The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)