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New Leaders in English Poetry

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

The clearest initial evidences of a new poetic situation in England were the appearance of Wystan Auden’s “Poems” in 1930 and of Hugh M’Diarmid’s “First Hymn to Lenin” in 1931. Since then, the output of a group of young English poets who represent the new enthusiasm for psychoanalytic therapeutics and Marxian revolutionary economics has been continuous. Lyrics; verse satires; plays in a medley of prose, verse, song, and buffoonery; essays and manifestoes on poetry, politics, and the relations between them; autobiographical self-analyses; bifocal travel books in which the authors look at remote regions in order to see the world they’ve left behind; short stories; novels; even diagrams (as in Auden’s “The Orators”)—all these have been the media for the evangel of

the polished will
Flag of our purpose which the wind engraves.
No spirit seek here rest. But this: No man
Shall hunger: Man shall spend equally.
Our goal which we compel: Man shall be man.

Two poets, Wystan II. Auden and Stephen Spender, have come to represent to readers of poetry the leaders of the new movement. Cecil Day Lewis, though usually coupled with Auden and Spender, has a less vigorous talent than theirs. Now arrived at equal prominence is the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who is as notable in his way as Spender; but he is connected with the group chiefly by friendship for and collaboration with Auden, for MacNeice is an individualist, sceptical of the feasibility of Communist ideals.

“Hugh M’Diarmid,” the pseudonym of Christopher Murray Grieve, is a poet of notable originality; but his Scots dialect has prevented wide familiarity with his work. Other sympathizers with the aims of Auden and Spender are Charles Madge and Rex Warner, less known in this country because more limited in output.

Among these newcomers, Stephen Spender, from whom the foregoing quotation is taken, is the most nearly romantic. He may not be consciously so, in his expressed literary and political convictions, but he is a romanticist in temperament and technique. Spender’s romanticism discloses itself partly in his literary enthusiasms: he alone, or at least chiefly, among his confreres reveres Shelley and the German romantic poet Holderlin, some of whose poems he has translated. But more directly it shows itself in the cadences and imagery of his poems. It is a frequent characteristic of a romantic poem that the emotion generated by the statements or imagery or diction of the successive lines becomes pronouncedly cumulative, re-enforcing the emotion of the cadence of any single phrase or line. That is to say, the emotion in a romantic poem tends to be resonant; chords struck earlier are still vibrating when later chords are sounded, and the poet gradually builds up “over” the single line a system—or sometimes a medley—of interfusing feelings. Of course, the effect of any composition of words is cumulative, coming into existence as the composition is read; but the accumulating significance need not be accompanied by a crescendo of, as it were, undistributed emotion. Throughout much of a romantic poem, such a crescendo is likely to be evident. In so far as diction alone is concerned, this effect is achieved by choosing and placing words so as to make the most of their connota-tive values. The repetition of key words and phrases still further raises the connotative potential in the verse—a device strikingly evident in the lyrics of Christina Rossetti, who sometimes based an entire poem on two or three repeated words.

The romanticist’s tendency to linked-feeling-long-drawn-out has shaped Spender’s verse technique in several ways. For example, he uses short-line meters less frequently than such a nonromantic poet as Auden; Spender’s favorite meter seems to he a supple, sometimes strongly worded but in general relaxingly cadenced pentameter line, easily admitting of considerable variations in the number of syllables and in the distribution of stresses among them. The romantic overplus of emotion hurries Spender along from one image to the next; a metaphor is indicated in a word or phrase, only to yield place to, or frequently to fuse with, a following metaphor. Sometimes the metaphors jostle one another, and refuse to coalesce. At the other extreme lie some of Spender’s most characteristic passages, in which he achieves the quiveringly bright indistinctness also peculiar to Shelley, and by the same means: the use of generalized images of light, fire, and melody:

I think continually of those who were truly great,

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

Such passages as this, which may raise unresolvable doubts upon a word-by-word analysis, justify themselves by their cadence and evocation of feeling when taken in the reader’s stride.

