In Time of War: W.H. Auden Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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By Ellen Le Messurier

As the first event of the hugely anticipated ‘Humanities in Public’ (HiP) 2014/15 festival got underway, the atrium of Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Geoffrey Manton building brimmed with people all enjoying wine and good company. The crowd all keenly awaited the key speaker, Professor of Modern Literature at MMU, Andrew Biswell.

Professor Biswell’s inaugural lecture was on W.H Auden. His readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets were an innovative topic. When asked how his interest in this came about, he told me that he had been always interested in Auden’s work since being a young student at university. However, his recent travels to America had really enhanced this interest. Professor Biswell told me how he was, “lucky enough to get a chance to work in Auden’s old archives”, enriching his knowledge on Auden and his life’s work, including his critiques of Shakespeare. His main interest, however, lay in the fact that Auden collaborated with Benjamin Britten to create music from his poetry. This versatility really attracted Professor Biswell’s attention and made Auden stand out from other poets.

Ahead of the lecture, Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Professor Berthold Schoene, welcomed the audience to the new season of HiP events. He told me how the festival is “for people who don’t normally visit the university” showing them an insight into what goes on and making it more accessible. He hopes that this year the festival will be “bigger and more beautiful than before”, and that he believed the lecture by Professor Biswell was an ideal opening. Professor Schoene took the opportunity to praise HiP’s Creative Programme Co-ordinator, Helen Malarky, for her hard work and success in compiling an excellent programme of events.10718820_10152663709450255_1570456277_o

Professor Jean-Noel Ezingeard, Deputy Vice chancellor for Research and Strategic Planning, gave a short introduction, saying that, “it is through these inaugural lectures that we celebrate academic success.” He had much praise for Professor Biswell, telling the audience how the Professor had worked hard to develop and make the M.A. in Creative Writing at MMU a hugely successful and popular course. He then handed over to Professor Biswell who began by talking of Auden’s early life. He told us that Auden was a talkative clown as a youngster and described him, “much like a bad actor.” During Auden’s young life he would continually pretend to be something, or someone, he was not. Ironically, this would be reflected later in his life, as he found that he had to mask his homosexuality.

In his teenage years and early twenties, reading Shakespeare took a leading role in Auden’s life, particularly as Professor Biswell described, when he went to live in Germany in 1928. Here he had his first romantic encounter with a man and spoke in his journal, somewhat subconsciously, of how the first sonnets of Shakespeare, which involve the love between two men, really influenced him on a personal level. This ultimately influenced Auden to write his first sonnets in 1933. These sonnets are still relatively unheard of today which is partly because Auden himself tried his best to supress them from the public eye due to their vivid and quite revealing content. Like Shakespeare Auden believed that the sonnet was key to expressing deep and complex emotions as one can see here in his lines;

‘It is an enemy that sighs for you;
Love has one wish and that is, not to be:’

Auden was recorded word for word by one of his students when giving a lecture on Shakespeare and his sonnets and critiques of the Bard may come as quite a surprise, they certainly did for me. Professor Bis5well described how he, “seems to talk around Shakespeare not about him,” and how his critiques can be surprisingly severe. One of Auden’s comments mentioned how Shakespeare’s finish to his poetry had large holes in it, leaving the reader to derive that the content is much superior to the overall technical finish. His comments were very contradictory and eccentric yet as one of his students observed, Auden seemed to be much more personally attached and involved in the sonnets. Biswell spoke of how Auden seemed to look into Shakespeare and see his own reflection and that his comments and critiques give us more of an insight into Auden himself than to Shakespeare’s works.

Before the evening drew to a close, Professor of Poetry at MMU, Michael Symmons Roberts, was invited to give a response to the lecture. He congratulated Professor Biswell before reading further from Auden’s poetry, noting that it is “a crime” not to do so when given the opportunity.

I spoke to many people during at the lecture who were interested in what Professor Biswell had had to say, one of which, Costel Hamasz, a Maths and calculus lecturer at MMU, expressed his deep interest in anything Shakespeare. “I’ve become a bit of a Shakespeare nut,” he joked, “anything to illuminate Shakespeare is of interest”.

The lecture, from Professor Biswell’s point of view, was to highlight how under-played Auden is as a poet and writer. He closed with a quote from W.H Auden summing up the whole evening perfectly. “In order to continue to exist in any form. Art must be giving pleasure.” From the audience’s reaction it had certainly achieved that.

For information on future HiP lectures and events please visit

Ellen is a second year English student at MMU. She loves to dance, play music and let her hair down with friends in the evening.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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