W. H. Auden: Poems

W. H. Auden: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Auden contrast the limestone landscape with other landscapes in "In Praise of Limestone"?

    The limestone landscape, insofar as it refers to the Mediterranean, has physical beauty. There are fountains, sunlight, charming creatures, and temples. Life is peaceful and conflicts are minor. It also is the wilderness of nature; conflicts are minor because there is so little room for creativity in the “short distances and definite places.” Limestone and other stones build the city environment, where nature’s limitations are easily forgotten, along with morality; the difficulties of desert and jungle are lost. When city people go out to the wilderness, they often go in preparation for war; they do not want to learn from nature that human nature needs help. Limestone also is trumped by water, which dissolves it; the ultimate wilderness is the oceanic deep, which frees people by coldly reminding them of the reality of mortality. Although the speaker considers the idea of eternal life, he is preoccupied with knowledge of the reality of death and the deep, the “limestone landscape” of a grounded reality about being human.

  2. 2

    How does Auden characterize Spain's yesterday, today, and tomorrow in "Spain"?

    In the Spain of yesterday, an empire rises. Explorers and conquerors visit other lands, industry and innovation evolve, religion sloughs off superstition but punishes heresy, the arts and the humanities are cherished. In Spain's today, it is all struggle (Auden is writing generally of the period of the Spanish Civil War). Life cannot bring the people what they want . They are beset by fears and war. There is "deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder." Human interaction is halting, makeshift. As for tomorrow, which is clearly impossible to predict, the value of life returns if good choices lead the Spanish people there. Science, romantic love, arts and music, political stability, and warm summer nights can replace the struggle. Unfortunately for Auden, Franco remained dictator from 1939 to his death in 1975, whereas Auden died in 1973, unable to see the dictator's regime disappear and the results for Spain.

  3. 3

    Compare Auden's elegies to Yeats, Freud, and Bonhoeffer.

    In the elegies to Yeats and Freud, Auden suggest that they both were simply men whose work was immensely appreciated: "the provinces of [Yeats's] body revolted," and "[Freud] wasn't clever at all." Bonhoeffer receives more cautious respect. Yeats and Freud presented realities that influenced others; through their deeds of poetry and psychology they brought changes into people's lives and made the future bearable. Bonhoeffer acted in a different way on the world stage by participating in the resistance to Nazism. In all of the poems Auden grapples with larger questions; with Yeats it is the role of poetry, with Freud it is the nature of evil, and with Bonhoeffer it is with moral judgment and freedom of choice in a Christian civilization. All three men thus become symbols of what they influenced; Freud, for example, is now a "whole climate of opinion." But all are now dead and must be interpreted by others.

  4. 4

    Who are the enemies in "Ode V"?

    From the very first lines the reader understands that the young men are soldiers and are lying in wait for their enemies. However, the explanation of who they are preparing to fight is not so simple. Auden speaks of Wrath, Gluttony, Acedia, Lust, and Envy. The narrator speaks of looking out for their faces for some time, thinking sometimes that they had found them and then realizing they were "unlucky." It becomes clearer that this poem is about soldiers wrestling with their psyches, not actual physical enemies. These young men must battle with the sins of their condition and come to terms with what war has wrought. Their physical enemy is one thing, but the demons of their mind are another, and these may prove much more formidable.

  5. 5

    How are Thetis's expectations and the reality of the images on the shield in "The Shield of Achilles" contrasted?

    Thetis expects scenes of peace, bucolic splendor, love, piety, and enjoyment of life. She is already looking to social life after the war, when "marble well-governed cities" host games and dances. She hopes for a long life for her son Achilles, about whom it was prophesied he would have either a heroic and short life or an average but long one. She is cruelly disappointed with what the god Hephaestos has created for her son, even though it more accurately reflects its use as a tool of war. It depicts lawless war and tyranny (updated for the 20th century with barbed wire) and alludes to the Crucifixion. Rather than rejoice in peace and frivolity, as Thetis hopes, the common people on the shield watch in horror as the three people are punished on the posts. The poem adds that Achilles will soon die, reflecting heroic tragedy rather than everyday pastoral.

  6. 6

    What roles does Nature play in Auden's poems?