When poets devise theories on the nature of poetry, they may either be defending their own practice or—a more subtle tactic—they may be erecting an aesthetic antithesis to their own qualities, an antithesis which, taken in conjunction with their own poetry, will balance and complete it, to form a “perfect round,” a universe of art. Spender, it seems to me, has adopted this latter tactic. His use of imagery and his cadences, as I have said, remind one of the work of other romantic poets; and he, like them and unlike Auden and Day Lewis, frequently bases a poem on a particular scene, glimpsed or on an event experienced in his private life. But in “The Destructive Element”—a book concerned with the relation of the art of Henry James, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and more recent writers to the moral and political situation of their times—he seems to deprecate romanticism ; and it is true that he has kept out of his poems what the following comment on Auden shows that he considers a romantic vice: “The key to modern romanticism is in the private poem, that is, the poetry of public appearances, which are, by the use of language, made full of private significance. Such is the poesie de departs, the poetry of the week-end visit to the country, the private jokes in Auden’s work.” Spender reminds one of such a classically-inclined writer as Matthew Arnold when he says, “I am trying to point out that what a book is actually about is far more important than most of my contemporaries seem to imagine: that a writer equipped with a fine technique should experience the same kind of difficulty in finding a subject as Beethoven had in finding a libretto for his opera.”

But with Spender, unlike Arnold, the process of choosing a subject does not incline his thoughts to the past.

The precise difficulty is to write about this moral life in a way that is significant: to find the real moral subject. The emphasis of our realistic tradition is entirely on the reality of externals; of nature, of mechanics, of acts. . . . Yet the fact remains that certain manifestations of what I call moral life are perfectly real: as real as chairs and tables, and far more dangerously alive than most human beings. Indeed, if they are neglected, they draw attention to themselves in wars and revolutions. . . . It is well to remember that perhaps the most fundamental of all beliefs illustrated by drama and poetry, in all history, is the idea of justice. We live in an age when we have become conscious of great social injustice, of the oppression of one class by another, of nationalities by other nations. Communism, or Socialism in its complete form, offers a just world—a world in which wealth is more equally distributed, and the grotesque accumulation of wealth by individuals is dispersed; in which nations have no interest in destroying each other in the manner of modern war, because the system of competitive trade controlled by internecine and opposed capitalist interests is abolished.

“The idea of justice,” however, imposes on the poet a wider allegiance, of which his allegiance to Communism forms but a part: “It is destructive for an artist to say that he knows something which he only believes or hopes to be true. For example, to say that I am on the side of the proletariat, that I shall fight for their cause, may be just. To say that the proletariat is better than any other class, that the proletarian revolution is the historic future of the world, is to blind myself as an artist. It is the business of artists to insist on human values. If there is need for a revolution, it is these human values that will make the revolution.”

Thus, setting out from a premise agreeable to a classicist, Spender reaches a revolutionary position akin to Shelley’s. His longest and therefore most excogitated revolutionary poem, “Vienna,” might not suggest this; but his revolutionary lyrics frequently exhibit the typical leap of the romantic temperament from a present of disorder to a future of largely uncategorized radiance:

. . . through torn-down portions of old fabric let their eyes

Watch the admiring dawn explode like a shell Around us, dazing us with its light like snow.

This revives Shelley’s vision of Zeus toppled from his throne by one instantaneous act of avenging Demogorgon.

What then, reasoned justification apart, are the emotional bases of Spender’s revolutionary enthusiasm? He has said that “except in circumstances of catastrophic accident, or of resignation to a predestined fate, pity is not an adequate emotion in poetry. It tends to become negative, exhausting, sentimental, masochistic.” Nevertheless, several of Spender’s lyrics express for victims of exploitation a pity whose concentration fires it to an indignant incandescence.

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic, They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring And only measuring Time, like the blank clock. . . .

Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds

Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.

But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds

This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.

Another emotional source of Spender’s revolutionary ardor is glanced at in Louis MacNeice’s statement, in his incisive comment on “Poetry Today,” that “Comradeship is the Communist substitute for bourgeois romance; . . .” Several passages such as this occur in Spender’s poetry:

Oh comrades, step beautifully from the solid wall advance to rebuild and sleep with friend on hill advance to rebel and remember what you have no ghost ever had, immured in his hall.

Spender seems moreover to extend his instinct for comradeship into lofty and invigorating devotion to those whom Auden and Day Lewis unite with him in praising under the name of “ancestors”—those whom the revolutionary poets feel to be their spiritual forbears:

The names of those who in their lives fought for life Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun, And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Spender’s best gift to contemporary poetry is the “vivid air” of his best poems—an air “signed” with tenderness, indignation, and compassion.


A reader casually picking up one of Wystan Auden’s earlier books might exclaim, not that Auden is a Communist, but that he is a Proteus. One may wonder, to change the figure, how a group of the younger poets of England can regard as in some sense their leader that one among them who at a first inspection may seem the most elusive: a Cheshire Cat of a poet, found perched on the bough of an idea or roosting in the underbrush of a style where one least expects to find him; a propounder of abrupt, riddling remarks, cloaking uncertain intentions behind a practical joker’s cryptic grin; and vanishing suddenly from his ideological perches, leaving behind an irritating recollection of allusions intelligible only to those more intimate with their author than the well-meaning reader of his poems. These overt references to the concerns and amusements of an inner circle are happily fewer in Auden’s recent work, but formerly they were numerous enough to evoke theories of their origin. The usual explanation has been that Auden and his friends think of themselves as a small group of pioneers engaged in guerrilla warfare with a huge, if slackly organized, foe; and these references are the messages and cries of encouragement witli which the members of the small band mutually hearten one another. A second theory has it that Auden derives his private mystifications from riddling allusions in the Icelandic sagas, by which he has been much influenced, being himself partly of Icelandic descent. Auden’s early charade, “Paid on Both Sides,” certainly owes its dynastic feud to the sagas, even if the ominous atmosphere of the sagas is here compounded with the rivalries of the rugger fifteen and the crew. A different theory, popular with the poet’s detractors, runs that these baffling allusions arise from a wilful attitude of “To the devil with the dumb reader” on Auden’s part. So widely disseminated, in fact, have been jibes alleging the presence in Auden of arrested development and mischievous juvenility, that Auden complains he

Must hear in silence till I turn my toes up, “It’s such a pity Wystan never grows up.” This very dispraise can, however, be turned into a compliment. To say that he has never grown up is a way of saying that he has never finished growing. And his astonishing technical virtuosity is evidence of the experimentation usually accounted among the virtues of youth. Sometimes, especially in his satiric verse, he lands himself in flatness and even in silliness; as Day Lewis has noted, his parodies become indistinguishable in style from the targets of his satire, being elevated above the latter only by the irony conferred by a satiric setting. Yet Auden can attain deftness, as in this lyric after (or athwart) the music-hall lyricist:

You were a great Cunarder, I Was only a fishing smack Once you passed across my bows And of course you did not look back It was only a single moment yet I watch the sea and sigh Because my heart can never forget The day you passed me by.

In his serious poetry his versatility is amazing. He can run through half a dozen influences without being swamped by any. But Auden is no mere connoisseur of styles; he is highly skilled in his own right, as can be shown by a comparison of the andante opening and the allegro closing line of one of his poems:

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle

contrasts strongly with

Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.

A similar contrast, but with the allegro preceding the andante movement, appears in this:

Easily, my dear, you move, easily your head And easily as through the leaves of a photograph album I’m led

Through the night’s delights and the day’s impressions, Past the tall tenements and the trees in the wood: Though sombre the sixteen skies of Europe

And the Danube flood.

In spite of Auden’s varieties of cadence, his poetry creates a unified impression; it forms a “body.” Aside from the jaunty verse or sometimes merely scrambling doggerel of his satirical compositions, and when he is not obviously imitating, he writes in a style of his own. This style is too hospitable to colloquialisms to be called classic; but just as certainly it is not romantic. I can think of no better terms for it than “anti-rhetorical” or “declarative.” The basis of the style is the forthright statement, in which words are in general used denotatively; that is to say, the full force of a word is confined within limits completely bounded by one or more of its dictionary definitions. There is a complete absence of the charged atmosphere, the imminent but not clearly evident over-world of romantic poetry. In this precise matrix are sometimes imbedded statements which are not merely non-connotative, but positively flat. To balance these, the more imaginative moments in the verse are to be found in images and metaphors which derive their effect from the exciting exactness with which they apply to experience. In other words, the epithets and metaphors employed by Auden are not decorative or suggestive; they are—often surprisingly-definitive. The invigorating clarity resulting from this use of language is well illustrated in Auden’s poem “Dover,” from which I quote the first two stanzas:

Steep roads, a tunnel through the downs, are the approaches; A ruined pharos overlooks a constructed bay; The sea-front is almost elegant; all this show Has, somewhere inland, a vague and dirty root: Nothing is made in this town.

