Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Rabbitarse Revealed!



In W.H. Auden's long poem "Letter to Lord Byron," he compares the lives of poets of his own generation to the hyper-glamorous bad-boy life of Byron.  Unsurprisingly, the comparison leads him to find the lives of his peers in the financially-strapped England of the 1930s a bit unglamorous:


The only thing you never turned your hand to
    Was teaching English in a boarding school.
Today it’s a profession that seems grand to
    Those whose alternative’s an office stool;
    For budding authors it’s become the rule.
To many an unknown genius postmen bring
Typed notices from Rabbitarse and String.


Like many an Auden reader before me, I'd long assumed that Rabbitarse and String were Auden's comical names for fictitious minor public schools of the sort at which a young poet might find himself employed.  In reading over a great many Auden-related documents for the chapter on his work I'm writing for a book I'm writing (now called Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself), I noticed something that led me to believe I must have been wrong in my assumption.  The employment agency that placed young university graduates with various schools was called Gabbitas and Thring.  That this was, indeed, the source of Auden's phrase was confirmed by a look at No Home But the Struggle, the third novel in Auden-generation writer Edward Upward's trilogy The Spiral Ascent.  Here, we're told that the character Richard (based on Auden) invented the nickname "Rabbitarse and String" specifically for the Gabbitas and Thring agency.

These are dark times for humanistic scholarship, people, times in which the relevance of our work is questioned by bean-counting utilitarians.  Let the triumph of this moment, in which the meaning of Rabbitarse is revealed, be trumpeted from the hills.  Let the narrow-minded vocationalists and fetishizers of marketable research outcomes tremble.  More research funding, please!


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