Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 213-234
Auden's Icelandic Myth of Exile
Paul Beekman Taylor
Université de Genève
W.H. Auden's life-long artistic commitment to Iceland, and particularly to Medieval Icelandic literature, can be divided conveniently for analysis into four distinct stages. First, as a young boy, he listened to his father's stories out of Norse myth. He recalled years later that he knew more then of Norse myth than of Greek:
With northern myths my little brain was laden,
With deeds of Thor and Loki and such scenes; 1
Later, as an undergraduate at Oxford in the mid-1920s and at work on his early poems and drama, he listened to J.R.R. Tolkien read aloud Old English verse. 2 This incited him to experiment at once with its rhythms; and, subsequently, he adapted qualities of the common Germanic traditional poetic line in his earliest published efforts. In 1936, he visited Iceland with Louis MacNeice, and, finally, in 1964, he returned alone for a brief visit. Each of these stages also contributed to an intensifying of an artistic dedication to Icelandic story, particularly to its Norse myth. 3 These stages correspond to Auden's almost chronic sensitivity to his own isolation and exile. In archaic myth and historical legend Auden saw a distant and clear reflection of the social and intellectual worlds through which he was passing. Foremost in that reflection was the theme of exile that shadowed his own successive moves of residence. 4 A trace of these "axial" turns in Auden's career reveals an incremental Norse [End Page 213] influence on his style and diction, but more importantly, it reveals the growth of the poet's conception of the profitable uses of poetry.
I refer to his "life-long" commitment because, although one might suppose that influence on Auden's poetry of his Icelandic interests surfaced only sporadically and predominantly only in the very beginning of his career, they are perceptible from beginning to end. At the beginning of his appreciation of things Nordic, his father told him the origin of his name: He alludes to this information in Letters from Iceland:
My name occurs in several of the sagas,
Is common over Iceland still. Down under
Where Das Volk order sausages and lagers
I ought to be the prize, the living wonder,
The really pure from any Rassenschänder,
In fact I am the great big white barbarian,
The Nordic type, the too too truly Aryan. 5
That the family had distant roots in Iceland is generally taken as fact, 6 but the etymological origin of the Auden family name has been disputed. Although his father claimed an origin in Icelandic Au_unn, critics have suggested an English source in Anglo-Saxon Eadwin, Healfdene, or Ælfwine. 7 Auden himself preferred, for obvious reasons, to defer to the knowledge of the Medieval Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturluson, who equated Audunn with Ódinn, 8 the name of the Norse father of the gods, god of poetry, lies, and the dead. Auden played on the polysemy in the word-element aud and in such words as audn "waste," audin "fate," audna "luck," aud "riches," as well as ódr,adjective "frenzy" (cognate with Latin vates), and ódr, the noun "poetry," each of which he could identify with his own character. Further, although overlooked by biographers whose works I have consulted, his given name was a modern form of Old English Weohstan "alter-of-the-rock," and Wigstan/Wihstan "battle-stone," manuscript forms of the name of the father of Wiglaf "survivor of battle," friend of the hero Beowulf. The English forms echo the Icelandic cognate Vésteinn, the name of the exiled saga hero of Gislasaga, who is killed upon his return to his homeland. So, the semantic resonances in the name of the mythic god of poetry and in the legendary model of wronged exile, are carried in Auden's name. In his given and inherited names resided his future earned fame. Nomen est omen.
At Oxford, attentive to Tolkien's reading Old English, his ear...