W H Auden Poems
“Musee Des Beaux Arts” and Artistic Detachment: a Catastrophe from Afar
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.
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.
The Idea Of Carpe Diem In As I Walked Out One Evening By W. H.auden
In the movie Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating teaches his students to seize the day. While showing them a picture of some alumni on the walls of the academy, he draws them in close to hear their legacy, “carpe diem, seize the day.” The lesson being that time passes by quickly and all too soon life is over. Therefore, we should take advantage of every opportunity, every passing day, and each passing hour. This theme in the movie reminds me of a poem by W. H.Auden called, As I Walked Out One Evening. The poem illustrates that life is as ephemeral as it tells a story of lovers proclaiming their love has no ending. The lovers believe that nothing can conquer their love. But all the clocks who are listening to and watching the lovers start to “whirr and chime” and warn to not be fooled by Time. Here in the poem, Auden personifies time by giving it an uppercase “T”. Time reminds the lovers that “into many green a valley, drifts the appalling snow, Time breaks the threaded dances and the diver’s brilliant bow.” Time goes on to caution, ‘In the burrows of the Nightmare where Justice naked is, Time watches from the shadow and coughs when you would kiss.” Here Time becomes a stalker in the poem reminding the lovers and the readers that no matter how wonderful life is when we were are young, time, illness and death are waiting for us right around the corner. Time goes on to forewarn, ‘In headaches and in worry vaguely life leaks away, and Time will have his fancy, tomorrow or today. This suggests that not only will Time defeat us in the end, but it also will not even let us enjoy the short time we do have as the stresses and strains of everyday life will rob us of that. It reminds us that time is crafty and devious, and no matter how naive we may be when we are young, we will never escape death. In the end, Time will catch up to us and we will surely die. Time is brutal and continually presents us with this harsh reality of life, even as the lovers are enjoying themselves and living in the moment. Life is fleeting and full of regrets. As we get older, we may start to realize this fact as stated in the line, ‘O plunge your hands in water, plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin and wonder what you’ve missed.’ What did we miss? That the universe is enormous and we are just a tiny, insignificant part of it. Life is complicated and confusing, and we will never make sense of it. Still, we accept it and go on. This idea of the confusion and the perplexity of life is seen in the lines that say, “And a crack in the tea-cup opens, a lane to the land of the dead. Where the beggars raffle the banknotes, and the Giant is enchanting to Jack, and the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, and Jill goes down on her back.’
The meaning behind this poem is that nothing will last forever and so we should live every day to the fullest despite life’s complexity, hardships, and absurdities for one day, it will in fact end. This poem means a lot to me because of recent life events that taught me this lesson the hard way. For example, graduating high school I remember how I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could start college, and now a year later, I miss it. I miss seeing my friends every day and wish I would have appreciated that more. I also recently lost both of my grandmothers within months of each other and wish I had spent more time with them and had taken the time to know them better. But time seriously did get in the way. All the nights I had too much homework and couldn’t just sit and enjoy their company and listen to their pearls of wisdom added up I suppose. Time cautions us to not leave important things undone, especially once the opportunity to act upon it is past. These missed opportunities and chances carry us to our graves.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Auden’s poem though, and the part I like the best are the following lines. ‘O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless.’ This stanza is about someone looking out the window and crying perhaps about being near the end of their life and their own missed opportunities. Or perhaps it was someone like Neil, who failed to see that life remained a blessing. Then the lines, “O stand, stand at the window, as the tears scald and start; you shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.” These lines are telling us all we can do is love one another, even if those others are confused, dishonest or unkind, just as our own hearts are sometimes. Because in the end, we are all humans. Again, it was a shame that Neil and his father didn’t heed this message. The end of the poem confirms that Time was correct as the lovers and the love they had was no more, and even the clocks had stopped chiming. However, even though the lovers’ lives were over, time and life itself, the deep river, will run on endlessly. This is what Mr.Keating was trying to tell the boys. Carpe Diem, seize the day because soon we will be worm meat and we don’t want to be crying and staring out the window regretting missed opportunities. Life will go on, with or without you. Life is a gift, so make the best of it and live it your way.
