The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202

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“New Year Letter” is an occasional poem written to commemorate the beginning of 1940. Although it is a letter to W. H. Auden’s friend Elizabeth Mayer, its scope greatly exceeds the parameters of most personal letters, as it reflects upon an incredible range of subjects. It can be considered primarily a meditation on World War II and a tribute to Auden’s friend. The poem’s three parts develop by association rather than by logic.

Part 1 focuses on the disorder of the world in 1940, the human desire for order, and the order that art creates. It begins with a depiction of Americans filing along the streets on January 1, 1940. Auden captures the mixed atmosphere of “singing,” “sighing,” “doubt,” and anticipation in the United States; which had not yet entered the war but was acutely aware of it. The Americans’ preoccupation with “Retrenchment, Sacrifice, Reform” reminds Auden of the atmosphere of anticipation and fear in Brussels “twelve months ago”—before the war had begun.

Vague about the cause of contemporary social problems, Auden describes Europe as a “haunted house” threatened by “the presence of The Thing.” His concluding statements compare the worldwide dilemma to a crime in a conventional mystery novel: “The situation of our time/ Surrounds us like a baffling crime./ There lies the body half-undressed// And under lock and key the cause/ That makes a nonsense of our laws.” The poet wants to warn against too easily blaming or accusing others. All are responsible for the crises of 1940: “our equipment all the time/ Extends the area of the crime/ Until the guilt is everywhere.” The principles that underlie civilization have failed.

A discussion of art and a catalog of “great masters” of literature follow. Auden celebrates art because of its harmonious order, which can enlighten and inspire: “For art had set in order sense/ And feeling and intelligence,/ And from its ideal order grew/ Our local understanding.” This tribute to art and artists, however, ranging from Dante through Rainer Maria Rilke, is confused by constant disclaimers. The impulse to impose art’s order upon life willfully results in fascism. In this poem, he “would disown,/ The preacher’s loose inmodest tone.” “No words men write,” Auden claims at the end of part 1, “can stop the war.” Yet, art—the “greatest of vocations”—can give order to be imitated and general parables that can be applied to the particulars of human lives: Just as it is necessary to search in order to understand the parables behind art, one must search to understand one’s personal and political lives.

The danger inherent in art’s order and the too fervent desire for order or “preacherly” truths is developed in part 2’s discussion of the preference for absolutes, for “idées fixes to be/ True of a fixed Reality.” Part 2 examines evil but always returns to the heresy of the search for absolutes. It begins with a portrait of an Inferno-like landscape, the world of World War II. The entire section maintains an allegorical atmosphere by personifying evil as the devil.

The fear of change and the desire for personal and social perfection lead to the monism that Auden decries in his criticisms of “vague idealistic art” and the “Simon-pure Utopian.” Good and bad people alike have been guilty of fixed commitments to inflexible ideals. Auden demonstrates the inevitable error of such a devotion in his description of characters as disparate as the devil (“Prince of Lies”), Sarah Whitehead, William Wordsworth, and Karl Marx.

Although Auden believes in an eternity which transcends the imperfect human condition, he does not believe that humans can apprehend this perfection. The devil is the “Prince of Lies” because he pretends to be the “Spirit-that-denies” this imperfection. Ironically, Original Sin underlies the duality that the devil would disprove. Change is inevitable and, because of humanity’s fallen nature, the truth cannot be known. Auden’s discussions of Marx, Christ, and Charles Darwin praise them for the falsehoods that they betrayed. The inevitable duality of human beings and the impossibility of absolutes lead Auden to the paradox of the essential human condition. The ability to live with this paradox and to accept the multiplicity of human lives results in the “gift of double focus.”

Part 3 develops the poem’s recurring topics and specifically blames industrialism and the Enlightenment for World War II. It begins with a description of the disorder of New Year debauches in New York City, which Auden juxtaposes to the order and harmony of Mayer’s house a week earlier. This order created by art and love is a model of the “real republic” for which all should strive. Yet, such order cannot be imposed. Humans live in an imperfect world of “Becoming” rather than a perfect world of “Being,” which results in choice and freedom. Freely accepting the inevitable imperfection of the world can allow for moments of “perfect Being.”

Auden next turns to the chaos and anxiety around him and contrasts the catastrophes of 1940 with the fall of Roman civilization. Whereas “Rome’s hugger-mugger unity” was destroyed by the animal forces of barbarians, modern civilization has been destroyed by the intellectual powers of industry. Hitler—whom he describes as a “theologian” and a self-created “choice”—is a direct result of the selfishness that drives modern culture.

