Study Guide

A Summer Night

by W. H. Auden

A Summer Night Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Such balancing of sounds and images expresses the meaning of the poem as a balancing of feeling against numbness, of love against hate, and peace against violence. The enchanting light of the moon reveals beauties it cannot appreciate, but it serves well as a vehicle for the poet’s humanizing imagination: Everything is made equal by the moonlight, as in a political sense, all should be equal in the human community; but the humanizing of that light allows for political equality to support aesthetic quality and civilized values. The sun provides energy for life, but the imagination provides ethical direction for that life: “The murderer” can see himself “in his glass” by aid of the sun’s light, but only an ethical imagination can “forgive the murderer in his glass.”

Themes of love and friendship, retirement, nature, and nurture work together to create a harmony of balanced reconciliation between various forces of opposition. Love among friends provides a resource of strength to be drawn upon when hate threatens: Thus, civilization can survive violence on account of its base as communion (community). Retirement behind walls of security appears to be a retreat from reality, because it seems to exist at the expense of a world of suffering; however, it proves to be the source of emotional strength needed for rebuilding after the walls have been broken down. Nature is a calm source of life, even in the worst of times, although it cannot be the end (as either goal or threat) of life. For that, human imagination is required. Instincts (of hunger or sex) may be natural, but their satisfaction will need something more than nature.

Auden, in 1933, anticipated the terrors of World War II. He imagined the need to create sources of strength from which to draw in future need. His poem refuses to surrender loving human commitments in the face of threat and want.