“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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