W H Auden Poems
Auden’s Poetry and “Home and Away”: Art in Wartime
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.
Three Examples of Auden’s Wartime Poetry: In Time of War: Sonnet XVI, Spain 1937, and 1st September 1939
“His effort to examine poetry with a coroner’s or detective’s clinical eye conceives of poetry as engaged with history and society”Loris Mirella (on W.H. Auden), “Realigning Modernism”Auden’s poems “Spain, 1937”, “Sonnet XVI”, and “1st September 1939” all testify to the English poet’s “clinical” detachment, a feature of his writing. Rather than separating him from the subject-matter, the sense of objectivity so characteristic of the poems serves to enhance the comprehensive expositions of a decade of war and emotional fatigue. The simple structure of W.H. Auden’s poem “Sonnet XVI” – it takes the form of an Italian sonnet, although it resembles its Shakespearean counterpart in its rhyming scheme – contrasts strongly with the sprawling free verse of “Spain”, an account of the four-year-long civil war (1936 – 1939). Similarly, “1st September” differs from the others in form, resembling a combination of the two, with a rhyming scheme of sorts and tighter lines which, for the most part, contain no more than seven syllables. Most significantly, though, this last poem breaks from the author’s characteristic distance from his subject, a detachment Fountain (2007) refers to as “Auden’s panoptic view” (171). This essay will consider the three poems individually, and attempt to show that while the poet personalises the decade in “1st September”, opening the piece with the first-person signifier, “I”, he does not preclude the possibility of the poet engaging with pressing social and political issues. Rather, the synoptic approach enables Auden to address civic issues on an individual level, allowing the reader to identify with the citizen of the late-thirties who, along with his compatriots, repeats to himself what he knows to be right: “ ‘I will be true to the wife, / I’ll concentrate more on my work,’ ”.The opening lines of “Sonnet XVI” evoke the physical and emotional gulf that divides the political tacticians, military top brass, and those not involved in the conflict from the ordinary front-line soldier. The stark opening image of war being “simple like a monument” immediately suggests society’s inability to recognize the complex implications war has for a society. Even as a commemoration erected in goodwill and remembrance, a stone structure is a vain attempt to bridge the emotional, physical and psychological gap between those involved in and affected by the war and those who were not. Indeed, Willis (2002) goes so far as to state that “the opening image of war as a monument … reveals that man commemorates the terror and glory of war, killing and waste” (38).The three subsequent images following the colon at the end of the first line are just as striking as the first. They, also, pursue the notion of war’s disconnection from humanity; until the fourth line, when a servant brings in milk to drink, the only animate objects are flags and a telephone. Furthermore, Auden’s use of the present participle in the second line – “A telephone is speaking to a man” – increases the discomfort already instilled in the reader by the severity of the first line. The telephone assumes a human distinctiveness, and carries with it, continuously it seems, a perverse, disembodied power to instruct. The only indication that a war is being waged is the “Flags on a map”, and the notion of war as an abstraction is emphasized by this indirect reference to the conflict. Each image so far has pointed has acted only as a signifier, pointing to the war. In addition, the diction is such that very few words exceed one syllable, a feature that ensures the reader’s attention is not diverted from the images themselves. The same feature of the poem’s language simultaneously restricts the images to abstract reflections of a tactical war-room.Referring to the piece’s ambiguous form, exhibiting as it does features of an Italian as well as a Shakespearean sonnet, Willis (2002) says, “This twist on appearance, the play on actuality, also penetrates the argument of the sonnet, which contrasts the referential problems of language to its referential power.” (37) What she suggests is that while the first quatrain presents an abstraction, the second stanza gives the actuality of the situation – the details of the war itself. The bipartite form of the poem thus mirrors the content of the piece, which seems split over each half of the poem. Although the complexity of the language does not change, and the pattern of monosyllabic words continues, the intensity of the images increases. Emotive words and phrases such as “living men”, “terror”, “thirst” (repeated twice in line 6), and “die” permeate the second quatrain, bringing alive the reality of the conflict. Furthermore, the inclusion of the times “nine” and “noon” refer the otherwise intangible conflict to a familiar day-to-day routine. Away from the intellectual obscurity of the war room, where inanimate objects represent the ongoing realities, the message is vivid and unambiguous: men are suffering and dying. This juxtaposition of the two verses is perhaps most striking in the way in which the first stanza leads into the second – “There is a plan / For living men in terror of their lives” – whereby it becomes immediately evident that the “plan”, directly linked to the removed war room, has manifest implications for the soldiers.The “referential problems of language” to which Willis makes mention – the gap between word, or signifier, and meaning, which the first quatrain evidences so strongly – takes on a different light as the sonnet proceeds into its last sestet. The first line of the third stanza – “But ideas can be true although men die” – suggests that an idea, which is abstract by nature, is not necessarily a negative thing, although men might die protecting it. In this case, “language’s referential power” is immense. No longer removed from action, the language of an idea is perceived as an active, animating thing. Men are killed because of an idea; likewise, the narrator notes that “we can watch a thousand faces / Made active by one lie”. The notable inclusion of the first-person “we” in the third stanza is significant, as the sonnet moves steadily towards its end. Apart from the first word of the poem, “Here”, there has as yet been no indication of the narrator’s presence, or interest, in the events. Following the pattern of the piece, though, in which abstraction has steadily given way to specifics, the speaker recognizes that he makes up part of an on looking community. In doing so, he further crystallizes the idea of war, which language at first could not adequately describe. Likewise, the narrator’s original “panoptic view” zooms in from the troops to their faces. The final sestet exists as a single sentence held together by two colons, and as each line’s meter decreases steadily from iambic pentameter to nine syllables, then six, then four with the closing line, the war climactically leaves the purely referential symbolism of a map: “And maps can really point to places / Where life is evil now: / Nanking; Dachau.” As Willis (2002) concludes, “while the octave displays the problematic nature of abstraction in language and thought, the sestet celebrates the representational power of words.” In contrast to the tight structure of “Sonnet XVI”, a poem which concentrates primarily on the subject of man’s attitude towards war, relying on form to augment the content, “Spain” sprawls. Its expansive language – utterly different to the sparse, monosyllabic words of “Sonnet” – and free verse allows Auden to explore extensively not only the Spanish Civil War, but the reasons for war itself in the early 20th century. The poem begins with a synopsis of Man’s progression through the ages, considering all nature of things from religion, to economics, to science. The repetition of “yesterday” is slowly overcome by the refrain, “But to-day the struggle”, as the piece moves on to consider the present, and then eventually the future. Of the three poems considered here, “Spain” presents the best example of Auden’s ‘panoptic view’, as he attempts to consider all possible aspects of humanity’s movement towards war, and the possibilities that might present themselves in the future. Indeed, Fountain (2007) asserts, “By detailing the minutiae that contribute to this development [of conflict], Auden addresses the overall concept of war, rather than merely one of its many historical examples.” (171)“Marching rapidly through the centuries, Auden depicts the gradual separation of men from the natural world and the increasing reliance of men upon an intermediary tool between them and Nature: the applications and inventions of science. Soon it is apparent that most men have little control over the forces they have created to manipulate nature.” (Bone 1972: 4) Here, Bone refers first to Man’s concentration on economics and wealth – “the trade-routes” and “the counting-frame”, as well as “the cromlech”, representative of religion’s entrance into society. The “applications and inventions of science” eventually follow, first in the form of “cart-wheels and clocks”, and eventually become indispensable. Most pertinent, though, is his comment regarding Man’s “little control over the forces they have created”, especially considering the numerous cries for aid from the various characters. Significantly, the first of these cries comes from the poet: “ ‘O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor.’ ” Speaking of Auden, Mirella (1992) states that the poet “conceives of engagement or activity in terms of the poet’s involvement. Auden’s treatment of the figure of the poet varies from all-powerful to impotent.” (102) The poet, depicted as he is in the midst of nature, exhorts rather than cries, but is yet reliant on something else other than himself for inspiration. He seems to strive toward a truth “among the pines”, free form the modern inventions, but cannot quite grasp the enlightenment he seeks. The ineffectiveness of his efforts is revealed by his link to the scientist-investigator’s endless search for information. The poet, like the scientist, might eventually be successful in his search, but the repetition of “I inquire, I inquire” emphasizes the impotence with which both navigators of their professions go about their task.In the same way that “Sonnet XVI” depicts the abstractness of war as being the enduring aspect of its inhumanity, so the cries of the poet, the investigator, the poor and the nations, invoking an intangible “life”, illustrate the pervasive despair caused by the civil war. Before this, even, they call on “History the operator, the / Organizer, Time the refreshing river.” Their exclamations contrast human society and nature, but the imagery is conflated so that even nature is implicated in the conflict as they ask, “ ‘Did you not found once the city state of the sponge, / ‘Raise the vast military empires of the shark / And the tiger, establish the robin’s plucky canton?’ ” The result is that the omnipotent God they invoke appears less as a benevolent saviour, but rather as an all-powerful, callous being. Indeed, the degenerative plea, which appeals to God to “ ‘Intervene, O descend as a dove or / A furious papa or a mild engineer’ ”, ends by representing the Almighty exactly as, in the view of the narrator, the principal creator of the war : “an engineer”. The piece up to then portrays man’s ‘evolution’, specifically related to his move away from nature and increasing dependence on machinery, as the enabling factor in war. The seemingly contradictory link between God and war striking, and predicates the ominous reply. With specific reference to God’s response, Fountain (2007) states that “the persona contends that even God has been nurtured through historical evolution, has been claimed by the hands of man.” (172) God is described as the “ ‘Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped: I am whatever you do; I am your vow to be / Good, your humorous story; / I am your business voice; I am your marriage.’ ” Religion has been eroded to the point that there is no sanctity in the idea of God. Yet, just as “Sonnet XVI” suggests, in its the lines “And we can watch a thousand faces / Made active by one lie”, the power an idea carries, so this new notion of God directly affects society. The final sentence the narrator attributes to God is this, “ ‘Very well, I accept, for / I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.’ ” Both the culmination of the stanza and an anti-climax – a climactic anti-climax, perhaps – this line is key to understanding the narrator’s intention in positing the reasons for man’s descent into violence. The idea of Spain, as represented by the narrator, is not a detached ideal espoused by the elite of society. Rather, the similarities between “Sonnet” and “Spain” once again become apparent, as the idea of Spain can be related to the idea that “can be true although men die”. Specific mention is made of “the suicide pact, the romantic / Death”, denoting the exact nature of the idea. That it is a “choice”, a “decision” agreed upon by all types of men – the yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped, the all-encompassing “you” the ambiguous God-like ideal addresses, further entrenches the paradoxical specificity of the amorphous, character-changing idea. To continue the comparison between “Sonnet” and “Spain”, it is interesting to note how the latter poem’s focus moves from a long-distance examination of the past to eventually present the country as being part of the earth’s terrain, even describing the country as if literally positioning it on a map: “On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe, / On that tableland scored by rivers”. This is especially striking in what Fountain (2007) terms “the final phase” (174) of “Spain”. Spain, previously elevated to a God-like status and given its own voice, is described in terms of its landmarks and people. The section of the poem beginning, “Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,” and ending with, “To-morrow the bicycle races” contains the most consistently vivid imagery in the poem, most of it describing Spain the country. Not surprisingly, the pastoral images of Spain that occur through the three descriptive stanzas, in which its people are described as “migrating like gulls or the seeds of a flower”, contrast strongly with the “fever’s menacing shapes [which] are precise and alive”. The result of this close inspection of Spain, as if the investigator were peering through one of his instruments and noting his findings, is to calcify the ideal of Spain as an actual place.Concerning the final lines of “Sonnet”, at the point where Nanking and Dachau are named as “places where life is evil now”, Berger (1997) asserts that “they are granted features, marks of identity … though vestiges of schematic or anonymous portrayal still remain.” (4) Similarly, although the narrator indulges in a section of precise imagery in which “Yesterday” – the past – is contextualized, he quickly returns to the panoptic lens which characterizes this poem and others. “To-morrow”, and finally, “To-day”, becomes the new refrain, bringing with it the anonymities of a broad time marker. The actualities of Spain, the strong, exact imagery which grant Spain and its people identity are substituted for abstractions such as “the future”, “consciousness”, “romantic love”, and “liberty”. In this sense, the poem ends where it begins, with a synopsis of the present and the future. The summary of what might happen is of particular reference to Spain, but the “vestiges of anonymous portrayal”, the withdrawal from particular details which would link the descriptions to Spain exclusively, allows the narrator to present Spain and the Spanish Civil War as a model war, and the reasons for its occurrence assume universal qualities.Of “September”, Miller (2003) states:“To see encoding in the poem, one can divide it into a macro and micro reading and observe how the two interweave and often create two separate subjects. On the macro scale, the dawn of World War II, Nazi Germany, and an erudite damning of the historicity of the world are present: “Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again”. Using a micro scale paints a different picture, arguably a self-portrait: “I sit in one of those dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / […] / Faces along the bar” (116)Although Miller’s primary interest is examining the homoerotic encoding in Auden’s poetry, his point is applicable to my argument that while Auden drops his panoptic lens, employing an ordinary Kodak instead (to extend