W. H. Auden

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W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 4)

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Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

Auden was an Anglo-American poet, critic, translator, librettist, anthologist, and, with Christopher Isherwood, dramatist. Auden has been called "our most catholic virtuoso, without whom our conception of who the poet is and what he does would be greatly impoverished." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

The recent work [note, though, the date of Wilson's essay] of W. H. Auden has … taken the direction of returning to the older tradition of serviceable and vigorous English verse. His New Year Letter must be the best specimen of purely didactic verse since the end of the eighteenth century, and the alliterative Anglo-Saxon meter exploited in The Age of Anxiety has nothing in common with prose. It may, however, be pointed out,… that in the speech of the girl over the sleeping boy in the fifth section of the latter poem, the poet has found it easy to slip into the rhythms and accents of Mrs. Earwicker's half-prose soliloquy at the end of Finnegans Wake.

Edmund Wilson, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?," in The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (copyright © 1938, 1948 by Edmund Wilson; reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1948, pp. 15-30 (in the Galaxy paperbound edition).

Leavis apart, the majority of critics would seem to grant Auden his just place as the most accomplished and versatile of living poets, and one who has been, and who remains, exceptionally influential. Clearly, he dominated the generation of the 1930s with a power and range that few could approach. Master of an impressive number of forms, from the Ballad to the Blues, he was all the more able to contain the see-sawing beliefs and passions of the time. Committed, yet distanced, his poetry was remarkable for its surface calm, the pincers moving obliquely but firmly over their subject….

The influence of music on Auden's verse … throughout the longer works, has always been salient: even his worst lines often "sound" impressive. Indeed the poems on which his reputation will finally come to rest may well be the magnificent early lyrics—far away from the world of Spain and Fascism against which he cried out so forcefully in much-quoted poems he no longer favours.

With his move to America in 1938, Auden's area of interest and commitment changed visibly. By 1940 the Auden conception of love had moved away from an ideal union of man and woman, or of a brotherhood of man ("we must love one another or die") to a Christian ideal, making one aware of what Spender has called "the odd impersonality" of Auden. Coated more with the philosopher's semantics, the four long poems of this later period (New Year Letter, For the Time Being, The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety) are in the main colder, more distant, more cerebral than any of Auden's previous work….

[Questions] of How, Why, and What, indeed the whole gamut of Existentialist Choice which New Year Letter raises, are as relevant to Western society now as they were to Auden then. Whether or not they are organic to the poetry as a whole is another matter. For all the range and muscle of the verse, the refined hypnotic couplets falling just so, the ideas appear to be somehow removed from the poetry in a way they rarely are in either the earlier or later short poems. There are marvellous sections, to be sure, whole passages (short poems almost) where the verse opens out suddenly from close arguing into poetry...

(This entire section contains 3127 words.)

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of great dignity; but these are often linked to memories, or are lyrical asides touching the "real" world, and as such are only incidentally related to the poem's high theme and dialectics.

Jeremy Robson, "Auden's Longer Poems," in Encounter, January, 1970, pp. 73-4.

I could never hang onto Auden poems—that high-pressure "watch me be impossibly cultivated" and "let me ENTERTAIN you," those low phrases, as irritating as Eliot's "get the good of it hot," ho ho. I'm too young to be awed by his reputation; what threw me was how his prose could be so crisp and true compared to his impossibly self-conscious poems. Those that didn't bore impressed but did not engage; the poet was difficult to love. How could a man of his taste, learning, and good sense write like that? Why didn't he grow up and come across?

[City Without Walls] knocked me down—pages of wonderful, effortless verse. It's as if he gave up all hope of writing for effect—or no longer needs to write for fame. The book's navel is an excellent poem called "The Horatians," which is that thing. The songs are real songs this time. "Insignificant Elephants" is a theological poem St. Teresa would love to read. For the first time he makes no stylistic apology for his sense of play. The title poem is Auden knifing the Auden Poem to death, and the rest of the book he's daring someone to catch him. No more pitching you wisdom for the price of your attention, which is all backwards. An aunt should have told him never to be arch. He would apply the standard dilettante-varnish the British finish their work in, if they're experts, so it won't look as if they're in trade. Not this time. "Elegy," "Since," even the Moore mosaic in its new dress are tired kinds of poems which aren't tired any more. It's like opening an old cup-board and smelling pizza instead of lavender.

Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review, Spring, 1970, pp. 213-14.

For Auden myth has served as a major and continuous mode of expression and always as a deeply personal one. His use of myth, moreover, indicates a consistency and continuity within all the diversity of his thought and poetic form. From his early work to the present day, in the persona of classical healer and in that of Christian poet-preacher, Auden has employed myth and ritual to suggest through the body of his work a definition of his poetry as public, ceremonial, and efficacious in alleviating emotional and spiritual disorder.

