W. H. Auden Essay - Critical Essays

W. H. Auden Critical Overview

Having come to fame early, Auden had the close attention of critics throughout his adult life, far longer than most poets. Being in the literary spotlight from young manhood clearly affected his own perspective on his work; in fact, in his later years, he rewrote, abandoned, and cannibalized many of his earlier poems because he felt this youthful work was “untrue.” Essentially, he attempted to remake the outlines of his own body of poetry. Another effect of his early fame—or notoriety, as the case may be—was his fairly substantial audience (for a poet). Conscious of this loyal readership, he broadcast his political and social ideas throughout the 1930’s. The effort was made in good conscience: He was only attempting to persuade his readers of what he felt was right. Yet perhaps in reaction, as the 1930’s drew to an end, Auden withdrew from the spotlight. Having come to literary fame early, he tired of it; having spent nearly a decade fighting for a just society, he turned inward.

That is not to say that Auden’s poetry lacked a strong streak of inward-turning from the outset. The early poems often have as their setting a wild, make-believe landscape concocted from a rich variety of sources: Icelandic sagas, Old English poetry, boys’ adventure stories, and surreal fantasies that he had found in reading the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Throughout Auden’s poetry, during all four literary states into which he divided his career, his work would have this same curious division between a highly personal mythology and the clear, logical setting forth of an argument. Many readers find the introspective level of Auden’s poetry very obscure, although his poems are no more difficult than those of other twentieth century masters such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Wallace Stevens. Throughout his career, Auden was clearly fascinated by dreams and imaginative fantasies, and the drive to express this highly personal inner world contributes to his poetry’s thorniness.

At the same time, Auden’s poetry consistently presented to the world another outward face. Like any intelligent, sensitive young person, Auden lamented social and political injustice. In response, his work at this time is apocalyptic. The landscape portrayed in his early dramatic work Paid on Both Sides is a violent, confused one, populated by vindictive raiding parties armed with up-to-date weaponry and a medieval siege mentality. Critics at the time noted Auden’s thorough familiarity with contemporary ideologies such as Marxism and capitalism, Freudianism, sexual freedom, and feminism. His youthful work attempts to employ these schools of thought to diagnose a diseased society, but, most scholars agree, the results are often confusing and amateurish. His short lyric poems, such as “Since You Are Going to Begin Today,” remain his most lasting work of this period, a harbinger of the gifted lyric voice that he sustained throughout his career. The lyric poetry is open, candid, heartfelt, showing a young man alive to the world and to himself.

Actually, Auden was typical of many authors during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, as writers moved from creating introspective works bound by personal symbolism toward socially committed poems, novels, and stories. The shift was natural: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin had risen to power during this period, and the world was once again threatened by world war. Economically, too, the international community was entering a severe depression; while smaller nations continued to suffer poverty, the great powers also began to see widespread deprivation. Thus, it was natural for Auden, already politically aware, to strive, through poetry and drama, for a better world. He began consciously to aim his verse at a wide readership, chiefly through the poetic dramas staged by the Group Theatre. The 1930’s saw the production of several Auden plays, of which the three most important—The Dog Beneath the Skin: Or, Where Is Francis? (pb. 1935, pr. 1936), The Ascent of F6 (pb. 1936, pr. 1937), and On the Frontier (pb., pr. 1938)—were written with close friend Isherwood. Although spoken in verse, these plays were similar to the songs and skits of English music halls and German cabarets and sought to stir a large audience to action.

His poetry of the 1930’s breathes fellow feeling, an eager love for humanity, and a conviction that universal harmony was not far away. Yet throughout the decade he continued to write personal poems, often love lyrics contemplating the brevity and fragility of emotions. A celebrated example is “As I Walked out One Evening,” which uses the well-worn rhythms and phrases of popular love songs to picture love’s uncertainty. Even a poem such as Spain 1937 (1937), which offers a panorama of the people engaged in civil war, has an introspective side; at the same time as the speaker explores each person’s social motivation, he also looks forward to a peaceful future where the participants may rediscover “romantic love.” Although it would be inaccurate to say that Auden had been “embittered” by his experience in the Spanish Civil War, by 1939 he had, however, begun to express weariness with the state of the world. He had moved to the United States, and in “September 1, 1939,” he sits in “one of the dives” on New York’s Fifty-Second Street, watching as the “clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade.” In “The Unknown Citizen,” written a few months earlier, his tone is bitterly sarcastic as he describes the faceless, obedient automaton-citizen of the modern state.

In 1940, Auden to an extent put aside his political commitments and embraced religious and purely artistic ones. He returned to the Church of his boyhood, and his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being (pb. 1944, pr. 1959), expresses this spiritual culmination. He also returned to his English literary roots through a careful study of William Shakespeare. The long poem The Sea and the Mirror (1944) explores the meaning of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) as a parable of the artist and his creations. Finally, The Age of Anxiety investigates the psychic landscape of the postwar years, as Western culture struggled to recover from the traumas of the 1930’s and 1940’s. These later, longer poems are unquestionably difficult in language and theme, a far cry from the accessible, socially committed verse plays of the preceding decade.

By 1950, Auden was widely recognized as one of the two or three most important poets writing in English. Among his many other honors, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1954, and the National Book Award in 1956. The poetry of his later years is brief, highly symbolic, but still recognizably his own—the old concerns with society are there, but filtered through an intensely personal lens. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Auden also produced a number of translations from many literatures, including works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bertolt Brecht, St.-John Perse, and the young Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

Spain 1937

First published: 1937

Type of work: Poem

The Spanish Civil War signals the imminent collapse of the peacetime world—its art, learning, culture—and the ordinary lives of men and women.

Spain 1937 tells a story that is partly autobiographical. As a sympathizer with the socially progressive forces of the Spanish Loyalists, Auden had gone to Spain to participate in the war as a stretcher-bearer. Once there, he witnessed the viciousness of civil conflict, not only between the opposing armies but also among the Loyalists themselves. He returned to England embittered with politics, especially the European variety, and would soon leave to establish residence in the United States.

Yet the tone of Spain 1937 is generally elegiac—sad and wistful. In the poem’s first six stanzas, Auden recalls the often-glorious history of this peninsular country, surveying its ocean-borne exploration of the world, its expansion of global trade, and its building of cathedrals. In the more recent past, he notes the more obvious “advances” in Hispanic civilization, the engineering of machines and the building of railroads. At the same time, he does not ignore Spain’s darker past, such as the “trial of heretics” during the Inquisition. The distant past of discovery and religious feud and more recent signs of progress are erased, however, by the coming conflict: “But today the struggle” overtakes Spain. In stanzas 9 through 11, Auden suggests the causes of war, or at least the condition of the country as war begins. He pictures Spain’s impoverished citizens in their “fireless lodgings” as they read the evening news and realize that they have nothing left to lose. Emboldened by the promises of Marxism, the poor invest their hope in the action of history and the forces of change. In response, the forces of reaction, the “military empires,” “descend” on the fledgling progressive nation.

Yet Auden avoids portraying the Spanish Civil War as a simple struggle of good against evil. He foretells that this particular conflict will symbolize a greater horror to come. In stanzas 12 through 14, “life” answers the combatants, saying that it is their servant and it will shape itself to fill their desires, whatever these may be. Auden personifies the common life of the Spanish nation—and by implication the nations of the world—as a “bar-companion,” willing to go along with anything. According to the personified life, the peoples of Europe propose the building of the “just city” in Spain, a free and equal commonwealth. Life, however, knows that the proposal is based on illusion, a kind of “suicide pact” born of romanticism. Nevertheless, it accepts the people’s decision.

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