No, the dominant Norman castle floodlit at night And the trains that fume in the station built on the sea Testify to the interests of its regular life. Here live the experts on what the soldiers want, And who the travellers are . . . .

I have quoted the second stanza above primarily for the use in it of the word “fume.” One of Auden’s means of conveying an effect of precision is to revive the older and more concrete sense of a word which has come to be used currently in a derived and rather abstractly metaphorical sense. To “fume” nowadays—at least, outside chemistry laboratories—commonly means “to show irritation”; and a trace of this sense may be applied through an implicit personification to “trains” in this passage. But the main sense is undoubtedly “to give off cloudy vapor.” The revival of similar concrete applications helps to produce the “dryness” (in a good sense) of much of Auden’s verse. A further source of this effect is Auden’s belief, as reported by Isher-wood, that poetry must concern itself with shapes and volumes. Colors and smells he condemns as romantic; they are excluded, one may note, from the stanzas quoted here.

Day Lewis, impressed by Auden’s use of industrial and scientific imagery, of which the fuming trains mentioned in “Dover” are but a minor illustration, has this to say in “A Hope for Poetry”: “It is his astonishing capacity for assimilation and his ability to distill poetry out of the most forbidding retorts of science which make me think that Auden more than any other young writer has the essential qualifications of a major poet.” This remark seems to me somewhat beside the point, and dictated rather by one of Lewis’s own interests than by a clear realization of the true nature of Auden’s importance. Day Lewis makes considerable use in his own poems of similes and metaphors drawn from industry and science; he seems especially fond of electrical phenomena and railways. Spender also amalgamates modern science and mechanism into the texture of his imagery, though usually with a reverse intention; instead of applying the products of science to human experience, he applies imagery drawn from non-mechanical sources to the products of science. For example, an airplane settling down to a landing is More beautiful and soft than any moth

With burring furred antennae feeling its huge path.

Auden, however, though more imbued with the spirit of science than either Day Lewis or Spender, seldom draws our attention to any particular scientific image; and it is not in his use of such sciences as physics and engineering that his real importance lies. The nature of Auden’s interest in science, and the clue to his real importance as a poet, can both be discovered by noting carefully how he does use imagery. A great number of his poems build up a scene which extends all the way through the poem. That is to say, his images are not contained in his poems, in the fashion of metaphors or similes; his entire poem is, or if one likes, is inside, an image of a world. Sometimes, of course, the scene is simply the actual setting of a bit of the poet’s physical experience, as is often the case in the poems of Spender. Usually, however, Auden’s scenes lie between the imagined and the actual. The items composing them are drawn from the actual world, but are invested with a peculiar vividness, a peculiar air of being about to change into something different and probably more terrifying. Nor is the suspense dulled by the fact that details recur from poem to poem. These details come from three main sources. Some are derived from the industrial English Midland countries, especially in the state of decay which post-war economic collapse has made evident there:

Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.

A second source is the frontier between the known and the unknown—a frontier militarized, moreover, and about to become the scene of hostilities. An air of imminent crisis, of impending disaster commonly pervades this mid-world:

Metals run

Burnished or rusty in the sun

From town to town,

And signals all along are down; Yet nothing passes

But envelopes between these places,

Snatched at the gate and panting read indoors,

And first spring flowers arriving smashed,

Disaster stammered over wires,

And pity flashed.

A third and still more remarkable, though less concrete, strand in the images in these scene-poems derives from psychiatry. The author might well have been reading a casebook of neuroses—indeed, Isherwood says that Auden early expressed the desire to treat of life “clinically.” He has succeeded:

Then, ready, start your rumour, soft But horrifying in its capacity to disgust Which, spreading magnified, shall come to be A polar peril, a prodigious alarm, Scattering the people, as torn-up paper Rags and utensils in a sudden gust, Seized with immeasurable neurotic dread.

