J. M. Pressley
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Auden Across the Decades

Wystan Hugh Auden died in 1973 having accomplished a remarkable journey that spanned decades—and left him established as one of the premier poets of the 20th century. This journey began in England, deepened in America, and ended in Vienna, leaving an unrivaled legacy. It is a journey of both body and poetic voice, and is expressed forever in his verses. For a serious discussion of Auden the poet, it is necessary to explore the journey of Auden the wanderer, constantly reinventing himself along the way.

Auden was the son of a doctor, which had a profound and lasting effect upon his style of verse. As Stephen Spender says, "There is a dualistic idea running through all [Auden's] work which encloses it like the sides of a box. This idea is Symptom and Cure" (Spears, 28). Moreover, the early interest of Auden in things scientific—he originally wished to pursue a career in biology or medicine like his father—shows heavily in his use of detail and his approach to verse. Quite frequently, Auden's lines are densely analytical in nature, or "diagnostic" as many critics have put forth. At the beginning of Auden's career, this scientific-rational tendency was the predominant quality of Auden's poetry. His intellectualism and psychology predilections are demonstrated markedly in works prior to 1932, such as "The Letter" (published in 1928).

The Letter

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way.
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year's arc a completed round
And love's worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, spring's green
Preliminary shiver, passed

A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through,
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much, but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question much the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

(Ellmann and O'Clair, 410)

The above lines represent Auden in his youth, a prodigy, according to some critics. There is no playfulness of craft to this work reminiscent of Auden's later periods—the syllabic meter is strict, using rhymed couplets of nine syllables per line in the first stanza and eight per line in the second with barely a hint of variety. There is, however, a cool analytical approach to the subject matter, almost impersonal. The central theme is the cycle of life as represented through a failed love.

Most interesting—and typical of Auden—is the usage of scientific, in this case electrical, imagery in the poem. He uses terms like "arc," "circuit," and "shunting" in the context of the work, which I read as comparing the connection of a relationship to the connection of an electrical circuit. This provides a contrast with the more pastoral/natural elements of the poem: storm, bird, seasons, Spring and Autumn, etc. This is Auden the post-Romantic; we don't necessarily feel the grief of the voice character in this work, but are presented with a dialectical insight through the varying details provided within the poem. Although "The Letter" may be construed as more technically primitive and somewhat obscure as compared with Auden's later craft, it reflects a style that would be refined and evolve into clever twists of form and content.

Auden began teaching at a school in Herefordshire in the Fall of 1932, and this marks a major milestone in his poetic development. To quote The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry:

In that mellow world his poetry opened like a bud, becoming more expansive and richer in surface detail. This is the start of the second "chapter," the phase when Auden, drawing on Marx and Freud, was able to make a brilliant stream of connections between individual guilts and pleasures and the crisis that seemed to be eating away at European civilization. Simultaneously, his interests in the possibilities of verse forms burst out in a profusion of beautifully adroit sonnets, sestinas, and ballads (Hamilton, 22).

The period from 1932 to 1940 earned Auden the praise of his contemporaries as well, including T. S. Eliot who once said, "This fellow is about the best poet I have discovered in several years" (Davenport-Hines, 121). The following poem shows a more unrestrained Auden at work; Auden has latched onto the theme of grand Love, and shows an emotion in his poetry not entirely present in "The Letter":

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good

(Mendelson, 43).

Once again, Auden chooses his details carefully, considering each one for their effect, and each detail is given even more prominence within the poem by the use of end-stops on each line. The poem operates on two distinct levels. First, the literal interpretation of a love who has died—it is that inner state of grief over love's loss which his younger poems lack. Can the third stanza be more plain, or more eloquent in its understated grandiosity? Here Auden is less the clinician and more the participant, for all he decried showing oneself as a poet within the poetry.