the metaphor) to consider the individual’s perspective, his piece is informed primarily by the social and political issues similar to those of the two previous poems considered. Considering the content of the poem is a palpable mix between the micro and macro approaches seen in “Sonnet XVI” and “Spain”, it is perhaps fitting that “September’s” structure reveals a mixture of the two. The sprawling free verse of “Spain” is limited to shorter lines, more economical in their imagery. And while there is no rhyme scheme – as you would expect in a sonnet, for example – to speak of, interspersed throughout the piece are glimpses of the order that rhyme affords a piece. In the first stanza, for example, “afraid” is paired with “decade” further on, “bright” with “light”, and “earth”, somewhat discordantly, with “death”. The same feature is evident in the second stanza, between “mad” and “made” with the same jarring effect. The final lines once again have a foreboding effect: “What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”. The end-rhyme between “learn” and “return” gives the short lines a moralizing tone, reminiscent of an epigram given to children to learn by heart. The trivializing effect of the stanza’s closing lines is an extreme example of the effects of the rhyming scheme of the poem, but its effect can be applied more generally to the piece. Having come across one or two of these end-rhymes, the reader expects more, tries to identify a rhythm, but, yet can’t. The haphazard structure is disconcerting, and so, line by line, the poet infuses the piece with a mood of unrest.One aspect of the poem’s form which links to the seemingly random rhyming scheme discussed above is, which yet lends a sense of rhythm, the short, sharp lines which give the poem its fast pace. The reader is obliged to skim down the page, not allowed the extravagance of having to read unhurriedly across it. Furthermore, only one sentence constitutes each stanza, the only major punctuation being colons and semicolons, which never quite separate the simple or complex thought process. Considering that the poem is narrated from a first-person perspective and the events are told in the present tense, it is reasonable to conclude that we, the reader, are privy to the narrator’s thought processes. Mirella (1992) describes poetry as “a pure stylistic and uncircumscribed practice most elementally embodied in modernism. … Great art, critics postulate, requires absolute detachment from all non-artistic concerns, a complete fidelity to the medium of one’s craft; in this case, to language.” (96) Auden, even as part of the modernist movement, does not approach Eliot, Joyce, or Woolf in their experimental works, but “September” still exhibits a certain preoccupation with language. The single-sentence stanzas, with the short, simple lines that bounce rapidly from one image to the next and from one abstract thought to another, have a resemblance to the stream-of-consciousness technique employed most famously by Joyce and Woolf. The overarching effect is to give the reader an intimate look into the consciousness of the narrator and, by association, the ordinary person, as he repeatedly allies himself with them using the first-person pronouns, “we” and “our”.According to Mirella (1992), “From Auden’s perspective, the celebration of the new poetry, “the new season” of writing, alters significantly, and by the start of World War II, he is pessimistic about the function of poetry and of the poet: …” (97) Although he does not lose faith entirely in poetry’s role in society, perceiving as he does “engagement or activity in terms of the poet’s involvement”, certain lines of “September” suggest that he does begin to doubt the transcendental power of language which modernism’s detachment, as art for art’s sake, imbued it with. This doubt is most specifically exemplified by four lines in the fourth stanza: “Into this neutral air / Where blind skyscrapers use / Their full height to proclaim / The strength of Collective Man, / Each language pours its vain / Competitive excuse: / But who can live for long / In an euphoric dream”. Here the narrator makes reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The famous Old Testament account of how a group of men failed to build a tower to reach to the heavens because of the difficulties in understanding each other is apt here, as it is language itself which thwarts man’s efforts to transcend his present situation, to become more powerful than what he is. Incidentally, this image of the inadequacy of the “blind skyscraper” which, the narrator suggests ironically, demonstrates Collective Man’s authority over his surroundings, links strongly with “Spain’s” concern with machinery. Engineering fails to unite man in either “Spain” or “September”, painting a bleak picture of man’s supposed advancement. Indeed, they have come no further than their Old Testament counterparts.The narrator’s pessimistic take on language extends through the stanzas. In the third, he speaks of “The elderly rubbish they [dictators] talk / To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, / The enlightenment driven away”, and in the fourth he mentions “The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout”. This focus on the deadening effect of propaganda is one of the poem’s most direct criticisms of the political leadership at the time. Once more, the narrator deconstructs the myth of man’s advancement, invoking the Philosophy of Ancient Greece, in the form of Thucydides. “Democracy”, as an ideal, is presented with an uppercase “D”, emphasizing what man has found to be its abstractness and elusiveness. Most pointedly, though, the narrator’s reference to Thucydides’ book is an explicit evoking of words. The words and thoughts laid down in the book have become Truth, in that they tell of how the speech on “Democracy” that will always be the same, how dictators distort and appropriate words to further their own interests, and how man’s rule will always end in “Mismanagement and grief”. What Auden/the narrator assumes to be the impotence of language is summed up in the most personal terms in the commuters’ morning vow: “ ‘I will be true to the wife, / I’ll concentrate more on my work,’ ”. Never, however, does the narrator discount the dual nature of words. The abstractness of words revealed time and again in Auden’s poetry, from the first stanza of “Sonnet XVI” to the peoples’ cries to History and Time in “Spain”, is one aspect, represented in “September” by the Babel-like failure to collaborate to build a potent structure. The other, however, is language’s immense power to bring alive plans and ideas, a power which can result in war and death. The narrator addresses this aspect, most poignantly, in the final lines of the penultimate stanza: “Who can release them now, / Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb?” Words subjugate a nation, used as they are as propaganda for a dictator, and those without power, such as the ordinary man who can only repeat the same, empty vow on his way to work, becomes disenfranchised with no hope, it would seem, of regaining individual autonomy. Moving towards its conclusion, the poem once again takes on an intensely personal tone: “May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.” The narrator’s resolute desire to engage with the “social dissolution and chaotic destruction” (Mirella 1992: 98) is affirmed by the strong alliteration of “affirming flame”. Furthermore, in contrast to the child-like rhyme of the first stanza, these five lines present a fervent and robust identification of the narrator with “the Just”, the “them”. These are lines which point to the individual, as well as the corporal suffering. This, along with the title of poem, which signifies the start of World War II, one of the most widely-affecting events in modern history, lifts the narrator’s micro-view of a bar in New York City, including the desire of an individual “I”, so that it assumes the same comprehensiveness of the panoptic expositions of “Spain” and, to an extent, “Sonnet XVI”. Even more, though, “September” points to Auden’s ability to identify with the individual and his everyday humanity, a capability which ensures his enduring involvement in the social affairs of the time and, ultimately, vindicates his poetry, despite its reliance on words, the treacherous things he believes them to be.
