Auden and the OED

This page provides an outline sketch on Auden and the first edition of the OED, followed by discussion of some of the Dictionary words in his poetry.1 Details of his reciprocal treatment by the OED follow in Auden in the OED Supplement and Auden in OED3.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

Auden in 1939. Source: Wikipedia

Auden was a famous, even notorious dictionary reader. He once declared that if marooned on a desert island, he would choose to have with him ‘a good dictionary’ in preference to ‘the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways’.2

Humphrey Carpenter’s biography describes how, while an undergraduate at Christ Church, Auden impressed many of his contemporaries with his voracious appetite for words:

In his conversation as in his poetry, he used a vocabulary drawn from scientific, psychological and philosophical terminology, and from his discoveries among the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words like ‘glabrous’, ‘sordes’, ‘callipygous’, ‘peptonised’ (which all appeared in his poetry during this period) delighted him but disconcerted his listeners. ‘I did not understand much of what Wystan said,’ recorded one undergraduate contemporary, who nevertheless ‘felt it was important because of the portentous manner in which he said it.’

Carpenter 1983: 66

This early obsession with the OED – then still appearing from OUP in successive installments before its completion in 1928, the year Auden graduated with a third-class degree – may have been related to his other early passion for geology. In both cases, meaning could be discovered by exploring the layered strata of the past (see Fossil poetry).3

Various later accounts of Auden report his continued fascination with the OED; for example, the musicologist Robert Craft describes him ‘sprawled on the floor of his New York apartment, surrounded by open volumes of Saintsbury’s prosody and the O.E.D.’ in 1958 (Stravinsky and Craft 1963: 108).4 Carpenter gives a memorable account of the pride of place enjoyed by OED in Auden’s study in his house at Kirchstetten, Austria, towards the end of his life:

Auden’s workroom—the upper room, reached by an outside staircase, and always shown proudly to visitors, was…bare, with piles of books (no bookcases), a desk on a raised platform by the window, and a portable typewriter on which Auden composed his book-reviews and articles and made fair copies of his poems. The most prominent object in the workroom was a set of the Oxford English Dictionary, missing one volume, which was downstairs, Auden invariably using it as a cushion to sit on when at table—as if (a friend observed) he was a child not quite big enough for the nursery furniture.

Carpenter 1983: 390-1

This copy of the OED was his second. By 1972, when Auden returned to Oxford to live in grace and favour lodgings at Christ Church College (where he had been based while Professor of Poetry in 1956-61), Auden’s first copy was so worn out he was then considering buying a new one (Carpenter 1983: 419; apparently reliant on Rosen 1975: 219). The second copy, of the thirteen-volume 1933 re-issue – somewhat foxed and with stained covers, but in mostly good condition – is now held at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, a gift from the poet J. D. McClatchy. McClatchy was given the copy by the poet James Merrill, who in turn received it from Auden’s partner and literary executor Chester Kallman after Auden’s death in 1973; see McClatchy’s poem ‘Auden’s OED’ in his collection Ten Commandments (McClatchy 1998a: 86; cf. McClatchy 1998b: 47-8).

Auden’s OED, vol 1: inscription from James Merrill to J. D. McClatchy. Source: Beinecke Library

Dictionary words in Auden’s poetry

Auden’s poems (particularly the later ones) are peppered with abstruse vocabulary, much of which can only be elucidated with the help of a dictionary – sometimes a dialect dictionary, but often the OED.

The effect on his poetry was not always welcomed. As Frank Kermode points out in a review of Epistle to a Godson, a collection of Auden’s poems published in 1972, ‘sometimes you find two learned freaks together, in such a way that it looks as if the poet has only that morning been browsing [through the dictionary]: eutrophied, eucatastrophe; obtemper, obumbrate‘.5

Pages from Epistle to Godson (London: Faber, 1972) with examples of some of the dictionary words complained of. Source: Sigedon Books and Antiques

Denis Donoghue reacted with similar tartness to the same collection, in a review entitled ‘Good Grief’:

…Mr Auden, it is well known and in part approved, has been making merry with the dictionary in recent years. I suppose he thinks of them as pure poetry, containing thousands of words virtually untouched by human hands; marvelous words now archaic, obsolete, and for that very reason waiting to be resuscitated by a poet addicted to that pleasure. . . .

