In 1936, the poets W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice got an advance to write a travel book about Iceland. Reading Don Juan on the boat over from Hull that June, Auden decided that it should be structured around a letter in verse to Lord Byron:
Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.
The trip had been planned as a holiday; an attempt to get a perspective on Europe. Auden and MacNeice clearly enjoyed themselves, but signs of the impending Second World War provided what Auden called ‘the orchestral background’ to the book: a gently mounting horror-film drone behind their inept adventuring (MacNeice didn’t bring any camping equipment, and the tent Auden brought collapsed on them on the first night. MacNeice tells us that Auden, wearing pyjamas, flannel trousers, riding breeches, two shirts, a golf jacket, a coat and an oilskin, looked like ‘something out of Brueghel’ while he was trying to inflate the airbed, and moved ‘like something that would be more at home on water’.) News of Franco’s uprising against the government of Spain reached them in July, and at one point, Auden exchanged ‘politenesses’ with Goering’s brother at breakfast.
The island was awash with Nazis searching out the genetic cradle of the Aryan race, and read now, Letters from Iceland is a book that seems to display the horrors of fascism at a kind of embryonic stage. But it goes further than that, finding its DNA in Romanticism, and wondering if Byron, were he alive today, would have fallen in with Oswald Mosley. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote, ‘with Picasso in painting, Stravinsky in music’, Auden was ‘a master of the uses of the past, projected into the present and prophesying a future’.
In a letter that ended up roughly halfway through the book, Auden describes meeting a ‘selfish little Englishman’ who viewed the struggle in Spain as nothing more than an inconvenience for tourists. The addressee, Erika Mann Auden, was Thomas Mann’s daughter. Auden – who was generally, but not exclusively interested in men – had agreed to marry her so she’d have an English replacement for the passport the Nazis were about to take away.
Auden’s letter mentions that he’d visited the whaling station of Talknafjördur. But before explaining, he interrupts himself by recalling a nightmare: in hospital for an appendix operation, he was befriended by an intense, violent man who follows him when he tries to escape; later on his father arrives. Then, suddenly, the letter switches back, and it is no longer the dreaming Auden being carved up:
I wish I could describe things well, for a whale is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. It combines the fascination of something alive, enormous, and gentle, with the functional beauties of modern machinery.
In the summer sun, with the radio, the chirping of a canary and the whistling of a workman in the background, the waking Auden watched as a seventy-ton whale was ‘torn to pieces with steam winches and cranes’, and a fifty-yard pool of blood flowed out into the bay past five other half-submerged corpses. In a verse-letter to the artist William Coldstream later in the book, he remembers the station as ‘slippery with filth – with guts and decaying flesh – like an artist’s palette’. In the letter to Erika,
A bell suddenly clanged and everyone stuck their spades in the carcass and went out for lunch. The body remained alone in the sun, the flesh still steaming a little. It gave one an extraordinary vision of the cold controlled ferocity of the human species.
In this book, at least, Auden had photography to help him describe. Perhaps he felt more inclined to experiment because of his recent work at the General Post Office film department, where he’d been allowed – with no prior expertise – not just to write verse, most famously for the film Night Mail, but to direct the shooting of scenes. It was a golden age of state-sponsored documentary, but Auden was going off its certainties. In February 1936, he published a review of Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Film, sceptical of ‘whether an artist can ever deal more than superficially […] with characters outside his own class’ (most British documentary directors, he pointed out, are ‘upper-middle’; he was no different). He was also sceptical of the disinterestedness of the large government departments or companies needed to fund these films.
The problems a pen and a camera posed were apparently fewer, or at least different. In July 1936, Auden believed that
any ordinary person could learn all the techniques of photography in a week. It is the democratic art, i.e. technical skill is practically eliminated – the more fool-proof cameras become with focusing and exposing gadgets the better – and artistic quality depends only on choice of subject.
According to the scholar Marsha Bryant, Auden scribbled the captions on the backs of the photographs so hard that his publishers worried they’d show through to the other side. The one on the photograph at the bottom right reads ‘Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour’, though it doesn’t show the whale itself. There are two overleaf – captioned ‘Flensing by Steam-winch’ and ‘The Corpse’ – which show it as abstract shapes, done violence by the workmen, and by the cropping of Auden’s camera.
