Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Auden surveys the world around him in 1940 and finds isolated individuals at war with one another. He wants a plural, loving community which he describes at various points in the poem: “The seamless live continuum/ Of supple and coherent stuff,/ Whose form is truth, whose content love,/ Its pluralistic interstices/ The homes of happiness and peace,/ Where in a unity of praise/ The largest publicum’s a res,/ And the least res a publicum. The importance of a genuine, unselfish love touches almost every aspect of Auden’s discussion. Great art, for example, is praised because of its ability to engender “charity, delight, increase.” The tribunal of former artists who oversees contemporary artists does not judge them, but rather “love[s]” them. Marx is praised because of his charity and because of his discovery that “none shall receive unless they give;/ All must co-operate to live.”

In order to undo the isolating and alienating tendencies of civilization, Auden suggests humble acceptance of one’s own limitations and living a life which contributes to others. Auden’s letter itself acts out many of the aspects central to his message. As both a letter and a tribute to his friend Elizabeth Mayer, it is a loving and unselfish act which gestures outside himself and ends in humble recognition of his own inadequacies. It is also important to Auden’s themes that both he and Mayer are exiles—aliens in the most alienated of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)