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Quirk of history

Why WH Auden was never poet laureate

Past his best? Auden in 1973. Don Smith/Getty

The honorary role of British poet laureate dates back to the 17th century; its celebrated incumbents include Tennyson and Wordsworth. But newly released government files show that finding a suitable candidate hasn’t always been easy, says the BBC’s Sanchia Berg. When Downing Street was considering whose name should be submitted to the Queen to succeed Cecil Day-Lewis in 1972, the candidates were subjected to withering assessments from officials, advisers and fellow poets. Robert Graves, then living in Spain, was dismissed by one critic as “the wild man of Mallorca”; Philip Larkin, though a “first-rate craftsman”, was thought too “reserved” for the job.

Bookies’ favourite WH Auden was ruled out because of his US citizenship and because he’d once published a pornographic poem which, according to John Hewitt, the Downing Street appointments secretary, was “of so filthy a character that his appointment would bring disgrace upon the office”. Which was ridiculous, says Tristram Saunders in The Daily Telegraph: in this piece of doggerel, Auden refers to the male organ as “A royal column, ineffably solemn and wise” – less scandalous than amusing. In the end the laureateship went to John Betjeman, variously described in the files as a “poetic hack” and, by the Arts Council, as “the songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters”. He may have been a “lightweight”, says Saunders, but he was beloved by the British public. Auden was way past his best in 1972, but should have been given the post back in 1930. His writing “shaped that ‘low, dishonest decade’ (as he called it) more than the work of any other English poet”.