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This review is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

ENGLISHMEN ABROAD W. H. Auden & Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (Faber) £3.95 pb.

Wystan, Louis, and a group of Bryanston schoolboys, in Iceland in the summer of 1936: looking back, the location, company and date, and the fact that the book was a commission, could not have been better combined to elicit the younger Auden's characteristic strengths. 'The Auden family came originally from Iceland,' wrote Isherwood, that same year. 'Auden himself was brought up on the sagas, and their influence upon his work has been profound.' The trip was a literary homecoming, and it is no surprise that he wrote there the poems 'O who can ever praise enough/The world of his belief?' and 'O who can ever gaze his fill?' And significant that he found the ranging, free-associative fluency of the 'Letter to Lord Byron' at this time.

Beyond the literary familiarity, the society was reassuringly intimate: 'One of the nice things about Iceland is its small size, so that everything is personal.' Auden is throughout wonderfully unabashed and entertaining: going everywhere and eating everything; inadvertently destroying a host's bed; extolling photography as 'the democratic art'; always wearing 'flannel trousers and pyjamas under my riding breeches, and two shirts and a golf-jacket and a coat under my oilskins'; playing the harmonium and teaching clerihews to Icelandic children; and delightedly observant - 'the haymakers were using aluminium rakes, which I have never seen before.'

The book was a joint effort, but Auden's is much the more prominent presence, more because he writes mostly in propria persona - and ...


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