Auden is saying the same thing. No matter what no one defeats time. It does not matter how much someone loves another, no matter how much money someone has, no matter what anyone does. Time will have the final say. That is why in life people must do what they want; not what their parents want, not what their friends want, not what their families or spouses desire. They have to choose for themselves to be truly happy, because as Auden demonstrates in the poem in the grand scheme of things, life is precious but oh, so short. Once it is squandered that time is irreplaceable. The scene in “Dead Poets Society” when Mr. Keating took the boys to the picture of the dead students and whispered, “Carpe Diem! Seize the day!” that spot on made me think of Auden’s poem because what Keating is telling the boys is that those students were just like them once. They also were young, hopeful, and on top of the world. Then time passed and withered the students. The young faces in the pictures are now skulls buried six feet under. And one day the young boys will be six feet under too. Mr. Keating teaches them to enjoy their lives and to follow their dreams because one day, all too soon, it will all be over and done.
This is easier said than done for sure, because as Auden shows us, Time is deceptive. It makes us think we have forever, and it causes us to forget to live each moment fully as we get caught up in our “headaches and worries”. It’s no wonder time is often seen as our enemy. I hope when I die I will be surrounded by my kids, maybe grandkids, and my family and friends. I hope I will have the presence of mind to look back on it and be happy with all the memories I have shared with them. I hope I will have little regret of opportunities missed. The bottom line is, seize the day, be true to self, and believe in yourself. Follow your dreams for this is the day. No matter the situation, remember “Carpe Diem! Seize the day!” I have always loved this poem by Auden and believe college students should read as it serves as a reminder to do make hay while the sun shines.
The Theme of Loving a Beloved One in the Poem
“[Funeral Blues]” was written in the 1900’s by an author named W.H Auden. It is a popular poem, and was included in the British movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” in which it is read at a funeral. The poem is about losing a loved one. The narrator has lost the love of their life, and now that they have, nothing else matters- not even life itself. It is touching and sad, and one can assume the narrator is a widow who has just recently lost their spouse. The poem paints a picture for readers, and tries to explain the true pain of how it feels to lose someone who was loved so dearly. “[Funeral Blues]” does an excellent job of displaying themes of grief, love, and depression, all while flowing well and following a rhyme scheme.
The poem shows many emotions- including but not limited to grief, love, remembrance, and depression. The narrator speaks highly of their recently deceased lover. “He was my North, my South, my East and West, my morning week and my Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,” (530) it is clear that the narrator thinks their love was the best thing in the world. Now that they are deceased, the narrator feels they cannot go on without them. When Auden writes “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one: pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,” (530) it shows that the narrator does not know how to live without their love, nor do they want to bother trying. It is questionable when the narrator says “I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong” (530). While it is a strong line, especially due to its punctuation, does love not last forever? It seems that if a love is strong enough, it does last forever. This is where the narrator caused slight confusion. Nonetheless, they are extremely in love still, despite the void that cannot be filled. “For nothing now can ever some to any good,” (530). The narrator truly believes that their purpose in life is no longer, just because they lost the love of their life. The first stanza leads the reader to believe the narrator is just going through the motions, but feels numb. “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, silence the pianos and with muffled drum bring out the coffin, let the mourners come” (530). They are just letting everything happen, for example, silencing the piano and dog, and letting mourners come and go. But, they also ask for clocks to stop, signifying they do not want it to happen, and they want the telephone cut off, because they do not want to answer it. Not only is speaking to everyone about the death terrible, but it makes it feel real. It is tragically beautiful that the narrator feels this way. But it shows their grieving process, the memories they appreciate with their passed person, and the deep depression they are feeling. Readers can truly feel the emotion the narrator is feeling throughout the poem.
