While Auden is known for his poems about heady themes such as death, totalitarianism, and the role of poetry, he is also renowned for his love poems. Many of them, such as “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “Lullaby,” and “O Tell Me the Truth About Love,” feature stirring passages about how beautiful and inspiring love can be, and “Funeral Blues” features a man deeply in love with another. However, for Auden, that is not all he has to say about love. Almost all of these poems have a sobering undercurrent of sorrow, or of the desire to remind readers that life, and love, are short and are affected by the vicissitudes of existence like sickness and time. Love is sweet, but it does not exist in a universe devoid of suffering, waning of affection or, of course, death.
Poetry Reveals Reality
Auden’s poetry evokes the terror of living in the middle of the 20th century, when dictators in Europe suppressed their people’s freedoms, led their countries into war, and resorted to barbaric tactics of mass slaughter. In a few of his poems he wonders what the role of poetry can be in the face of such nightmares, and why he should honor the death of one man when so many were being killed on the battlefield, on the streets, and in gas chambers. Writing about Freud, he asks, “of whom shall we speak” when “there are so many we shall have to mourn.” In the elegy for Yeats, he asserts his belief that poetry can still lift the human spirit and “persuade us to rejoice” and “teach the free man how to praise.” Auden is a realist in that he understands poetry might not directly influence anything, but its habit of calling things by their real names (the sun, the law, death, love) can bring us into a better relationship with reality.
Auden's poetry is sometimes cerebral, sometimes brutally honest and evocative of the historical context in which he is writing. He is renowned for addressing the issues of his day in a moving and relevant manner. The horrors of the modern world do not escape his incisive pen; he deals with the dictators and their mad quest for world domination, the fall of the masses under their leaders' spell, the stultifying bureaucratic state, the Spanish Civil War, the bleakness and perhaps impossibility of the future, the psychic side of warfare, the bleak landscape, the martyrdom of heroes and the death of poets, the unthinking use of modern tools, and the bludgeoning of the human spirit through the great weight of history. Through all this, though, Auden retains some hope for the future, pointing out the freedom that comes from recognizing our true condition whatever our circumstances are.
Death is an ever-present reality in Auden’s poems, cutting life and love short. It affects every man, even those of prominence and stature, like Yeats and Freud and Bonhoeffer. It can come in the form of martyrdom, sickness, or old age, or through war. Death is a weapon used by dictators as well as a natural part of the human cycle of life and death. Auden does not shy away from this theme, nor the difficulties associated with it. He openly grieves for a deceased lover, suggests the futility of the fight between soldiers and their enemies in “Ode V,” and showcases how a great mind (Yeats) can be rendered useless with the onslaught of physical erosion. Death cuts short careers (Freud) and poses difficult religious questions (Bonhoeffer), but the living can carry their messages and restate their work, albeit at a remove from the original. Overall, Auden’s poems celebrate life, while we have it, and they directly face the fact that life is always cut short by death one way or another.
Bureaucracy and Totalitarianism
Auden lived during the age of the great totalitarian dictators Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Franco, and saw the rise of the bureaucratic state. His poems deal with both of these issues. Poems including “The Shield of Achilles,” “Friday’s Child,” and “September 1, 1939” address the hubris and greed that led dictators to amass armies, brainwash their citizens, and unleash war upon the world. He catalogs the various ways the bureaucracy keeps tabs on its citizens and tries to reduce them to statistics and figures. Governments do everything they can to quench the human spirit, but Auden's belief in the value of poetry as well as the enduring human spirit counteracts this malicious tendency.
The Value of the Everyman
Auden may occasionally write of great men, such as Freud, Yeats, and Bonhoeffer, but his poetry is equally famed for its celebration of the common man. In poems like "Night Mail" and "O Tell Me The Truth About Love," Auden's imagery and language are common, earthy. He presents a panoply of people, rich and poor, silly and smart, busy and idle. His depiction of love in the latter poem is not the swooning love of the Romantic poets, but love scribbled in notes, arriving without warning while the poet is "picking my nose." Average people populate his poems and, while he criticizes them for not paying attention to important things ("September 1, 1939" and "Musée des Beaux Arts"), he seems to sum up his views with the last line of "Night Mail": "For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?" Auden remembers his brethren and neighbors of all kinds and celebrates their freedom and individuality.
Auden's poetry can be funny, light, and sweet, but many of his greatest works deal with the suffering that comes from being human. He writes of the rise and rule of the dictators and the deadening bureaucratic state; the extinguishing of the light of great men who have been valuable to the world; the attrition of love through unfaithfulness, sickness, time, and death; the crippling nature of pride and greed; religious doubt; warfare; and the complacency and apathy evinced by others when we are undergoing this suffering. Sometimes we suffer at others' hands, and sometimes we bring it upon ourselves.
W. H. Auden: Poems Questions and Answers
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