Skip to main content

Auden’s Poetry

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

In 1922 T. S. Eliot published “The Waste Land,” which made of the cacophonies of his generation a music of despair. For some years after that time no poet achieved the double mastery of experience and technique that is necessary to an important poetic statement. This kind of statement is always a geography of the spirit, a map on which men discover that the terrain they know is accurately drawn and then look with interest at the shape the cartographer has given to the whole country. In 1930 W. H. Auden began to publish the poems which, in this year, with the appearance of his “Collected Poetry,” give him the position which Eliot held some twenty years ago.

The younger poet owes much to the elder, not only to his technical experiments but also, as F. 0. Matthiessen has pointed out, to “his long insistence that no part of life should be barred from poetry, and his growing example of how a poet can turn for his material both to religion and politics.” It is clear, also, that Auden with his positive affirmation for man stands in a much more tentative position to his time than Eliot, with his negative affirmation, stood to the twenties. But there is no doubt that their achievements, two decades apart, are comparable, and it is interesting to consider some of the differences between them. Each looks for order in an anarchic world of experience.

in the midst of rows of bombed shops where the contents of the boxes no longer fit the labels and bored appraisers are busy marking down values for the final fire sale. The Eliot of “The Waste Land” and the Auden of today both plot the contours of the ruined city, but their interests are opposite. Eliot says, These fragments I have shored against my ruins;

he speaks as an antiquarian. Auden sees that what is destroyed will be rebuilt and will be changed in the building. He speaks as a man who wants a house to live in and also as an architect.

As important as the attitudes themselves are the powers that generate and record them. The poetry of the early Eliot has a force small but exquisitely directed. Its concentration produces the sigh without sentimentality, and it compensates for its lack of variety by its perfect articulation of the dying fall. Auden’s poetry attempts to express the shout and the laugh and the jeer and the moan as well as the sigh, the grunt of irritation when the collar button rolls under the bureau and the cry of amazement when a voice speaks out of the cloud.

Both poets are ironists, for each is profoundly aware of complexity and confusion. But the Eliot of “The Waste Land” sees the chaotic present outlined against the order of the past, Avhereas Auden sees order as continuous, changing its shape but not its direction, never fully to be apprehended until empty of time, like an abandoned river bed, then no longer important because the meaning of the river depends on its flow as well as its form. Auden’s irony therefore lacks the delicate accuracy of Eliot’s, but it cuts deeper.

When we compare the Auden of the “Collected Poetry” with the Eliot of “The Waste Land,” we find in Auden more vigor, more scope, greater tension, but less fulfilment. This is natural enough, for Auden is in the middle of the arena riding a wildly bucking horse, whereas Eliot, on the sidelines, has just completed the examination of his horse’s broken leg and has shot the animal neatly through the head.

Those who admire a poet’s writings are apt to approach his Collected Works with some uneasiness. They are afraid that the good things they remember will be eclipsed by the poor things they have forgotten, and they are troubled by a suspicion that the poet may be taking himself too seriously: as Suckling said of Ren Jonson,

. . . his were called Works, where others were but Plaies.

It is pleasant to report that neither fear is justified by Auden’s “Collected Poetry.” He takes himself just seriously enough; he is always at ease in whatever, he is saying, without any false dignity or any feeling that he must apologize for reaching higher or thrusting deeper than his reader’s ordinary mood. And the effect of this volume of 466 pages is considerably more impressive than that of any of his earlier books.

Not all of Auden’s poetry is here. He has omitted some of the early poems, and he has altered and rearranged—the “New Year Letter,” for example, is printed without its notes but some of the notes in verse appear as separate poems. There are very few pieces that a careful reader will call obscure. The quality of experience, for Auden, is always complex, the wedding of disparate elements—”poetry,” he says, “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings” —and his poems therefore are filled with quick and casual shifts of tempo and intensity. These shifts, however, and the occasional omission of connectives in the pattern of thought or emotion are the only causes of obscurity in his successful work, and in his later poetry he has discarded the device of omitting connectives. It was never an important element in his style but rather a trick to demand attention. Auden’s poems are sometimes difficult, but their difficulty does not consist—as does that of some modern verse—in the arid intellectual puzzle, like the joke Christmas present, that requires you to open a box within a box within a box only to discover finally a meaning even smaller than you expected.

Auden’s virtuosity delights him as well as his readers. Like every other good poet, he has submitted himself to the discipline of his art, knowing that a particular means of expression is developed only through a mastery of traditional means. He has learned his lessons so well and brought such talent to his task that he has achieved a technique that is sharply individual, though filled with admiring and ironic echoes of the methods of other poets, and always adequate to his material.

Although he makes good use of tradition, he is aware that a poet’s means of perceiving and judging must be of his own time:

For us like any other fugitive, Like the numberless flowers that cannot number And all the beasts that need not remember, It is today in which we live.

When he began to write, he explored man in terms of modern psychology and of modern political and economic theory (especially Marxism). More recently his search for order has led him to metaphysics and finally to religion. The religion which he accepts is traditional but not sectarian; it recognizes love as the central force in life and the incarnate Christ as the symbol and the solution of the paradox of being and becoming, the paradox which is at the center of man’s bewilderment.