    Nature wears many different hats, even within the same poem. For example, in "In Praise of Limestone," the limestone landscape is peaceful, idyllic, and sensuous, coded as pleasant to the rustic innocents even though it is constraining (compare the rustic scenes in "Night Mail"), but the granite areas provide space for military training for men of the city (compare the bleak landscape of "The Shield of Achilles"), and the oceanic deep rules over all with the abysses of mortality. In general Nature reflects the hard realities of human nature, the Freudian unknowns that must be studied to become known, but which ultimately escape full understanding and cannot be fully brought under control. Nature is indifferent and uncomprehending of human suffering, as in "Musée des Beaux Arts." The changing of Nature in "Spain" mirrors that country's political and intellectual changes. Nature can be molded and destroyed by man, who often does not understand or respect it.

  7. 7

    How does Auden deal with religion in his poems?

    Many of Auden's poems deal with religion. Although he came from a Christian perspective, several of his poems reflect deep ambivalence and doubt about the divine and about the Christian narrative in particular. "Friday's Child" is questioning and skeptical, wondering why God would permit humans so much freedom to judge and kill each other, and claiming that theologians' proofs and disproofs are never acknowledged by God one way or the other. In "In Praise of Limestone," Christian theology is respected as an alternative, but the speaker is preoccupied with the amoral lands of limestone, where people do not believe in a God who has "temper tantrums" about sin, and this speaker, too, claims not to know enough to judge the facts. In many of Auden's poems, especially those about the modern world, God seems far from humans. For example, in "Spain," the poem recalls a past when heretics and witches faced theological outrage, but nothing religious like this happens in Spain's present or future, except perhaps the "beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome" in the future, which is most likely a Catholic dome, if Spain can get to that point.

  8. 8

    What does the framing element in "For the Time Being" of the modern Christmas accomplish?

    At the end of the long poem "For the Time Being," Auden surprises his readers with a depiction of a modern Christmas. The elements of this Christmas remain familiar today: dismantling the tree, putting leftovers away, and getting the kids ready to go back to school. This scene contrasts with the glory and drama of the preceding scenes in which the world waits anxiously for Christ. The technique reinforces how we are to perceive of this ancient, oft-repeated story in light of own own darker and more banal era. The events are told in the present, which brings back Auden's critics from other poems regarding how easily people go through the motions without awareness or judgment. The language and ideas are modern. Christ's Incarnation occurred even for today's Christians, though they might not appreciate it.

  9. 9

    How do the different characters in "For the Time Being" view the imminent Incarnation?

    The various characters in the Christmas Oratorio have different feelings about Christ's imminent Incarnation. Mary is pleased to bear the Christ child but understands that he will have suffering in his future. The three wise men are aware that Christ's coming will answer some of the questions that they have thus far asked with no success of Nature and science. The shepherds believe that their impoverished lives will be improved by Christ's love. Joseph struggles to accept his limited role. In general, the darkness of the world will be brightened, and time will move in a narrative, chronological way, not cyclical. Herod, however, who represents the liberal humanist, classical, pagan tradition, does not particularly desire Christ's birth; for him it means that the world will move away from the rational order he likes to control and become too pedestrian with a God who is too human.

  10. 10

    For what does "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" commend Freud?

    Famously, the poem argues that Freud is a not a "clever" man. For one thing, Freud's accomplishments are far deeper than mere cleverness, for he seeks to plumb the depths of his patients' psyches and help them meet their futures head on, without artifice or a "wardrobe of excuses." They learn to "recite the Past / like a poetry lesson" until they figure out where something went wrong, and try to remember to be honest and guileless like children. In retrospect, recovering the past in this way seems too obvious to be clever. Yet, Freud was not afraid to act as Dante did, and go down among the lost and "where the injured / lead the ugly life of the rejected." He gave people hope and let them feel a "change in their bones," bringing them into new, healthier life. Overall, he made them aware that the "night" of their minds was not something to be afraid of, but something to pity, embrace, and overcome, for it is silly to be stuck in the past. Also, Freud kept working on the problems of the human soul up to the end of his life, and he even was working on how to help a fractured society retell its story in a way that could heal its divisions.