W. H. Auden

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What is a critical analysis of the poem "The Capital" by W. H. Auden?

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Auden’s poem begins with the first sights the tourist in the capital is likely to see, the fashionable center where it seems as though the rich have nothing better to do than lounge in cafes and wait “expensively for miracles.” The artificiality of the capital is emphasized further in the second stanza. It has abolished the seasons and banished the natural rhythm of life.

The reality of the city, its day to day existence, is in disposable lives and the constant harshness of life which, in one of the poem’s most arresting images, batters people into conformity as the sea batters pebbles into smooth shapes. In the end, however, it is the illusion, not the harsh reality, which illuminates the sky, drawing in the “farmer’s children” with the promise of a more exciting, brilliant life.

The poem is unrhymed and written in loose alexandrines, slightly longer and less regular than the iambic pentameter usually employed for blank verse in English. The language is emotive ("malicious," "outraged," "punitive," "appalling," "wicked," etc.) and makes clear the poet’s moral objection to the thinly disguised iniquity of the city, where even in the expensive quarters the lovers eat each other and the exiles are divided into malicious cliques.

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W. H. Auden's "The Capital" is generally read as a critique of capitalist societies that exploit the poor for the benefit of the upper middle class and the rich. However, Auden is aware of the pleasures that capitalism can bring and he does not shy away from saying so in the poem:

Yet with orchestras and glances, O, you betray us
To belief in our infinite powers; and the innocent
Unobservant offender falls in a moment
Victim to his heart's invisible furies. (lines 9–12)

It is the capital itself that Auden address in these lines, and he is saying something like: "Glancing upon your glamour and your art allows people to think that you have unlimited power, and because of this, they fall for you and want to believe that you are good."

However, immediately afterwards, Auden writes:

In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
Factories where lives are made for a temporary use
Like collars or chairs, rooms where the lonely are battered
Slowly like pebbles into fortuitous shapes. (lines 13–16)

In other words, Auden says, the reason that the capital is able to run the way it does is due to slave labor; the kind of work that steals people's humanity, making them "lonely" and "battered" like "pebbles." In other words, this poem is a strong social critique of those who live on the backs of others.

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This poem by WH Auden is called "The Capital," and pointedly Auden doesn't specify anywhere within it which capital city he's talking about. It could be London, it could be Paris — there's a generic nature to what he describes which supports the suggestion that this kind of thing happens everywhere. There's a lure to capital cities that makes everyone want to go there; the "glow" of the capital draws in "farmers' children" who don't realize yet that it's really a sort of "wicked uncle" which will never offer them the "miracles they long for."

Auden uses blank verse and regular stanzas, which is an interesting stylistic choice. The regularity of his meter and the lengths of the stanzas give a certain structure, just as our lives in cities are tied to structures, but the lack of rhyme suggests something modern, beyond the parochial. Auden seems to view cities as something artificial, a human creation which will "betray us." He notes that the wealthy are waiting for "miracles," too, and the ex-patriates ("exiles") are all gathered together in their own quarters. The "apparatus" of the city means that even the seasons don't have to be obeyed here (cities in Auden's day might have air conditioning and proper heating systems which wouldn't be found in rural areas). This sort of freedom appeals to young people who want to reject "obedience" and their parents, but they don't realize what lies beneath the surface.

The "appalling," Auden says, is concealed within cities — factories "where lives are made for temporary use / like collars or chairs." Auden is here criticizing the tendency of cities to actually cause, rather than destroy, loneliness by clustering people together; people are used to further the purposes of large corporations and ultimately become expendable. It is here that the metaphor of the city as a "wicked uncle" becomes clear, but Auden is aware that its "glow," from a distance, will still continue to lure people in.

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