I often wonder, when I’m avidly trawling across ‘e-bay’ for vintage postcards of Matlock Bath or delving into romantic poetry or the West Midlands Enlightenment, what it is that’s actually motivating me, what I’m really looking for. What’s causing the frisson of excitement; or causing me to value the often incidental and arcane information I discover. Is it as simple as thirst for knowledge?
An alternative, perhaps less conscious possibility was suggested in The Moor by William Atkins. In Chapter 8 The Watershed Atkins, walking on the remote Alston Moor in the North Pennines, reveals that the moor, and in particular the remote, decaying mining settlement of Rookhope were a spiritual epicentre for English poet, playwright, critic, and librettist W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden.
Legend has it that Auden was never far from an enlarged one-inch OS map of Alston Moor and what he called ‘My Great Good Place…’.
“For Auden in adulthood, Alston Moor was chiefly that map; its boundaries, rivers, passes and mines. But this moor […] was also a remembered place. In time, Auden became distanced from the land; his viewpoint rose from the earth’s surface and its evidences, and assumed a satellite’s perspective – a mapmaker’s. From the land’s people he had always been distant: ‘nameless to me, / faceless as heather or grouse, / are those who live there’.”
Atkin’s goes on to quote from Auden’s 1971 A Certain Place where he describes the moral significance of the Great Good Place:
“Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many waking hours in the fabrication of a secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry – lead mining […]. From this activity I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied to all artistic fabrication.”
Auden was far too urbane, too cosmopolitan to be described as anything like a Man of the Moors, however being unconcerned by the physical reality of these remote uplands he came to ‘love’ Alston Moor more than any other place. It was a place, both on the surface and beneath and through the lens of the sacred, secondary Eden he’d created as a boy, that he continued to explore (in his imagination) throughout his long, productive life.
In December 1947, in an article for House and Garden entitled ‘I Like it Cold’, Auden wrote:
“Though I was brought up on both, Norse mythology has always appealed to me infinitely more than Greek; Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen and George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin were my favourite fairy stories and years before I ever went there, the North of England was the Never-Never Land of my dreams. Nor did those feelings disappear when I finally did; to this day Crewe Junction marks the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends and the North, my world, begins.”
In her book, Auden, Barbara Everett commented on the poet’s facility: “In his verse, Auden can argue, reflect, joke, gossip, sing, analyze, lecture, hector, and simply talk; he can sound, at will, like a psychologist on a political platform, like a theologian at a party, or like a geologist in love; he can give dignity and authority to nonsensical theories, and make newspaper headlines sound both true and melodious.”
Auden’s poems of the late ‘20s are full of images of lead mining set against a background of fell, farm and valley, rock and water, curlew and ring ousel. ‘Missing’, written in Berlin in January 1929 is an example:
“From scars where kestrels hover
The leader looking over
Into the happy valley,
Orchard and curving river,
May turn away to see
The slow fastidious line
That disciplines the fell
Hear curlew’s creaking call
From angles unforeseen…”
Auden found derelict mines and mine gear symbolic of lost belief, impotent stoicism even death, and the silent chimneys, though cherished and admired, were unable to furnish answers. The following quote was taken from an extended essay Auden in the North which can be found can be found here.
It was in New Year Letter (1940) that Auden declared his Pennine allegiance in the clearest and most unequivocal form possible, defining the geographical area of his affection, naming precise locations and stressing the seminal importance of Rookhope in particular.”
Some of the most beautiful poems he wrote in America, from New Year Letter to Amor Loci, are love poems to the [North Pennine] English landscape.’ In Section II of The Annunciation there are passages resonant with Auden’s English preoccupations of the 1920s and ‘30s:
… I have observed
The sombre valley of an industry
In dereliction. Conduits, ponds, canals,
Distressed with weeds; engines and furnaces
At rust in rotting sheds; and their strong users
Transformed to spongy heaps of drunken flesh.
Deep among dock and dusty nettle lay
Each ruin of a will; manors of mould
Grew into empires as a westering sun
Left the air chilly; not a sound disturbed
The autumn dusk except a stertorous snore
That over their drowned condition like a sea Wept without grief.
Auden elaborated on this theme in his lecture to the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis on 12 March 1972:
‘Trying my hand at a little self-analysis, I note firstly that, even aside from the man-made caverns of mines, a limestone cavity is full of natural caverns and underground streams. Then, looking at the cross-sectioned diagrams of mines in my books I realise that they are like stylised pictures of the internal anatomy of the human body. As for my passion for lead mines, I note, firstly, that the word lead rhymes with dead and that lead is, or was, used for lining coffins: secondly that mining is the one human activity that is by nature mortal. Steam engines may render stage-coaches obsolete, but this can’t be foreseen. But when a mine is opened, everybody knows already, that however rich it may turn out to be, sooner or later it will become exhausted and be abandoned. Of this constructed world I was the only human inhabitant, although I equipped my mines with the most elaborate machinery, I never imagined any miners. Indeed, when I visited real mining areas, I preferred abandoned mines to working ones. Yet, whatever the unconscious relation between my sacred world and death may have been, [this?] I contemplated not with fear or grief but with intense joy and reverence.’
The fact that Auden carried with him some small part of a land that first fascinated him in childhood has resonated powerfully with me. A particular landscape, tangible and sacred, real and imagined, was an essential part of of his adult character, as I suspect it is mine. He spent a lifetime exploring his Great Good Place through prose and poetry; in a more pedestrian way it’s could be said it’s what I’m doing with my ‘navigating’ projects too, exploring a spiritual epicentre? I’m holding my Great Good Place(s) up to the light and looking closely.
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
The last lines of In Praise of Limestone by WH Auden