On a more ephemeral level, one can read "Funeral Blues" as bemoaning the death of God, not an altogether unfamiliar theme following the first world war and with Europe facing the prospect of another. This poem was also written after Auden's service in Spain, which left him disillusioned with the state of the world in many respects. Stanza four is as huge as stanza three is compact. Because of this, however, and because of this departure from Auden's usual detachment from subject matter, I view this poem as more of an elegy for God than for a lost lover. Although Auden uses hyperbole with elan in other works, it seems somehow misplaced given the circumstances if the subject is a loved one. In a sweeping gesture, Auden calls for an end to the world in the space of four lines, dismissing the notion that there can be any good left in the world with the passing of the subject of the poem. The imagery of the stars being dampened, or pouring out the oceans, is the utter annihilation of creation—as such, it represents the death of the Creator.

The final stage of Auden's poetic journey, and the most problematic from the critical perspective, is comprised of the years after 1946 (when Auden officially became a U. S. citizen). Age and a rediscovery of Anglicism gave new artistic bents to Auden's poetry. 1948's The Age of Anxiety won Auden the Pulitzer, and his verses after began to take on a more meditative air—"too religious," according to many of the critics who had earlier hailed Auden as a poetic genius. Or, as his biography suggests, "He was now widely misunderstood as a reactionary coward who had reneged on the radicalism of his youth" (Davenport-Hines, 266).

Auden's quest for Love in the divine sense is typified within the tercets of his poem, "Archaeology", which was published in the posthumous volume, Thank You, Fog:


The archaeologist's spade
delves into dwellings
vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence
of life-ways no one
would dream of leading now,

concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
but guessing is always
more fun than knowing.

We do know that Man,
from fear or affection,
has always graved His dead.

What disastered a city,
volcanic effusion,
fluvial outrage,

or a human horde,
agog for slaves or glory,
is visually patent,

and we're sure that,
as soon as palaces were built,
their rulers,

though gluttoned on sex
and blanded by flattery,
must often have yawned.

But do grain-pits signify
a year of famine?
Where a coin-series

peters out, should we infer
some major catastrophe?
Maybe. Maybe.

From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the Old Ones bowed down to,

but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders.

Poets have learned us our myths
but just how did They take them?
That's a stumper.

When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?

No, I'd say: I'd swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories,

that their real earnest
has been to grant excuses
for ritual actions.

Only in rites
can we renounce our oddities
and be truly entired.

Not that all rites
should be equally fonded:
some are abominable.

There's nothing the Crucified
would like less
than butchery to appease Him.


From Archaeology
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.

(Mendelson, 302-304)

The analytical muse in this poem has been turned introspective, and ultimately the internal inquisition leads to a conclusion of morality. Auden uses science to demonstrate its own weaknesses, the frailty of human knowledge with such lines as "...has not much to say that he can prove: the lucky man!" and "guessing is always more fun than knowing". Simply put, Man can be quantified, whereas faith cannot. Science, as represented through archaeology, can but give us temporal answers at best. But does study and human learning provide deeper insight? In this poem, Auden states with his typical, unique verve: "That's a stumper."

The end stanzas and coda provide the keys to unlocking Auden's meaning in the poem. He has not succumbed to religion as Eliot did in later years, yet ends the work on the note of a sermon. History is merely a recording of the misdeeds of men, whereas there is a suffusing "goodness" that exists outside the boundaries of learning. If our collected knowledge is fallible concerning ourselves, then it cannot be expected to approach an understanding of God—only the endurance of faith suggested by the final line of the poem can provide that.

By comparison with his earlier work, Auden as represented in "Archaeology" is wistful. While he does not, as I read it, repudiate his scientific bent toward detail and analysis, he admits in this poem that it means little if not coupled with faith in something beyond the human experience. Love must have its place in the world.

Auden's journey began with the mind and ended with the spirit. His rationality gave way to passion, which in turn opened the door to religious rediscovery. It is due to, not despite, this journey that Auden still reigns as a poetic master, and his depth progressively grows with study across the decades of his career. But, as Auden would undoubtedly argue, it is the poet's duty to discover the relevant questions of one's times—and to do so requires the type of journey which comprised the life of W. H. Auden.

Works Cited

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Auden. New York: Random House, 1995.

Ellmann, Richard and Robert O'Clair. Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Norton, 1989.

Hamilton, Ian. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mendelson, Edward. As I Walked Out One Evening: W. H. Auden. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Mendelson, Edward. Selected Poems: W. H. Auden. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Spears, Monroe K. Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

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