Auden’s Poetry and “Home and Away”: Art in Wartime

August 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

W.H Auden’s poetry investigates a decent society as it is oppressed by political ideology and then by war. The prevailing political motivation of a fraught time period and the destructive impact of war are also illustrated in the Australian picture book Home and Away (2008, John Marsden). Both Auden and Marsden represent their ideas about political governance and the manipulation exerted by regimes for the sake of control. For both men, ‘politics’ refers to the activities associated with the governance of a country or area reflecting judicious power. Their texts represent how political perspectives, language, and graphics influence an individual’s understanding of the world itself.

Auden represents the prevailing political motivations of his time, a period when the destructive impact of totalitarianism distorted the societal norms of his era; his personal experience of social instability informed in his poetry. Auden’s compelling ballad, ‘O What is that sound which so thrills the ear’ (1932) reflects the increasing tension as tyrannical leaders (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini) exerted their power. By 1953, his ‘Shield of Achilles’ reflected the Cold War authoritarian aggression that manipulated the population of even the Western world.

In this vein, Auden’s ‘Oh what is that sound’ explores the destructive reality of military power. The rich description provided by the female speaker is juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the situation as soldiers march up the hill to take her husband. The poem’s opening line (“O what is that sound which so thrills the ear”) creates a sudden tension, connoting a rich cacophony. Through the use of rhyming couplets such as “drumming, drumming/coming” juxtaposed against the first line, Auden portrays the build-up of dread that comes to fruition in the last stanza. As the soldiers pass the “parson’s gate,” the allusion to the loss of religious values indicates the ruthless, inhuman nature of the soldiers. This characterization is further exemplified when the wife questions “the vows” her husband had sworn upon their marriage. The lost “vows” demonstrate the power of political affiliation, military oppression and fascism; conformity, religious values, and the law are powerless. In the last stanza, the soldiers’ “eyes are burning”, a description that exemplifies the dehumanising aspect of the soldiers, symbolising them as a tool of repression. Thus, Auden’s ‘Oh what is that sound’ shows the destructive rather than glorious effects when politics, the governance of the population, comes at the expense of the individual’s beliefs.

Marsden’s Home and Away also explores the intrusion of power into people’s lives; politics engenders warfare, and readers experience the fate of the Australian family who become refugees. The context of the book reflects 21st century concepts of displacement and the treatment of refugees. Marsden graphically and textually represents transition from order to disorder, safety to danger, optimism to despair, captured in an 11 year-old’s diary entries. The title page of the picture book provides an immediate tension, juxtaposing the title of “Home” & “Away”, where “Home” is scribbled out. The title references the popular Australian soap opera of the same name so the reader is positioned to feel a sense of familiarity that is then overturned by the exclusion of the family from Australia and their desperate bid for safety somewhere else. Marsden positions the reader to become the refugee, the outsider. The colour-blue “Home” symbolises stability, which is now almost erased. The use of colour juxtaposition from multi-coloured to red symbolises the brutality, death, and bloodshed of war. In this manner, the effects of war deny the characters access to everyday commodities, as exemplified through the original digital typeface of the diary entry, which devolves throughout the narrative to become more haphazard, written on a notepad, finally becoming a single piece of paper, where the boy confides “I’ve given up being a vet… maybe I could wash cars… whatever keeps us together”. The ultimate outcome of war is visualised in the final pages of the book, when the family members become incarcerated refugees. The symbolism of the fence separating them from the soldiers represents political constraint imposed on people. It exaggerates the separation between political ideology and the people it should care for. Here, the desert landscape symbolises the barren future and the flashback to the family photo from the first page, now torn and buried under sand, represents the destruction of the family unit.

Marsden’s visual text is a powerful critique of war, as is Auden’s 1952 poem “The Shield of Achilles”, which explores the contrast between utopianism and reality; the ideals of a decent society are dispelled and dystopian reality is literally reflected on the Shield of Achilles. Political ideals are ever-present in the poem where Achilles’s mother, Thetis, looks beyond her son’s shoulders to seek “For vines and olive trees/Marble well-governed cities/And ships upon untamed seas”, but rather sees a political reality of war and desolation, of “artificial wilderness/And a sky like lead”. The metaphor of “artificial wilderness” and the simile “sky like lead”, represent a reality that expresses the futility of life, frigid and cold, where the modern environment is visualised as a “nuclear winter”. The characteristics of lead oppress, through the use of the powerful contrast in the light/dark imagery which is further exemplified in the poem through the repetition of cold imagery and fanciful delusions of Thetis. Thetis expected to view “ritual pieties” but was left to see the instances of punishment and imprisonment where “barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot”. The image and intention is similar to Marsden’s picture book. Her visualisation of an unkempt world where glorification and the horrors of war dehumanised society, manifests the loss of beauty and values in the modern world. The repetition of “She looked over his shoulder/But there on the shining metal” illustrates to the reader a stronger juxtaposition of Thetis’s belief of a ‘perfect world’ and Haphaestos’s harsh reality. Auden’s political language within the poem assists the reader to identify the potential view of life in the ‘not-so’ distant future.

Auden is a harsh critic; his poems articulate the vision of one who sees all too clearly the intellectual deception that was so prevalent during his time. Similarly, Marsden explores the destructive impacts of war and the debasement of people. Both composers confront us with the failure of politics to protect those people it should judiciously govern.

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