The Poetry of W.H. Auden: A Critical Review

Introduction: The Early Work

What happened? Throughout the nineteen thirties, W.H. Auden was the most exciting, talented and prolific of poets writing in English. Eliot had the unrivalled authority, but his views were backward-looking, indeed reactionary: high church in religion and a royalist in politics. Auden, in contrast, was wholly contemporary, at home in the everyday fears, interests and fashions of thirties England, with an overt sympathy for left-wing causes, which he approached through a formidable reading in psychoanalysis, Marxism, existentialism and much else. Everything seemed grist to his wheel. Poems in the most challenging forms were dashed off effortlessly: indeed he would rather write a new poem than bother improving an old one. {1}

As a school-teacher in Scotland and then England, Auden produced a continuous steam of poetry collections, plays, critical reviews and essays: nine books of poetry in ten years. As a young man barely turned 30, when most poets are struggling to find their voice, Auden had astonished the literary world with a range of voices, each his own, and was editing the Oxford Book of Light Verse. When, in the following year, he moved to America, again teaching in schools and colleges, the flood of publications continued: poetry collections, choral works, literary criticism and essays on matters from Greek literature and Icelandic sagas to modern poetry, folklore, children's literature, history, biography and anything that attracted his fluent pen and mind. He won the Bollingen Prize in 1954, and the Feltrinelli in 1957. From 1956 to 1961 he served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The sixties, indeed right up to his sudden death in Vienna in 1973, saw essays, librettos and introductions to his collected works. The contrast with the abstemious Eliot or the monomaniacal Pound could not be starker. Auden accurately sensed the changing moods of the times, and adroitly adapted to its needs. {1}

Auden's move to America was not a run for cover, from the war everyone knew was coming, but escape from a restricting and depressing period in British social life. {2} Strikes, business collapses, unemployment, breadlines, political agitation in the face of ineffective government, and the threatening rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy — all stared out daily from newspapers and contributed to a deepening sense of helplessness. {3} Auden saw himself as lonely, ineffectual and miserable. His visits to China and Spain left him only the more discouraged, and the brave hopes featuring in the poetry also seemed half-hearted and unconvincing, as though detached from any personal commitment, from what their author really thought. Critics called the poetry over-clever, supercilious even: the glittering aphorisms of a 'permanent undergraduate'. But Auden's espousals of Freud and Marxism were not merely fashionable: they were the echo-soundings that warned of the depths surrounding our everyday lives. Whatever the personal failings, Auden was a moralist at heart, and the identifications allowed him to probe the doom and guilt that afflicted Europe, {4} either its relatively privileged classes, contemporary society, or man himself.

the poets exploding like bombs
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. {5}

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate. {6}

One rational voice is dumb.
Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite. {7}

But what was Auden's position exactly? It was hard to know: the poetry could be contradictory or somewhat incoherent as the dark and bright were twisted together, no doubt reflecting Auden's own shifting hopes and despairs, which were those of anyone thinking beyond the distractions of a 'low, dishonest decade.'

Some of the more successful poems were those that simply took an animal delight in being alive — 'Look Stranger'.

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be, {8}

Yet even these have not lasted, perhaps because their lyric quality was only good in parts, a common criticism of Auden. They were good, or good enough, but lacked that blood-chilling frisson of exact expression. That last point is worth stressing because so overlooked by historians of Modernism. Good poets steal, i.e. wholly take over and improve on predecessor's work, but Auden's copies were generally half-hearted affairs, lacking the sustained verse craft that really makes the difference. 'May with its light behaving':

May with its light behaving
Stirs vessel, eye and limb,
The singular and sad
Are willing to recover,
And to each swan-delighting river
The careless picnics come
In living white and red. {9}

Has echoes of Yeats, though the symbols were Auden's and more unsettling. He developed his own style or styles, where there was a good deal of wit, compression, ambiguity and syntactic liberty, but the poetry had a provisional air, more work in progress than completed. He adopted Anglo-Saxon forms, with intriguing but rather baffling perspectives:

"O where are you going?" said reader to rider,
"That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder's the midden whose odors will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return." {10}

And Byron's Don Juan stanzas, but with little of the original's polish, brio or sheer good fun:

I hope this reaches you in your abode,
This letter that's already far too long,
Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road;
But here I end my conversational song.
I hope you don't think mail from strangers wrong.
As to its length, I tell myself you'll need it,
You've all eternity in which to read it. {11}