In an art such as Auden’s, which invariably submits the findings of the senses and the rhythms of the emotions to the judgment of the conscious mind, there is always a strong satiric element. One of his most successful devices is that of the muted parody, the half-satiric, half-serious use of a naive or sophisticated but shoddy means of expression. In his ballad of Victor, for example, written to the tune of “Frankie and Johnny,” he accepts the conventions of the form at once ironically and seriously, and tries to savor the kind of truth that belongs to the ballad. He asks in his “Petition,”

Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response;

but Caliban in “The Sea and the Mirror,” imagining the pleadings of people who wish to be taken away from themselves, parodies a whole series of second-rate ways of feeling and saying in a fashion that conveys a warm pity for the solace man finds in the second-rate:

Carry me back, Master, to the cathedral town where the canons run through the water meadows with butterfly nets and the old women keep sweetshops in the cobbled side streets, or back to the upland mill town (gunpowder and plush) with its grope-movie and its poolroom lit by gas, carry me back to the days before my wife had put on weight, back to the years when beer was cheap and the rivers really froze in winter. Pity me, Captain, pity a poor old stranded sea-salt whom an unlucky voyage has wrecked on the desolate mahogany coast of this bar with nothing left him but his big moustache. . . .

When Auden is not parodying or, for the fun of it, showing what he can do with poetic devices—he has the same gusto for this kind of fireworks that Byron had—his characteristic tone is conversational. His verse is an artful kind of talking; it has the casual rhythms of speech, the off-hand irony and emphasis by understatement, the metaphysics in a minor key, and the sudden unexpected glimpses of light and darkness in the human spirit. Sometimes his use of the middle style approaches that of Dryden, He is like Dryden in his ease, his wit, his satiric skill, and his delight in arguing in poetry. There is something of the manner and method of “Religio Laici” in Auden’s “New Year Letter,” which, to my mind, is the most successful of his long pieces. A part of his comment on “Empiric Economic Man” will give an impression of the flashing energy of the verse: But at the very noon and arch Of his immense triumphal march Stood prophets pelting him with curses And sermons and satiric verses, And ostentatious beggars slept. Blake shouted insults, Rousseau wept, Ironic Kierkegaard stared long And muttered “All are in the wrong,” While Baudelaire went mad protesting That progress is not interesting. . . .

Auden and Dryden are both determined to understand the nature of man, but Auden realizes that understanding is possible only if he can penetrate the dark region of the instincts and the emotions, a region which Dryden simply avoids. Auden’s style is a result of his consistently analytical approach to the conscious and the unconscious mind. F. Cudworth Flint, in his excellent criticism of the “Collected Poetry” in the New York Times Book Review, said that Auden has a vocabulary rather than a style, a vocabulary markedly clinical which avoids colors and scents and uses shapes, and which ranges from terms of abstract analysis to epithets of contemporary realism.

This description is illuminating but inadequate. A better one can be given, I think, in terms of Auden’s imagery. The use of the metaphysical image he shares with most of his contemporaries, but there are two other kinds of image which seem to me the special signs of his style. The first is an act of intellect; like Dryden’s “Her wit was more than man; her innocence a child,” it is a brilliant condensation of an idea. Auden achieves it when he hears the “hum of printing-presses turning forests into lies,” when he describes

That spiral staircase where the haunted will Hunts for its stolen luggage,

and, when he sees in

Each subway face the Pequod of Some Ishmael hunting his lost love, To harpoon his unhappiness And turn the whale to a princess.

This kind of image gives form to concepts; it acts like a spotlight, isolating its object from the other objects around it.

The other kind of image acts like moonlight on water, riot isolating but synthesizing the shapes of darkness; it gives form, in archetypes, to man’s unconscious drives. In his elegy for Freud, Auden says,

He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told The unhappy Present to recite the Past

Like a poetry lesson till sooner Or later it faltered at the line where

Long ago the accusations had begun, And suddenly knew by whom it had been judged, How rich life had been and how silly, And was life-forgiven and more humble.

* * * * *

But he wishes us more than this: to be free

Is often to be lonely; he would unite

The unequal moieties fractured

By our own well-meaning sense of justice.

Would restore to the larger the wit and will

The smaller possesses but can only use

For arid disputes, would give back to The son the mother’s richness of feeling.

But he would have us remember most of all To be enthusiastic over the night . . ..

Auden’s way of being enthusiastic over the night is to look for the night’s own logic. The archetypal images of dream and folktale—fountain, garden, tower, haunted wood, and road of flight—move through his poetry with vague but profound effects of joy and terror, with terror much the stronger. Where friends have met and parted, “The empty junction glitters in the sun”; the successful man has seen in a nightmare, Approaching down a ruined corridor, A figure with his own distorted features
That wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe;
and every man is conscious of . . .the snarl of the abyss That always lies just underneath Our jolly picnic on the heath,

Often these images have the forms of daylight and the present time. You are told to

. . . plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed;

or you watch while

The sinister tall-hatted botanist stoops at the spring
With his insignificant phial and looses
The plague on the ignorant town;

or you hear the bolt sliding in the groove and know that “Outside the window is the black remover’s van.”

The poet, Auden says, rummages into his living and fetches out the images “that hurt and connect.” In his “Collected Poetry” the hurt is sharp, but the connection which he believes he has found between man’s conscious and unconscious drives is not established and the terror therefore is not resolved. The double man, in his search for a single dialectic, remains double. “The intolerable neural itch”— which finds its brilliant analysis but not its remedy in “For the Time Being”—is sometimes relieved by such poems as “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” and “The Sea and the Mirror.” But good art gives shape to trouble, and that is why readers will take pleasure in the skill and honesty and modesty with which Auden speaks of his time.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading