Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Perhaps the first idea the reader notices in this poem is that of death, which seems to permeate it from beginning to end. The opening line identifies Easter as the day on which the poet takes his walk, and Auden immediately signals the dual themes of death and rebirth. Easter is, after all, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, his death a “necessary condition” of his rebirth into something greater than his earthly being. Yet, for a poem that starts out sounding so hopeful, with its “emphasis on new names, on the arm/ A fresh hand,” the shift to a discussion of death can be disconcerting.
The subject of death, however, is constantly mingled with images of natural life, such as the colony of ducks, and with the poet’s appreciation of the human life he sees around him (the hymns he hears in the village square, for example). So it is the combination of death and life that intrigues him and that he sees as necessary. In order to fully love life, one needs a knowledge of death.
The truly strong man, as he calls his friend Gerhardt Meyer, recognizes this idea and acts accordingly. For Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood (the novelist to whom Auden dedicated his Poems of 1930), the truly strong man is the antiheroic hero. Unlike traditional ideas of male strength—a glorious, risk-taking hero—Auden and Isherwood see the truly strong man as one who possesses inner security and self-confidence, who does not need to prove himself to anyone, and whose actions are, consequently, pure in heart. The truly strong man is able to resolve traditional dichotomies, such as public/private, inner/outer, and, as in this poem, life/death, to achieve peace within himself. Auden develops this idea in “The Orators” (1931) as does Isherwood in Lions and Shadows (1938).
The final image of the “lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there” may leave the reader a bit perplexed. It is a variation on the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legend, who gives the sword, Excalibur, to Arthur. The mysticism implicit in the image connects back to the image of the risen Christ, for the figure in the lake will eventually rise, be reborn, and bring a new power of good to the world.