In Flensing by Steam-winch, a thick rasher of whale is being torn along its length. Though the heads of six men are visible above the strip, and their chests through the loop it makes as it folds back over the body, they must only be helping – avoiding a wastefully messy tear by making guide-incisions, perhaps. The force is clearly coming from out of shot to our left, as if backwards over the other page, if you read the images in sequence. That’s where the central, diagonal form of Whaling Station comes in – surely this, with its shiny exposed pistons, and the toothy gears which hoist it up and down, is the steam-winch which is doing the flensing.
Auden’s framing makes it look like a howitzer abandoned among the deserted rubble of the station; a reminder of the landscape of the Great War, like the poetic description of 1936 as ‘the eighteenth year of the Western Peace’ that comes later in the book. Auden’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines would probably agree. In his reading, the memory of the whaling station returned to Auden in 1938, when he was in Brussels, looking at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting was then thought to be an original Pieter Brueghel, and perhaps the dim memory of how MacNeice had described him inflating the camp-bed made him loiter for a while. Either way, he turned it into one of his most famous poems, Musée des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
It reminds us, Davenport-Hines thought, ‘how easily we put aside other people’s catastrophes to pursue our petty quotidian comforts. Most of us stick our spades into the carcass while it is still steaming and go off for lunch.’ Though its specifics are a little different, Whaling Station was Auden’s version of this image, captured at a moment when he could talk of seeing
[…] as clearly as at the moment
The wraps of cellophane torn off
From cigarettes flit through the glass
Like glittering butterflies […]
Auden’s 1949 poem Memorial for the City is similar in that it describes blossom falling, entirely unaware any impropriety, on the dead. But the attitude towards photography that went along with it had changed. Auden had been disillusioned by his experience of the republican cause in Spain in 1937, and discombobulated by writing another collaborative travel book, this time in China with Christopher Isherwood in 1938. He had moved to America, met Chester Kallmann, the love of his life, and written ‘September 1, 1939’, on the outbreak of the Second World War and the end of a ‘low dishonest decade’. Gradually, he had rediscovered the unifying pattern of Christian faith. All of this shaped the lens through which he saw the images released from Auschwitz, and, during his work for the US Strategic Bombing Survey, the wholesale devastation of Germany. In Memorial for the City,
The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye
See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.
I Am Not a Camera – published in 1962, but assembled from observations in a 1947–64 notebook – ends
The camera may
do justice to laughter, but must
Where the Auden of 1936 had used photography in an effort to fill in for the documentary shortcomings of writing, here he used writing to express the documentary shortcomings of photography. He criticised it for being what the Auden scholar John Fuller called ‘the necessarily choiceless disposition of fact’: for being too much like the whalers blithely lunching on the periphery of vast suffering.
Letters from Iceland is island-like and separate in Auden’s attitudes to the camera, but worth a visit every now and again. It ends with an epilogue to Auden from MacNeice, now alone in London, looking back on the overshadowed fun of their trip, and forward to the mood of Autumn Journal (1939):
Our prerogatives as men
Will be cancelled who knows when;
Still I drink your health before
The gun-butt raps upon the door.
The newsletter of the W. H. Auden Society thought Davenport-Hines was getting carried away in his version of the whale story, overzealously scribbling his caption on the back of these images. But read now with a knowledge of the history that followed, the whole book seems to be about what it is to be just out of shot from coolly systematic violence.
Like Musée des Beaux Arts, it’s a case-study in the practicalities of witness; a contradiction to that famous line from another artistic visitor Spain in the 1930s, Robert Capa: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ It suggests the better, more eloquent picture might be off to one side somewhere.
Tom Overton’s writing has been published by the New Statesman, Apollo, Tate, the British Council, the British Library, openDemocracy, The White Review and others. The first volume of his edition of John Berger’s writing on art – prepared as a Fellow of the Henry Moore Institute, and the Centre for Life-writing Research at KCL – will be published by Verso in October. He’s working on a book of his own, and tweeting as @tw_overton.