Read chronologically, W. H. Auden’s poetry moves from alienation to integration; his work is a quest for wholeness, an escape from the isolated self, “where dwell/ Our howling appetites,” into a community where the essential goodness of life is acknowledged despite the presence of sin. Over the course of his career, Auden’s quest takes many forms, but his goal never varies; from beginning to end, he seeks to discover how love, in all its manifestations, can fulfill humankind’s social and personal needs.
Auden began in the 1930’s as a critic of his society, an outsider looking in and finding little to admire in what he saw. His early work is essentially a record of social ills; love is sought but rarely found. As he matures, however, Auden gradually becomes less of a diagnostician and more of a healer; he arrives eventually at a vision of love informed by human sympathy and, later, by religious belief. Once this vision is affirmed in his poetry, Auden again shifts direction, becoming more fully than before a comic poet, intent on celebrating the redemptive power of love and acknowledging the essential blessedness of life. These shifts in Auden’s work are, of course, gradual and subtle rather than abrupt, but the division of his career into three phases provides a way to bring some sense of order to a body of work remarkable, above all else, for its diversity.
The early Auden is very much a poet of the 1930’s—a time of economic depression and fascism, war and rumors of war. Faced with such a world, he adopts the pose of a clinical diagnostician anatomizing a troubled society. He sees the social and spiritual malaise of his time as a failure of communication; individuals are trapped inside themselves, unable to escape the forces of psychological and social repression that block the possibility of love.
The poems that record Auden’s diagnosis of his society are still considered by some to be his best. Although they are often bewildering to readers, they are admired for their energy and intensity, their brilliant, elusive surfaces. One of the most highly regarded of these early poems is “Consider,” which illustrates Auden’s early technical skill as well as his characteristic themes. The poem is divided into three verse paragraphs, each addressed to a different auditor by a speaker whose heightened theatrical language gives him an aloofness of tone which matches his arrogant message. Auden’s voice in “Consider” typifies the detachment and impersonality of the early poems.
The first verse paragraph addresses the reader directly, asking that he “consider” a symbolic modern landscape “As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman.” From this great height, with the objective eye of the hawk, the speaker observes images of society on the verge of collapse: a cigarette end smoldering at the edge of a garden party; decadent vacationers at a winter resort, surrounded by signs of an impending war; and farmers “sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.” The vacationers, incapable of emotion, are “supplied with feelings by an efficient band,” while the farmers, separated from them by physical distance and class barriers, yet equally lonely, listen to the same music on the wireless. Though explicitly social and political, the poem is also developed in personal and psychological terms; like the landscape, the individuals in the poem are “diseased,” unable to establish genuine personal contacts.
Having drawn this grim picture of “our time,” the speaker turns in the second verse paragraph to elucidate the psychological foundation of social ills, addressing, in the process, a “supreme Antagonist,” who, according to Edward Mendelson, is the “inner enemy” that “personifies the fears and repressions that oppose love.” The Antagonist finds an ample number of victims in the decadent society and spreads its evil, “scattering the people” and seizing them with “immeasurable neurotic dread.” In this section, the poem’s intense language and deliberate rhetorical excess are beautifully modulated, making the speaker aloof and detached yet with an edge of hysteria in his voice.
The final verse paragraph is addressed to the banker, the don, and the clergyman (representatives of the social elite), along with all others who seek happiness by following the “convolutions” of the distorted ego. The poem ends by warning the selfish and the elite of the inescapable psychological diseases that the Antagonist holds in store for them, diseases that will further destroy the possibility for love.
Auden’s adaptation of various psychological theories in “Consider” is typical of his method in the 1930’s, as is the detached clinical posture of the speaker and the explicit social and political concern voiced in the poem. Auden characteristically offers little hope and, given the extent of the ills he describes, his doing so might well have seemed facile. Auden’s earliest poetry sometimes offers an idealized, vague notion of love as a healing force capable of breaking down repression and restoring social and personal relationships to their proper order. Usually, though, this message is faint and clearly secondary to the diagnostic aim of the poems.
“Lullaby” and “As I Walked Out One Evening”
In two love poems written somewhat later than “Consider,” Auden approaches more explicitly the view of love hinted at in the earliest poems. “Lullaby,” his best-known lyric, ends with the speaker’s hope that his beloved may be “watched by every human love.” The poem’s emphasis, however, rests on the transience of “human love”: The arm on which the sleeping lover rests is “faithless”; love is at best a temporary stay against loneliness. Likewise, in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Auden stresses the limitations of romantic and erotic love. “Time” lurks in the shadows and coughs when the lovers “would kiss,” deflating the romantic delusions satirized at the beginning of the poem. Later, though, near the end, the chiming clocks of the city offer an injunction that suggests a new direction: “You shall love your crooked neighbor/ With your crooked heart.” Though undercut by a number of ironies, the love described here moves tentatively toward the vision of the 1940’s. Even so, the “human love” that Auden evokes in the 1930’s seems insufficient to resolve the social and personal ills diagnosed by his poetry.
During the 1930’s, Auden gradually left behind the various ideologies he had seriously (and, perhaps, half-seriously) adopted during the decade. Humphrey Carpenter, Auden’s biographer, suggests that these ideologies—Marxism, post-Freudianism, liberal humanism—all had in common a fundamental belief in the natural goodness of...
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