W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

An Anglo-American poet, essayist, playwright, critic, editor, librettist, scriptwriter, and translator, Auden exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century. His poetry centers around moral issues and evidences Auden's strong political, social, and psychological orientations. The teachings of Marx and Freud weigh heavily in his earlier work, but later give way to religious and spiritual influences. Auden was an antiromantic, a poet of analytical clarity. He sought order, and for universal patterns of human existence. For this reason, some of his work has been criticized as overly detached and facile. Auden's poetry is versatile and inventive, ranging from the tersely epigrammatic to book-length verse, and incorporating his vast scientific knowledge. He collaborated with Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice, and has joined with Chester Kallman to create libretti for works by Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky, and Mozart. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1948, and the National Book Award in 1956. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

Dr. Narsingh Srivastava

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Symbolisation of landscape is one of the major structural patterns in the poetry of W. H. Auden. Aware as he has ever been of the inadequacy of the direct statement for the purposes of poetic art, he has been in search of poetic devices that can fittingly incarnate the ideas about the major situations of the day as well as the universal truths of human psyche and life. Symbolisation of landscape is a method of turning the abstraction into a concrete form and thereby making them take on a new identity. The visual becomes conceptual in the sense that it involves thinking in physical terms of things that are psychic or spiritual…. In [Auden's] poetry, city, like island, mountain, valley, frontier and garden, is an important geographical image which he uses as embodiment of psychic and spiritual states.

Auden uses the city image both in terms of the actual and as symbol of some social, moral or spiritual state…. We notice in his early poetry that the city image is related, on the one hand, to Auden's symbol of the hero—both false and true—who assumes the role of a prospective saviour of the city, and, on the other, to the image of the island which is embodiment of selfish isolation and escape. Thus, this spatial image signifies the normal social and moral life of a community which, by exercise of human will, may either attain its ideal form—the just city, the good place or the city of God—or may degrade into a ruinous order of a moral and spiritual decadence. (p. 86)

[Auden's] view of the significance of the city symbol is much broader and more concrete than any vague and abstract utopian scheme. The significance of this symbol lies in Auden's emphasis on the relation of the individual to society as well as to his own self; and thus this image like many others that we come across in Auden's poetry, enables him to organise his moral and spiritual experience in a concrete pattern. Except in a few poems of places written on particular cities where focus of emphasis is thrown on the place rather than on its emblematic significance, the city image is used in a symbolic frame of reference. (p. 87)

In Auden's early poetry, the city is generally the actual city which is devoid of the values of the ideal and that is why it is disordered, dirty and immoral. In poem XXII of Poems, the images of smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, locked and deserted power stations picture the industrial ruin, and form a sinister landscape suggestive of moral decadence of the upper classes…. [In] Poem XXXI of Look, Stranger!, 'As We Like It' …, Auden has painted the actual city of our times which is built by the 'conscience-stricken, the weapon-making' and where the 'Wild rumours woo and terrify the crowd'. The poem is highly effective in its description of a world menaced by hatred and fear. It is obvious that a synthesis of Freud and Marx forms Auden's attitude with which he denounces the forces of prejudice, fear and malice. The poem ends on a threatening note of despair which bears echoes of T. S. Eliot's similar depictions of the modern civilization in The Waste Land and 'The Hollow Men'…. (pp. 87-8)

Thus, Auden's humanistic zeal finds expression through the implicit interaction of the actual and the ideal city. In 'Macao' (Journey to a War) Auden paints an ironically realistic picture of the true condition of the immoral city—the city of indulgence. In 'Oxford' (Another Time, Part V), we notice that besides the lively picture of the city and its suburb drawn in a reminiscent manner, the emphasis is on the degenerated condition of man; and Oxford as a modern city embodies our civilization of the present age…. (p. 88)

It is in 'Paysage Moralise' (Look, Stranger!, VII) that the city image is clearly used as a symbol. City is described as an antithesis to...

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Timothy Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In an essay-review of Loren Eiseley's The Unexpected Universe in 1970, W. H. Auden identifies genuine laughter with the "spirit of Carnival" and insists that "when we truly laugh, we laugh simultaneously with and at" [Auden's emphasis]. That is, genuine laughter and the Carnival spirit are both a protest against and an acceptance of human mortality and the contradictions inherent in the human condition. Auden further contends that we feel ambivalent about our mortal limitations and "oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be problematic to ourselves." During Carnival, the traditional holidays of license and festivity preceding Lent, laughter resolves this ambivalence, according to Auden, by assuming the dual attitudes of acceptance and protest. The protest element in the traditional Carnival emerges as profanity, mock-aggression, and the inversion of social rank, all of which serve as a cathartic release of repressed discontent…. [Yet] the feasting, the revelry, and the general exhibition of human earthiness during Carnival disclose man's comic acceptance of himself as an earthbound creature. (p. 372)

[The] comic temperament of Auden's later poetry [from the 1940s to 1973] shows definite signs of being a thoroughgoing assimilation of the Carnival climate. In fact, while enumerating the poet's responsibilities to mankind in "Epistle to a Godson," Auden avers that poetry's "… dominant/mood should be that of a Carnival." Hence, Auden's later poetry essays to be a cogent, verbal embodiment of the spirit of Carnival, a spirit which, at its best, is an anamnesis of man as Homo Ludens and an intimation of man as holy fool. Auden's conception of poetry as a game coincides with his notion of the spirit of Carnival; for Auden's later poetry fashions a world of play in which comic frivolity, however irreverent it may seem, is a parabolic indication of the participant's spiritual well-being and a direct affirmation of the goodness of the phenomenal word.

