Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Auden elaborated upon his feelings about mystery in his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which he admitted, “For methe reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” He identifies five basic elements as “the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives.” “Detective Story” has five paragraphs, with the first three corresponding to the first three of Auden’s mystery elements, followed by the reader substituting for the suspects and detectives.

“The Guilty Vicarage” is almost an explication of “Detective Story,” whose main theme, as with most of Auden’s poetry of the 1930’s and 1940’s, is guilt. “All crimesare offenses against oneself,” Auden writes in his essay. His poem shows how a murderer virtually condemns himself to death by committing his crime, how he must be consumed by guilt. Auden writes that society must assume the role of punisher of the murderer. In “Detective Story,” the reader, representative of society, feels momentary unease at the carrying out of the verdict.

“Execution,” according to Auden, “is the act of atonement by which the murderer is forgiven by society. In real life I disapprove of capital punishment, but in a detective story the murderer must have no future.” Auden’s reader senses the justness of the punishment, especially since it meets the demands of the fictional formula, while being disturbed that someone (although a...

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