Auden, Dame Edna and Bletchley Park

Welcome to the first Rare Books & Manuscripts blog of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections. And what better way to start than a post on W.H. Auden’s Poems (1928) …

 

One of the University of Edinburgh Library’s rarest 20th-century printed items is W.H. Auden’s Poems (1928). This item was part of the Archibald Hunter Campbell collection which was presented to the Library in 1984. Campbell studied at Oxford and was a contemporary and friend of Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and W.H Auden. During the Second World War he served at Bletchley Park as a codebreaker and, on returning to Edinburgh, he held the post of the University’s Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and the Nations from 1945 to 1972.

Printed by Auden’s fellow undergraduate at Oxford, Stephen Spender, Poems purports to be number 11 of “about 45 copies” subsequently Spender admitted that the actual number of copies was nearer 30.

Although a large part of the book was printed by Spender in his parents’ house on an Adana label printer, it would seem that either the printer or Spender (or possibly both!) weren’t up to the task and the book was finished and bound in its strong reddish orange wrapper by the Holywell Press. Evidence of the handover from Spender to Holywell is apparent in the immediate improvement in printing quality from page 23 onwards.

Some of the poems were never republished and Auden himself excluded most of the contents from the canon establishing Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (Faber, 1966).

The University of Edinburgh’s copy has few annotated corrections but has been signed by both Auden and Spender on the title page and is in remarkably good condition.

It truly is one of the University’s finest rare books and a fitting subject for the first Rare Books blog.

The library has a collection of W.H. Auden material, which we have recently completed cataloguing. This was purchased in 1982 from Barry Bloomfield (co-editor with Edward Mendelson of W.H. Auden: A Bibliography, 1924-1969), and has been added to by generous donations from Mendelson and others as well as purchases from book sales. Although Poems is not part of that collection we have taken the opportunity to improve the cataloguing of Auden material elsewhere in the collections.

Oh, and Dame Edna? Stephen Spender’s daughter married Barry Humphries!

Finlay West: Rare Book Cataloguer

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