W. H. Auden

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W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 1)

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Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–

English-born American of Icelandic ancestry, Auden is an international man of letters, a poet, playwright, and critic. He is primarily interested in man's relation to society and to God. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

Auden had the vitality, the sheer poetic exuberance, to be able to impose his own authentic accent on all he touched. His bewildering use of imagery drawn from English public school life, his ambivalent metaphors from military manoeuvres and mountain climbing, his clinical obsessions and his psychological jargon, his private jokes and sudden clowning—all these were often bewildering; but they looked like the beginnings of a significant new poetic style. He drew on the jogging impromptus of Skelton and the movement of Middle English alliterative verse to provide new kinds of life for his poems. Music hall, folk ballad and jazz lyric were other elements he brought into his verse, particularly after he settled in America. He seemed to be well on the way to developing an excitingly rich poetic idiom.

He has never quite fulfilled the expectations he aroused, though he has written some of the best lyrics of our time. He rapidly shed his psychologicoeconomic diagnosis of the troubles of the time, and with it went some of his more irritating English public school imagery. He became more meditative, more concerned with archetypal images and situations, more religious in tone and feeling and eventually more specifically Christian. At the same time his gift for light verse and his taste for clowning both developed steadily, and one was presented with the odd spectacle of a religious poet with an irresistible impulse to make jokes.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 47.

[W. H. Auden] is his own anthology, the typical poet of the age, the Explainer, and all that. He really is all that. He is lots of other things, one of the few masters of modern speech, one of the great practitioners of English prosody, a true custodian of the tradition. In the Serious World he is already aere perennius, something which is not absolutely certain about Eliot, for instance.

Karl Shapiro, "A Change of Air," in the symposium "On W. H. Auden," in Ken-you Review, Winter, 1964.

Of the intellectualist poets of the 1930s and after, W. H. Auden alone appeared to have found a personal language in the modern idiom and to be capable of accepting its restrictive conventions without loss of poetic stature. Auden settled in the United States after the beginning of the Second World War, and became as much a part of the American literary scene as T. S. Eliot did of the English. But through at least the title of one of his post-war books The Age of Anxiety (1948) Auden diagnosed the malady of the period and offered it a self-pitying name. Some of the best poetry of Auden's early period is in the plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938).

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 193-94.

[W. H.] Auden is still intellectually and technically open and fluid (these are not polite euphemisms for 'fickle') to a degree that is not evident in any of those who were once known with him as 'the poets of the thirties'. His technical fluidity may be seen in his exercises in various poetic forms, especially since 1940. He has practised, for instance, in terza rima, the villanelle, the sestina and the ballade. From this point of view the long poems New Year Letter (1941), The Sea and the Mirror (1945), For the Time Being (1945) and The Age of Anxiety (1948) are all aspects of the same formal search.

Yet this technical openness probably derives in part from a more radical quality, from an intellectual quixotry and eclecticism. Auden is something of an intellectual jackdaw, picking up bright pebbles of ideas so as to fit them into exciting conceptual patterns. He is evidently aware of this tendency and of one related to it; that is, of his inadequate submission to the 'this-ness', the immediate sensuous stuff, of life. More than once he refers with admiration to Rilke's 'acceptance', or insists that one must 'bless what there is for being', or that 'every poem is rooted in imaginative awe'. (p. 8)

Auden's poems tend to be remembered not so much for their sensuous effects (apart from a few striking exceptions) as for the articulation of their phrasing and the pattern of their moral insights. His poems have little colour, smell or touch. He once said that he tends to think of them as 'squares and oblongs'; that is, as geometric shapes rather than as, for example, extended images. The bare shapes are the shapes of his dialectic. Similarly, his epithets usually have a conceptual rather than a sensuous relationship to the nouns they qualify; they comment rather than describe. (p. 17)

Auden's social and psychological interests remain, but are related now to a central religious root. Man is seen as fallen yet free, and this is his paradox. He is bound by his 'creatureliness' yet always tempted to deny the limitations this imposes; he is free to exercise moral choice for good or ill. Hence his 'wilfulness' in both the senses of 'possessing free will' and 'prompt to disobey'. He works out his destiny here, historically, in time; his consciousness of time informs his awareness of guilt and of possible grace. This awareness marks man's unique situation and is the ground of his anxiety…. (pp. 26-7)