This poem has short stanzas of four lines each, and an AABB rhyme scheme, which is unusual. While unusual, the poem still flows well when read aloud. It is an elegy, which is a reflection poem that is typically reserved for the dead. The poem was organized in an orderly fashion- beginning with tasks, and things that are going on around the narrator. The narrator then shifts to their personal feelings about their recently passed-away love, and it gets intensely deep. Overall, Auden stuck to an interesting rhyme scheme that poets do not typically used, but still managed to make the words flow together. The first line uses hyperboles, because the author is ordering that everything stop solely because of the death of their love. Auden did a great job of staying away from simple language. Because the author used much more in-depth words, it made the poem that much more meaningful. Instead of simply saying they heard an airplane outside, Auden wrote “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead” (530). By using descriptive language, readers can paint a clearer picture in their minds. When writing “My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song” (530), the author is using metaphors to explain just how important this person was to them. One particular line that seemed emphasized was: “Pour the ocean away and sweep up the wood,” (530), because again hyperbolic metaphors are used- you cannot literally do either of these, assuming the author meant the forest or woods.
As far as themes go, this poem was fairly transparent. Love, depression, remembrance, and grief were repeating factors. But, it seems that pessimism and hopelessness are reoccurring as well. Towards the end, the narrator seems to have given up on everything. The last line specifically highlights the narrator’s pessimism and hopeless outlook on life: “For nothing now can ever come to any good” (530). The speaker even begins the poem unhappily. It seems they wanted to quiet the dog, silence the piano, and just get some peace and quiet. When the speaker explains how much his beloved dead meant to him: “He was my North, my South, my East and West”, it compares to one losing their actual compass in the woods. How will they go on? The narrator is clearly bereaved, and has no intention of moving on. At first, they want to do things correctly and orderly, but they cannot hold themselves together, and an outpour of emotions is released. The readers then get to see a more personal, touching side of the speaker.
Auden brilliantly showed what it is like to go through grieving of someone close to you. “[Funeral Blues]” not only was deep, but was well-written and displays raw emotions to readers. The simple elegy followed a rhyme scheme, and the stanzas went from casual to deep emotion. While it flowed smoothly, the poem properly captured grief, love, and depression. “[Funeral Blues]” wrapped up the devastating mood of funerals.
Time/lover Contrast in W. H. Auden’s Poem as I Walked Out One Evening
W.H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”, at first appears to be about a man taking an evening walk when he comes across a singing lover, who is quickly told numerous things by time. Digging deeper into the poem, we see the ultimate forewarning that the personified clock is giving the lover about the dangers in romanticizing time. Further than that, by looking at the hyperboles in “As I Walked Out One Evening”, we can see the dramatic contrast between time and the lover; this is important in helping us focus on the interest of man vs. the natural world, specifically how time is dominion over all.
The lover is first heard singing away from the world down by the river illustrating the escape from reality that people often find in romanticism. The lover begins with his main point of what’s to come saying, “Love has no ending”. The next three stanzas of the poem are hyperboles such as, “I’ll love you till the ocean is folded and hung up to dry”. The lover claims these impossible things to prove that his love is infinite and can never die, making time insignificant.
As if being challenged the clocks come to life to tell this lover that in fact his love will come to an end because no mortal, no object in this world escapes death. This shows that like justice, time treats everyone equally. Time though will always prove to be the crueler of the two because in the hidden nightmare that is reality, past the romanticized ideals we use desperately trying to escape, time is never distant but always looming waiting for us to meet our fate. Since we are unaware of the constant passing of time we spend it, “ In headaches and In worry”, we allow time to fly by. In which Time’s ultimate power of death eventually comes around for us all, “Into Green valley drifts the appalling snow”, meaning even the cold winter that is death will cover the most brilliant, beautiful, warm life.