Poems on social themes could be strikingly original in their imagery — everything was pressed into service — but also somewhat haphazardly put together, with a looseness of phrasing that belongs more to prose:

Seekers after happiness, all who follow
The convolutions of your simple wish,
It is later than you think; nearer that day
Far other than that distant afternoon
Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet
They gave the prizes to the ruined boys.
You cannot be away, then, no
Not though you pack to leave within an hour,
Escaping humming down arterial roads : {12}

'Humming' is excellent, of course, but what does the reader make of 'stamping' or 'ruined', and do not the para-rhymes come a bit too easily in this earlier section of the poem, even glibly so?

Your shutting up the house and taking prow
To go into the wilderness to pray,
Means that I wish to leave and to pass on,
Select another form, perhaps your son ;

The Consolidating Reputation

Auden's four long poems in the forties consolidated his reputation — New Year Letter (1941), The Sea and the Mirror (1944), For the Time Being (1944), and The Age of Anxiety (1947). Each aimed to clarify Auden's views and make him more accessible to readers. The first was a didactic, argumentative poem in tetrameter couplets that ranged across politics, ethics, aesthetics and religion. The second, subtitled 'A Commentary on Shakespeare's the Tempest', has the characters of Shakespeare's play say something of the relation of art and imagination (mirror) to reality (sea). Each character speaks in a different verse form, a technical tour de force by Auden. {13-15} For the Time Being was written as a Christmas oratorio, later being set to music as an abridgement. The last, subtitled A Baroque Eclogue, has four characters emblematic of the lonely crowd, who meet in a bar and discuss where mankind is going, a quest overshadowed by contemporary rootlessness and anxiety.

The Sea and the Mirror has probably survived best, and two of its poems are much anthologized. The Song of the Master and Boatswain {16} is a simple and accomplished piece, pleasingly rounded off. It starts:

At Dirty Dick's and Sloppy Joe's
We drank our liquor straight,
Some went upstairs with Margery,
And some, alas, with Kate;
And two by two like cat and mouse
The homeless played at keeping house.

The popular but enigmatic villanelle of Miranda to Ferdinand is another matter: {17}

1. My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely,
2. As the poor and sad are real to the good king,
3. And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

4. Up jumped the Black Man behind the elder tree,
5. Turned a somersault and ran away waving;
6. My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely.

7. The Witch gave a squawk; her venomous body
8. Melted into light as water leaves a spring,
9. And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

10. At his crossroads, too, the Ancient prayed for me,
11. Down his wasted cheeks tears of joy were running:
12. My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely.

13. He kissed me awake, and no one was sorry;
14. The sun shone on sails, eyes, pebbles, anything,
15. And the high green hill sits always by the sea.

16. So to remember our changing garden, we
17. Are linked as children in a circle dancing:
18. My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely,
19. And the high, green hill sits always by the sea.

The villanelle is a limiting form — 19 lines , five triplets, and a quatrain, employing only two rhymes throughout — and is generally used to convey mood, as it is here, with some contrivance. But what does the haunting first line really say? On one level, as 'Gaby' points out: {18}

The repeating lines "My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely/And the high, green hills sits always by the sea" shows her happiness at finding her "dear one" and the eternity of their union compared to the mirrors constant loneliness. These ideas relate to the metaphor of the mirror always winning against the sea because it can become the sea by reflecting it. However, the mirror is a euphemism of loneliness because it only reflects the image of something and can never be eternally bonded, like Miranda is singing of with her impending union.

That's plausible, and mirror is central to the whole piece, serving as evocative imagination, of something that is both there and not there. But the effect is distinctly odd. Mirrors are eternally lonely, while Miranda is only so at the moment, anticipating union with Ferdinand — a union that will be eternal in the sense that mirrors are eternally lonely. Yes, but that's disconcerting, carrying the overtone that Miranda's longing will be eternal. Line 2 underlines that eternity — the good king always has responsibilities to his needy subjects — but also introduces the sense of justice and good will. Eternity is again the subject of line 3.

