Auden’s Poems

W.H. Auden
Poems, (Printed by Stephen Spender, 1928)
Gifted in 1989
Rare Books Collection Shelfmark: JA 4004

This book is one of the greatest bibliographical rarities of twentieth-century English literature.

In 1928 W.H. Auden left Oxford with a third-class degree and an aspiration to be a poet. He had been discussing his work with a friend with similar poetic aspirations, one Stephen Spender. With enthusiasm and enterprise Spender bought a hobbyist’s printing press, with the intention of spending his summer vacation from Oxford putting both their work into print.

These small printing presses, still made today, were marketed to amateur enthusiasts, being advertised as easy to use, and capable of producing anything up to a small magazine.

Spender discovered that ‘easy’ was a relative term; a degree of mechanical aptitude was required to operate the press effectively, and producing even a small book was harder than it looked. He persevered for twenty-two painful pages, of uneven inking and misplaced page numbers, before something in the press broke, and he handed the whole project over to a professional printer to finish.

Eventually, about thirty copies of the little book were produced and distributed to friends and relatives. The text marked a significant stage in the development of Auden’s work and remains of interest for that reason. No two copies are precisely identical, as Spender and Auden made manuscript corrections and alterations to the text, different in each one.

Archibald Hunter Campbell (1902-1989) was one of the friends who received a copy. He was an academic lawyer, at the time a Fellow of All Souls in Oxford. Following an interlude at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he returned to his native Edinburgh in 1945 to take up the post of Regius Professor of Public Law in the University. His literary interests came with him; following his death his papers and huge collection of books came to the library. They range from this, and other amazing literary treasures connected with the friends of his youth, to legal books and his academic papers, to more ordinary editions of law and English literature which were distributed into the library’s general collections.

Story by Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, Rare Books Librarian