New Year Letter

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

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 countries—and that she is German. Auden cautions against too quickly casting blame for “the situation of our time” on one nation, people, or political party. Adolf Hitler is a product of a civilization for which all are responsible. By hating or dismissing all Germans, the Allies would be no better than he.

The description of Auden’s loving community—“the seamless live continuum”—ends with res and publicum united. Personal responsibility for civilization’s founderings means that a thing cannot be separated meaningfully from its society. Part 3 explains the fallacy of presuming that public and private lives can be separated. “New Year Letter,” however, highlights the importance of the private life by continually referring to the little worlds of order that Mayer creates. Preoccupations with political problems were causing Auden’s contemporaries to shun the private life and to disdain the personal as a subject of poetry. “New Year Letter” makes clear that personal gardens must be cultivated if the public situation is to be salvaged. The poet’s frequent turning from general description to personal address highlights this fact.

The importance of both public and private lives is implicated in the title of this volume, The Double Man. The title embraces the multiple aspects of human beings and underlines the most important operative principle in the poem: paradox. This paradox resulted from the Fall and has governed the human existence of mixed uncertainty and faith ever since. The inevitability of human imperfections accounts for the mixed tone that describes life as a “reverent frivolity” and that underlies the confusing, tortured play with words and contradictions. The omnipresence of paradox discredits linear, rational thought.

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