The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

“Letter to Lord Byron” was written during and after a trip to Iceland. W. H. Auden and fellow poet Louis MacNeice had approached Faber, the British publishing firm, and proposed a travel book. Faber accepted and gave the poets the money to finance the trip. Auden, not being a travel writer, had no real idea what to write on for the book, but he had brought a copy of Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824) along to read. He decided to write a verse letter to Byron, informing the poet, who died in 1824, what was happening in the Europe of the 1930’s. As such, “Letter to Lord Byron” has more digressions than it does Byron; indeed, one might claim that the poem is almost solely composed of digressions.

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The poem comprises five unequal parts, all written in rime royal, all discursive and conversational in tone. The actual trip to Iceland that served as the occasion for the poem is mentioned, but in passing and at irregular intervals. References to the journey serve merely as a frame for what Auden really wants to say.

Part 1 begins with a direct address to Byron, apologizing for disturbing him. Auden—there is no point in insisting on a persona here, since the poet makes no pretense of developing any voice other than his own—mentions that he is in Iceland awaiting the arrival of the rest of his fellow travelers, and he discusses why he chose to address the letter to Byron. Auden had brought Byron’s Don Juan and a novel by Jane Austen with him, but he finds both what he has to say and his medium for saying it more attuned to Byron. He talks about his choice of a form and then begins to give a defense of light verse, a form not highly prized in the literature of the twentieth century.

Part 2 initially describes a little of Auden’s immediate reaction to Iceland, but soon he begins to talk of recent developments in Europe. He acquaints Byron with the changes of taste in England, the confusion of the class system because of industry—“We’ve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,/ And Fortune’s ladder is for all to climb”—and then imagines how modern publicity would make a celebrity of Don Juan. After a quick glance at the art scene, Auden begins discussing “the spirit of the people,” finding a conscious rejection of heroism for economic comfort: “‘I may not be courageous, but I save.’” This spirit is inimical to that of Byron, so Auden next imagines Byron returned to modern realities, but this is not a heroic age: “In modern warfare, though it’s just as gory,/ There isn’t any individual glory.”

Auden begins part 3 just before setting off for an excursion into the countryside of Iceland. Auden once again affirms his liking for light verse and announces that he shares Byron’s belief that William Wordsworth is “a most bleak old bore.” This observation leads naturally enough into a discussion of landscape, then proceeds to a lengthy consideration of the estrangement of the artist from society—an estrangement that Auden traces to the nineteenth century.

Part 4 begins on ship heading back to England. Auden quickly summarizes what he gained from the trip, his main accomplishment being learning to ride a pony. Then, triggered by his returning home, he begins to tell his own biography. Starting with a glance at his passport and his own Icelandic ancestry, Auden takes a general, and generally light-hearted, look at his own character, eventually pronouncing, “‘Your fate will be to linger on outcast/ A selfish pink old Liberal to the last.’” Then he begins to recount his upbringing, his early interest in machinery, school days during World War I, his adventures with headmasters (which allows him an attack on “Normality” and a defense of eccentric teachers), the incident that led him first to write poetry, his days at the University...

(The entire section contains 1230 words.)

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