Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

When The Memory of War (1982), the volume including “Children in Exile,” first appeared in Britain, many readers were immediately reminded of the 1930’s political poetry of W. H. Auden. (Fenton makes this debt clear in “Children in Exile” by citing Auden’s 1962 prose book The Dyer’s Hand in the latter portion of the poem.) Fenton, like Auden in the 1930’s, was a young poet writing about conflicts in distant countries and making them immediate for the British reader, but there are certainly differences between them. Auden often implied that he was essentially an apolitical poet whom the onslaught of fascism in the Spanish Civil War and after had forced into a partisan position. Fenton, on the other hand, had gone to Vietnam and Cambodia as a working journalist, freelancing for several newspapers and magazines. Among other things, he was a witness to the fall of Saigon to the Communist North Vietnamese in 1975. This event came only days after the Communist takeover in Cambodia that occasioned the suffering from which the Cambodian children in the poem are fleeing.

Although Fenton displays political sympathies of a center-left sort in the poem (as evinced by his giving the United States partial blame for the problems of Cambodia after 1975, a position with which some on the right would disagree), the poem is not a politically committed poem in the manner of Auden’s “Spain” (1937). The poem’s most explicit sympathies...

(The entire section is 513 words.)