George Orwell: The Conceited Young Writer
George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was five years old, but it took years for him to produce any significant work. Time Magazine notes that he wrote more than 2 million words in his lifetime, but Orwell himself confessed to writing less than six pages throughout his entire childhood. The truth is that Orwell seems to have spent more time thinking about writing rather than actually putting pen to paper.
Orwell was a timid, lonely child who was often sick with bronchitis, and he grew into a young adult who was “tall, gangly and socially inept,” according to Time Magazine. Throughout his formative years, Orwell took refuge in stories.
“I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons,” he declared in the essay, Why I Write. “I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.” On top of this, he admitted one of his main motives for writing was the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about,” a trait he called “sheer egotism,” and believed was shared by all writers.
Orwell actually started off his writing career as a poet (similar to some other serious novelists we’ve written about.) When he was four years old, he dictated his first poem to his mother. Unfortunately, no copy of it seems to exist, but Orwell later admitted that he probably copied much of it from a William Blake poem he’d read as a child.
As a teenager, Orwell edited several school magazines, wrote an entire play that rhymed and was “in imitation of Aristophanes,” and tried multiple times to write a short story which he deemed “a ghastly failure.” Throughout this time, he continued to write poetry. Some were nature poems, others were patriotic pieces and all expressed his desire to write in flowery, vivid language that sounded sweet to the ear (a marked difference from some of his later work.)
His earliest surviving work is a poem called Awake Young Men of England, which was printed in a local newspaper called the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard. Here is an excerpt (click here for the full poem.)
Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if when your country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.
Orwell wrote this just as the first World War started. It is not a bad piece of work, but when you consider that Orwell was just 11-years old at the time, it’s hard not to view this bold proclamation as misguided. It’s certainly a far cry from the man who questioned the value of nationalism in his later years.
To be fair, though, Orwell wasn’t always serious. When he was 16, Orwell crafted a short poem based on a popular toothpaste advertisement of the time. He used to chant these words to himself as he brushed his own teeth at night:
Brush your teeth up and down, brother,
Oh, brush them up and down!
All the folks in London Town
Brush their teeth right up and down,
Oh! How they shine!
Aren’t they bloody fine?
Night and morning, my brother,
Oh brush them up and down!
Orwell could easily have continued to write simple yet witty poems and “purple prose,” and his body of work would likely be as forgettable as these early efforts, if not for the time period he lived in. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties,” he confessed in Why I Write. “As it is I have been forced into becoming some sort of pamphleteer.”