The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 598 words.)