In his poetry of the late thirties, myth reveals man's lonely struggle with the unconscious forces of his own nature unaided by faith in any supernatural power; in the poetry written after his conversion to Christianity, "dogmas become myths" as he attempts to understand and control the unconscious drives revealed in myth through Christian faith and devotion. When Christian dogma becomes his ultimate psychological reality, he adapts and converts it to mythical expression.

Auden's approach to myth and ritual was influenced by his knowledge of the works of Freud and, to a much lesser extent, those of Jung. In employing myth as an expression of the unconscious, Auden, like Freud, exploits its possibilities as an analytic tool; it is an instrument of fantasy, most effective in exposing the irrational; even as it creates illusion, it shatters it. Unlike Yeats, Auden did not begin by contesting the insight that myth provided. For him there was no initial "flight into fairyland." Yeats created a mythical structure as both a defense against and a unique means of releasing unconscious insight and knowledge; Auden, relying on a scientific structure provided by the new psychology, approached myth as a guide to unconscious drives in man and society….

Though Auden's use of myth to reveal unconscious feelings and conflict is varied and extensive, it manifests itself in four main modes: he employs large mythical concepts or "entities"; he mythicizes the scene and atmosphere of contemporary life; he alludes to well known mythical figures or legends, which provide a background of feelings and associations to which he relates a contemporary experience; he relies for contrast or irony on the reader's memory of specific mythical references in the works of ancient poets….

Spear's discussion of Eros in Auden's poetry oversimplifies both his conception and its expression in the poems….

The key to Eros in Auden, as in Freud, lies in the fact that it is a mythical term and concept. Though in depth and significance the Freudian Eros goes far beyond the ancient mythical figure of the god of love, it includes his ambivalent nature, his capacity to bring suffering and pleasure, to cause destruction and death, and to inspire creation. In ancient literature Eros is at once a child god and a childish one, and also a powerful productive force….

For Freud, Eros exists side by side with death, with which it is continually engaged in warfare, but which is by no means its only enemy. The capacity of Eros to cause suffering results in part from its own nature: pain, dependence, and loss are intrinsic to it, the variety and extent of its power threaten organized life, and possibly "not only the presence of civilization but something in the nature of the function itself … denies us full satisfaction and urges us along other paths."…

In adopting as his own the Freudian Eros, Auden slowly came to apprehend it as the complex and ambiguous force Freud explored and described. Auden's early poems emphasize the inherent strength of Eros in its opposition to death, but it is only in his mature work that he recognizes love as an instinctual drive which can most accurately be delineated through a mythical or legendary image. Furthermore, the struggle of Eros against social and political as well as personal adversaries suggested to Auden its intrinsic relationship to other basic needs denied by a repressive society…. [See Auden's 1935 essay, "Psychology and Art"]

In Auden's poetry Eros does not achieve its full Freudian instinctual and mythical implications until the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. Then he can no longer maintain his earlier belief in the power of Eros, since its association with suffering and conflict and its tie with Thanatos seem to preclude optimism or even acceptance. For reassurance Auden gropes toward a new ideal—Agape. The new struggle in his poetry is indeed between Eros and Agape, but while the mythical concept Eros deepens in scope and depth with each new question and challenge, the religious ideal Agape seldom seems to provide the final answers Auden sometimes patiently, and at other times desperately, seems to hope it will offer….

Auden's most recent extensive use of myth as a vehicle for exploring the unconscious mind is in The Bassarids, Opera Seria with Intermezzo in One Act, written in collaboration with Chester Kallman. Employing the myth of Dionysus as it appears in Euripides' The Bacchae, Auden and Kallman create an original poetic drama which revitalizes the myth and its associations accumulated for centuries. Their range in exploring and interpreting the myth of Dionysus is enormous. As their tone shifts from tragic to comic, from ironic to burlesque, they seem to uncover layer by layer the traces of instinct and memory in the unconscious mind.

Lillian Feder, "W. H. Auden: Myth as Analytic Instrument," in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 136-80.

Auden uses ritual allusions and effects in a variety of ways, but always as a means of invoking and releasing hidden elements in man and nature: the suffering, power, or knowledge of his persona or his protagonist, the inner drive or the inner faith. In his early poems he uses ritual mainly to disclose desires and conflicts and to call upon the healing powers of nature; in the later ones it reveals and celebrates the infinite in the finite, the spiritual essence of ordinary reality…. [In his 1956 lecture "Making, Knowing, and Judging," included in The Dyer's Hand, Auden writes:] "In poetry the rite is verbal; it pays homage by naming."… [Elsewhere in that lecture he states:] "A poem is a rite; hence its formal and ritualistic character."…

Auden's poetry has always been ritualistic; even in his earliest poems, in which he hardly uses traditional myth, when he writes of love, war, sickness, and death, he is the communicant of a "sacred encounter" with such phenomena and with the persons, seasons, and landscapes which enact or reflect the conflict and drama inherent in them. Through this encounter he has become aware of the secret meaning of such experience, and his persona is often that of an initiate who would draw the reader into a hidden society of symbolic revolutionaries, spies, and informants….