Lines 4 and 5 may well be the nightmares of childhood, to be banished by Miranda's union with Ferdinand, but 'Black Man' is capitalized and a little incongruous in the setting, almost surrealist. Then we have the Witch (lines 7-8) whose venomous body melts into light, just as water leaves a spring, i.e. thins away. Again the effect is anomalous. Springs are associated with purity and life-giving powers, but here the association is reversed, with venom being dispersed into the air or sunlight. In lines 10-11 we are introduced to the Ancient, whose tears of joy echo the spring earlier. What the Ancient is doing at the crossroads isn't clear. The 'He' in line 13 is presumably Ferdinand, though it could be the Ancient (again disturbing), but it's apparently a happy occasion, with the sun shining on everything. Finally, in lines 16-17, an unspecified 'we' are to remember a garden where we are linked as children dancing in a circle — a celebration, or a throw-back to the 'innocence' of childhood?

Many of these images, vivid no doubt, are also discordant, unconvincing and not properly thought through. Equally unsatisfactory is the verse. The first line is a beauty:

My dear one is mine as mirr ors are lone ly,

And the second just about gets by, though the line is stretched out in monosyllables:

As the poor and sad are real to the good king,

The third line is an oddity: why wrong-foot the line by adding 'green'?

And the high green hill sits al ways by the sea.

It would be so much more pleasing, in metrical structure and assonance, as:

And the high hill sits al ways by the sea.

Line 4 could be scanned several ways but if we want to preserve the quatrain, four stresses to the line structure, we'd write something like (though el der should strictly take a stress):

Up jumped the Black Man be hind the elder tree,

Ditto line 5.

Turned a som er sault and ran a way wav ing;

By line 7, the metrical structure has broken down, and line 8 is prose. The rhyming is casual, indeed rather wretched, falling on the unstressed syllable very often. In short, it's not very good verse, the test of which is that it cannot easily be improved upon. This, unfortunately, can. If we keep the good lines, retain the rhyme schemes, continue the four stress rather loose metre of the opening line, but make a few diversions, we can write:

My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely,
As sadness is real to the good king,
And the high hill sits always by the sea.

Up jumped the Black Man from the elder tree,
Turned head to heel and ran away laughing;
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely.

All that is venomous in the Witch's body
Broke into sunlight in the bubbling spring,
And the high hill sits always by the sea.

The Wise in their fortune will pray for me;
His tears of great joy wet the wedding ring.
My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely.

He kissed me awake, and no one was sorry,
Alive was the sunlight on everything,
And the high hill sits always by the sea.

The garden is changing in memory,
And the circlet of children link arms and sing:
My dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely,
And the high hill sits always by the sea.

And so on. Once the key lines are established it's not that difficult a measure, and Auden could have done more with it.

In other work of the forties, Auden developed a jaunty, and, later, a chatty style with which to confront the demons of the modern world: anxiety, guilt, defeat, purposeless of living. The phrasing can be very casual, not far from the happy approximations of amateur poetry, though knowingly so, and with a wider range of allusion and example. Auden was unusually alert to influences, particularly those of other poets, which he could easily mimic and make his own. Inevitably, because a feature of Modernism, those features included the accumulation of instances, a collage of matters only vaguely connected.

Auden's own life became somewhat similar: spasmodic and untidy, held together by the steady writing through a quotidian of drugs, alcohol and ménages a deux, trois and purchased. {19} Yet it was one that kept him cheerfully and campishly alive to the age of 66. Auden accepted his homosexuality, and there was none of the self-loathing of Hart Crane, or the brooding destructiveness in Robert Lowell's attachments. Auden's commitment to poetry ended with poetry.

The Later Auden

After the earlier communism and psychoanalysis, there were no social issues or religious messages compelling Auden to write to the late hours. He reverted to what he had been before, the precocious schoolboy, indifferent to convention and community standards, but now even more well-read, pugnacious and diverting. For that range of observation, Auden developed a flexible syllabic verse, where words are used in their prose sense, without depth as Perkins puts it, {1} but intelligently. Because verse writing came so easily to Auden — he could slot in sentences largely as he wanted — there is little of that search to get words that won't be shifted to do unexpected things. The earlier, spasmodic but real, flashes of genius came less often. Auden was more settled and content in himself, and so was the poetry. Auden left the doom-ridden vexations of British life and became interested in music, opera, Christianity, the influences of weather and the landscape.

