Letter to Lord Byron

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688

It would be impossible in this brief space to discuss adequately all the themes of “Letter to Lord Byron.” The poem by design is without design; themes are introduced, dropped, and picked up again, sometimes merely touched on, at other times discussed in detail, and always with a lightness of tone. Topics include the psychology of twentieth century man and the isolation of the artist from society.

Auden tells Lord Byron that people have the “same shape and appearance” and “haven’t changed the way that kissing’s done” but that modern man is “another man in many ways.” He says that the contemporary man is best portrayed by cartoonists such as Walt Disney. This man “kicks the tyrant only in his dreams,/ Trading on pathos, dreading all extremes;/ The little Mickey with the hidden grudge.”

This is economic man, bred “on Hire-Purchase by Insurance,” fearing admonishment by “tax collector and a waterboard.” He makes no pretense to the heroic, as “‘Heroes are sent by ogres to the grave./ I may not be courageous, but I save.’” He dares to “give his ogreship the raspberry/ Only when his gigantic back is turned.” He is caught in his fears, but he fears even more to escape into uncertainties, so his oppressor knows that his comfort makes him a slave: “The ogre need but shout ’security,’/ To make this man, so lovable, so mild,/ As madly cruel as a frightened child.” This is not a time for the disinterested hero, for those who risk their lives for the cause of others as Byron did for Greek independence.

Auden begins his consideration of the artist and society with the Augustan age. He speaks of two arts; one was dependent on “his lordship’s patronage” and was more of an aristocratic pursuit. This form of “high” art Auden personifies in Alexander Pope. The other form of art was “pious, sober, moving slowly,/ Appealing mainly to the poor and lowly” and is personified in Isaac Watts. These arts were very different, but Auden is unusually emphatic as to the central point: “The important point to notice, though, is this:/ Each poet knew for whom he had to write.” He makes the assertion that art must be attendant—that is, must serve a particular class with whom the artist shares similar concerns. What art must not be is independent.

Yet this is just what has happened. Auden writes that each man naturally wants his independence, but for the artist, such independence is disastrous. Until the Industrial Revolution, the artist had to depend on the patron and please the taste of the patron or the class: “He had to keep his technique to himself/ Or find no joint upon his larder shelf.”

When the artist was able to declare his independence, however, he “sang and painted and drew dividends,/ But lost responsibilities and friends.” At first there was great experimentation and euphoria; Auden writes of his imagined Poet’s Party: “Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,/ And brilliant too the technical advances.” Soon, however, the artist is ignored by the public that he scoffs at rather than serves and is left alone with only his technique. At the Poet’s Party, some “have passed out entirely in the rears;/ Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few/ Are trying to think hard of something new.” Technique is now everything; the audience is gone, and art becomes solipsistic.

Auden does mention that this applies more to the visual arts; even at “the Poet’s Party,” the majority “of the guests were painters.” The case applies in a lesser way to literature, though the onus of meaning generally attached to words does make most writing more accessible than the other arts.

This is but one of many themes running through “Letter to Lord Byron,” but it is particularly noteworthy in being one of the first instances where Auden is consciously rejecting the opaque style that brought him fame in his twenties and is attempting to reach out with plainer speech to a wider audience, in effect beginning to distrust the vatic nature of his early verse.

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