Bristol Street in Birmingham is a commercial road that is nowadays dominated by supermarkets and car dealers. There is little or nothing to relate this street to the history of art or literature – with the exception of W.H. Auden. In the first two stanzas of his 1937 poem ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ the poet leads his reader through Bristol Street to a railway arch by the river (this concerns the River Rea which is confined in a deep brick-lined channel through most of its passage across central Birmingham).
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
Love has no ending.
The introduction of such ‘unpoetical’ urban scenes is typical for Auden as a poet, but it has also a background in Birmingham’s flourishing cultural tradition. Since the eighteenth century Birmingham developed a distinctive culture of art and design, dominated by the historic importance of the applied art to the city’s manufacturing economy. While industrial towns such as Manchester and Bradford were based on the manufacture of bulk commodities (cotton and wool), Birmingham’s economy was built on the production of finished manufactured goods for European markets. Good design was essential in a competitive market and this resulted in the growth of an extensive infrastructure for artistic education. Birmingham initiated the increasingly important role of the visual arts within industrial society. The city stood at the centre of the Arts and Craft movement.
During the 1930s it could boast a lively artistic and literary scene represented by poets Auden, MacNeice and Henry Reed; novelist Henry Green; sculptor Gordon Herickx; and the Surrealist painters. The existence of a distinctive Birmingham group of Surrealist artists dates from the meeting of Conroy Maddox and John Melville in 1935, after an exchange of letters in the Birmingham Post about the reactionary and conventional art scene in the city represented by the Birmingham School of Art and the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, where the Arts and Crafts ideals were held in favour of more radical artistic movements.
As late as 1938, John Melville had six of his paintings banned from an exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as being detrimental to ‘public sensibility’. His brother Robert, an outstanding art critic, was instrumental in introducing Picasso to the English public. He was one of the first to recognize the talent of Francis Bacon. The so-called Birmingham Group was a group of authors writing from the 1930s to the 1950s. Members included John Hampson, Walter Allen, Leslie Halward, and others. For a while the group met weekly in a pub off Corporation Street. The group showed little stylistic unity but shared a common interest in the realistic portrayal of working class scenes.
W.H. Auden continued the link between creativity and the industrial urban scene. Born in York in 1907, Auden was only eighteen months old when the family moved to Birmingham. To the youngster, the Solihull gasworks were an awe-inspiring sight. This unconventional poetic attitude is based on early personal experiences, awareness of the local cultural tradition, and knowledge of developments in modernist poetry on the Continent where the ‘might of the machine’ had impressed many of the younger generation. By contrast with older and even with the artificiality of some modernist poets, one listens to a voice here that is fully at home in the industrial landscape of the modern city. In ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1936) Auden states unequivocally:
Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.
The image leads on to the folling fine lines:
But give me still, to stir imagination
The chiaroscuro of the railway station.
As an individual Auden apparently possessed little mechanical aptitude, but the poet in him was stirred by the symbolism of place-names and the industrial plant and processes associated with them. Later, at Oxford, his favourite sights were the gasworks and the municipal dump.