Haffenden 1983: 480-846

‘A Bad Night’, subtitled ‘A Lexical Exercise’, is an obvious example of a dictionary-inspired poem. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc. In context, however, they are much more communicative:

Buffeted often
By blouts of hail
Or pirries of rain,
On stolchy paths…

ll. 10-21; Auden 1976: 631-2

The syntax, together with the sound qualities of these unfamiliar words, rough out for us a perfectly adequate impression of their meaning. OED functions as a useful reference point, supplying the definitions of the words and instances of their use that Auden himself presumably read and pondered on as part of the ‘exercise’ of composing the poem.

OED is helpful not only in explaining to us what Auden apparently meant, but also in providing clues as to why he chose as he did. The word hirple at line 8 of ‘A Bad Night’ (‘Far he must hirple,/Clumsied by cold’) may have been prompted by one of OED’s citations for hoast, which crops up later in the poem (‘Fetched into conscience/By a hoasting fit’), from Ritson’s Scotish Songs (1794): ‘He hosts and he hirples the weary day long’. (hoast means ‘To cough’; hirple, ‘To move with a gait between walking and crawling’).

OED1 citations may also explain Auden’s choice of the word curmurr in ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat X’ (‘two doters who wish/to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish/belong in restaurants’), where the reference is to the undesirability of cooing lovers as guests at a dinner party. OED defines curmurr as ‘to make a low murmuring or purring sound’; the single illustrative quotation (from Blackwoods Magazine in 1831) more precisely connotes the behaviour of two lovers over a meal: ‘They two [cats] sit curmurring, forgetful of mice and milk, of all but love’.

The verbal noun curmurring gets a separate entry in OED, and is defined as ‘a low rumbling, growling, or murmuring sound’; the two illustrative quotations (one from Burns, one from Walter Scott) both use the word to refer to the noise made in digesting food – suggesting prandial connotations closer to Auden’s use than to the OED definition.

It seems possible, perhaps likely, either that the various quotations suggested the context of the word in Auden’s poem, or that his context reminded Auden of the quotations, and hence recalled the word curmurr to him for use in this instance.

Earlier in the same poem, Auden’s use of the archaic word port as a verb (‘only cops port arms’) may similarly have been triggered by reading the last quotation for this sense in OED1, dated 1711: ‘They had ported arms without license’.

It’s possible to play this game indefinitely, returning to the OED with the words Auden seems to have lifted from it in the first place, and trying to retrace his readings through the pages of the Dictionary in an attempt to shed some light on the way his mind connected disparate contexts. See the next page, Auden in OED Supplement, for OED’s response.

Auden in the Tom Quadrangle at Christ Church College, Oxford. Source: Financial Times

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  1. Drawn from Brewer 2007b: 193-95, with later additions.
  2. Auden 1963: 4. Billy Connolly specified the OED as his desert island luxury for the BBC radio programme in July 2002, while Lord Birkett said he would do the same in 1953 (The Times, 22 June 1953, p. 3). The idea was apparently first stated by The New Statesman in or before 1915, as reported in The Periodical, 15 September 1915, p. 16, and was repeated by Stanley Baldwin in his speech at the Goldsmiths’ banquet to celebrate the completion of OED in 1928 (Speeches: p. 10). We thank Peter Gilliver for his help here.
  3. On Auden’s interest in geology see his free-access ODNB entry, by his literary executor Edward Mendelson, and Carpenter 1983, e.g. p. 14. His brother, John Bicknell Auden, became a distinguished geologist and has his own ODNB entry (subscription only).
  4. Thanks to Peter Gilliver for this reference.
  5. Kermode’s review was originally published in The Listener in 1972 and is reprinted in Haffenden (1983: 470-73).
  6. Originally published in The New York Review of Books in July 1973.

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