W. H. AUDEN
Wynstan Hugh Auden was a modern poet (1907 – 1973) not only in the sense that he belonged to the 20 th C. but in that he addresses social issues in an attempt to solve them. He was heavily influenced by other great early 20th Century poets like T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and the dramatist, Christopher Isherwood.
It was Auden who first used the term “The Age of Anxiety” Fear is specific while anxiety is non specific. The modern consciousness is rootless, isolated, insecure, dominated by fear and guilt, aware of the failure of its modern inhumanity.
As well Auden, a experiments with new forms of poetry by trying to make it more accessible to the common man. He uses the vernacular language frequently, common speech patterns, an intimate conversational tone and reverting to the prosaic form at times. Some claim Auden is a dilletante, experimenting in technical virtuosity or dabbling in new forms of light verse, lampooning society leaving much of his poetry uneven and unequal. Many poems contain brilliant powerful lines, but are less successful as a whole.
Like Donne and the Metaphysicals, his cerebral poetry was remarkable for its ability to express intense emotions in a rational manner.
His style and tone are relaxed and conversational with a laconic low-key casualness. He attempts a rational, detached and objective approach to personal subjective issues through irreverent irony. Simultaneously, paradoxically, the messages have a compelling, didactic politicial relevance to see life as it really is. This anti-rhetorical mixture of serious issues written in brilliant light or humourous verse comes across as chatty, inclusive - heightened converstion.
In his early years, Auden was a radical left-wing, agnostic anti-fascist, quasi- Marxist activist protesting a hierarchical depersonalised society that was hostile to the aspirations of the common man and denied the individual a chance for personal fulfilment.
In his late thirties, he converted to Christianity, disclaiming his earlier poetry which his followers saw as an abandonment. In many ways he was the antithesis to William Butler Yeats yet he demonstrates a great admiration of his technical skill.
I. Three phases in writing career: #
- 1930’s — voice of social protest
Auden admits that he had a privileged youth. His time at Oxford from 18 was one of indulgence; oblivious disregard for serious issues (If I had stayed at Oxford I would have remained a child). After leaving Oxford he became aware of the realities of life. “Until the thirties, I had never read a newspaper. He was 27. From then, he became more socially conscious of the human condition and articulated the social conscience of his generation — often evocative of human misery. He was anti-fascist, left wing socialist but became disillusioned with communism during Sp. Civil War.
While he recognises that Poetry may not change the course of history (“nothing I have written delayed the start of the war one minute, nor prevented one jew being gassed). Yet a poet should have a direct knowledge of major political events and be directly critical of them. Evil, like Dachau or the Rape of Nanking must be condemned.
In The Poet’s Tongue, Auden argues that:
“poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil”
- 1940’s – re-converted to Christianity and disclaimed his earlier work, because he realised how derivative they were. He had not found his own voice at Oxford, but greatly indebted to T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and others. “Yeats, high flown rhetoric had a bad influence on me – not his fault – all mine." He admits writing a lot about things he didn’t know a lot about. When Auden migrated to America early in 1939 just before the war to make his living, his followers felt he had abandoned them. He feels Americans cling to the past. An active open but monogamous homo-s*xual, his private life was complicated and often unhappy. His partner, Chester Kallman, was an alcoholic and promiscuous. Auden was loyal and fervent.
The poem Lullaby, is one of the 20th C. most beautiful love songs. “tell me the truth about love”.
- 1950’s More detached, aesthetic Auden alternated his home from New York, (winters) Italy, (summers), later, Oxford and Vienna Austria. — Died in Vienna in 1973.
II. Recurring themes: #
Modern society isolates us from our fellow man, alienating our individual struggles for recognition. “No one exists alone”. “tell me the truth about love”. In The More Loving One
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
It was Auden who first used the term “The Age of Anxiety” Fear is specific while anxiety is non specific.
Auden yearned for a reconciled harmonious world, a sense of place, stability, community, belonging and Utopia.
- seeks for values and meaning in ordinary temporal world
- truths are derived from ordinary, daily common life of contemporary people.
- emphasis on the immediate and earthly rather than, transcendental. Poems: Lay your Sleeping Head, Miss Gee, Musee’. . . In Praise of Limestone. (fear & doubt) Quarry, Ode.
