Letters from Iceland – W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice

If I had a fortnight to spend myself I should go to the North-West, as I think it both the most beautiful and the least visited part of Iceland. You come to Isafjördur [sic] by the Icelandic boats from Reykjavik, and move about either by horses or motor-boat. Anyone who does this of going there should get in touch with the British Vice-consul at Isafjördur, My. Joachimsson, who is extremely kind and efficient.

We have been to Iceland twice in the last year, once in the depths of winter, with only 3 hours of full daylight and roads that were covered in snow and ice. The second trip was a hostelling tour, driving on roads which we now could see were gravel. Auden and MacNeice’s tour was much more like the latter, except in 1936 the roads had not yet been developed above farm tracks, and everywhere they went they were obliged to stop in farms and able to hire the farm horses. We also went to Ísafjörður, but these days it is (just about) possible to drive there, and new, single track with passing places, tunnels connect from one fjord to the next, such that cars can connect places.

After hearing this book mentioned in a few different places, I put in a reservation at the library as the county only had 2 copies. Within a fortnight I had a pristine copy waiting for me in the town library.

It is a slightly strange, artistic collection of long poems and letters, reflecting on their experiences in Iceland, and thoughts they have developed there. This includes reflections on the Nazi presence, as during the rise of Nazi Germany, Iceland’s pure history was held up as a good example. Then of course their is Iceland’s geography, which is well worth poetry:

Watched the sulphur basins boil,
Loops of steam uncoil and coil,
While the valley fades away
To a sketch of Judgement Day.

Tell Me the Truth About Love – W. H. Auden

“Will it alter my life altogether?
   O tell me the truth about love.”

This short collection of poems explores how we experience love througout our lives, from wondering what love is and what impact it will have as a small child, through first loves, life-long partnerships and to death.

We choose this as a book group read as we are trying to read a variety of genres, and it sparked an interesting discussion on what makes poetry (rhythm and/or rhyme?) and what the “truth about love” is.

Personally I love Auden’s style of poetry, with a gentle rhythm and rhyme which makes it very lyrical in style. Some of these poems have a fairly depressing message, but they are looking for a truth, and there is a definite feel of the start of WW2 in the later poems. One stanza also gave a feel of the feeling towards bankers in the aftermath of the great depression:

“But the poor fat old banker in the sun-parlour car
Has no one to love him except his cigar.”

I also listened to many of these poems on you tube, getting a feel for the rhythm and feeling that others put into reading the poem, and letting me experience the poem differently.