The Poem

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W. H. Auden spent part of the year 1929 in Berlin, hoping to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of the more socially conservative London. Thus began his most political period, when he got caught up in antifascist movements and, eventually, went to Spain during their civil war. In the late 1920’s, Berlin was becoming a battleground between conflicting political factions. Auden and his English contemporaries often blamed older generations for the destruction of World War I, concluded only ten years earlier. They also saw, or thought they saw, the early indications of the next war. Political demonstrations often turned violent. Clashes between the police and demonstrators were common, as were brawls between communists and fascists. This political situation, which Adolf Hitler used to his advantage when he came to power in 1933, eventually led to World War II, the outbreak of which Auden marked with the poem “September 1, 1939.”

The poem known as “1929” was included in Auden’s first book of poetry, Poems (1930). The poem is often printed without a title, but Auden also published it in a slightly revised version in his Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (1966), giving the year of its composition as its title. It is a composite of four segments—dated April 1929, May 1929, August 1929, and October 1929—taken from four separate poems. It has a fractured autobiographical narrative to match its fractured syntax. Some of the fragments were written while the poet was living in Germany (the public garden in which the poet walks is the Tiergarten in Berlin), and the whole thing was most likely compiled in England in late 1929 or 1930.

The first and last sections are narratively connected but separated by the poet’s meditations, very personal and somewhat obscure, about his development as an intellectual in a time of social unrest. The poem starts with seasonal imagery but departs sharply at the beginning of the second stanza, when the poet’s attention turns to thoughts of death and failure. Describing his own personal situation and that of his friends, Auden shifts to a more general description of life in Berlin.

Section 2 describes his engagement with friends discussing political events. The poet appears to be both engaged in the situation and observing it, saying that he is pleased, while he is really feeling angry at both sides. As an observer, the poet considers the development of people as individuals in whom he can see “fear of other” and a basic inability to forgive. The poet, however, can see the goodness in life and feel peace.

Part 3 describes Auden’s return to England and to his mother’s house. The poet shifts from his own development to a general process of growth and individuation experienced by young people who take their first steps away from home, falter, and eventually come to appreciate home. Although this section is dated August, there is a growing awareness of winter. Here, winter is an earthly indication of death, arranged so that one will be familiar with death when it comes. In both sections 2 and 3, Auden shifts from the personal to the general, indicating that the development of the individual parallels the development of a culture. As the individual grows to fear others, so too do societies; as the individual grows through an awareness of death, so too do nations.

The final segment returns to the idea of error with a strong statement: “It is time for the destruction of error.” This section describes autumn in England, when furniture is brought in from the garden, and makes the analogy between the end of an...

(This entire section contains 665 words.)

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era in England, the dawn of a new age in Europe, and the hope for a more honest life in the new decade (eventually termed, by Auden, a “low dishonest” one). In a poem so infused with the idea of death, the last stanza offers hope. The poet and his companion are aware of the needs of love, “more than the admiring excitement of union,” and they know of the necessity of death for rebirth.

Forms and Devices

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The poem mixes observation and meditation. As the line “Tiny observer of enormous world” indicates, the poet is interested in describing what he sees as well as the effect his observations have on himself. The world tends to make him feel insignificant, like a cog in a machine. In fact, the monuments of modern life, machinery, factories, and industry, figure prominently in the political landscape of “Auden country,” as scholar Samuel Hynes dubbed it in the 1970’s. With his contemporary Stephen Spender, Auden brought the reality of contemporary England and Europe into English poetry. The poem “1929” is rife with images of ordinary life and the materials of that life, such as buses, bicycles, and the “strict beauty of locomotive.”

In a similar move, Auden adds intensity to the poem by using a specialized kind of language, that of the postcard or telegram written with an urgency that may sacrifice clarity. The poem is noticeably lacking in definite and indefinite articles; that is, Auden leaves out “the” and “a” (“solitary man” rather than “a solitary man,” for example). In his preface to Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-57, Auden attributes this style to “some very slovenly verbal habits. The definite article is always a headache to any poet writing in English, but my addiction to German usages became a disease.”

Aside from the issue of articles, however, the diction in this poem has a quality that a reader might see as similar to that of American writer Gertrude Stein. Employing repetition and variation, the poet gives the impression that he enjoys his words. For example, section 2 opens with the lines, “Coming out of me living is always thinking,/ Thinking changing and changing living,/ Am feeling as it was seeing—.” Like other writers in the early half of the twentieth century, Auden was also very interested in psychoanalysis, especially the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers, and so the idea that “thinking is always living” becomes the basis for the deliberate archaism of the poem and the imitation of the language of the “primitive man” in the fourth stanza of section 2: “Is first baby, warm in mother.”

Another, perhaps stronger, influence is Irish writer James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1915) is written from the perspective of Stephen Daedalus. The famous first chapter begins when Stephen is a young boy: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road.” Writing in the voice of the very young, Auden uses a similar technique in the line, “Is first baby, warm in mother.” It is Auden’s attempt to write not only in a prebirth voice but also from a preverbal state, as if from the point of view of an uncivilized man. He does this to describe what he sees as the primeval fears and drives of humankind.