This sense of deep and secret communication with experience, awesome because of the intensity of fear or pain or the recognition of danger, is present throughout the poems of [Poems (1930)]. Though there are few explicit references to ritual objects or acts, Auden's prophetic and admonitory tone in these poems imbues daily experience with the anticipatory tension of ritual, in which the participant, despite all the evidence to the contrary, strives to control reality by symbolic action….

As love, or the mythical entity Eros, becomes a major theme of Auden's poetry, he employs allusions to ritual and ritual effects to convey the ambiguity of its nature and to trace the devious courses it takes when denied or misused….

In Auden's poetry, ritual not only discloses a general unconscious struggle with the ambiguous powers of Eros; it is also a vehicle of self-revelation through which the poet publicly tests the drive of his own talent against the destructive forces within himself and external nature….

Though Auden has employed ritual effects throughout his career to depict the poet's "sacred encounter" with experience—his power to elicit the secrets of nature and man and to exert control by exposure and invocation—it is mainly in his latest phase as a conscious composer of rites that he "pays homage by naming."

Lillian Feder, "W. H. Auden: '… homage by naming,'" in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 243-69.

In his prose and poetry of the thirties Auden reveals his commitment to an analysis of man's history through a fusion of psychoanalytic, economic, anthropological, and philosophical concepts in unifying myths, which are essentially scientific instruments….

One of the most striking features of Auden's intellectual development is his capacity to assimilate diverse and even contradictory ideas which he synthesizes in a myth that symbolizes their "common and fundamental truth." In ["Jacob and the Angel," ostensibly a review of Walter de la Mare's Behold This Dreamer], Auden denies the validity of a deterministic and mystical conception of Destiny, such as Spengler's, through his interpretation of the contest between Jacob and the Angel as symbolic of the struggle between society's "daemon" and its rational will. Only when such a contest is accepted as inevitable can "the day … be reconciled with the night, Freedom with Destiny."…

Auden's concern with the unconscious forces that influence the nature of human society and are always an essential factor in its history is undiminished by his conversion to Christianity; nor is his approach to the problem of controlling and directing these forces essentially changed by religious conviction. Characteristically, he adapts his basic position regarding such unconscious elements to his new acceptance of a spiritual presence in the universe….

Auden's scientific attitude toward man's role in history is constant throughout his career; he may waver and change in his interpretation of Eros, and certainly the addition of a Christian deity to his world view is significant, but more so is his consistent emphasis on man as at once "a social political individual" and as "a unique person who can say I in response to the thou's of other persons," who "transcends his time and his place, can choose to think and act for himself, accept personal responsibility for the consequences, and is capable alike of heroism or baseness, sanctity or corruption" [The New York Review of Books, August 18, 1966, p. 17]….

"September 1, 1939," in which Auden speaks in the first person, reveals his deeply personal involvement with history. "Uncertain and afraid," he sees the "anger and fear" of the decade "Obsessing our private lives…." He interprets the violence of past and present history in psychoanalytic terms—as resulting from sickness, obsession, and delusion. The struggle against the psychopathology of the age is also personal. The poet's hope is fragmented by his experience of the limitations of Eros, the sole productive element in history, which too often operates in both individual and social life as a narcissistic and deceptive influence.

In his poetry of the early forties, Auden's growing conviction that individual knowledge and will cannot control the unconscious aggression responsible for "the crimes of history" is expressed in his depiction of Eros as a primarily destructive social and political force. Though in "New Year Letter" he continues to probe for potential regenerative functions of Eros, the evidence of history can only convince him that "Love's vigour shrinks to less and less"….

To Auden, man's history since the Renaissance indicates that freedom and will can exist as agents in history only if they operate in relation to a principle or law more dependable than the protean instinctual drives and the "Self-known, self-praising, self-attached" ego of man.

The religious position Auden takes in the poetry he has written since the forties is consistently related to his view of the Incarnation as a climactic historical event….

Auden seeks to replace the "collective and political myth of Eros" with the Christian myth of Incarnation and redemption as historical "Law," guiding man "so that his Eros may have the courage to take decisions." What he calls "self-actualization" [in "Eros and Agape"] can occur in human society only when love, its essential productive element, functions as a spiritual power of more stability, unity, and selflessness than the human Eros can achieve, and as one to which instinctual drives are continually directed.

Lillian Feder, "W. H. Auden: Unconscious Forces in History," in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 317-43.

Auden's early work, Mr. Buell suggests [in W. H. Auden as a Social Poet], was both colored and limited by the narrowness of his audience, work limited to a certain generation, class and sexual coloration among English intellectuals. Hence the quality of in-joke so often noted in his early poems. Knowing the language of his circle and its fashions of mind and loyalty, Auden became the entertainer and in some part the enlightener of a special group. His problem, if he was to continue in poetry, was one of how to expand the "we," the audience that might respond to so particular a talent, without at the same time flattening out the profile of his own poetic sense of things.

Bernard Duffey, in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1974, p. 121.

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