Themes and Meanings
The positive treatment of a mechanical subject in the first part of the poem is typical of the poets of the 1930’s (particularly those in the W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice group) as well as the earlier Futurists. In poems such as “The Funeral” and “The Express,” Spender celebrates the machine and those who work with it. To these poets, the airplane is poetically more significant and beautiful than the objects of nature that for centuries were considered the proper subject of poetry. In contrast with such old themes, the airplane is a sign of progress, flying over the sea and carrying the passengers gracefully to their destinations. It suggests the birth of a new era that requires poets to follow advances in technology and science.
An important change in the poet’s perspective occurs in the second part of the poem. The images describing factories are negative, and the children’s play is drowned out by the city’s noise. The machines of the city are noisy in contrast with the silent and gliding airplane. The reason for this change is at least partly related to the portrayal of the dominant church that blocks the sun and has a tolling bell louder than industry or the batteries of the military. The progress signified by the machine has been undone by the presence of a church that demands allegiance to its history and myths. The landscape that began free as the wind and “feminine” is now dominated by negative images, such as shivering dogs, mad “figures,” and women’s grieving or hysterical faces—the “landscape of hysteria.”
The condemnation of the church and other traditional institutions that are deemed responsible for the oppression of the masses is an important part of Marxist ideology and was a staple of the work of many poets of the 1930’s. They believed that it was necessary to destroy such ideologically powerful institutions in order to bring into being a new world in which there would be economic freedom for ordinary people. Auden made it clear that he believed changes in technology would lead to changes in people when he said, “New styles of architecture, a change of heart.”