Once the clock has told this truth he invites us to believe it using our own physical senses. “Stare, stare in the basin and wonder what you’ve missed” Taunting us the clock wants us to look and see with our own eyes that our reflection is aging in front of us, proof that we can’t defy the natural order of life. We’re going to age, life will continue to pass, we will all die, “seeing is believing”. Further the clock pleads with us “O look, look in the mirror, o look in your distress” the repetition of the word look, shows that the clock perhaps isn’t intending to be spiteful, but desperate for us to see the truth, meaning that the clock itself is in the same boat, possibly looking out for us. The clock takes a more positive tone sharing that although it’s short, this life is a blessing, even if we can’t grant anyone the power to escape life’s tragic mortal end.
Now that the clock sees we understand, he tells us to look out the window away from ourselves and at the rest of the world. Time not only ends for us; but for everything on Earth. My favorite quote from this poem, “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart” is the most positive point of the poem; telling us that despite the fact we as humans are all imperfect, we are to embrace it because it’s the most we’re given out of this short time.
From the first stanza in this poem we begin to see the comparisons of man vs. the natural world made by the author, W.H. Auden. “Crowds upon the pavement were fields of harvest wheat”, this gives the golden aesthetically pleasing image of perhaps the sun setting over the city. Not to miss the author’s subtle way of letting us know straight from the beginning that we are all destined to be taken down (die). “River, railway”, “Mountain, street” the author is putting these natural occurrences before these industrialized man-made things. Before industrialization humans used means of crossing rivers, and mountains to get places. Now because of modern man’s achievements in industrializing we cross railways and streets. I believe Auden did this to show the quick and artificial ways we as people use to get to where we need to go, always searching for a faster route to save us time.
The clock describes to us that much like the absurdity of glaciers knocking in the cupboards, and deserts sighing in beds, time sees no difference between the natural and manmade elements. No matter how fast or slow we are, how scenic or built up our surroundings may be, time is still ruler over all. Auden emphasizes this by placing these two symbolisms now next to each other in the same lines. Like an open crack in a tea cup, the life will drain from us all. Time has its way of changing everything; making the beggars in charge, enemies into friends, innocence into wild impurity, and naïve children into sexual deviants. Time will always have its way, but even far after any of us are gone, the deep river that is time, will continue to run on.
The romanticism symbolized by nature and the manufactured feel of the manmade world clash together to form “realism” which I believe was Auden’s intent in this poem to express his personal beliefs. The lover, like nature was a symbolism of romanticism, while the clock which was a manmade device to measure time was like the other manufactured symbolisms of coldness, and ingenuity of the modern world. Meanwhile I believe the speaker represents Auden himself the all-knowing realist taking both extremes displayed, allowing them to sink in giving him an enlightened, authentic truth.
The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden. Poem Review
The warning present in W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” acts as a satirical effigy noting the ambiguity of individuality in modern society. The heroism of a conformist illustrated in Auden’s poem ironically illuminates the loss of identity every individual gives up by conforming to the government’s pressing laws and services that identify citizens more as a number rather than an individual.
Auden starts off his poem with a facetious allusion to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State” (1-3), emphasizing the identification of a nameless citizen. The anonymous person loses his individual identity, reducing him to the status of descriptive statistics. The sarcastic allusion creates a paradox of the heroism of a law-abiding citizen: when does a hero ever go unknown if he/she fought for the vast majority? Auden writes, “For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired” (8-9). The verbal irony behind serving the community without providing services at war shows the unidentified person, in fact, lacks purpose and does not even cause any problems for the head honchos in charge. The anonymous individual, merely just a statistic, blends in the ocean of other typical average Joes and does not make a significant difference to the daily flow of civil society.
Equally important as Auden’s pinpoint of the unknown citizen to a statistic, Auden mentions grand entities, such as The Press, Big Business companies, Unions, etc. The significance of these entities illuminates the variety of institutions the anonymous person had to please in a “respectable” fashion. For instance, “[he] satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.” (11), by maintaining in assembly with his counterparts and not stirring any problems. Auden sardonically mocks Ford, who created the contemporary assembly line, to juxtapose the flow of production to the flow of an ordinary person’s life. The assembly line demonstrates the division and regulation placed on the individual, which not only happens in the workforce, but in society in general. The singular job applied to each worker highlights the simple job asked of reliable citizens, to remain silent and certain of institutionalized anonymity.