In his imagery Auden turns instinctively to landscape: he commonly speaks of 'villages of the heart', 'our landscape of pain', 'suburbs of fear' and so on. We may say roughly that he has two distinctive kinds of natural imagery: that in which landscape is an illuminating backcloth to some human social activity, and that in which landscape is a symbol for an inner dilemma in human personality. Again speaking generally, we may say that the first predominates in Auden's earlier poetry, and the second later. Nowadays the great industrial cities of America may occasionally provide the first kind of imagery; and the Apennine backbone of Italy, dropping to its coastal plains, may provide the second. But the scenery common to the Northern and Midland Pennines of Auden's childhood and youth continues more than any other to be drawn on for both types of imagery. (pp. 32-3)

Richard Hoggart, in his W. H. Auden, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, revised edition, 1966.

Auden's work and career are like no one else's, and have helped us all. He has been very responsible and ambitious in his poetry and criticism, constantly writing deeply on the big subjects, and yet keeping something wayward, eccentric, idiosyncratic, charming, and his own. Much hard, ingenious, correct toil has gone into inconspicuous things: introductions, anthologies and translations. When one looks at them closely, one is astonished at how well they have been done. In his twenties, he was already one of our best and most original poets. For long years, he has lived with that genius, never betraying it, or exploiting it, but always adding and varying, a discoverer and a sustainer. His inspiration seems almost as versatile as his styles and his metrical forms, yet I am most grateful for three or four supreme things: the sad Anglo-Saxon alliteration of his beginnings, his prophecies that seemed the closest voice to our disaster, then the marvelous crackle of his light verse and broadside forms, small fires made into great in his hands, and finally for a kind of formal poem that combines a breezy baroque grandeur with a sophisticated Horatian simplicity.

Robert Lowell, in Shenandoah, Winter, 1967, p. 45.

Auden has never failed the active idealism of his early years. His spiritual pattern has always been that of the Quest—one of the great mythic patterns of mankind. He stands today, more than a great many of his defeat-accepting contemporaries can realize, as a man of the future—for whom a passionate seeking out, an unflagging application of all that is lively in the modern mind and imagination has never ceased to count. He has not only read the books, but he has experienced the anguish and the bafflements of his time. The circular thinking, the vaporizing, the empty and vapid negation which have become part and parcel of the verse written in our day, have not touched him; he is still seeking out fresh diction, central emotion, sound assumptions.

Louise Bogan, in Shenandoah, Winter, 1967, pp. 45-6.

The poems in About the House show that Auden has lost none of his skill as a versifier. In general they reveal an almost faultless ear for rhythmic fluency combined with a mastery of syntax that has few equals since Milton. But those faulty aspects of his earlier work, repeatedly noted by critics, are there too—the occasional slapdash; the sudden descents into colloquialisms and slangy phrases; the delight in such lesser forms as the limerick. The volume as a whole continues to proclaim his belief in the theory that poetic activity is akin to play.

Edward Callan, "Auden's Goodly Heritage," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1967, pp. 56-68.

"It is difficult," Cyril Connolly wrote several years ago "to deny that W. H. Auden is a very great man." Literary critics generally consider W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden to be the three greatest poets of this century. Auden is also—perhaps he would prefer to say above all—a Christian. Not a Christian poet: simply a poet who tries to be a Christian.

Anne Fremantle, "Anima Naturaliter Christiana," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1967, pp. 69-77.

[No] one living has served poetry and criticism—that world within worlds—better than Mr. Auden. The splendid sanity, reticence, and truthfulness out of which the remarkable poems of the last two decades have come is present in [his] lectures as well. Auden bestrides his worlds as Goethe, whom he comes more and more to resemble, did before him, not like a Colossus but like a fully human being.

Robert Bloom, "Worlds Apart," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring, 1969, pp. 365-68.

All readers will probably see as essential qualities of [Auden's] style a quickness and lightness of touch; a cleanness of phrase and sentence; a caustic wit; an ironic hardness that, even as it recommends love as the answer to modern anxiety and injustice, is seldom in danger of sentimentality. At times Auden's wit is so exuberant and zestful as to produce, in the service of the most serious ideas, fanciful and even outrageous extravaganzas. At other times the wit is restrained and the verse austere; his writing achieves an Augustan, a Latin, a rococo, elegance.

