The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 479 words.)