Academic Graffiti (1952, 1970)

An attempt to link Auden to scientists

Academic Graffiti was written in memoriam of Ogden Nash, ‘an American poet well known for his light verse’ and humorous poetry with unconventional rhymes (wikipedia). In Academic Graffiti Auden also uses light verse and makes humorous rhymes on the names of important/famous people.

As I want to look at Auden’s connection to scientists this poem, at first sight, offers an interesting starting point. It must be noticed that Auden writes about different people (also those that were already dead) many of whom he might have never met, and that his style is often critical and he may have left people out because he did not want to criticize them. However people like for example Nietzsche, Yeats and the Pope are also mentioned, so it will at least give a broad idea of people that influenced him.

            The poem is made up out of 63 stanzas of 4 lines each, except for the last 2 stanza which are 5 lines and a-a-b-b-a rhyme instead of a-a-b-b. Each stanza addresses 1 person, starting with Auden himself. Therewith leaving 60 clerihews, of which 32 had appeared before in Homage To Clio (1953) (Fuller, 1998)[1].

            It would reach too far to discuss each stanza individually, I will therefore limit myself here to the most important people Auden addresses. What becomes clear right away is that the number of natural scientists in his academic graffiti is small, giving rise to the idea that Auden’s direct link to scientists has not been very strong.

The first stanza already leaves me with a question: Auden starts about himself and says his first name (Wystan) rhymes with Tristan, but who is Tristan? Also remarkable is that this stanza is written in italic (except the names) while the rest of the poem is not, I wonder what motives he had for this.

            In the second stanza we stumble upon a known name, Henry Adams, not very interesting for now. From this point on we need to go as far as the 8th stanza to recognize a reference to science again.[2] Auden refers here to the British poet William Blake who lived around 1800, and who was against experimental science (Fuller, 1998), saying that Blake could not agree with scientists like Newton and Bacon.

            Robert Bridges (9th stanza) was also a poet, living around 1900, he studies medicine and practiced until he was 40. Although Bridges work is not known to me, it might be possible that he wrote about his experiences as a physician as well. After a number of poets we have to wait until the 16th stanza for another reference to science. Here Hugo de Vries is addressed, the Dutch botanicus who (unaware of Mendel’s work (wikipedia)) was a genetic and introduced the idea of mutation in evolution theory. Auden mentions in this stanza the terms Xylem and Phloem, meaning the hard and soft tissue of plants (Fuller, 1998, quoting/copying Auden’s own footnotes to the poem). The fact that Auden new these names, and their meaning, illustrates his knowledge of the natural world.

            In the 20th stanza Auden talks about Goethe and his colour theory. In the footnotes (Fuller, 1998) he claims that Goethe disagreed with Newton’s ideas and that a new chromatics was needed. Moving on the 34th stanza we come across Joseph Lister who was a pioneer in antiseptic (based on killing bacteria) medicine. Apparently Auden knows some details about this too since he makes reference to Lister’s use of carbolic acid instead of alcohol (Fuller, 1998).

            Next, in the 35th stanza Robert Liston is addressed. Liston was a surgeon in the first half of the 19th century. He was especially known for his high speed of working (which was vital at that time (wikipedia)). Auden also refers to his skills in amputating body parts. As mentioned earlier, also Nietzsche gets addressed; however the short comment in this piece does not lead us any further than what we already discussed in class.

            When talking about Louis Pasteur in the 47th stanza Auden refers to Pasteur’s well known work with germs. Just as well known is probably the work of James Watt, developer of the steam engine. In the last of the 4 lined stanzas (number 61) three ancient Greek people are addressed. Auden talks about Socrates’ wife Xantippe who, if she would not feel well, wonders why her husband was not Hippocrates. Hippocrates is seen as the founding father of medicine.

            In the last two stanzas Auden refers to T.S. Eliot and Yeats, two names that seem to be interwoven with Auden’s work and come across regularly. No scientists but clearly very important to Auden’s life and work.

Now, after going the notes above, what can I learn from this effort? If can be seen that in the approximately 65 people that get addressed in Academic Graffiti there are a number of (natural) scientists. It may not be surprising that the majority of Auden’s ‘heroes’[3] are writers, but nonetheless he also devotes a reasonable part to science. If there is one thing that Auden’s scientific heroes have in common it is this: they are all pioneers in their field.

            Newton (of course know for his laws of motion and his idea of gravity) established classical mechanics; Bacon was the founding father of the scientific research method (based on experiments); De Vries was a pioneer in genetics and coined the idea of mutation in evolution; Lister’s work was groundbreaking in antiseptic medicine; Liston was a great surgeon with an incredible knowledge of human anatomy and very fine skills; Pasteur invented vaccination; James Watt created the steam engine, the most important device to make the industrial revolution possible; and finally Hippocrates who was the founding father of medicine.

            A (preliminary) conclusion that could be made on the basis of this is that Auden finds the individual hero important in his work (this can also be found in The Poet & The City (Auden, 1962)), also in terms of scientific developments. This is interesting since he also mentions in The Poet & The City that science is making it harder for a poet to find interesting subjects to write about. In that respect we might have to be happy for Auden that he is not living now; after all the changes in the science system (which started to take place towards the end of Auden’s life) have very much replaced the individual scientist. He is now part of team, not to mention heavily depended on technology to support him in his work.

            With the discovery of a ‘type’ of scientists Auden relates to, it might become possible to see whether there was also a more direct relationship between Auden and his contemporary scientists.

Auden, W.H. (1962). The Dyer’s Hand: and other essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Fuller, J. (1998). W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mendelson, E. (2007). W.H. Auden: Collected Poems. (revised edition). London: Faber and Faber.

Wikipedia – I used this online encyclopedia multiple times, especially to get a (better) understanding of who those people Auden talks about were

[1] I must note here that Fuller’s date differ from Mendelson’s. Mendelson dated the poem 1952 and 1970 while Fuller says the poem as a whole dates from 1971, the earlier publised parts from 1953.

[2] Leaving out St. Thomas Aquinas who was a philosopher connected to the churche, possibly his ideas on the nature of God did to some extend influence also Auden’s view on the natural world.

[3] In The Poet & The City we could already read that Auden thinks it is necessary for poets to have heroes they can write about (Auden, 1962).


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