Night Mail

August 10, 2011

envelopes by Anthony Easton

The BBC asked to come along and talk to us about W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Night Mail’, written for the film of the same name which was released 75 years ago. Of course in the two minutes comment allowed, you can never get in all the fascinating facts you’ve discovered or wider considerations. For example, that Auden worked for John Grierson’s GPO film unit for £3 a week in 1935, and that he was a general dogsbody (apart from some writing). The one time they allowed him to do some directing, the train guard he was filming dropped dead a minute afterwards. This I know from the estimable Edward Mendelson’s edition of The English Auden – poems, essays and dramatic writings 1927-1939. What I wanted to say, but didn’t have time to, was how letters recur throughout Auden’s work: for example, the poem that opens his Collected Shorter Poems is ‘The Letter’, there’s the virtuoso Letter to Lord Byron and there are the wonderful lines in ‘Their Lonely Betters’ which take us back to ‘Night Mail’. It seemed apt to think of people waiting for post last week, when exam results were sent out in Scotland, and when some people got them early because they’d signed up for texts;  but of course no one quite believed the screen until they saw the printed paper. In these days the sight of a handwritten envelope in the post is still – or even more – a pleasure. Auden, sitting in a beach-chair in the garden, mused on the wordlessness of nature and equated it with a truth not available to humans: ‘Let them leave language to their lonely betters / Who count some days and long for certain letters…’

~ Robyn