The Enfant Terrible Master of Poetry: W. H. Auden He has been described as “W. H. Auden, for long the enfant terrible of English poetry . . . emerges as its undisputed master” (Samson 227). W. H Auden is one of most influential poets of the Twentieth century, having written over 400 poems and countless numbers of essays, articles, and plays. Other poets have written poems and books celebrating his genius. W. H Auden’s works are genuinely his life and thoughts to include themes of unattainable love and loss, ethics and religion, citizenship and politics, and the anonymity of humans beings in the span of the universe.
Wystan Hugh Auden was born in 1907 in York, England, to a very religious family with a history of clergymen (Davenport 10). Auden credited his days in church with sparking his love for language. Auden explains, “It was there that I acquired a sensitivity to language which I could not have acquired in any other way” (Davenport 16). From the early age of eight Auden attended religious boarding schools, where he was first asked by a boarding school friend if he had ever written poetry. It was then that Auden immediately recognized his desire of being a grand poet.
His unique talent was acknowledged a year later when Auden’s first poem was published in the school paper. He would later admit his passionate pursuit to be a great writer would overshadow his interest in religious faith. Auden’s religious family in combination with his father’s profession as a psychologist, would prove to have a strong impact on Auden’s poetry and varying religious mindset. He was thirteen when he lost his interest in religion and it wasn’t until 1940 when he reconverted and joined the Episcopal church.
Auden’s theology had a psychological influence which made him question many of teachings from his childhood in the religious boarding school, as displayed in his famous poem “Victor”. The narrative poem “Victor” begins on a cold day in December when Victor’s father is preaching to him bible ethics such as “Don’t dishonour the family name,” “Victor, my only son, Don’t you ever ever tell lies,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Lines 4,8,12). Auden uses imagery in comparing the old months of December to the father’s cold heart. Victor’s father never shows him love or affection, just constant religious preaching. The poem also never introduces a mother or anyone warm and loving in Victor’s life. That is, until the beautiful Anna comes around on the first of April, a warm month. Auden is crafty in that he uses the specific date of the first of April or April Fool’s Day to foreshadow Victor’s foolishness. Victor’s friends tease him about his innocence and say things like “Have you ever had woman? and “Victor’s a decent fellow but/ He’s too mousy to go far,” referring to Victor’s virginity (22, 27-28). His father’s religious teachings are so embedded in Victor’s moral code that he doesn’t care about being teased and just goes up to his room and reads the Bible’s story about Jezebel. Jezebel in the Bible was a wicked woman who killed the Lord’s prophets and was eaten by dogs in consequence of her actions. Victor asks Anna to marry him three times before she finally agrees. They are married and Victor refers to her as “O my Helen of Troy” (60).
This is an ironic allusion to the beautiful queen of Troy who cheated on the king and ran away with Paris resulting in the deaths of many, as will Anna’s adultery result in death. Later on in September, Victor eavesdrops on a conversation in the office where he discovers Anna has been cheating on him. This revelation took place in September, or the end of the warm summer, and the end of Victor’s warmth and happiness. Victor took all his father’s teachings literally and remembered “Blessed are the pure in heart” and the story of the wicked Jezebel who was killed for her sins (12).
Victor then asks the skies what he should do and in his religious loyalty and resulting superstition, he believes a sweeping wind through the trees means the heavens are saying kill her. So he listens and kills Anna. “Victor” is Auden’s heed in the dangers of unquestioned religion. Auden, unlike Victor, questioned religion often. Auden switched his theology from Protestantism in the 1940s, to Roman Catholic in the early 1950s, to finally the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Reeves). Victor” was not however, a cautionary tale about despairing disappointment and lying that goes along with love. On the contrary, like many poets Auden was a hopeless romantic who enjoyed love even if it was unrequited such as in the poem “The More Loving One”. “The More Loving One” describes in a lamenting tone the acceptance of unrequited love using iambic tetrameter with four stanzas of quatrains, each of paired rhyming couplets. The speaker compares one sided love to our admiration for the stars and its indifference to us on earth.
Auden uses the imagery of the stars as something distant and completely unattainable like unrequited love. The speaker’s compassion is exposed when he wonders how we would feel if the stars were burning for our love and we were indifferent, in which he replies one of Auden’s most famous quotes “If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me” (7-8). The speaker would rather be the loving one than have someone hurt the way he does. The last two stanzas are the speaker’s sorrow acceptance of love that can never be and can only be cured with time.
The speaker represents this idea through a naked sky with no stars in which he would have to “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime/ Though this might take me a little time” (14-16). It may take the speaker some time to accept the fact that those stars are not there nor love him and never will. Auden’s love poem’s frequently contained an undercurrent of his own love life, but was never be fully exposed because he was a homosexual in the early twentieth century when it was not yet socially acceptable. As a child Auden attended boarding school with Christopher Isherwood and was later reintroduced in 1925.
Isherwood proved a mentor for Auden, as he would frequently send Isherwood his writings for criticism and review. Auden fell in love with Isherwood and they developed a sexual friendship, and even collaborated on some plays. In 1939, Isherwood and Auden moved to New York and three months later Isherwood left to California. That same year Auden met Chester Kallman and they developed what Auden considered a “marriage”, which lasted two years, until Kallman ended it because he refused to have a monogamous relationship such as Auden insisted (Davenport 32).