Furthermore, Auden portrays the unknown individual as a successful experiment, “our Social Psychology workers found that he was popular with his mates and liked a drink” (15-16), further describing him as an aloof and distracted person. He enjoys the flair of popularity and what others think of him; as long as he does not upset anyone, he continues to please others, which pleases him. In addition to the distraction of pleasing his bosses and comrades, “[he] had everything necessary to the Modern Man, a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire” (23-24), which also acts as distractions from the fact that he does not enjoy the freedom he believes he experiences. His prized possessions satisfy his materialistic needs, which also satisfies the capital gain collected by the sovereign companies and associations that feed off of people such as the person Auden mentions in his poem.
In retrospect, a patriotic martyr would argue the opposite and answer that the unknown citizen lived a happy purpose-filled life with no burden on his freedom. Of course, the vast majority lives like the example in Auden’s poem, and they accept following the rules because they settle for conformity. If one remains ignorant of the endless possibilities his/her life could take, then he/she may seem happy. Ignorance brings bliss, does it not? Although one may insist the surface details of Auden’s poem depicts an average middle-classed civilian who enjoys a cookie-cutter custom of living, Auden shines light on the abstruse power of government and dominant corporations that manipulate the vast majority into following bureaucratic methods, “Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views” (12). The hierarchical chain of command of government promotes invasive observing of average people to marketing and advertising agencies of the like, psychologists, and eugenists. Marketing and advertising companies achieve success by appealing to the needs and wants of the mass population, or middle class, to further distinguish group identities, classifying people by their superfluous materialistic needs. Furthermore, Auden mentions eugenics, proving his tone hints at his dogmatic attitude to the government’s socialist-like motives.
The government and its corporations need ordinary people; they stand buttressed over anonymous citizens’ belief that a happy and purpose-filled life stems from staying safe in the lines of legislative, social, and materialistic norms. Auden notes, “Our researchers into Public Opinion are content that he held the proper opinions for the time of year” (25-26); he presents the shameful actuality of pre-destined outcomes in governmental elections, where the common regular develops the bias of the press and leads in the direction of the manipulation of advertisements. On another note, Auden acknowledges, “he was married and added five children to the population” (27); ironically numbering the children to reiterate the loss of identity granted to each person once born into a governed nation. Populating society with more humans makes for more unknown citizens, which pleases the government and corporations conducting the production of a deranged society. Finally, Auden characterizes the citizen as ignorant for failing to instill skepticism and critical thinking onto his children: “our teachers report that he never interfered with [the children’s] education” (30). The unidentified citizen would not have known to teach his children to challenge everything taught to them because he never learned to question things on his own or to form his own opinions, which deems him a perfectly benevolent civilian to society.
In conclusion, Auden ironically portrays the unknown citizen to a false heroic ego to highlight the average citizen’s loss of identity in society. His sardonic warning demonstrates a lesson to dubious citizens to anticipate the government’s ulterior motives. Auden suggests no single well-behaved person makes a legendary impression; instead he/she remains a vague number in the plethora of governed groups that comprise the entirety of the nation. Auden further prompts individuals to notice the precarious relationship between the government and large entities. The government recognizes the purchasing power of substantial corporations and the corporations know the benefits of supporting the government’s progress to a total state.
Developing and Changing Love: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Clare’s First Love, Auden’s Stop All the Clocks
Love can be seen as an emotion of contrasts: it can be seem as everything from simple to confusing, unifying to dividing. It is a multifaceted emotion that can be displayed in infinite unique versions. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and these three poems by john Clare, William Shakespeare and W.H Auden you see this key theme of love developing and changing. Throughout ‘Romeo and Juliet’ this key theme develops from confusing to dangerous to end with unifying.
