‘Nenthead Revisited: Love, Ghosts and Lead-Mining in W. H. Auden’s Eden’ by Hannah Parkes Smith.

lead mine


Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do.
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine
Thought it every bit
As beautiful as you.

W. H. Auden, ‘Heavy Date’.

W.H. Auden is one of those poets who, against perhaps your better judgment, stick with you.

The first Auden I knew of was a peaceable old stick whose poetry compelled grown men to weep at Four Weddings and a Funeral. He was wry, a little savage, a little dark, a little battered, and quite at home on the A-Level syllabus he’d found himself on –the Auden most of us take comfort in, when we find the world too much with us.

auden old

The second Auden I dug up was little like him. The second Auden was an adventurer, like the Eardstapas before him, travelling the winding roads of the Old English landscape through its lost and lonely verses, alight with a love and fear of what came before him. He was the hidden Auden, the ancient shadow-self of a turn of the century giant, flitting through the pages of John Fuller’s Commentary as a creature of myth and of magic. This altogether more fun Auden was a gargantuan force within the landscape of my own education; in equal parts a scholar and a mystic- and it’s this Old English Auden that we construe as the essay-worthy, did-you-know-worthy, clandestine self of a very modern poet.

auden young cropped

It wasn’t until I was disaffected enough to pursue doctoral study that I realised there existed, in fact, a third Auden. This one was odd, an altogether muddier creature, little more than a boy that the mature poet seemed to have scrubbed and starched around the year 1928 to make him more palatable for public consumption. He was the first Auden, a schoolboy poet still caught in cloying emulation of his heroes; Thomas Hardy’s hawk’s vision and Edward Thomas’ love of the land barrelling forth from a pen that hadn’t quite caught up with his landscape prescience.

auden schoolboy

He wrote of the wild mining landscape of the Eden Valley in Cumbria rather than the gods and monsters of his shadow-self or the sad shrewdness that characterises his wartime verse. This was the Auden that I became compelled by, rolling valleys of raw thought and definitely-not-stolen phraseologies, a testament to the tanistry of poets that he carried grimoire-like in his breast pocket as he tramped morosely up the high fells. There’s a romance in the image, although it’s a twee: once, even the unassailable Auden was sat in confusion at the centre of a wild landscape, scribbling profusely, simultaneously lit by first muse and adrift wondering how to write ‘Edward Thomas but the Auden Version’. It’s a muddled poetry, too-heartfelt, proud and constructed around a nexus of boyhood heroes (lead-miners, Saxon warriors, the nineteenth-century English naturalist Richard Jeffries)- and it honestly shouldn’t be as good as it is. The lexis sticks in the mouth, but the vision is savage and unfairly beguiling; a poetry drawn fierce and inexpert from the very bedrock of the moor.

This third Auden is northern; unabashedly so. Born in 1907 in the city of York, he spent a
portion of his formative years exploring the wild landscapes of Cumbria and Weardale, and
these landscapes seem to have formed the basis for the majority of his poetry from the ages
of fifteen to around twenty-one. Even when transported from the shadow of the Minster to
the clamour of central Birmingham, these wind-battered heathlands stayed with Auden, and
from them he wove a landscape of pitheads, elms and abandoned lead-mines, shadows of
the previous decade coalescing in the middle distance as he tried to make sense of what
landscape might still mean. These poems are a complex blend of feeling of this wild country and also knowing that he’s cut off from it by his affluence, his education, his privilege; aware of the vast gulf between the mine-workers and their families who directly populate it and the experiences of a second son of a Cambridge-educated doctor. There’s a desire for insiderhood he never quite shakes, a feeling of being cut off from what his written self loves the most, and it manifests as a possessive dyad of wanting to share and wanting to gatekeep these weird, wild lands of his childhood.

The best of these early poems is ‘Who Stands, The Crux Left of the Watershed’. In it, we can see all three Audens- the professor, the wanderer, and the schoolboy- in chorus, weaving ghosts and the ghastly with a burgeoning sense of mature poetry, yet still alight with an ungainly, childlike love of it all that flickers in the half-light. It makes for perhaps the best iteration of the rapidly decaying industrial world he sought to immortalise, and reads like something from the
previous century in its wandering narration and grim, rather sullen turn of phrase. The lead-
mining country of the high fell region was in its decrepitude even when Auden was scaling
the crags in the mid-1920s; and the landscape surrounding places like the Eden Valley were
pockmarked by the shades of an industrial past, populated by old sheave-wheels,
abandoned mines and the ephemera of an era drawing to a close. Crux is a dreary, mournful
little piece, where the beginnings of Audenesque first begin to flower within the poet’s
sense of form and reason, and the landscape it describes is oddly haunted by its heritage.

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to a wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed.
And, further, here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters; two there were
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch a gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way
And in his final valley went to ground.

