Northern Antiquity: The Post-Medieval Reception of Edda and Saga

By Andrew Wawn | Go to book overview

11
‘The North begins inside’: Auden,
Ancestry and Iceland

SVEINN HARALDSSON

In my childhood dreams Iceland was holy ground; when, at the age
of twenty-nine, I saw it for the first time, the reality verified my
dream; at fifty-seven it was holy ground still, with the most magical
light of anywhere on earth. (Auden 1967, 10)

This quotation from W.H. Auden’s foreword to Letters from Iceland shows what a central role Iceland played in Auden’s imagination all through his life. As Valentine Cunningham puts it:

A mythic north compelled the grown-up Auden as it had Auden the
little boy, both conscious of their Icelandic roots. (Cunningham 1989,
166)

In this article I intend to shed some light on Auden’s ‘Icelandic roots’, the background to his interest in Iceland and things Icelandic, and show how they formed a part of his identity.


I

Strangely enough, apart from occasional references to Old Norse literature and a few metrical experiments, there are few direct references to Iceland in Auden’s poetry. There is, it is true, a discernible influence from Germanic poetic metres, but this can be attributed more to AngloSaxon than Old Norse literary models. Auden’s earliest poetry has a Norse flavour to it and is set in an imagined world which is recognisably Northern, but the general lack of references to Iceland in Auden’s favourite literary medium is puzzling. There is nothing comparable to the other great icon of Anglo-Old Norse literary relations, the Victorian poet William Morris, half of whose Collected Works are translations of sagas, poems based on Old Norse literature, romances derived from Icelandic sources or travel literature about Iceland. Auden was a very different kind of poet who ‘restored to poetry an encyclopedic fullness of subject matter and style’ (Mendelson 1981, xxi). Such a poet could not be fettered by the literary forms and themes of a long gone age. Instead he mined

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