Through the Looking Glass: the Auden set

Modern Oxford was created by poets and novelists. Sure, the University can do its best with videos showing students in jeans and t-shirts, and we can point all we want to research groups winning Nobel prizes. But to the popular imagination, none of that is Oxford. For the public, Oxford is still the city of undergraduates wasting away their time, reciting poetry, drinking heavily, and dressed up at hall while they settle the grand issues of the day. This is the incubator of the great poets and politicians of the future. And perhaps no group of individuals epitomised this more than the Auden Set.

Admittedly, the Auden Set is not a true set. Its members (W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice) only had three things in common—poetry, Oxford, and left-wing politics. As undergraduates, only Auden and Day-Lewis could have honestly been described as close friends. It was only later, when journalists began to notice the similarities in the trajectories of their lives, that the set was born.

Journalists would later try to imagine that they had other things in common—Auden and Spender’s homosexuality made people question the sexuality of heterosexual Day-Lewis and MacNeice, and some even began to view it as a communist undergraduate cabal. Yet even so, the fact is that four of the greatest poets of the English language in the 20th century all attended our university at the same time as undergraduates.

Auden and Day-Lewis worked together for poetry collections, learning from each other and teaching each other the skills of their art. Day-Lewis, who studied English at Wadham, was instrumental in making Auden, who was at Christ Church, move from a degree in zoology to one in English literature. As undergraduates, Auden and Day-Lewis collaborated in a poetry collection, unimaginatively titled Oxford Poetry. After their undergraduate years, Auden and Day-Lewis went their separate ways, but each still continued to influence each other.

There is a reason why the set of poets is most commonly known as the Auden Set. For although Day-Lewis, Spender, and MacNeice all have their merits, none of them reaches the heights of Auden. Indeed, much of the worst poetry written by the others was written in imitation of Auden’s clipped, political style.

Take Day-Lewis, the man who turned Auden into a poet. His poems suffered for years in imitation of Auden’s style: it is only upon becoming a traditional poet, who eschewed modern poetry for traditional lyricism, such as in his collection Word Over All, that he truly realised his own unique potential.

Auden and Day-Lewis’ relationship shows both the benefits and perils of collaboration. As undergraduates Day-Lewis helped Auden, but later, when master became teacher, his poetry suffered, and only recovered when he stopped collaborating and became independent.