These transient relationships in Auden’s life may be what inspired “As I Walked Out One Evening. ” “As I Walked Out One Evening” is a narrative about the harsh reality of the impermanence of love. We are introduced to two lovers proclaiming their exaggerated love claims down by the flowing river. Their proclamation is filled with imagery, hyperboles, metaphors, and similes: I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you Till China and Africa meet, And the river jumps over the mountain And the salmon sing in the street, I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky. (9-16) The lover’s declaration is interrupted by the town clock’s chime and whirr exclaiming “O let not Time deceive you/ You cannot conquer Time. ” Eventually the lovers will forget all about each other with time even though they believe their love is unique and can triumph over anything, “Time will have his fancy/ To-morrow or to-day” (23-24). The lover’s intense love will be cured by the personified time who interrupts the lovers and coughs while they would kiss.
In the end “The clocks had ceased their chiming” because the lovers battle was over and they of course forgot about their love for each other “And the deep river ran on”, conveying that life continues to move forward like the river, which flowed at the beginning of the poem and continues after their love is forgotten in the sublimity of time (59-60). Indeed Auden did not have much luck with loves in New York and was a bit defeated by their failures. In New York Auden experienced, along with heartbreak, a culture shock at the American way of life and consumerism.
Auden had a lifelong interest in politics, economics, human rights, and patriotism. In 1928 Auden moved to Berlin in an escape of English repression. He returned to England six months later after experiencing for the first time economic and political chaos. In 1937 he went to Spain to help fight in the Spanish Civil War. Those seven weeks had a profound affect on Auden as he realized the extreme and confusing power the government has over its citizens. In 1938 Isherwood and Auden visited the Sino-Japanese War to write a book titled Journey to War before settling in New York. Through is experiences Auden became sensitive towards disadvantaged citizen’s oppressed by political power. In New York Auden experienced a different type of political power uniquely American. He expressed his culture shock in “The Unknown Citizen”. “The Unknown Citizen” is a parody of The Unknown Soldier, a tomb in remembrance of anonymous soldiers lost in war. “The Unknown Citizen” opens up with an epigraph stating “To JS/07 M 378/ This Marble Monument is/ Erected by the State” (1-3). The fictional citizen is found by the very stern “Bureau of Statistics”, to have no formal complaints ever made about him (4).
This citizen is an indisputable perfect American. He served his country in the military and then worked for an all American company called “Fudge Motors Inc” (11). He was popular amongst his friends and liked to drink occasionally. He always read the newspaper and had normal reactions to the advertisements. He had taken out policies and had no real medical issues. He was married and added five children. In the final couplet, the speaker deviates from the conventional topics in the poem so far and asks “Was he free/ Was he happy/ The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong/ [the Bureau of Statistics] should certainly have heard” (31-32).
This last line reveals the parodic nature of the poem in suggesting that because nothing ever went wrong for the citizen, then he must have been happy. This is Auden’s view on what the American government expects which is for citizens not to be so desperately unhappy as to disrupt them from buying things and affecting the economic circle. Whether they have personal self fulfillment, is not their concern hence the tomb inscription “JS/07 M 378” which shows the anonymity in which the government views its citizens to the point of assigning numbers instead of names (1).
Auden was a prolific writer whose talents were hard to ignore and were widely praised. Unlike many other poets, his popularity didn’t decline after his death in 1975. His name increased in popularity when “Funeral Blues” was used in the motion picture Four Weddings and a Funeral in 2004 (Samson 33). “Funeral Blues” was perhaps Auden’s most touching and deeply melancholy poem. “Funeral Blues” is indisputably about the helplessness and mourning that comes with the death of a loved one. The speaker attempts to gain control of something in the hopelessness he feels when he states “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” (1).
Auden frequently addressed the theme of the anonymity of humans in nature and how life moves forward no matter what happens. Such as in “As I Walked Out One Evening” when the river flowed from beginning to end regardless of the magnitude of personal events. The speaker in this poem refuses to accept that world moves on. The speaker wants the clocks to stop and to “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/ Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead” (5-6). The speaker uses metaphor to convey the feeling of control he wishes he had in the last stanza:
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 woods: For nothing now can ever come to any good. (13-16) The speaker speaks in a tone that declares everything redundant and a waste when using words like sweeping, pouring, and dismantle. Auden was so dedicated to the authenticity of his work that in his last years he discarded poems that he did not feel he wrote with sincerity such as “September 1, 1939”, written on the occasion that it was the outbreak of World War II.
His emotions were not as deep-seated as the poem suggests. This brings to light the immense talent and charisma that W. H Auden produced with ease because although not sincere ,“September 1, 1939” is one of his most popular poems. His influence was so great, other poets during his era were all put under the category of “The Auden Generation. ” W. H Auden’s was a master of poetry, a revolutionary, and a romantic whose legacy as one of the most prominent and monumental poets of modern times is in undeniable. Works Cited “As I Walked Out One Evening”. Poets. org.
Academy of American Poets, n. d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. Davenport-Hines, Richard. Auden. London: Heinemann. 1995. Print. “Funeral Blues”. Poems About. Word Press, 21 Nov. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2011 Reeves, Gareth. “Auden and religion. ” The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Ed. Stan Sansom, Ian. Auden and Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print. Smith. Cambridge University Press, n. d. Web. 19 October 2011. “The More Loving One”. Poets. org. Academy of American Poets, n. d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. “Victor”. Poems About. Word Press, 21 Nov. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2011