“The stars are dead. The animals will not look. / We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and / History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.”
In "Spain" Auden evokes Spain’s rise to empire in its past, its current struggles during the Spanish Civil War, and the hopes for a peaceful future. While he spends time outlining what this future might look like, with people returning to arts and music, falling in love, talking pleasant walks, and rebuilding their political system, these last lines of the poem express his ultimate lack of certainty that the happy tomorrow will become reality. Nature may have turned her back on Spain and left her people bereft of hope. To the defeated” people History can only say “Alas” in a resigned manner, not being able to offer them any “help or pardon” once they have become defeated. It is up to the people of Spain to make the choices to realize a better life. What Auden witnessed in Spain as a volunteer, however, did not leave him so optimistic for the future.
“I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade”
The opening lines to one of Auden’s most famous poems (albeit one he rejected later in life) attained new resonance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Here he is referring to the time when Hitler invaded Poland, thus beginning the disastrous Second World War. The “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s was one of global depression, the rise of dictators, the failure of appeasement, and the isolationism of the United States. Auden understood that maniacal rulers were not new; he evokes the ghost of Thucydides, who wrote of dictators in the era of the Greeks, and points to one the basic psychological issues for such men: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” While Europe disintegrates, the poet is safe but troubled in New York City.
“This is the Night Mail crossing the Border, / Bringing the cheque and the postal order, / Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, / The shop at the corner, the girl next door”
“Night Mail” is one of Auden’s most charming poems, and it captures what so many readers have come to love about him: for all of his towering intellect, he can evoke the lives and experiences and hopes and dreams of average people. The poem, read in a famous documentary about the Night Mail that Auden worked on, depicts the mail train traveling from London to Scotland, delivering the post and parcels to citizens. Mail is almost completely egalitarian; people of all walks of life are recipients and senders of letters and packages. Auden’s simple language and poignant depictions of normal people not wanting to be forgotten by the post makes this a favorite poem in his oeuvre.
“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 for ever: I was wrong.”
This poem, which attained contemporary popularity when it was read in a moving scene from the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1993), is a moving and lyrical expression of grief at the death of a lover. For some readers, the poem is bold for its strong suggestion of Auden’s homosexuality in a time when that was considered immoral and something to keep hidden. Auden does not try to pretend he is speaking of a woman; he clearly uses the pronoun “he” throughout the text, although we do not have to put Auden in the place of the speaker, and the language might be common enough when a great public figure is commemorated. The lines quoted here express the poet’s unfathomable sense of loss, for his lover was everything to him; the completeness of the compass directions and days symbolize the total immersion in the beloved. The depth of the grief is complex, but Auden’s word and image choices are accessible and luminous. What makes the lines even more moving is how honestly he admits that he thought their love would last forever (as many human beings do)--other poems make clear that this is a mistake, as events here have demonstrated. This poem, along with a few others on the topic of love, reveal his bitter understanding of how love is worn down by sickness, time, and death.
“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position”
This poem deals with suffering, one of Auden’s most prominent themes. These opening lines set forth Auden’s recognition that when others are experiencing tragedy and despair, generally the rest of the world calmly carries on. A man might suffer, but the rest of us are “eating or opening a window or / just walking dully along.” While some might crave “the miraculous birth” with all their heart and soul, others hope it won’t happen. And, as Breughel paints in his master work, while Icarus plunges into the sea, a ship sails on, a ploughman continues on his path and, overall, “everything / turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Auden had a masterful eye in discerning how the world truly worked, and he understood that more awareness of others might improve the human experience of reality and mutual concern.
“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. / Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still / For poetry makes nothing happen”
In his elegy to Yeats, Auden discusses not only the poet's declining health and the cold darkness of the day of his death, but his own views on poetry. He explains that Yeats was "hurt" into poetry by his country, Ireland, which is a land both of bucolic beauty and of heated tempers, political unrest, and deep passions. He acknowledges that in all truth, poetry cannot really change anything. It cannot prevent the rise of dictators or stop wars, cure poverty, reconcile differences, or put a stopper in Time. However, by the end of the elegy the poet makes clear what poetry can do, what Yeats's poetry (and his own) could do: it can revive the human spirit, shine light into darkness, stir happiness and hope, and make life just a bit easier.
“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly / have heard”
After a long catalog of the ways in which the Unknown Citizen has met the expectations of his society (he held the right opinions, showed up at his job, bought the right material goods, procreated), the narrator intoning such benchmarks pauses and asks these rhetorical questions and then answers himself: the State expects that a person who checks all the boxes will feel happy and free, and the bureaucratic Big Brother state should be able to recognize when anybody wavers or gets out of line. Statistics should be enough. Of course, for the reader, Auden's irony is manifest; what is absurd is the idea that bureaucracies can see into the souls of individual human beings. Their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires can never be logged away in any meaningful fashion; walking in step or formation is dangerous and smacks of totalitarian control. The facts gathered on the Unknown Citizen also have a rather ominous aura, and it seems likely that this poem is a searing commentary on the bureaucratic Western states that claim to offer freedom but really do not understand the individual's unique needs.
“he merely told / the unhappy Present to recite the Past / like a poetry lesson”
While the poem pretends to argue that Freud was not clever, it extols the psychologist and explains his remarkable insight into how to productively interpret the past. He had his patients probe their pasts and uncover the things that were holding them back from living well. By reciting a version of the past that is both plausible and healing, a person or even a society can overcome its unhappiness. Auden compares Freud to Dante, who poetically descended into Hell and conversed with the shades about their sins. Freud did the same thing by delving into the supposedly unconscious areas of the minds of his patients. Freud liberated his patients and brought warmth into the cold lives of even the commonest of people who could benefit from his ideas. Teaching people and societies this method of interpretation, to find themes, symbols, and seemingly hidden meanings in order to help them overcome their unhealthy divisions, is much like giving a lesson in reading poetry.
“What reverence is rightly paid / To a Divinity so odd / He lets Adam whom He made / Perform the Acts of God?”
In his poem dedicated to the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor put to death by the Nazis, Auden grappled with the question of justice within Christianity and among men: why would God give people so much freedom and power to judge one another and even mete the death penalty on the guilty? How could one revere God for yielding this power and freedom? The poem does not answer the question or the broader question of the existence of God. However, through the vehicle of Bonhoeffer's death Auden implies that Bonhoeffer had the freedom to choose his faith and, as a consequence, his fate; his decision to do God's work by resisting the Nazis meant that he exercised his freedom. Yet, did God really give Bonhoeffer the moral grounds on which to seek Hitler's death? The poem will not judge, but it respects Bonhoeffer's judgment.
"The evil and the armed draw near; / The weather smells of their hate / And the houses smell of our fear"
In these lines from the first part of "For the Time Being," the chorus and semi-chorus depict the way the world was before Christ was born to Mary, which changed everything irrevocably. The world is a terrifying, bleak, and cold place where one can even smell the evil. Even the houses smell of fear and the natural environment smells of hate. Auden uses the imagery of a coming winter and evil forces to express this nearly dystopian situation. The people seem lost as "huge crowds mumble," and "their eyes huddle like cattle." The threats are numerous, and there seems to be no one to guide the human race, for "Our resourceful general / Fell down dead as he drank / And his horses died of grief." Auden's imagery is magnificent and terrifying, and he conveys the depth of the blackness of the world before Christ, for this version of the Christmas story.
W. H. Auden: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for W. H. Auden: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The train is crossing the border overnight with mail, bringing letters and checks and orders for rich and poor. Though the way is steep, she is still on time. She passes moors and boulders, her white steam flowing behind her. She noisily passes...