Tragedy, from a Distance: Portraying Artistic Detachment in “Musee des Beaux Arts”
In ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, W.H Auden explores human responses towards tragedy across the cultures through the setting details of paintings within the ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. Whilst the poem might be read as an ode to human resilience in the face of tragedy, the consistent fluctuating description between the tragic event and commonplace activities suggests that humans can never truly detach themselves from disaster. Furthermore, the dissonance between the theme of high culture and the simplistic format of the poem is created by Auden to criticise tendency of the ‘old’ artistic ‘Masters’ to disassociate emotionally from the tragic events they paint.
Auden, throughout the verse, uses frequent allusions to the external world of the ‘Musee’, to present both humanity and natural forces as able to overpower the suffering caused by tragic events, yet, nonetheless, neither are shown to be utterly separable from tragedy. There is a semantic field of everyday activity throughout the poem, including and most notably the described actions of people during a tragic event, albeit that be ‘eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. Here, the catalogue of present participles paired with the form of list is indicative of the ability of human beings to continue with commonplace activities amidst ongoing tragedy, and the later declarative stating that ‘there always must be/ Children who did not specially want it to happen’ further celebrates the human ability to remain unfazed by ‘suffering’, with the deliberate allusion to youth through collective noun ‘children’ reinforcing the impressive ability of both young and old to carry on with their daily lives after a traumatic event.
Nonetheless, just as a painting cannot exist without a frame, through similarly ‘framing’ the poem in reference to suffering suggests that neither humans nor the natural world can be utterly detached from the trauma of tragic events, and that it is these experiences which in fact give shape to their existence. An example is the phrase ’the sun shone/ As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water’: to position the moment of suffering between allusions to the natural world further gives the suffering human a significant role in moving the water, which is presented as passive as opposed to active, and the enjambment furthers a sense of movement and activity created by the moment of tragedy, and enjambment is again used for similar effect in the declarative ‘the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree’ in which the horse is defined in terms of an orchestrator of tragedy to suggest that even those that perceive themselves as uninvolved in tragedy cannot escape the effects. Through positioning this phrase in emphatic position of the first stanza’s final line, Auden underpins claims of human detachment from tragedy, through foregrounding the poem’s overall message that the impact of tragedy is always experienced on an unconscious or conscious level, by everyone and everything. The series of references to different cultures, from the untranslated French title (‘Musee des Beaux Arts’), to the greek myth of ‘Icarus’, to the english language of the poem, further amplifies the ability of tragedy to span across cultures and continue to effect lives even in the present day.
Through extended use of ekphrasis, the poet criticises the artist’s ability to detach themselves from the emotional significance of their artwork whilst creating it. The first stanza, despite foretelling a scene of tragedy, does not allude to a specific moment of suffering despite surplus comments on human responses to the apparent event, which could be seen as a veiled critique, by the poet, on the artists’ ability to paint a picture documenting tragedy without actually addressing the catastrophic consequences of the event at hand, and the lack of emotive language within the stanza is further evidence for the detachment between the event and the artist, who is characterised as distracted by less important interactions and objects, such as the ‘expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing’ noted in ‘Breughel’s Icarus’. The dual adjectives juxtapose the sparse language used to address other features of the painting, which is suggestive of the huge amount of detail used to illustrate the ship in comparison with the actual tragedy, and the diction choice ‘delicate’ is used perhaps to portray this detail in a mocking tone through presenting the ship as something fragile and insignificant in comparison with the tragic event of Icarus’ fate, ignored by the artist, who, like ‘everything’ in his artwork, ‘turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster’. The non-standard syntax here draws attention to the artist’s indifference in the face of immense danger, which is mocked by the poet immediately in the opening lines, which state ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters:’. This phrase mocks the artist’s overconfidence in his work through pejorative superlative ‘never’, and capitalisation of noun ‘Masters’ used to portray the egoism of the artist whose ideals are in fact outdated and ‘old’, shown through the fact that the suffering is referred to as ‘it’ throughout the stanza rather than addressed directly: indeed, the dual split stanzas further suggest a division between the artist’s depiction of tragedy and tragedy in itself, with the argumentative tone employed by the poet through frequent caesuras contrasting the folly and intellectual discrepancy of the artists in relation to the topic of suffering.
Auden in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, meditates on the relationship between humanity and tragedy. He immerses readers in the artistic past, yet also offers a lesson for the present. Altogether, his composition warns against foolish attempts to sever humans from catastrophic events, as everyone and everything is proven to be subject to the emotional impact brought on by human suffering.
Narration and the Question of Isolation in ‘Their Lonely Betters’ and ‘Resolution and Independence’
Both ‘Their Lonely Betters’ and ‘Resolution and Independence’ convey the feelings of how, along with how great the gift of speech is in allowing us to be unique and communicate with one another, we should appreciate nature for what it is, for revealing to us the finer details in life. Yet, particularly in Wordsworth’s poem, he emphasises the danger of becoming too reliant on nature as guidance. However, most importantly, I have chosen these poems to compare, as they make vivid how pleasurable the interaction between others can be, and however solitary human existence becomes, there is the interaction with nature to allow a peaceful reminder that you are not alone.
Auden’s and Wordsworth’s poems are written and narrated in the first person, and so we immediately get a certain intimacy which we enjoy between the interactions these narrators are having. When describing “the rustling flowers” in Auden’s or the “courteous speech” in Wordsworth’s, through a certain free indirect discourse, we receive an emotional insight into the narrators, gaining intimations of his true feeling through the way they describe their interactions. The poems start almost in media res, as if things had been events prior to this. “As I listened from a beach-chair” as Auden’s starts has a colloquial, domestic, familial feel which sounds as though this is a common event and one that goes on for some time. The fact the narrator is just “listening” and not looking is interesting as it makes explicit what Auden is trying to say, that communicating with nature is a lovely way of escaping the verbal interactions with other people which are “Words are for those with promises keep”- by verbalising and communicating, often you speak lies and break promises, but actually all you need to communicate and understand nature is just to listen. Auden I feel in this last line has a positive outlook on human interaction as, despite all the disingenuous, sly connotations that often arise from bad communication, it is better to have that than nothing at all. Wordsworth’s poem begins, “Himself he propped, limbs, body, and pale face” which appears sudden and the fact we have the reflexive pronoun with the verbal pronoun juxtaposed, creating a aspirated, hushed, alliterative sound, makes it evident that he is independent and doing it without help- unlike the narrator is. The asyndeton makes it flow nicely and the fact that only ‘face’ has an adjective is interesting, perhaps signifying that the façade is the primary feature with which we communicate emotion. The description of the man uses very basic, generalising language, and along with the “shaven wood” he is leaning on, helps to create an image of reduction and the revealing of the elements of our natural selves, and the long assonantal sounds of “wood…moorish flood//Motionless…stood” make it feel very elemental and comforting. Indeed, the enjambment here enacts the sudden stop and stillness as the man stands ‘motionless.