The world constructed of such materials is obviously the world of dreams; and the “ancestor” who inspires the poet to its creation is Freud. Everywhere in Auden’s poetry, and underlying the effect of any of his lesser tutors, one sees the use of materials, and the application of principles, deriving ultimately from Freud. Herein lies Auden’s distinctive importance for present-day poetry. The upswing in the poetry of the ‘thirties, as compared with that of the ‘twenties, has been due to the fact that the younger poets have seized upon new convictions which are fundamental in the thinking of our time. Generally speaking, two systems of such fundamental convictions are distinctive of the twentieth century. Both of them, it is true, originated in the nineteenth century, but neither attained any considerable dominance before 1900. These two bodies of doctrine and practice are, obviously, Marxism and Freudianism. To the former, Spender, Day Lewis, and others owe the revival of poetic energy in which they share. Auden, too, should probably be enrolled under the Communist banner; but he reached this position only gradually, as an incidental result of his analysis of society from another point of view; and he has seldom written what could by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as direct proclamations of Communism. I can recollect but two such compositions: “A Communist to Others” and the music-hall masque, “The Dance of Death.” His emphasis is not on the economic exploitation of some, but on the nervous paralysis of all. In “The Orators” we read: “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” The great adversary of man is not the capitalist among men, but the will to death lurking in men. And Auden’s importance, both in his own eyes and for others, is that in his poetry he aspires to be, to use an Audenish device, singer of psychiatry and surgeon of psychoses.

Seen in this light, nearly every aspect of Auden’s work becomes clearer. For example, some readers of “The Orators” have been baffled by what they have taken to be a chaotic jumble of contents. But there are certain images which serve as clues. Auden, as Day Lewis has pointed out, “speaks naturally in parables”; and much of the “The Orators” is a series of such parables. In the chief of these, the forces for psychological destruction around and within ourselves become the “enemy,” the effect of which is “to introduce inert velocities into the system (called by him laws or habits) interfering with organization. These can only he removed by friction (war).” Hence the mythopoetic figure of the Airman is devised by Auden to withstand the enemy. I The Airman at first attacks the enemy by a succession of monstrous practical jokes, which Auden seems to advocate as a means of upsetting the inertia of habit and custom. But the Airman finally realizes that the enemy is also within himself, and cannot be overcome by assault upon externals:

1. The power of the enemy is a function of our resistance, therefore 2. The only efficient way to destroy it—self-destruction, the sacrifice of all resistance, reducing him to the state of a man trying to walk on a frictionless surface.

So the Airman’s final note is: “Hands in perfect order,” a notation comparable to the question at the close of “The Waste Land”: “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” and to the Scriptural injunction: “. . . first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” In spite of extravagances of detail, the general drift of Auden’s parable here is clear enough.

Some readers may be irritated because he mingles with his campaign against the negative will, the will to death, a random sniping at a number of human idiosyncrasies which happen to irritate him, but which to another person—even another Freudian—might seem quite harmless. We are not really advantaged by being told that three enemy occupations are “playing cards—collecting—talking to animals”; or that three enemy traits are “refusal to undress in public— proficiency in modern languages—inability to travel back to the engine.” Auden here reminds one of the man who went to do battle with the giants, armed with a shot-gun, on the ground that the shot might be large enough to kill the giants, and might be small enough to kill the mosquitoes which infested the battlefield. But Auden’s irresponsible whimsies are merely the reverse of a gift for satire, which, when he chooses, is pregnantly, though obliquely, relevant, as when he describes three kinds of enemy walk: “The grandiose stunt —the melancholic stagger—the paranoiac sidle”; or three kinds of enemy bearing: “the condor stoop—the toad stupor —the robin’s stance”; or three kinds of enemy face: “the June bride—the favourite puss—the stone in the rain”; or three enemy catchwords: “insure now — keep smiling — safety first.”