The linguistic terrain isn’t easy to navigate: Auden scholars like John Fuller or Robert
Forsythe and Alan Myers suggest that the crux of the title is Killhope Cross, a medieval
sandstone cross on a deserted moorland road above the mining complex on the high fells at
a place called Nenthead. This makes the ‘watershed’ the watershed of the Nent and Allen
rivers as they wind their way across the moor. This prospective location tracks with the tales
that the young poet tells; that of a dying miner at the Rampgill Mine at Nenthead in 1916
who, when injured in a fall during a snowstorm, was borne underground through the
abandoned adits to the nearby village of Carrshield due to an impassable blizzard but died
before he reached the surface. In a letter to Christopher Isherwood in 1927, Auden dissects
the image further amidst Isherwood’s confusion over the term ‘nosed’: “I don’t understand
your perplexity over the funeral. ‘In his new shape’, of course, means his coffin; the shape of
the coffin should justify ‘nosed’ – the deliberate association of the process with animals is

Auden uses his esoteric knowledge of these localities to form an ownership of them, excluding the casual observer who has little knowledge of the landscape’s watersheds and cruxes, possessive in his affections as he explores the vanishing landscape. His mention of ‘ramshackle engine’ at Cashwell is important too; another locality we likely don’t know, and we’re boxed out from in typical early Auden style. It’s an odd poem, a cumulative product of the wanting to share something wild and wonderful to prompt the statement christ, doesn’t he write about such strange things, and to gatekeep them with insiderhood that means the casual reader can’t traverse the wild landscapes that he clutches to his chest as a vital, fundamental part of the developing self. It’s mine and you can’t have it, it seems to say, it’s mine and you’re stupid if you love anything else – but wants to share it too, to say look, there’s love here – not despite it, but because of the dark.

There are a good fifteen to twenty poems that walk these same paths through the decrepit
industrial heartlands of the Cumbrian moors, and although Crux is possibly the best of them,
‘Rookhope, Weardale (Summer, 1922)’ is a strong contender for the piece of juvenilia that
best encapsulates Auden’s relationship with the landscape itself.

The men are dead who used to walk these dales;
The mines they worked in once are long forsaken[…]
Dead men, they say, sleep very soundly, nought
Remaineth as a mark to signify
The men they were, the things they did, not aught
That this unheeding world might know them by.
Yet- I have stood by their deserted shafts
Whilst rain lashed my face, and clutched my knees
And seemed to hear their careless laughs[…]

This is a landscape full of ghosts, lovingly rendered and positioned deep within the mines
and moors that they traversed in life as he scrabbles for some way to connect with the
landscape itself. It’s an exercise in reaching out, raising these revenant miners and re-
situating them within their old haunts, and as he affords himself second sight to see and
hear these shades he’s in equal part longing to find purchase there and shutting out the
casual observer. After all, only Auden can see his ghosts, no matter how ardently and adamantly he
writes of their existence: like the land, they are his and his alone, and we suppose we must
take his word for it.

Other poems take different attitudes, and Auden isn’t reductive in his imagery even as he
creates a living hagiography of the moors and their metallurgy. In a piece called ‘Allendale’ he
cares little for ghosts and instead focuses on the scars that industrial mineral extraction has
left on the swathe of the moors, lamenting the loss and the violence of the industrial
process. “The smelting-mill stack is crumbling, no smoke is alive there / Down in the valley
no lead-ore of worth burns / Now tombs of decaying industries, not to survive here / Many
more earth-turns.” It’s a trite little piece, sentimental even in its violence and imagery, but it
exemplifies his feelings towards this remote conjunction of rural land and industrial
manufacture. It is a site of such intense love to him, personal and sanctified by its very departure from the landscape love of rolling meadows and little rivers found in Georgian poetry he grew up with. These vistas are his, the first landscape he finds poetic ownership of, his primordial nexus and the foundation of his mythologies. He searches for a connection with the dying landscape like it’s every part as vital to him as something green or verdant would be to the legion of other poets he imagines circle about him like carrion birds – RIP to you, but I’m different, as the meme goes.

The pumping-engine of ‘Who Stands, The Crux Left of the Watershed’ makes another
appearance in ‘The Pumping-Engine, Cashwell’. ‘Cashwell’ itself is Upper Slatesike and Cashwell

Hush, another defunct lead-mining cut near Garrigill in Cumbria on the flank of the wild Cross Fell. The poem is by no means one of Auden’s finest from this period, being both early, unpolished and aping a naïve style that perhaps was supposed to emulate what he construed as ‘working-class
speech’; yet it’s where we see the recurrent shape of the pumping-engine perhaps
described the most intimately. It’s an easy read, but it’s trite, twee and rather unfortunately-structured – but there’s something in it all the same.

It is fifty years now since the old days when
It first pumped water here; steam drove it then
Till the workings were stopped, for the vein pinched out
When it lay underground twelve years about,
Then they raised it again, had it cleaned a bit
So it pumps still though the beck drives it.
As it groans at leach stroke like a heart in trouble,
It seems to me something, in toil most noble.