Romeo is a Petrarchan lover and only cares about Rosaline’s physicality also he never mentions Rosaline by her name leading the reader to believe the love is confusing. The location of this scene is in Sycamore Grove which is wordplay meaning sick with love. Shakespeare shows that love is artificial though his use of oxymoron, ’Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire’. ‘Bright smoke’ shows that love is not real as smoke is trapping and disorientating. The ‘bright’ can have multiple interpretations as brightness in ‘smoke’ can signify fire which is either life giving, deadly or a sign of passion and love. ‘Bright smoke’ could also mean that it is blinding you so that you cannot see. This means that Romeo‘s love muffled by the ‘smoke’ or he has only cares about her looks as she is ‘bright’. This means his love depends on her looks Romeo also describes his love as a ‘feather of lead’ this could mean that it is deceiving and not as good as it originally looks. This can lead to Romeo being a Petrarchan lover which the Elizabethan audience would recognise automatically. ‘Feathers’ are seen to be delicate fragile and light items. They are from wings meaning they are seen to light you up. ‘Lead’ is one of the heaviest metals in the world so it can weigh you down and used to be used in the production of weapons. A ‘feather of lead’ is may mean that love is meant to lift you up but it actually holds you back. Romeo also describes love as ’cold fire’. ‘Cold’ can be used to signify deadly as when it is very cold it is freezing and you can get hyperthermia, which is life-threatening. It can also means cold after something to hot so relief from the heat. ‘Fire’ can be used to signify the fire that is life giving and needed for a source of heat or it can be used to signify death as fire can take lives and trap you. It is also one of the most painful ways to die. ‘Cold fire’ can also mean that you may turn to it for warmth but it is the opposite of what you expect or want. It could also show how Romeo feels and how he wants to feel. This shows that love is sometimes confusing as there are two sides.
‘Sonnet 130’ by William Shakespeare is a parody of Petrarch’s idea of idealised beauty. Petrarch’s view on love said to be beautiful, woman had to be pale, red lips and bright eyes. This was then believed in sonnets and by Elizabethan people. In ‘Sonnet 130’ love is presented as true and simple as it is not based on beauty with the use of celestial imagery, ‘I grant I never saw a goddess go;/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:’ the use ‘goddess’ suggests blessed by God by saying that he ‘never saw a goddess go’ means that he does not need to describe her as an angel or use romantic motifs to suggest that the love is pure and simple. This is a contrast to Romeo as he sees love in oxymora so it is very confusing. A possessive pronoun of ‘my’ has been used to claim that as she is his and always will be. ‘Treads on the ground’ suggests that she is a normal human being and not above everyone else. This is the opposite of Petrarch’s interpretation of love who thought that his love was an angel on the ground, which means that it is the opposite to Romeos show of love as this love is very clear and absolute. ’treads on the ground’ can also show how simple the love is as it does not need all the typical romantic motifs, which proves in this poem love is simple but true.
In act 1 scene 5 Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. This first meeting displays love as divine and equal through an extended religious metaphor in a sonnet, ‘saint’ ‘pilgrim’ ‘shrine’. This use of religious imagery shows that Romeo is moving away from the exaggerated description of love. The word ‘shrine’ shows love as divine as shrines are the places closest to God However Juliet a ‘shrine’ can also be blasphemous as in the eyes of the Anglican church Romeo would be seen as worshiping a fake idol. This may also show the true devotion Romeo feels towards Juliet. This shows how divine their love is as God has allowed them to fall in love or it shows that their love is being foreshadowed. Describing Juliet as a ‘saint’ can lead to believe that she has been chosen by God so the love is approved and divine. This can also show that their love is approved by God as they are draw together. Romeo being described as a ‘pilgrim’ can show that love is a guide and a path to follow. This can show that love is equal as in the Elizabethan time the man would be in charge and the women were expected to do everything he says and worship him. Love can also be show as equal through the use of a sonnet. In this sonnet Romeo has 8 lines and Juliet has 6 lines, which means that love is equal and split between the relationships.
