Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311

W. H. Auden, for twenty years ranked among the best modern poets, is, like his contemporary T. S. Eliot, the product of both the English and the American traditions. Auden was raised in the industrial midlands of England and educated at Oxford during the bleak 1930’s. There he became one of a group of young poets, including C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood, who directed their writing toward a search for meaning in a world which seemed to them empty and mechanical.

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Growing up during the great depression, when unemployment was at a peak in England, Auden and his contemporaries, in sympathy with the problems of the working class, looked to Marxism as a possible solution to social conditions and to Sigmund Freud and George Walther Groddeck for answers to the spiritual barrenness resulting from these conditions. Auden’s continual search for meaning and faith during this period led him away from these ideas to the orthodox Christianity of theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard. The most complete expression of his Christianity is his Christmas Oratorio, FOR THE TIME BEING, possibly his finest, most cohesive work.

Auden’s acceptance of Christianity coincided approximately with his move to New York, just before the outbreak of World War II. His more recent work combines American images, rhythms, and colloquialism with English ones, but his poetry is almost always universal rather than regional.

Auden’s wide reading is reflected in the development of his technique and his philosophy. In the inaugural address delivered when he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956 he named Thomas Hardy as his first real model; the younger poet found in his master’s work an expression of the disillusionment he himself felt. Hardy wrote of an apparently meaningless universe, governed by chance, and Auden found men going through life as a ritual in which there is no meaning. The soldiers of “Which side am I supposed to be on?” are “aware of our rank and alert to obey orders,” but they have no idea of what they fight for. Like Hardy, Auden often speaks in abstract tones, and he may have acquired his fondness for experimenting with verse forms from the late-Victorian poet.

William Blake’s concern for the mistreated laboring class and the paradoxical religious views expressed in THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL are reflected in Auden’s poetry. Blake’s SONGS OF INNOCENCE and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE also suggest the form of many of the poems in “Songs and other musical pieces” in Auden’s COLLECTED POETRY. Especially reminiscent of Blake is:

Now the leaves are falling fast,Nurses flowers will not last;Nurses to the graves are gone,And the prams go rolling on.

Auden’s rhythms also reflect his interest in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English verse. THE AGE OF ANXIETY, “a Baroque Eclogue,” is written almost entirely in the old alliterative four-stress line, which is used also in the lines of the Voices of the Desert in FOR THE TIME BEING. The colloquial style of William Butler Yeats’s later poetry also influenced some of Auden’s work. Critics have pointed out the similarity between Yeats’s “September 1913” and Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

I sit in one of the divesOn Fifty Second StreetUncertain and afraidAs the clever hopes expireOf a low dishonest decade.

It is difficult to assess the effect of T. S. Eliot on Auden: the latter is reported to have told his Oxford tutor that Eliot was the only poet to be seriously considered by the prospective writer. The social criticism of THE WASTE LAND and THE HOLLOW MEN was certainly an inspiration to the young poet who felt the same cultured barrenness that Eliot had described. Auden has adopted a few of Eliot’s symbols: the desert is a recurrent image of the present civilization for both men.

A particularly striking similarity between Eliot and Auden is their acceptance of Anglo-Catholic Christianity. However, Eliot writes in ASH WEDNESDAY and the FOUR QUARTETS of a contemplative ideal, while Auden preaches the necessity for human relationships and mutual concern. His view is well expressed in these lines from FOR THE TIME BEING:

Space is the Whom our loves are neededby,Time is our choice of How to love andWhy.

Several related themes run throughout Auden’s work. He sees man as an individual isolated in society: a “lonely.” “Musee des Beaux Arts” emphasizes this separation: suffering, Auden says, “takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”:

In Brueghel’s ICARUS, for instance; how everythingturns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster; theploughman may,Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an importantfailure . . .

The Wanderer is another recurrent figure in Auden’s poetry. The isolated man searches sometimes aimlessly, for meaning in life. An early poem, “Doom is Dark and Deeper Than Any Sea Dingle,” whose title comes from a Middle English poem translated by Auden, describes the strange impulse which drives a man away from home to wander “a stranger among strangers.” Man’s quest is portrayed more elaborately in THE AGE OF ANXIETY, in the section called “The Seven Stages.” The four characters, three men and a woman, travel, sometimes together, sometimes separately, through different scenes, passing through the pitfalls of modern culture and their own dreams, but they lack the courage to cross the desert which is the final stage. They cannot take the “leap of faith” in which Auden found the end to his own quest. Only Rosetta, who possesses the vestiges of her Jewish heritage, has roots and conviction enough to allow her to face the future; whatever happens, she believes that peace lies in reconciliation with her earthly and heavenly fathers. Malin, the Air Force officer, expresses the paradoxes which confront the prospective Christian and the tension which is an integral part of Auden’s faith:

For the others, like me, there is only theflashOf negative knowledge. . . .

In both his pre-Christian and Christian poems Auden writes of love as the saving force for mankind, but both humanistic and Christian love in his poetry are extremely impersonal. Concern for others is a familiar theme, but there are almost no descriptions of personal relationships. Even the so-called love lyric, “Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love,” is strangely abstract.

Auden is a highly skilled technician. His volume of collected poems includes sonnets, lyrical songs, colloquial meditations, and complex medieval and Renaissance stanza forms like the sestina. His long poems—THE SEA AND THE MIRROR, in which he discusses the place of the artist in society, using the characters from Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, and FOR THE TIME BEING—contain passages of excellent prose. This virtuosity, one of the poet’s greatest assets, is also a defect; verbal tricks intended to produce striking effects succeed only in seeming slick and insincere in some of his work. Many a potentially good poem is marred by the intrusion of a too clever phrase or forced aural effects. Nevertheless, Auden’s skill makes his best work inimitable. In the elegiac “In Memory of William Butler Yeats” he interweaves imagery from several of Yeats’s own poems and uses three rather different styles of his own to produce one of the finest elegies of the twentieth century. In the concluding lines of this poem one will find Auden’s concept of the function of the poet.

Auden has adopted a long, free verse line for many of his more recent poems including parts of THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES and “In Praise of Limestone,” a “moral landscape” published in 1951. His limestone hill is not the habitat of “saints-to-be” or of “intendant Caesars”; the water-carved stone attracts the men of imagination who see statues, vineyards, in the natural formations, those who climb “arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step.”

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