The meter and the rhyme scheme in Auden’s poem convey a certain control and resolute decisiveness about his interpretations of natural gifts. The way in which it is written in heroic couplets but the first two lines in the stanzas are iambic pentameter, to reflect more sincere, grave overtones like “lying…dying”, and the next two are hypermetric, to reflect more upbeat, positive ones like “rustling flowers”, emphasises, through a strong pattern, this dichotomy between the realities of communication. Similarly, Wordsworth’s poem is written in flowing iambic pentameters, which sound almost natural in themselves like a heartbeat, linking the description of the old man with nature, interspersed with hypermetric lines, carrying more loaded content. The royal rhyme scheme is different in the fact it is ABABBCC which means that the nice couplet at the end creates a dramatic finality to each stanza. We see in Auden’s poem almost a depiction that the garden itself is alive and communicating like humans “all the noises my garden made” and the personification here, along with the soft ‘m’s and the stressed metric foot of ‘made’ constructs a nice feeling of an animated, warm, friendly organism we are reading about. In Wordsworth’s, it is said that “A gentle answer did the old Man make,// In courteous speech” and this similarly, as the man comes to stand for the whole of nature itself, makes it feel nurturing and alive. The hyperbaton here is emphatic in that it stresses by positon that he made no malicious response, but a gentle one, and the presence of ‘m’ is soothing in alliteration.
The tone of the narrator in Auden’s poem could be interpreted as being perhaps a little melancholy with “only proper that words//Should be withheld from vegetables and birds” as if he wishes that mundane, domestic nature would not be thus attainted with what constitutes a language. He also ambiguously could be asking humans to be gracious for what we have in communication, and indeed the last stanza says “We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:// Words are for those with promises to keep” which, through the caesura, breaking up the flowing meter, and the series of decisive monosyllables, sounds as if it is a positive outlook; as if it is better to communicate with imperfections than to not at all. Wordsworth in his last stanza says, “his words came feebly, from a feeble chest//But each in solemn order followed each” which sounds imperfect and uncomfortable, stressed by the polyptoton of feeble in adverbial then adjectival form to emphasize the weakness of what he is saying, and the nicely mirrored repetition of ‘each’ mimetically as the line says in order, following the other. The use of the harsh consonants in “lofty utterance drest” further develop a feeling of uncomfortable anxiety.
In Auden’s poem we see that in nature “Not one of them was capable of lying,// There was not one which knew that it was dying”. The simplicity of nature is captured by the almost incredulous isocolonic repetition of ‘not one…’ and the hypermetric line 10 emphasises not in concordance with the meter scheme, the turbulence associated with death. As opposed to the deceit and imperfections of Auden’s poem, Wordsworth paints a man who with “choice word and measured phrase, above the reach//Of ordinary men; a stately speech” faces the world with rational thinking and a cautious, observing approach. The rhythm is controlled and steadfast, and the enjambment helps emphasise the fact he is far beyond the capabilities of the “lying” and “dying” that Auden speaks of.
Wordsworth depicts the arrival of something unknown to the old Man as something uncomfortable: “At length, himself unsettling, he the pond// stirred with his staff” which is contrasted with Auden’s depiction of nature, being content in its known surroundings, as “with rhythm and rhyme,//assumed the responsibility of time”. Wordsworth uses hyperbaton to break up the rhythm and meter, making the awakening feel unwanted and then the enjambment enacts the stirring and the sibilant consonant duos are effective in highlighting a discontent. Conversely, Auden’s couplet is in perfect fulfilled iambic pentameter, and feels much more comfortable with soft sibilants, devoid of harsh consonants.
The pleasure and eagerness for nature and humans to communicate is encapsulated in both poems. Auden says that “a robin with no Christian name ran through// The Robin- Anthem which was all it knew” which, via the emphasis of the simplicity of the workings of nature- not having names- and the flowing asyndeton, creates a nice pace and energy for this bird song understood by others. Wordsworth, through the oxymoron of “as I drew near with gentle pace” highlights an evident desire to want to communicate and feels energised and excited with the prospect of contact. Similarly, “drawing to his side, to him did say” with the mirroring of the possessive pronoun and pronoun creates a nice feeling of intimacy in the repetition; a desire to be near. Indeed, the direct speech in this poem is a blatant example of how pleasure is derived from asking questions and communicating- the narrator is actively addressing the unknown old Man for pleasure, who “ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise”, through the partial internal rhyme, nicely conveys almost a pleasant reaction to the opportunity in being able to communicate. The sad image of the old man being in a “lonesome place” is mirrored in Auden’s poem with “let them leave language to their lonely betters” as if hinting at the bleak portrayal of humanity as being a solitary existence, and that we, no matter how much we want to be like nature’s incessant buzz and life and community, have to be alone. The hypallagy of Wordsworth;s description of the man is damning and Auden’s use of languid, lengthy ‘l’s and soft assonance sounds miserable, as if humanity is cursed with the fate of having to speak untruths and imperfections.
The breaking from the “sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes” in Wordsworth’s compares nicely with natural imagery of the “rustling flowers…to say which pairs, if any, should get mated”- it is as if the old Man has to break from animated nature by which he has lived his life happily, to communicate, but actual nature, the flowers and the shrubbery, does not, as it does not have that capacity. The Auden line 8 feels like a marital image as if there is marriage within nature, but the old man in Wordsworth’s feels torn between marriage between nature and humanity.
Auden’s Love and Hate for the Poem and for Defecation: “The Geography of the House”
“The Geography of the House” by W. H. Auden is a scatological poem written in a strict form and with a serious tone. The poem resembles the mock-heroic genre of the 18th century in that it deals with a trivial subject matter in a neatly organized and consistent form that sounds almost epic. However, despite the seeming triviality of the content, when we read the poem with a psychoanalytical approach, we uncover a non-commissioned piece of writing about the creative writing process itself, a subject which the poet treats with a touch of cynicism in his commissioned critical works.
The poem consists of nine stanzas made up of eight lines. The fourth and the eighth lines of each stanza rhyme. In contrast to the formal structure of the poem the subject matter is trivial, base, and full of toilet humor. Yet, when we consider Auden the critic, who “like(s) not approve(s) of” the principle “[C]omplicated verse forms of great difficulty…even if their content is trivial” we realize that “The Geography of the House” is the type of a poem which he would like as a critic (Auden, Dyer’s Hand 47). As he suggests in the essay “Reading”, his critical opinions are to be considered as “manifestations of his debate with himself” and the principles on which he bases his evaluations of a critic is if the critic would like the type of poems he himself writes (9).