But, in spite of the feeling we have of an undeniable precision, most readers of Auden have had the experience, after reading one of his poems, of being thoroughly mystified—the thing doesn't make sense; the point vanishes between two stanzas; and the reader is left with a blurred image, an obscure situation, a half understood, possibly misunderstood point…. Among the causes of Auden's obscurity are some which account in large part for both the blur and the zest of his writing: his concern at once with inner experience and with society, his frequent shifts in perspective, his readiness to interpret anything as a parable of human experience, and his tireless excerimentation…. Skeptical of utopias, critical of society's administrators and managers, Auden is always alert to the contradictions between the personal and the public; and his poetry constantly shifts its angles of vision in order to show graphically the distance between the feeling inner self and what that self looks like from the point of view of the state, or of an objective observer. Even such an observer is at successive moments a social scientist, an interplanetary visitor, a psychoanalyst. The perspectives are often different, often changing; but all of them are needed to correct one another, to fill out Auden's view of the whole man: anguished self, citizen, organism, outsider. (pp. 17-19)

Auden is remarkably attentive to the surfaces of ordinary life; for anything may, if we look at it right, suddenly glow with meaning. Looking at it right involves submitting it to sometimes bizarre perspectives, deliberately deranging our usual rational or sensory categories—having Caliban talk like Henry James, or locating a pastoral poem in a city bar. This kind of derangement is constant in Auden; it enters almost always into his imagery and is largely responsible for the blur of meaning that both intrigues and perplexes. It reminds us that his poetry, however rational in tone and structure, is faithful to its source in that unconscious that never gets logical categories straight; that his verse is often wildly playful and that he is hopelessly in love with variety, improvisation, experiment. (p. 22)

Auden … is a thoroughly serious poet, and a thoroughly amusing one. Never only one thing at once, he keeps shifting his own perspectives on the world and, in the process, reveals different sides of himself. His formal variety is astounding: he performs authentically as satirist, song writer, epigrammatist, didactic poet, meditative poet, elegist, odist; in long lines or short, sonnets or sestinas, octosyllabic couplets or four-stress alliterative verse, loose meter or strict, iambics or syllabics, and all kinds of rhyme. He develops styles and abandons them, a sign not of instability but of versatility—of wide, deep, and various interests. From the oracular early poems to the more direct analyses of social illness; from the quiet music of the early songs to the abstract imagery of the later 1930's that culminates in the earnest poems on Yeats and Freud; and from these to the elegance of "New Year Letter" and The Sea and the Mirror, and to the balanced Latin opulence of his more ambitious poems of the last two decades, Auden's poetry is continually changing. (pp. 23-4)

At the end of the 1930's Auden slowly makes his intellectual way from liberal humanism to Kierkegaardian Christianity. Ironically, as he deplores the mechanization of modern society, his own poems become more removed from ordinary sensuous existence. Cities and great men, parading before him, submit to his examination; but too often the life they must once have possessed is reduced to an idea. If many such poems have a fineness of intellectual outline, we still miss the warmth of his more personal poems: this enlarged perspective treats even inwardness from outside. Convinced of the value of the instinctive life, but distrusting such wayward manifestations of the irrational as Nazism, the increasingly rationalist Auden detaches himself from his subject: inwardness is not a sea to dream in and drown in, but a realm of existence whose laws the intelligent man must seek to understand without distortion or destruction. (p. 90)