Critics are therefore divided over the later work. Many admire its range, poise and urbane good sense. To others, something is missing. It's not dull exactly, but nor does it quicken the blood. What Auden says could have been said by any accomplished writer of book reviews, not perhaps so fluently and concisely, but the poems do not differ in essence from the better Christmas letter we get from friends keeping us up to date with their pondered thoughts and doings. Auden's poetry belongs to its time, but is not news that stays news, as Pound put it. Gradually the content assumed more importance than its expression, and those exacting forms that Auden handled so easily became handy containers, a 'see what I can pour into these shapes' rather than 'through these forms what I'm trying to say may perhaps shift into focus'.

Sometimes the verse was not really verse at all, but a sort of smooth, homogenized mixture of verse and prose.

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

Some was simply doggerel.

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? {22}

And much, as always, was over-facile. Auden came to hate the closing lines of In Memory of W.B. Yeats, and the uses to which they were put, but perhaps should not have written such platitudes in the first place. Yet throughout the flood of work, at least in snatches, there were glimpses of the Auden that could have been: {23}

Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away,
A light of recognition fills
The whole great day, and bright
The tiny world of lovers' arms.

And: {24}

Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Too often, however, Auden was simply the poster child of a Modernism where anything went. The Stop All the Clocks, made well-known by Four Weddings and a Funeral film, is a typically indifferent piece of verse, with a flat last line: {25}

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.

Poem endings were often a problem for Auden, and many have self-satisfied, over-obvious character, as though after leading the reader over intellectual obstacle courses, the poet can end with something about which we can all agree.

In fact, Auden was a disciplined writer who, whatever the private difficulties, sat down and conscientiously applied himself, generally from early morning to early afternoon. {19} That routine became his life, opening a window on the world in which he could become a leading spokesman for a Modernism now going about its business in contemporary dress. Much of the prose written in those hectic years is still readable: disarmingly modest, intelligent and to the point. {26} Auden's mind was unusually lively, capacious and well-informed, and he knew personally many of his important contemporaries, keeping abreast of their writing, and staying alert to new schools and tendencies. He was popular and prolific, and if only a handful of lines or poems are now remembered, it is an extraordinary achievement to have anything give delight to busy men long after we are dead.

But the unconscionable fact remains that the best and most popular poems — As I Walked Out One Evening {27}, The Fall of Rome {28}, Lullaby {29}, In Memory of W.B. Yeats {4}, The Shield of Achilles  {30} — owed little or nothing to Modernism. Make it new, insisted Modernist theory, and Auden's creative mind turned out poems that were singularly and arrestingly different, firstly by taking old forms into new realms and later by developing his own urbane, balanced and many-layered styles. Pack the poem with fresh images, said theory, and Auden's poems teem with contemporary images drawn in their particularity from all walks of life. Yet neither approach was vindicated by results, or — to put it another way — created the most successful poems, as these are still traditional, or seem so to us now.

The flag-wavers for Modernism {1} find the early poems the more exciting, as they indeed are: experimental, innovative, unconventional. But Auden also rounded the circle of his gifts, and the school intellectual turned himself into avuncular after-dinner guest who kept the conversation ball spinning in the air with a self-delighting display of charm, wit and sophistication as each theme was picked up, deftly treated and dissolved in another. Clever, engaging, truly delightful, said his more thoughtful contemporaries, but not the real thing: nothing to touch the imaginative faculty or the deep well-pools of the heart. {31} But under its chain-smoking, unconventional poster child, Modernism had become something different, a more intellectual art, which Auden's careless facility made entertaining. Modernism, or Auden's particular take on Modernism, gave the enfant terrible his spell-bound audience, though it also greatly limited what Modernism could say, providing the common reader with unexpected displays of fireworks rather than the careful illumination of their inner or larger natures.

If only Auden had not been so clever, or so keen to show off that cleverness, we might think, but Modernism, to be accessible and entertaining, needed its unabashed, often failing performer who charmingly refused to be other than himself.

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly — look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens. {32}

We can claim that the poetry comes out as byproduct in that social reportage because its writer was a poet, but it's probably more helpful to call it an extension of the objective correlate discussed under Ezra Pound, {3} here extended into the sociological realm. In retrospect, to the degree it works at all, its success seems only to be as the individual phrases are successful — notably 'the stormy fens' — which, of course, only defers the question of what poetry is, and how it should be written for the common reader. That was a matter neither Auden or later schools of poetry could quite agree on, beyond complex generalities, which have come to serve academic critics more than poets.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's modern poets.