Auden insists that humans recognize that they live in both private and public worlds, explains the importance of history in the formation of human character, and reminisces about his childhood in England. England differs from the United States, which as a “fully alienated land” epitomizes the modern condition. These reflections on alienation lead to a description of the war in Europe, which he explicitly blames on the Renaissance and the Enlightment. The religious (Martin Luther, Councils, translations), philosophical (Michel de Montaigne, scholars), political (“Prince” Niccolo Machiavelli, cavalry), and scientific (navigation) changes of the Renaissance resulted in “Empiric Economic Man.” The rationality, selfishness, and free will of this new culture were responsible for isolation and loss of community.

Auden admits that the material conditions of human existence have improved and that this cultural revolution has never completely dominated: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Søren Kierkegaard, William Blake, and Charles Baudelaire all protested its philosophy. The freedom that humans have given themselves has turned on them. They blame politicians and governments for failures, but a harmonic community necessitates an acceptance of personal responsibility for contemporary crises.

The rest of the poem indicts the selfishness, materialism, free will, and isolation of Empiric Economic Man, especially as realized in American culture. New York’s skyscrapers are condemned as “secular cathedrals,” and machines are blamed for revealing that “aloneness is man’s real condition.” Auden argues that the only way to create a unified community is to recognize failings and to accept others’ weaknesses and differences: “true democracy begins/ With free confessions of our sins” and “all real unity commences/ In consciousness of differences.”

The poet invokes a series of beneficent and loving powers (Unicorn, white childhood, Dove, Ichthus, Wind, Clock). He then addresses his “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose loving kindness brings peace and “a warmth throughout the universe.” He ends by admitting human imperfections and thanking Mayer for “forgiving, helping,” and illuminating the world with love.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

“New Year Letter” is a verse epistle in rhyming tetrameter couplets. It was the second poem in Auden’s collection of poems entitled The Double Man (1941; entitled New Year Letter in England). Its fifty-six pages of rhymed couplets were followed by eighty-seven pages of notes to the poem. These notes include citations that explain particular lines, sections from works whose meanings bear on the poem, and additional poems by Auden. The poem is most fully understood with its explanatory notes and in the context of this volume.

Long and carefully contoured verse epistles and verse essays reached their height during the Augustan Period of English Literature with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Auden reverts to a decorous and social poetic form used by poets who lived in a more socially coherent time. His verse is formal; its rhythm and rhymes are exact. He uses this conventional, traditional verse to suggest the unity and coherence to which lives and art, and the world, should aspire.

Although he observes such traditional conventions, Auden uses many technical devices that call this order into question. Auden’s shorter line gives his epistle a momentum and urgency that iambic pentameter couplets lack. His heavy use of enjambment also pressures the pace of his lines and prevents his couplets from becoming predictable or monotonous.

One of Auden’s main arguments is the impossibility of absolute or “preacherly” truths. It is a great feat, however, to use a metaphysical and rational discourse while denying the validity of such a discourse. Auden undoes his primary discourse in several ways, especially in his notes to the text. Beneath the apparently smooth surface of tetrameter couplets lies an array of fragmented poems, notes, and excerpts which constantly suggests chaos. Auden’s description of the “snarl of the abyss/ That always lies just underneath/ Our jolly picnic on the heath” could apply to the relationship between the poem and its notes.

The self-consciousness of Auden’s use of traditional form, apparent in the omni-present comedy and humor, destabilizes the text. Comic rhymes—such as “links and thinks”—present specific examples of the humor that pervades this text: The devil knows “that he’s lost if someone ask him/ To come the hell in off the links/ And say exactly what he thinks.” Comic rhyme and diction constantly undermine the authority of the poem, even as it speaks wisdom. Humorous and irreverent diction, such as “through the Janus of a joke/ The candid psychopompos spoke,” seems to trivialize Auden’s insights. They exist, however, in order to avoid the egotism and self-importance that he deplores.

Another prominent formal device is the use of periphrasis or euphemism. Auden rarely names his subjects: He does not say, “We are at war,” but rather mentions “the situation of our time.” His description of war or fascism as “the presence of The Thing” that hangs over Europe is vague and unspecific. He does not name Rousseau, Marx, Christ, or Darwin, but rather refers elliptically to “a liberal fellow-traveler,” “the German who,/ Obscure in gaslit London,” “the ascetic farmer’s son,” and the “naturalist, who fought/ Pituitary headaches.” The United States is “that other world” in which I stand/ Of fully alienated land.” Auden’s refusal to name is a denial of authority and is a way of involving the reader in his text. The poem insists that literature be used as parables to help unravel the mystery novels of history. Auden’s evasion compels the reader to probe and search his poem as he would have one probe and search the world for understanding.