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.
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
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