On the subject of excrement, Julia Kristeva’s theory on abjection as outlined in her work “Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection”, is useful to establish the parallelisms between a work of art and excrement. The theory suggests that the abject stands as a reaction to what threatens the integrity of the subject so as to protect it from the horrors of one’s own materiality and disintegration. As Kristeva puts it aptly: “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (10). Excrement was once a part of the organism, and the self sees itself in the toilet, in that separated entity. We may link this to the line “De-narcissus-ized en- / -during excrement” in the fifth stanza, since it refers to the story of Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection on the water. The two scenes, namely Narcissus looking at his reflection and the self looking at the dump just taken, bear disturbing similarities in terms of executions of these acts. A person who bends down to press the button to flush staring one last time at the thing which used to be one’s own, resembles Narcissus’ fixed gaze upon his own reflection. The self recognizes itself before it flushes and separates itself from the excrement that floats in the toilet water. There is a potential to love the dump, but abjection blocks the way.
In his essay “Writing”, Auden as well touches upon the love for the self-produced filth. He says “Most people enjoy the sight of their own writing as they enjoy the smell of their own farts” suggesting writing and bodily excretions are both forms of creations(17). In the case of the handwriting, he tells us on the same page that he employs a typewriter in order to distance himself from his own work, which he describes very suitably as ‘impersonal and hideous’ (17). The typewriter works just as the feeling of abjection, creates horror and distance so that the self can reassert itself as a separate being.
Auden, in the same essay, implies that this separation from one’s own work is essential for a genuine writer who “forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one” (14). In the poem, the same idea is treated in the last stanza. The suggestion is that only after the morning visit to the toilet we can “Leave the dead concerns of / Yesterday behind us, / Face with all our courage, / What is now to be.” These two pieces have a matching sentiment which requires the maker to abandon the thing made. Just as ‘a satisfactory dump’ after breakfast is a positive sign for a good day, the departure from the previous works is necessary, in the same way, for an author to focus on the works to be written in the days to come.
The distance between the poet’s self and the poem Auden posits as a significant aspect is touched upon again in his critical works. He believes that if a man is writing poetry, then what his dream of Eden is like is none of our business. Since poetry is where the quality of being true or false no longer matters but becomes “interesting possibilities” with no place for judgment, there is no need for an honest description of his subjective perspective (19). He discusses in “Making, Knowing and Judging” that “the knowledge of an artist’s life, temperament and opinions is unimportant to an understanding of his art” (49). Therefore, the artistic product should not be traced back to its maker in any meaningful way as there will not be a corresponding author at the other end when the self of the maker is reinvented by way of distancing from the work of art.
There is yet another effect of this abandonment Auden mentions in “Making, Knowing and Judging”. The poet is never certain whether he will be able to write another poem or not. “Will it ever happen again” is a question that haunts him throughout his career (52). The same anxiety can be observed in the poem when the speaker starts a prayer in the seventh stanza addressing the ‘Global Mother’ for a noble old age accompanied by functioning bowels and sphincters. We see again the similar emotions are elicited by these two acts of production in a way that equalizes them.
The direct link between defecating and creative artistic process can also be observed in the poem itself. The fifth stanza defines the act pooping as “This ur-act of making, / Private to the artist” and attributes the production of all the arts to that time spent at the stool. There is no differentiation among the types of artworks; the artist can be from any school of art and use any kind of medium for his art: the toilet is regarded as the place where what we may call inspiration comes from. As a result, what is produced after such musings qualifies as ‘enduring excrement’. Here, Auden clearly puts forward the idea of a work of art being a pile of dump with a naturally longer life span.
The toilet is referred to as “the House where / Everybody goes” in the first stanza. The pleasure of pooping is granted by nature to everyone “from / Cradle unto grave”. Hence, this trivial subject matter can as well be thought of as a common departure point for literally every single person on earth. What seems like a base content actually is a way and tool of creating an artistic space which is unsurprisingly inclusive, for it has its roots in this ‘primal pleasure’.
The fact that defecation is a universal practice is evidently valuable for Auden. At the end of his foreword to The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, he gives us the recipe of his daydream. His dream is to have a million readers, each one feeling that the piece has been written for oneself only (12). Moreover, these readers ought to be unaware of each other and close-mouthed about the experience. This, he explains, is the daydream of each author. Therefore, for a poet whose dream is to write poems that many people can connect with, it is particularly fitting to choose such a vastly experienced phenomenon as a subject to one of his poems. Just like his dream piece, toilet time is private, widespread yet not talked about, while one is completely unaware of what others are doing with their time in that particular space. This “white-tiled” space where “makers’ lives are spent” allows for deep contemplation and houses creative energy. It is the place where the pieces “are continually rewritten” (44). The universal and private, the experience expanding from birth to death is repeatedly reinvented through acts of defilement and separation.
As a mature poet delivering his Inaugural Lecture at the University of Oxford, Auden openly celebrates the inclusive nature of poetry. For him, “poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening”. In harmony with his lecture, Auden’s poem “The Geography of the House” conveys a series of emotions starting from bedazzlement to amusement to even sadness. Its subject can be considered to be at the very margins of poetry by plenty of people, but it still manages to be an inclusive self-reflexive poem about everyone with bowels and at the same time about the writing process itself.
Auden’s poem thus works as a useful supplement to the author’s critical writings since he claims that he writes his poems for love while producing his criticism on demand in order to cover his expenses. When we combine this poem with the selected prose employed in this essay, then we get a sense of how Auden sincerely felt during the process of writing poetry. It is nearly impossible not to imagine Auden the poet and Auden the critic gathering during the toilet time, and contemplating in that crouched position. It seems like “[A]ll the words are right, and all are yours” is a motto that derived from a consensus arrived there. We may be thankful to Auden for “not calling a spade a spade” and creating extensively various ways of expressing this universal experience.
Auden, W. H. “The Geography of the House”. Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden. 2nd ed.,
The Modern Library
—. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. Vintage Books. 1989
Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Subjection”. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection.
Columbia University Press, 1982
Understanding Rejection in “Disabled” and “Refugee Blues”
As poets responding to the turmoil of war, authors Wilfred Owen and W.H. Auden both explore the causes and consequences of rejection. The two men in particular emphasise the psychological impact that war has on human beings who are unjustly cast aside from society for their physical appearance or their religious beliefs. It is essential to take a close look at language, literary devices, and linguistic features to truly understand the ultimately humanistic message and emotions the authors are trying to convey through their writing.