In addition, Auden's appropriation of the Carnival spirit is an acknowledgment of man's status as a fool in the world. This recognition is the equivalent of humility—a good-humored acceptance of the follies and shortcomings of oneself and others. For Auden, worldly imperfection and human suffering do not predicate the inherent depravity of man and the world. On the contrary, Auden's spirit of Carnival is aware of a recourse to a higher realm of consciousness (i.e., faith) from which it is seen that "suffering is an inescapable element in life … to be accepted, not as just in itself, as a penalty proportionate to the particular sins of the sufferer, but as an occasion for grace or as a process of purgation." Thus, the Carnival spirit can celebrate man as fool because human imperfection is not an occasion for despair but for grace.

Auden's spirit of Carnival, then, arises from an inner reservoir of faith that intuits the pain of human contradictions as both transient and promissory. When introduced into poetry, the Carnival spirit is normally manifested in the personages of beggars, cripples, peasants, servants, or other humble men whose worldly poverty or debility is belied by their joviality, their lack of shame, their comic resilience in spite of apparent misfortune. This "wise fool" is, in fact, the comic hero of literature who glories in what appear to be defeats or defects; for to him they are neither, but rather proofs of his rightness or blessedness.

Auden's poem "The Duet" is significant for its lucid characterization of the comic hero and his Carnival spirit. In "The Duet" Auden contrasts the sorrows of a rich lady in a large estate house to the "happy passion" of a one-legged, one-eyed beggar in the wilds of nature. Whereas the "huge sad lady" bemoans her disappointments in love, the beggar turns his barrel organ in the winter woods and cries "Nonsense to her large repining."… The contrast between the lady in "her warm house" and the beggar in the winter wilderness highlights the beggar's Carnival spirit, his ability to resolve his apparent suffering by means of comic celebration…. [The] lady despairs in the midst of affluence, and the beggar rejoices in the midst of apparent poverty. The lack of shame, the glorying in apparent misfortune, the praising of the natural world—all signal Auden's characteristic manner of evoking the spirit of Carnival. The beggar testifies to Auden's belief in a religious form of the comic in which one may laugh at his own suffering when he sees this suffering as a sign of his being in truth or as an "occasion for grace." The beggar, then, may be viewed parabolically as a "holy fool" whose celebration in spite of suffering is a comic symbol of faith.

Whereas the Carnival spirit's intimation of sanctity is indirect and parabolic, its celebration of the incidental, the natural, and the right to play is emphatically direct. Furthermore, as Auden notes in "Moon Landing," celebration and delight are serious duties of the poet, especially in a world of impersonal technology, unscrupulous commerce, and subtle regimentation…. To Auden, therefore, art should … [impart] to man's temporal condition a note of merriment that will liberate him from cybernetic bondage. And this constitutes one aspect of the protest element of Carnival laughter which must thrive, Auden believes, in order to affirm the freedom of individuals and thwart the dehumanizing forces of progress.

The Spirit of Carnival is the salient expression of Auden's belief that frivolity, celebration, and playfulness are as necessary to man's well being as work or worship…. Not only is the spirit of Carnival an important reminder that man is Homo Ludens; it is also important for the comic hope that it intimates and for the indispensable capacity to persevere amid absurdities and hazards that it symbolizes. (pp. 372-74)

One of Auden's most exuberant encomiums on the Carnival spirit is "Under Which...

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Edward Callan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first of Auden's longer works, Paid on Both Sides: A Charade,… is ostensibly an episode in a continuing feud between two families who live some fifteen miles apart in the Lead Dales of the English north country…. (p. 287)

Auden seems to have intended the charade as a vehicle for an ambitious allegory on the life and death instincts—a modern Morality of Eros and Thanatos—that could take its place beside Eliot's The Waste Land…. Paid on Both Sides is a variation on the Orpheus myth that Auden was to employ again with Marxist overtones in his next dramatic work, The Dance of Death (1933)…. (p. 288)

Although it is Freud who supplies the underlying theme of Eros and Thanatos as...

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Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[We should not be tempted] either to believe Auden's own analysis of his creative character, or to divide his output too firmly into the "English" Auden and the "International" one. Of course, his departure for good from England early in 1939 is a very real watershed, but the nature of the change it brought about in Auden's poetry defies simplistic description. I am inclined to follow Edward Lucie-Smith's view, that what Auden learned from America was not how to work but how to be a professional. The 400-odd pages of The English Auden are a rich enough testament to his ability to get down to hard work while he lived in these islands…. Just as stuffed with aphorisms, brilliant paradoxes and sheer good sense as the later...

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Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Auden came close to a point where he no longer understood his own poetry…. [Something] happened that made him close his mind, not to the earliest poetry so much as to that of the middle 'thirties. The Collected Poems … omits much and alters a good deal of what is retained. This supplementary volume [The English Auden], however, contains all the poetry of the specified period, the text being "in the form it reached at the end of 1939."… (p. 609)

[The English Auden], though it in no way matches the idea people of my age must have as to how an Auden collection should look, is nothing like as hideous as Collected Poems, which seems to have been designed as part of a plot to stop people...

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