W. H. Auden: Poems

W. H. Auden: Poems Summary

"Funeral Blues": the poet mourns the death of his lover, his everything. The poet wants the clocks to stop and wants others to observe the man's death. Nature should close up shop because there is no longer anything good to hope for.

"September 1, 1939": speaking from New York City, the poet acts as prophet, calling for hope, solidarity, and justice while people selfishly and apathetically go about their business without concern for Germany's invasion of Poland and the beginning of another war.

"O Tell Me the Truth About Love": the poet wonders what love is really like and presents a variety of images, both high and low, that might suggest or depict love. People discuss it, but nobody can nail down the truth about love. He wonders how love might reach him.

"Spain": the poem charts the glorious rise of Spain's civilization in the past and its growth of progress in industry, the arts, religion, and politics. Today, however, war (the Spanish Civil War) makes the present time a struggle. The future looks promising, but today's struggle might mean such a future never comes, since History will depend on what the people do.

"Musée des Beaux Arts": the poet gazes upon paintings of the Old Masters and notes how well they show human unconcern for the tragedy of others, such as in Brueghel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, where the ploughman and the people on the ship hardly notice or care.

"The Unknown Citizen": a man has died, and the state has rewarded him with a monument because he was so unremarkable. When his life is viewed through statistics and observations by a neutral, Big Brother bureaucracy, the state determines he has adhered to everything society has asked. The state praises his lack of controversial opinions or behavior. From the state's perspective, it would be absurd to ask whether such a boring person felt unhappy or unfree.

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats": Yeats died on a cold dark day. His poetry was born of Irish troubles and has survived the death of the poet, and although it may be misunderstood, at least a few thousand people see its value in offering an anchor in appreciation of human existence despite human mortality.

"Law, Like Love": various people claim to know what the Law is: the rule of judges, the wisdom of the old, the sun (for gardeners), self-actualization, mere social fashion or tradition. Given such a variety of interpretations, it seems that law is like love, always a little too selfish for pure objectivity.

"In Memory of Sigmund Freud": the poem recognizes the achievement of the man who probed into his patients' pasts and helped them see how to understand their pasts so that they could face the future with honesty, freedom, and enlightenment. Freud also worked on how to bring similar healing to a divided society.

"Night Mail": the postal train travels from England to Scotland. The various types of mail, senders, feelings, and recipients provide appreciation for the ways diverse people communicate and connect with each other across borders.

"The Average": A man's two peasant parents toiled in harsh soil to the point of death to give their son a better life. He breaks under the pressure of their expectations, feeling too ordinary to do justice to their sacrifice, and he starts to run.

"Ode V": soldiers wait to confront the enemy. They think of the old days of England when the gods left their boats and love was easy. When they are to meet their enemy, it is personified in terms of human sins such as Lust, and the encounter looks to be bleak.

"For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio": Auden retells the Christmas story, providing a deeper view of the basis for the Fall and the Incarnation, addressing the reactions to Christ's birth. The story is framed in the context of a modern Christmas in which it is necessary to revisit and contemplate what the life of Jesus really means.

"Lullaby": the speaker watches his lover sleep in his arms and muses on the fleeting nature of love and the problems of infidelity they now share, but at least they are having a beautiful night together.

"In Praise of Limestone": the cold voices of nature and the wilderness relate the permanence of death, while the creative mind develops civilization to pave over the harsh realities and unthinking citizens ignore those realities. The speaker appreciates the possibility of life after death but is skeptical and prefers to keep focusing on trying to understand the puzzling creativity of the human spirit in the face of mortality.

"The Shield of Achilles": Thetis watches in disappointment as Hephaestos creates warlike imagery on a shield for her son Achilles. While she hoped to see scenes of piety, civilization, and peace, the armorer presents scenes of immorality, punishment, and evil.

"As I Walked Out One Evening": the poet hears a lover claiming he will love forever, but all the city's clocks point out that life is short and love is beaten down by sickness and time.

"Friday's Child": the poet contemplates the death of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German Lutheran pastor and human rights activist who resisted Hitler but was hanged for it. Humans have used our freedom to claim great power to sit in judgment on one another, but we usually have no idea what we are doing and hardly understand anything about God, whose justice we often call upon unthinkingly.