The poem ‘First Love’ by John Clare conveys how powerful and suddenly love can affect a person. This poem shows love as permanent through the use of natural imagery, ‘my life and all seemed turned to clay’. The word seemed means in the eyes of the looker, which shows that to him life had stopped but to everyone else life kept on going. The use of ‘clay’ says that the love is set to never change. ‘Clay’ is very malleable in the beginning till it sets in one position. This similarly links to Romeos love as is changes from Rosaline to Juliet very quickly before it sets on Juliet. Describing love as ‘clay’ can also show that it is fragile and easily broken. It also connects with the belief that all human came from the ground and will then return. This means that with the love a new person has been formed, which can be similar to Romeo as his love transferred in one second. A fourth interpretation is that ‘clay’ can link to the story of creation where Adam was created from the ‘clay’ in the ground by God, which shows that God has given this love so it is true and permanent.
In act 2 scene 6 Romeo and Juliet get married, before this Romeo talks to Friar Lawrence. Friar Lawrence gives Romeo advice that bad events will follow. This conversation leads people to believe that love is dangerous yet euphoric through the use of negative imagery and oxymoron, ‘these violent delights have violent ends’. This line allows the audience to understand how soon this wedding has happened. In Elizabethan England you marry for life so to say that it will have a ‘violent end’ takes into account that Juliet’s father has not agreed with this. They would not be able to get a divorce either so if Juliet’s family found out she would have been disowned. The repetition of ‘violent’ allows the reader to see that their love is not all wonderful but there may be some bad sides. ‘Violent’ is also a very negative word meaning that something dangerous will happen meaning that love has side effects. The oxymora ‘violent delights’ can show that the love is rushed yet wanted. This can mean that the love may be what they want but it will rebound back on them. ‘violent delights’ canna los show that the love has to end and is only for a moment in time, which is true as their families do not know and Juliet will be made to marry Paris.
In the end scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Romeo and Juliet kill themselves. Romeo drinks a poison when he thinks Juliet is dead, which leads Juliet to stab herself. This quotation is from where Romeo is already dead and Juliet is about to kill herself. This leads you to believe that love is unifying yet divisive through the use of personification, ‘o happy dagger/ This is thy sheath; / there rust, and let me die’. The ‘dagger’ has been personified to be a ‘happy dagger’ to tell the reader that Juliet’s opinion of the dagger if not the normal one. A ‘dagger’ can be described as a weapon that reaps lives and takes people from their loved ones. To describe it as a ‘happy dagger’ would means that she wants the dagger to kill her and do its purpose and bring her to Romeo. This shows that love is so unifying they will be together even if they are dead. The use of ‘rust’ tells you that the dagger will not be removed, which means that she will not heal. That means she will die with the dagger inside her. ‘Sheath’ in its literal term means a covering so can be Juliet’s skin. This means that she is talking to the ‘dagger’ and introducing it to her skin.
The poem ‘stop all the clocks’ was written by W.H. Auden who was a 1940s homosexual. This poem can link to Romeo and Juliet’s final act of love. This final poem allows love to be presented as overpowering and mournful through the use of assonance, ‘for nothing now can ever come to any good’. The imperative of ‘nothing’ shows that Auden has given up and there is absolutely ‘nothing’ that can change it. This is similar to Romeo and Juliet as they see no point in living without each other and they would prefer to die. The simplicity of the words in the poem allow the audience to understand the sincerity in his words and how without his love he is hopeless and empty, proving that love is overpowering as it has left a immense gap. Assonance is also used with the ‘o’ in most of the words. This gives this line a solemn, mournful pace. This contrasts to Romeo and Juliet as when each other died they rushed to kill themselves, whereas Auden makes you think that everyone should die, which proves that love is an overpowering emotion. This line slows pace makes the audience think it is slow anger about his love’s death ‘nothing now can ever’, which means that he is morning the loss of his love. This is the opposite of Romeo after Juliet’s supposed death where he is furious at the world and how everyone let it happen.
To conclude love is a very multifaceted emotion with it changing from person to person and being shown in different ways.
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
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. .