This pumping-engine here is something special, something more than the sum of its parts, and as it’s raised from its grave to fulfil its purpose once more something emerges of the poet and his relationship with the symbiotic conjunction of man and nature. Now the beck- most likely the muddy little spring that bisects the old Cashwell Hush mine complex- drives the engine and the oppositions of man and landscape find an accord within the iron body of the pumping-
engine itself. Something is reconciled in the triumph, as simplified as the metaphor may be,
and as he peers, awestruck through the gloom at the rusted machinery, it’s love that the
poet feels; a wilful, wonderous love at the downright nobility of such an action. This is what
he has been searching for in his myriad ghosts; a way to reconcile himself as an outsider to
the historical landscapes that affect him powerfully, and the pumping-engine brings
together the industrial and the natural in this poem quite succinctly (that is, if one can ever
get over what is a frankly hideous series of rhyming couplets).

The pumping-engine recurs in several other poems too; either ramshackle or noble, duly
heaving away at an underground river or washing out a stream of shattered ore as Auden’s
spirited machinery beats on and on at the heart of the fells. It’s a comforting presence,
homely in the often rather spooky landscapes of Auden’s earliest works, a bleak northern
landscape of standing stones and ominous crags, ghosts and shallow graves.

There is no question that W. H. Auden loved his north. He returned there in many poems as
a grown man (‘Amor Loci’; ‘In Praise of Limestone’, ‘New Year Letter’), but never with the clunky
and unfathomable sense of love that coils at the centre of these early poems. They’re
unlovely, often childlike, but they’re important both within the landscapes of the Eden
Valley and in the landscapes of Auden’s poetry itself. Older Auden often writes in a love language we’re not familiar with, a love of ghosts and grey skies, shattered ironwork and rust; and it’s so uniquely Auden that it’s actually difficult to truly understand these much more finely crafted later poems without it. Many years in the future, he would describe these localities as his ‘Mutterland’; and in New Year Letter, details how he first finds himself as a poet on the slopes of Bolt’s Law Hill as he drops a fist of pebbles down a disused mine shaft. This is Auden’s genesis, the place where he first found his Word.

It was a point of shame to me that I never understood Auden’s ‘Heavy Date’; the excerpt at the beginning of this essay in hearty particular. It’s a complex poem in of itself, full of allusion and barely-tacked-together metaphor, as brilliant as it is difficult and straddling two eras of Auden’s poetry as uncomfortably as it straddles genre and from. It’s poetry written in cursive, and the final lines were the worst offenders as I sat in a university library, wondering what the fuck a pumping-engine had to do with anything.

It became a source of ire to me as I studied Auden as an undergraduate. I rather felt that being compared to a pumping engine was akin to being compared to a Fiat 500, or at the very least a concrete tower block- but these early poems prove that theory to be a woeful misunderstanding of the position that a pumping-engine once occupied Auden’s own imagination. Auden’s pumping-engine hammers like a heart, savage and derelict yet stirred to function by nothing other than man’s bloody-mindedness and desire to find scrap from salvage. He likens the subject of the poem to the beating heart of his own primordial wildernesses, designating them the lynchpin of the paracosm of sheave-wheels and pitheads that were the landmarks of his formative art. And in that there is a high complement, because it’s likely he never truly loved anywhere else. On the wall of his workroom at Fire Island in New York at the height of his acclaim, he displayed a map of Alston Moor in the North Pennines; yellowed and rolling at the edges, something he’d owned since he was a boy.

To be compared to something such as a summer’s day is, for Auden, sensationally dull when one could be compared to a pumping-engine. The final lines of ‘Heavy Date’ aren’t an oddity- they’re a love song, something sacred and arcane encapsulated in one brief shade that drums on in the chest of Auden country. It’s typically clandestine, yes, obtuse and searingly specific, but still speaks of that juxtaposition of love and the underlying desire for insiderhood that’s born of the fear of loving anything. To those alien to him, it can be throwaway, playful, bawdy, signifying nothing; to those with the right series of sigils and keys it means the very viscera of the uncomfortable heart.

In a 2013 article featured in The New Statesman, celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith writes with a somewhat scattergun approach of love in ‘Heavy Date’, and simply says of Auden’s pumping-engine “…There may be a sexual joke here.” There isn’t, but Wystan himself would likely get a laugh out of knowing that even one of the decade’s bestselling authors might have barrelled headlong down the wrong adit and got himself lost underground.

Hannah Parkes Smith is a writer and journalist from the North of England. She writes the Landscape/Literature column for international literary magazine LITRO, and specialises in matters of Old English poetry, landscape criticism, neurodiversity and educational technology.She completed her Ph.D. in twentieth-century literature at Queen Mary University of London, is frequently found halfway up hills, and has two ungrateful cats.

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