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...

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“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.

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 of Oxford, then his time spent in Berlin on family money, his return to England, and his teaching at a boarding school. He finally gets to his work in documentary filmmaking as the boat reaches the dock.

Part 5 is by far the briefest of the sections; Auden does, however, manage to touch on the coming war, labor difficulties, his essential Englishness, and the proper place to send his “Letter to Lord Byron.” He finally pictures Byron lounging with other poets in heaven (“Are Poets saved? Well, let’s suppose they are”) and apologizes for the length of the “letter that’s already far too long,/ Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road”; he then justifies the poem’s size when he closes: “As to its length, I tell myself you’ll need it,/ You’ve all eternity in which to read it.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

“Letter to Lord Byron” is an obvious response to Don Juan, which Auden was reading at the time. Exactly why Auden chose a different form for “Letter to Lord Byron” is unclear. Don Juan is written in ottava rima, which consists of stanzas of eight lines of iambic pentameter with the first, third, and fifth lines rhyming with one another, as do the second, fourth, and sixth. The verse form is completed with lines 7 and 8 forming a rhyming couplet.

Auden claims, “I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,/ And talk on any subject that I choose.” Certainly, Byron found ottava rima appropriate for expansive, digressive verse. Auden acknowledges this: “Ottava Rima would, I know be proper,/ The proper instrument on which to pay/ My compliments.” He states that if he did use it, however, he would “come up a cropper.” Certainly such a claim should be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt. First of all, rime royal, which Auden chose, is as difficult a form as ottava rima; second, even though at the time he was a poet still in his twenties, Auden had already shown himself to be a master of form. Clearly his claim of deficient skills should not be considered seriously.

Perhaps Auden believed that Byron had already done as much as one can with ottava rima in the comic mode. In choosing rime royal, Auden selected an expansive form that had not been utilized with any great success at length since Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382), which was not a humorous poem. Rime royal consists of seven-line stanzas of iambic pentameter, with the first and third lines rhyming and the second, fourth, and fifth lines rhyming. The verse then closes with a rhyming couplet composed of the sixth and seventh lines. In effect, the form is identical to ottava rima with the fifth line omitted. What this omission does is make the verse end with two pairs of rhyming couplets.

Regardless of the reason for his choice, rime royal left Auden with the repetition of rhyme and the drawing together of the closing couplet so helpful to humorous verse. Like Byron, Auden makes extensive use of feminine, or multisyllabic, rhyme, the bounce of which tends to have a comic effect: “At least my modern pieces shall be cheery/ Like English bishops on the Quantum Theory.” He also echoes Byron in calling conscious attention to his supposed deficiencies in poetry: “Et cetera, et cetera. O curse,/ That is the flattest line in English verse.”

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