III. Use of contrast to illustrate discrete points #
cx: Extensive use in ‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno’ ‘Moon Landing’
Male - female
gangs - individual
material - spiritual
courage - kindness
modern - classical
Public - private -personal
deserts - gardens
Scientists - humanities
objective - subjective
pollution - environment
knowledge - superstition
Historians - Politicians- Artists
IV. Reference to the everyday #
- the ordinary,the mundane the trivial, exotic, quotidian.
Ex: ‘Musee. .‘ horse scratches its innocent behind ‘Miss Gee’ Doctor and wife at dinner
‘In Memory..’ “You were silly like us” By debunking, de-romantisising, de-glamourisirig events Auden brings poetry down from its lofty pedestal and makes it meaningful to the ordinary person.
V. Juxtaposition of Prose and Verse #
Best examples of the inclusion of both the prosaic and the poetic forms would be: a) ‘Musee’ de Beaux Arts’ b) ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ c) ‘The Shield of Achilles’ The prose form oharacterised by longer irregular lines is often relaxed, conversational, documentary, while the regular stanza form is poeticised with regular’ rhyme and meter suited to more dignified, elevated and heightened thoughts.
- In all of Auden’s poetry there appears a sense of resignation to our fate.
- War/violence/threat - ‘0 What is that sound?’, ‘Though Aware of our Rank.’
- Impersonal uncaring society — ‘Miss Gee’, ‘Musee’
- Time, iruiperrcianerice of love - ‘Lay your Sleeping…’, ‘0 What is that Sound?’ ‘Miss Gee’
- Individual’s pursuit of true self vs. the community, society, or political ideology. ex: ‘Though Aware..’, ‘0 What is that Sound?’, In Praise of Limestone’ ‘Moon Landing’ ‘Goodbye to the M
- The role of the artist in life is explored in a number of poems, especially, ‘Musee. . . ‘ ‘In Praise..’, ‘In Memory of W Yeats’ and ‘Moon Landing’. Suffering may be universal arid significant, however it. takes place in very ordinary conditions and in unprepossessing circumstances. Yeats believed that in the midst of tragedy, the artist will transfigure it into something (useful) edifying. ex: ‘Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress’ (In Memory. . . )
The artist transfigures the most ordinary situations and human suffering through language and still makes life worth living and praising.
Man must suffer as long as his love is selfish or ‘Eros’ and not ‘Agape’ which is essential for human salvation: (Lullaby)
Still persuade us to rejoice..
Teach the free man how to praise.
Despite imminent war, intellectual disgrace. impotence, the poet is invoked to celebrate life through language. The curse of Adam (isolation, displacement) can be transformed by ‘the farming of a verse’ to a ‘vineyard’ The angst (alienation) ‘deserts of the heart’ can be counteracted by exploring and celebrating community, love, kindness so that we ‘Teach the free man how to praise’.
Though Poetry makes nothing happen’ appears despairing, Auden clearly feels this may be so in the political and collective spheres; In the personal is significant arid enduring involved with subtle influences.
VI. Language #
In Moon Landing the demotive nature of the language undercuts the pomposity and high profile of this scientific achievement. The collaborative activity of the world’s emminent scientists is reduced to the huddling of boys in gangs arid their celebration is debased by equating it to ‘whooping it up” like high spirited youngsters.
(“It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph”) not long after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
I remember that Rorschach-test explosion in the sky; knew what Auden meant by the “squalid mess called History”.
False language: Blandishments – flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincere platitudes, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd, bromides, cant, hollowed language, husk, shell, palter To talk or act insincerely or deceitfully; lie or use trickery, serving no useful purpose: otiose language.
False praise: It’s not “fulsome praise”. It’s full of praise.
Fulsome means insincere flattery, empty platitudes. Fulsome is a word that is constantly misused. It does not mean full or complete. The dictionary definition of fulsome is “unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech”. Other synonyms are cloying and insincere. It can be meaningless padding. Wafflers, warblers, peddling vapid longueurs. So, cut the pretend-literary crap
“Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there’s a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that’s genuinely good
From one that’s base but merely has succeeded.”
W.H. Auden, Collected Poems
“Words empty as the wind, are best left unsaid” Homer
W.H. Auden once defined the chief criterion for reviewing poetry:
“Pleasure, he said, is not an infallible guide but it is the least fallible.”
Lunar Beauty - Quest for innocence – Eden, youth, Loss of innocence – age – lustfulness