Refugee Blues

Refugee Blues Study Guide

"Refugee Blues," published in 1939 by the American-English writer W.H. Auden, is a blues poem describing the experiences and struggles of a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism. The poem was published on the eve of Britain's entry into World War II, but its focus is on non-military aspects of the era's political conflicts. The poem is written from the perspective of a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, and it describes the experience of dehumanization, discrimination, and exclusion faced by a great number of refugees during this period. Despite the poem's specific setting and allusions to historical realities and individuals, it addresses broad themes such as political exclusion, the othering of minorities, and the alienation created by bureaucracy.

It is a blues poem, a form rooted in African American music and literature. Like most blues poems, it expresses emotions of sadness and despair through a lilting musical cadence. It is composed of twelve tercets with varying length and meter. It follows an AAB rhyme scheme. The first two lines of each stanza not only rhyme, but also contain similar or complementary information, while the final line of each stanza does not rhyme with the previous two and has contradictory, juxtaposed content. This is a slight divergence from the traditional blues poem, in which the first two lines of each stanza are not merely linked but are near-identical.

Though "Refugee Blues" is written in the first person, the speaker addresses a "you" throughout, often using the phrase "my dear" and the pronoun "we." Thus the poem is framed simultaneously as a critique of the treatment of refugees as a whole, and as an intimate conversation between two individuals.

"Refugee Blues" can also be categorized as a "poem of witness," though this term was popularized decades after its publication. Poetry of witness describes and addresses wider social and historical issues such as war, genocide, and discrimination. Here, Auden takes on the role of witness, using his platform as a widely-read poet to advocate for more humane treatment of refugees.