In “Disabled”, a soldier from World War I is rejected for his physical disability. Right from the first stanza, it is said that his suit is “legless, sewn short at elbow”. This effective beginning informs the reader that the soldier has lost body members and is as a result physically disabled, but it also sets a gloomy, pessimistic tone; the use of caesura emphasises the soldier’s disability by interrupting the flow of the poem in order to let the image sink into the reader’s mind. Indeed, the poem opens with a dismal image of the soldier sitting alone in a “wheeled chair”, “shiver[ing]”, which immediately evokes pathos. We especially empathise with the soldier’s heartache at being rejected by women, who “touch him like some queer disease”. This dehumanisation, comparing him to a disease, highlights the effect that his disability has on women who can’t look past his physical appearance. The soldier’s sexual longing and sorrow facing women’s rejection is repeated several times throughout the poem for emphasis. The soldier is unjustly cast aside and has become a “disease” in society’s eyes: this metaphor underlines the fact that he is no longer treated like a human being and women don’t consider him worthy of affection. As Mother Theresa once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved”. Indeed, the soldier is forlorn and feels almost betrayed by women, whose “eyes / Passed from him to the strong men that were whole”: this cruelty and lack of love are the cause of his misery. Furthermore, the fact that the soldier is not named gives the poem a universal dimension. After World War I, tens of thousands of soldiers were severely injured and sent to hospitals. Even those who had surgery and recuperated from their wounds never fully managed to integrate themselves back into society. Disfigured men (the 15,000 “gueules cassées” in France, for instance) were feared and even regarded as monsters. This social exclusion lead to more serious injuries: psychological trauma. Many did not only go insane because of the horrors they had witnessed at war, but also because of the loneliness and isolation that followed. Indeed, the unnamed soldier in Wilfred Owen’s poem certainly represents these outcasts of society who were destined to lead a life of solitude and despair.
In “Refugee Blues”, Jewish refugees are also cast aside, but for their religious beliefs and ethnicity. In the 1930s, anti-Semitism and persecution were rising: the Jewish were progressively deprived of their basic human rights (particularly with the Nuremberg laws of 1935). As a result, thousands of Jewish people started leaving Germany, fleeing to other nations that would welcome them. However, countries were reluctant to welcome them and sent many away. Just as in “Disabled”, the characters in “Refugee Blues” are universal: the couple that is going from place to place represents this entire Jewish community who was strongly persecuted and rejected in those times. Indeed, wherever they go, the couple is sent away. Each stanza mentions a different location (“city”, “country”, “village”, “committee”, “harbour”, etc.), highlighting the many places the refugees have to travel to in order to find somewhere they will be accepted and taken care of. However, this effort is in vain for “there’s no place for [them]” in an entire city of “ten million souls”: this hyperbole underlines to what extent the refugees are completely on their own. What is truly poignant, is that out of “ten million” people, not even a single one is there to help. The reader understands that the cause of the refugees’ exclusion is the hypocrisy and cruelty of human beings. This is shown when the “committee” “asked [the refugees] politely to return next year”: this “polite[ness]” and the fact that “they offered [them] a chair” is purely hypocritical and ironic, for the committee does nothing but send the refugees away. The hostility towards them is further shown when “the consul banged the table and said, / “If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead” ”: the verb “banged” has connotations of violence and brutality, and the use of direct speech emphasises the refugees’ grim situation. Indeed, they are stripped of their rights and identity: it is explicitly said that without a passport, they are “dead”, meaning that they have absolutely no importance and are completely excluded from society. This bitter dehumanisation is also suggested when a “poodle in a jacket” and a “cat” were “let in[to]” people’s homes, whereas the “German Jews” were sent away: they aren’t perceived as human beings, but as creatures inferior to animals. In fact, one could view the refugees as animals who are hunted down and persecuted, constantly moving from place to place, fearing for their lives.
Wilfred Owen’s poem shows that being an outsider leads to despair and a life of hardships. Being rejected and alone, the soldier’s life has become monotonous and dull. This is suggested with the contrast between his past and the present: the “voices of boys” trigger the soldier’s memories and flashbacks which take him back in time, made clear to the reader with time connectives such as “About this time” and “In the old times”. In the past, the soldier’s life was filled with joy and bliss, emphasised by the alliteration “glow-lamps budded on the light-blue trees, /And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim”: everything seemed perfect, ideal. This strongly contrasts with his present life, which is “dark”, “grey” and “cold”: these monosyllabic words effectively bring out the absence of colour and vitality. Indeed, the exterior world reflects the soldier’s emotions and feelings of loneliness and solitude. The short independent clause and the use of caesura in “Now, he is old;” also highlights the desolate reality of the soldier’s life and the contrast with his past. Emotive phrases such as “waiting for dark” convey a sense of hopelessness: the present participle “waiting” doesn’t have connotations of impatience, but rather of despair and passiveness. Indeed, there are two interpretations to this: either the soldier is simply waiting for nightfall to go to sleep, either he is waiting for death, which would alleviate him from his dismal life and his physical and emotional pain.
The theme of rejection in “Refugee Blues” is accompanied by a melancholic and hopeless tone, which mirrors the title of the poem: “Blues” is an African American music genre, dating back to the slave trade of the 19th century, a genre that often laments injustice with lyrics that evoke feelings such as a longing for a better life and a home. Blues is characterised by three-line stanzas, many repetitions and the AAB rhyme schema. Indeed, W.H. Auden’s poem mimics this musical genre and its ternary rhythm. The fact that the third line of each stanza doesn’t rhyme with the other two could reflect the refugees’ isolation, for the line is set aside, just like the refugees. The lack of hope in the refugees’ life is implied when it is said that “there grows an old yew, / Every spring it blossoms anew” yet “old passports can’t do that”. A yew is a big tree with solid wood, a symbol of death and renewal: it represents nature’s cyclical rhythm, suggesting that there is hope for nature, since wildlife can renew. This highlights how different the Jewish refugees’ situation is: unlike nature, they cannot start over and don’t have a fresh start. “Old passports” don’t renew by themselves, and as a result, the refugees are destined to a life of broken dreams and false hope, a life without opportunities, preventing them from getting a shot at a new life in another country.
In both poems, the combination of being rejected by society and other factors such as physical disability plays an important role in an individual’s fate. In “Disabled”, the soldier “will spend a few sick years in institutes”: the modal verb “will” conveys certainty, suggesting that he has no other choice than to remain alone in institutes and hospitals for the rest of his life. The same modal verb “will” and the plosive ‘b’ in “his back will never brace” also emphasises and implies that the soldier’s life is already set up for him and there’s nothing he can do to change it. He will never be able to “brace”, to support himself physically and emotionally. The soldier can’t be anything but a passive observer. Likewise, in “Refugee Blues”, the Jewish refugees are victims of a grim fate, sealed by people’s dismissal of them and by the monstrous German dictator, Hitler. His words “They must die” are powerful and monosyllabic: the spondaic rhythm, where every syllable is stressed for emphasis, hammers in Hitler’s message and creates a sense of doom as “the thunder rumbl[es] in the sky”. Pathetic fallacy indicates how the atmosphere grows progressively darker: at the beginning of the poem it is “spring”, whereas at the end it seems to be winter with “falling snow” and imminent “thunder”, foreshadowing the holocaust and the tragic events that will follow, further underlining a sense of inevitable and gruesome fate.
