatives in Derbyshire and Staffordshire. One of these boyhood jaunts took Wystan to Church Broughton – around the time of the First World War – where from 1864-1904 his grandfather’s brother William Auden had been vicar of St Michael’s. His successor there was Wystan’s uncle Alfred who presided from 1904 to 1933 – a veritable Auden dynasty.

St John's church at Horninglow where W H Auden's grandfather John Auden was the first vicar

St John's church at Horninglow where W H Auden's grandfather John Auden was the first vicar - Credit: Archant

The weather cock atop the church still carries a century-old blemish said to have been inflicted by a high-spirited young member of the Auden clan with a firearm. Village lore suggests the sharpshooter was Wystan. This sounds atypical of Auden – but perhaps ‘boys will be boys’, even sensitive budding poets.

But thereby hangs another tale, for at that time Auden had no poetic designs, harbouring instead the more rugged desire to be a celebrated geologist or mining engineer. Years later Auden reflected that this curious boyhood ambition was inspired by visits to the Peak District.

For the duration of the 1914-18 war while Wystan’s father served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France, his mother moved from their Solihull home into lodgings, and during the school holidays took her boys Bernard, John and Wystan on regular trips away, often to relatives.

Soon after the start of the war – Wystan would be about eight – they stayed in the village of Bradwell near Castleton and enjoyed long moorland walks which introduced Wystan to new landscapes and mysterious disused lead mines.

A statue of StWystan above the doorway of Repton Church - it gave Wystan Auden his unusual name

A statue of StWystan above the doorway of Repton Church - it gave Wystan Auden his unusual name - Credit: Archant

One outing that made a lasting impression was to the Blue John Caverns in Castleton – Wystan became enchanted by this subterranean world and soon declared his career intentions. Years later – pondering a notebook in which he had recorded ‘Derbyshire mining terms’ – he admitted: ‘It all sounds rather mad now, but I actually began talking like a professor of geology. My aunts and uncles thought me quite atrocious.’

He retained this dream ambition well into his teens until a sudden change – instead it was his brother John Bicknell Auden who became a leading geologist.

Wystan’s awakening occurred in March 1922 at his school Gresham’s in Norfolk. He was 15 and impressionable – on a country walk with an older boy he was encouraged to pen some verse. Auden swiftly declared he would be a poet!

Some of his earliest efforts referenced Derbyshire places. His ‘Frost’ mentions skating on the pond at Winster – and in May 1925 in his final year at school he penned an entire poem on the charms of Ticknall.

From school Auden went on to Oxford and there established his credentials. In 1930 his first published work Poems emerged and he came to be regarded as the most talented poet of his generation. His 1948 ‘In Praise of Limestone’ was again a nod to Derbyshire memories. Lines from this appear on a limestone pavement ‘Millennium art installation’ near Gratton Dale in the White Peak – a fitting tribute.

Auden’s lifetime output was prolific – some 400 poems, a similar number of essays and reviews, along with plays and film scripts. But with celebrity came the closest scrutiny – not least of his complex and often troubled private life. Auden was homosexual in an age less enlightened than now.

Here Repton again looms large, for Auden had a long but intermittent relationship with fellow writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) who from 1919 to 1922 had been a pupil at Repton School. The two travelled widely together – their brief stay in Berlin in 1928-29 excites particular fascination among Auden scholars. Isherwood spent further time there and the Old Reptonian’s colourful experiences inspired his 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin on which the 1972 film Cabaret was ultimately based.

His friend Auden ultimately felt pressured in his homeland. In 1939 he moved to the United States and in 1946 took American citizenship. He adopted the habit of wintering in New York and spending summers first in Italy and later Austria.

Yet his links with Derbyshire and Staffordshire endured – the poet never abandoned his roots and revisited periodically. His widowed father George Auden had returned to live in Repton, and when he died there in May 1957 Wystan attended the funeral at St Wystan’s Church with his two brothers.

In autumn 1966 he attended the centenary celebrations of St John’s Church in Horninglow – where grandfather John Auden had been first vicar – and read out some of his work to parishioners in the church hall. A day later he gave a talk at Repton School.

By then approaching 60 Auden began to feel the tug of ‘home’ – in 1972 he declared his intention to spend more extended time in England. In the interim he accepted an invitation to open a new library in November 1973 on Blagreaves Lane in Littleover.

Auden never made it – after spending summer in Austria the poet was returning to England when on 29th September 1973 he died aged 66 of heart failure in Vienna. A tribute in words and music was held in Derby Cathedral – Blagreaves Library was opened by his friend and fellow writer Stephen Spender.

In the years following Auden’s death ‘academic interest’ in his work grew – yet much of the ‘general public’ barely knew his name. This changed unexpectedly with the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) in which Auden’s poignant poem ‘Stop all the Clocks’ was read. This awakened a whole new generation to Auden’s talent – a volume of his love poems published at the time became an instant bestseller.

We cannot label W H Auden ‘the Derbyshire poet’ but his connections hereabouts run deep. Those offered here are selected fragments – for enthusiasts willing to dig further there is a rich seam of ‘Audenalia’ to be locally-mined. The budding geologist turned celebrated poet might have appreciated that.

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