Three Examples of Auden’s Wartime Poetry: In Time of War: Sonnet XVI, Spain 1937, and 1st September 1939

July 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

“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.

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