Auden’s psychoanalytic interests also explain how it happens that, in spite of his declarative style, readers are sometimes unable to grasp clearly what a given poem is about The individual statements in the poem seem clear enough, and bear a meaning on their surface; but the reader sometimes feels at a loss to know what the theme or subject is, with reference to which these statements are made; and he therefore also fails to see what the logical or psychological nexus of the statements may be. A particular form of this uncertainty arises in the love poems which make up a considerable part of “Look, Stranger !” There arises a doubt whether the speaker and the person addressed in certain of these poems are related to each other as lovers, or as comrades in a revolutionary social movement, or as both. Such uncertainties spring from the nature of the material with which psychoanalysis deals. The symbols in our fantasies and dreams are, as any psychiatrist knows, often (perhaps always) ambivalent: that is to say, a given image may either express actually opposite impulses, such as both love and hate, submission and resistance; or it may be functional in several contexts: for example, a dream of an indistinctly seen bulky figure falling downstairs may both record the fact that the dreamer did recently fall downstairs, and his wish that his fat aunt would do likewise. In Auden’s more baffling love poems, the situation of the lovers or friends probably becomes, in the inconstant wavering fashion of dreams, by turns separate from and fused into the larger comradeship of the revolutionary movement—whether envisaged in Marxian or Freudian terms—toward a healthy society. It was therefore either a wise choice or a wise instinct of Auden’s to choose for his poetry a declarative and superficially straightforward style, for this style acts as a rigid shell, imposing a shape upon the fluid or at least unstable core of his poetry. Dreams are liable to whirl into confusion or deliquesce into mush; and these disasters are averted by the precision and firmness of Auden’s style.

Finally, it may be wondered why a group of poets of Communist sympathies should accord a position of leadership to that one of their number whose interest in Communism is only secondary and intermittently expressed. An obvious answer would be that Auden’s poetry is pre-eminent because it contains the greatest number of diverse elements of poetic strength, and suggests the greatest possibilities of future growth. But these merits, granting that they exist, can in part be traced further. For, although of course “sheer native endowment” must cloak our ignorance of a good part of their origin, we may say that Auden has been lucky in adopting a Freudian rather than a Marxian approach to life. I do not mean to say that Freudianism is truer than Marxism. Indeed, it seems to me one of the major intellectual tasks of our time to combine whatever of truth there may be in these two systems into a unified approach to human problems. But Freudianism has an advantage for the poet in that Freudianism works from the inside out; it begins with the material already within the individual, in the form of wishes, compulsions, aversions, fantasies, and dreams, and seeks to educe from these an objectified, rationalized structure which shall constitute a cure. And the poet works in a similar fashion. Beginning with much the same materials the analyst deals with, the poet objectifies these by educing from them a poem.

Marxism, in contrast, is a system which works from without. Its fundamental material consists of observations of the behavior of large bodies of men in certain relations to one another over a considerable period of time. The results of these observations become individualized and subjectivized, not by being rediscovered within the individual consciousness as a pattern of what the individual already does do, but by being imposed on the individual consciousness as a pattern of what the individual ought to do or must do. In consequence, the poet who finds his inspiration in Communism is continually confronted by such problems as propaganda versus poetry, revolution versus art: that is to say, by the conflict between the claims of an exterior subject-matter which can retain its identity and efficacy only by resisting adaptation at the hands of private individuals, and the claims of certain operations of the human mind which mold the outer world into forms dictated by the individual psyche. Both Spender and Day Lewis have written at length in prose, trying to prove both that the poet is not by nature counter- or un-revolutionary, and that the advocacy of Communism or of revolution does not sterilize poetry. Auden, on the other hand, has needed to make no such uneasy adjustment between precept and practice.

It is true that every creed brings with it its own danger. The danger of Freudianism for the poet is that it encourages in him a self-conscious inspection of his own mental processes and thereby withers the impulse to spontaneous lyricism. Still, pure lyricism does not seem to be a characteristic of our times; it is not necessarily characteristic of a great age of poetry. If Auden had become a pure lyricist, he might have been simply another A. E. Housman; therefore the fact that Auden does not remind us of a “tuneful chorister” is possibly not the fault of Freudianism alone, and no very lamentable consequence if it is. We could ill afford, in exchange for a second voice singing Housman’s tunes, to lose the unique art which finds its expression in these lines:

Sir, no man’s enemy, forgiving all

But will his negative inversion, be prodigal:

Send to us power and light, a sovereign touch

Curing the intolerable neural itch,

The exhaustion of weaning, the liar’s quinsy,

And the distortions of ingrown virginity.

Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response

And gradually correct the coward’s stance;

Cover in time with beams those in retreat

That, spotted, they turn though the reverse were great;

Publish each healer that in city lives

Or country houses at the end of drives;

Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at

New styles of architecture, a change of heart.


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