I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry -- lead mining. Now I found in doing this, I had to make certain rules for myself. I could choose between two machines necessary to do a job, but they had to be real ones I could find in catalogues. I could decide between two ways of draining a mine, but I wasn’t allowed to use magical means. Then there came a day which later on, looking back, seems very important. I was planning my idea of the concentrating mill -- you know, the platonic idea of what it should be. There were two kinds of machinery for separating the slime, one I thought more beautiful than the other, but the other one I knew to be more efficient. I felt myself faced with what I can only call a moral choice -- it was my duty to take the second and more efficient one. Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No” -- I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?” -- and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.
Until then the only poetry I had read, as a child, were certain books of sick jokes -- Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Struwwelpeter by Hoffmann, and Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. I had a favorite, which went like this:
Into the drinking well
The plumber built her
Aunt Maria fell;
We must buy a filter.
Of course I read a good deal about geology and lead mining. Sopwith’s A Visit to Alston Moor was one, Underground Life was another. I can’t remember who wrote it. I read all the books of Beatrix Potter and also Lewis Carroll. Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” I loved, and also Haggard’s
King Solomon’s Mines. And I got my start reading detective stories with Sherlock Holmes.