Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came. Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.
So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming. There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures. At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.
But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden. He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:
‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’
MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal:
‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’
There was a subtext to their visit as well. Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics. The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings. And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….