To say the name of something, to pay homage to it, is what Auden's poetry tries to do. The thing itself can never exist on the page, or in the voice; but if the words are right, they can become to others, too, a name for the thing, or for things of its kind. Invocation is a sacred process, by which Auden's feeling for his things may parallel our feeling for ours, his celebration be shared by us. These sacred forms of appeal, basic in his work, also dramatize his sense of reality as issuing out of significant confrontations between different levels of experience—inner and outer, psychological and social, the world of ordinary surfaces and the inner, anxious, stricken soul, Myself and the Other. Almost all his poetry pits one such realm against another, not to show the superiority of one but to emphasize the constant unexpectedness of life, the way one world has of opening up to reveal another: it is only through such confrontations that we see things in a new light, and new light is all the light there is. Wherever life is most ordinary, there the miracle is most likely to happen, the conditional world to be surprised by the Unconditional. Beneath the surfaces of life lies the Freudian id, or the Marxist pattern of history, or the Incarnation; the ordinary and the miraculous, time and eternity, Eros and Agape, are different sides of the flashing, surprising world, where the chief events are these changes in perspective. In such circumstances naming and invoking are means of opening doors to this more real realm where the meanings are at play. His poetry is always most successful, therefore, when the changes of perspective are most skillfully managed. (p. 110)

How good is Auden's poetry? How long will people read it? No one, of course, is in a position to say. Comparison with Yeats and Eliot is inevitably misleading, for in our judgments of greatness in poetry we still use Romantic standards. When we speak of Yeats as greater than Eliot, and of both as greater than Auden, we still have some notion, even as we ridicule Arnold, that greatness involves grandeur. The poets we think of as great are all grand—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton; and although we have finally managed to include Chaucer sometimes in such lists, it is mainly because he has been dead so long. What we still want from contemporary poets is uplift, moments of exaltation and wonder, a feeling that life is lofty and rich. The canny poet, like Horace, Chaucer, Dryden, or Auden, seems to be operating on a different level. His usual subject is not the heroic and the transcendental but the normally human, and he achieves depth by other means than reverberating symbols and resonant tones. (p. 158)

George T. Wright, in his W. H. Auden, Twayne, 1969.

From … unpromising, because so miscellaneous, sources—the scraps of English formalist tradition, the liberating impulses in modern prosody, the vocabulary of Marx and Freud and Frazer, the moods of Kafka and Hesse and Proust and Brecht, and with many hints picked up from his own contemporaries (for there are poems in which he is hardly more than an amanuensis for Arthur Koestler, Denis de Rougemont, or Graham Greene)—Auden put together his early style, full of caustic poeticisms broad understatements, sudden savageries, unexpected allusions, and with heavy reliance on the rhetoric and conventions of thriller fiction. It was a period style; very alive and novel then, very dated now. Yet the point is that Auden himself was sensitive to its datability before anyone else, and began to modify his style while he was still young, toning down its mock-violence, lengthening its syntax, subduing cadence and rhyme, until in his late work he ended with a kind of talky essay-poem that resembles the poems of Marianne Moore—but more sprawling than hers, more inclusive, more prone to generalization and sentimentality—the poetry, in short, of his "bucolics" and household poems. Thus, while remaining committed to "literary" values, he moved from a merely eccentric to a genuinely personal style. And of course the Oxonian accent is unmistakable throughout.

Hayden Carruth, "W. H. Auden, Poet of Civility," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 245-49.

Auden once said of Tennyson that he had the finest ear, and was the stupidest, of English poets. Auden's ear is as good as Tennyson's, and far from being stupid, he is surely the most intelligent poet of his generation. The Tennyson judgment is, of course, unfair; Auden was not distinguishing poetic intelligence from intellectualism. Tennyson seems not to have read much, and what he read he didn't put into his poems; whereas Auden has read everything and has found poetic uses for all of it. Throughout his career he has had a tendency to wear his head on his sleeve….

Samuel Hymes, "Auden," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1970 (© 1970, by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 98-103.

At a time when some literary theorists find traditional poetic forms suspect, W. H. Auden, like William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas, prefers to believe that a poet's first duty is to master the technical elements of his "craft or sullen art." For [forty] years, Auden has commanded a greater variety of poetic forms than any poet writing in English. Readers who have sampled his poetry from time to time may well recall a cluster of ballads; various sonnets and sonnet sequences; instances of the villanelle, ballade, and canzone; a number of sestinas; and sustained passages of terza rima and of alliterative verse. Some of the complex stanza forms in his more recent poetry appear to be derived from those elaborate, courtly metrical forms: the Welsh englyn, and the Skaldic drott-kvaett. As one might expect of such a poet, his critical writings, and even his casual conversations, reveal a constant preoccupation with questions of poetic technique.

Edward Callan, "W. H. Auden: The Farming of a Verse," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 341-56.

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