Though both poems are written in two different contexts and circumstances, they share a common universal message about rejection. Social exclusion is still relevant today; one could argue that it is human nature to be afraid and unaccepting of differences, whether it is a difference of culture, ethnicity, religion or physical appearance. However, as the poems point out, this dismissive side of human beings emotionally destroys the victims of discrimination. Our acts can have a profound impact on others, and in order to avoid the psychological damages and feelings of loneliness that both poems underline, we should think twice before shutting people out. Today, with new forms of historical trauma such as the Syrian refugee crisis, we should be careful not to let history repeat itself.
A Comparison Between Homer’s Iliad and W.H. Auden’s “Achilles’ Shield”
The Greek minstrel Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, is one of the most popular works of literature in history, and for good reason. In it, and its companion poem, The Odyssey, the happenings of the legendary Trojan War as well as certain events following it are chronicled in the truly fantastic and romanticized manner we now consider typical of Greek mythology. A pivotal and important scene in The Iliad centers upon the death of Patroclus, a warrior who Achilles, a warrior himself who is said to be the greatest among mortals, considers to be his closest friend. Achilles, profoundly angered and saddened, vows ultimate revenge and is ready to fight to a brutal death. However, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, commissions the smithing god Hephaestus to create a magnificent shield for him, and after receiving this shield Achilles goes on to continue warring.
The shield, however, in addition to being a pivotal object in the plot, is also described in great detail as a veritable artistic masterpiece, as any creation by the gods would likely be. It is adorned with beautiful and intricate images of what might be considered the entire sphere of human life as Homer saw it, and, if nothing else, it is described in the text as a “world of gorgeous immortal work”, (Homer, 18.564) and indeed any shield fashioned as Achilles’ is described would be deserving of this title.
The story of Achilles’ shield is a fascinating one in and of itself, and poet W.H. Auden wrote a poem in 1954 which he named “Achilles’ Shield”. One of the most popular poets of his time, Auden was known to hold strong opinions as to the current condition of the modern world, and the direction he felt it was heading in, and this is evident in his poem, which is directly inspired by Book 18 of The Iliad and its description of the shield which was bestowed upon Achilles. However, Auden uses this template of the world on Achilles’ shield and takes a vastly different approach in depicting another world, which cannot be mistaken for any other than our own present one. To put it simply, the differences in the two conceptions of Achilles’ shield can be ascribed to the different sensibilities held by the poets, and the vast changes that took place on Earth between the classical Greek age and the mid-20th century.
As W.H. Auden’s poem was written retrospectively, inspired as it was by Homer’s work, it would be prudent to compare the two poems from the standpoint of Auden’s. Auden’s poem has a clearly somber, reflective, and melancholy tone. While Homer may have been acutely aware of the scope of the world in which he lived, the Greek classical worldview still seems slightly myopic, fully conscious of itself but unable or unwilling to ponder the future or past. Perhaps this is due to the massive scope of the Iliad itself, which has no reason to concern itself with what is not relevant to the literally epic events of the Trojan War. “She looked over his shoulder . . .”, begins Auden’s poem, which immediately places the reader in a position of looking backwards, and of looking past the apparent splendor of what is (Auden, 1).
Auden is pining for something, a paradise perhaps, that he seems to feel has been lost. When he in fact so overtly refers to Book 18 of the Iliad by using it as the title of his poem, he is positioning it as a counterpart to Homer’s own idea for those who care to understand his work. It is likely that even without the title or knowledge of its origins an astute reader would be able to discern that Auden’s poem is one of regret and remorse. However, with the title, readers are provided a context with which to truly discern the meaning of the work, and in this way he can be said to dare us to compare how he has depicted the world by way of Achilles’ shield to the way Homer has done.
In Homer’s world, we see what might be considered typical of Greek mythology: fields, vineyards, beautiful cities, all enveloped in nature’s bountiful presence. In Auden’s world, we are first presented with these similar images of pastoral splendor in the opening stanzas: “. . . vines and olive trees, / Marble well governed cities, / And ships upon untamed seas”. (Auden, 2-4) The next line, however, begins with “but”, a word that negates all which has come before it and suggests something contradictory or unexpected in the news to come. “But there on the shining metal / His hands had put instead / An artificial wilderness / And a sky like lead.” (Auden, 5-8) Indeed, in the following passages, and for the rest of the poem, we are denied the beauty and majesty with which we might in our present time idealize Grecian life.
While wars, murder, and even brutal slaughter among beasts is depicted on Homer’s shield, this violence and conflict is shown in a style the reader might be tempted to consider beautiful. As is evident through The Iliad, including Book 18, there is seldom a hint that war is unnecessary, or that perhaps the death of Patroclus is a sign that the battle could perhaps be solved in other ways.
There is surely no better example of this philosophy regarding war and battle than Achilles himself, who is depicted as the ultimate warrior, who, though mortal, has no weakness save for his famous heel. For the Greeks and for Homer, Achilles is said to be one of the most honorable and handsome men alive, and there is no reason given to consider his wrathful desires for revenge as that of a violent fool.
Of course, no mention would be made of the praise heaped upon the deeds of Achilles by Homer if Auden did not seem to treat this way of living differently. If the mood running throughout the entire piece is not enough to suggest that the author does not completely approve of or agree with the idea of Achilles’ feats being truly noble, the last lines,
“Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted-man slaying Achilles
Who would not live long”,
are enough to bring this point home (Auden, 54-59). This passage carries with it also the implication that many pursuits, even that of great Hephaestus, can easily be for naught, and that a shield wrought by an immortal and great being to protect a mortal being who is rather godlike himself will still leave room for harm. There is no glory to be found here.
In conclusion, it is clear that Homer and Auden had different goals in mind when designing and describing Achilles’ shield, and it is important to recognize in Auden’s case that his idea for the shield was lifted from and should be examined in the context of Homer’s original idea. While the classical Greek idea of war being a noble enterprise runs throughout The Iliad and even throughout modern times, Auden felt differently about what war can bring. This disparity also extends to the way both authors felt about the state of humanity and the planet at the time, but it is important to recognize that The Iliad and Auden’s poem were written for different purposes. However, it is also important that when such a connection between works of art is noticed, we attempt to understand the connection between the authors and their intent, for by better understanding a related work, the meaning of the other reveals itself even further.
Homer, First. The Iliad. London: Penguin Books, 1990. 467-487. Print.
Auden, W.H. “Cornell College: Classical Studies Program.” Cornell College. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct 2011. .