WH Auden and political poetry: The English bard who struck an idiosyncratic note
Born in historic walled city of England, York on September 29, 1907, WH Auden was a poet of general ideas, which were mostly political in nature but there was a discernible virtuosity in his verse.
It would not be plausible to draw comparisons between WH Auden and TS Eliot or perhaps WB Yeats as the former never managed to produce masterpieces like Eliot’s The Wasteland, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock or Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, No Second Troy or Adam’s Curse. It is thus, among the modernist poets, it would be judicious to place him with the likes of Stephen Spender, Cecil Lewis and others — a generation of English poets from the 1930s, who found themselves engulfed in the soaring menace of Second World War (WWII), the rise of fascism and economic crisis in the West. These poets, however, remained faithful to the traditional syntax, form and metre.
Auden made his reputation in the intensely political ‘30s, when it was hard for the most reluctant to avoid political involvement. And early on in his career he showed his inclination towards the left wing, which was against the rise of dictatorship in Europe. He even served as stretcher-bearer for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. His achievement as a poet lies in the fact that with his poetry he managed to implicate with utmost sensitivity the altering moods and opinions of his time.
His first volume of poems was published in 1930 — the collection is political in nature and his attitude towards poetry remained such till the end of WWII. Before the war broke out in 1939, Auden left England for the United States — this move provoked the ire of many belonging to his country’s literary circles.
Epitaph on a Tyrant (1939) is a sketch of a dictator in making; the poem brings to mind Hitler or Mussolini or perhaps some dictator in South America: “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand / He knew human folly like the back of his hand / And was greatly interested in armies and fleets / When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter / When he cried the little children died in the streets.”
O What is that Sound is one of his early poems, which is in ballad form. There are two voices in the poem — an innocent one which asks questions and an experienced one which answers. It’s easy to come to the conclusion that the poem is a kind of allegory, when one considers that it was written during the ’30s, when the world was still dealing with the immediate impact of the war. The poem begins with the stanza: “O what sound is that sound which so thrills the ear/ Down in the valley drumming, drumming? / Only the scarlet soldiers, dear/ The soldiers coming.”
And the poem ends with a memorable stanza: “O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door/ O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning/ Their boots are heavy on the floor/ And their eyes are burning.”
Both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud had an influence on Auden’s poetry. He often employed the use of light verse for conveying serious and profound meanings. Auden shows great adroitness in his poems, where emotion or personal experience is present. He is even better when he presents the mood of a place and with the use of geography and landscape. On this Island (1936) is a testimony to his genius of describing nature in verse. It is a poem of place and scene — and there is an unmistakable delight in the scene.
“Look, stranger, on this island now/ The leaping light for your delight discovers / Stand stable here / And silent be / That through the channel of the ear / May wander like a river / The swaying sound of the sea.”
Auden believed that the freedom of art depends on the artist acknowledging the fact that it is not “real”, that way artist can have freedom to be artificial. Another notable sonnet is The Novelist: “Encased in talent like a uniform / The rank of every poet is well-known/ They can amaze us like a thunderstorm / Or die so young, or live for years along.”
“They can dash forward like hussars; but he / Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn / How to be plain and awkward, how to be / One after whom none think it worth to turn.”
Auden throughout his career remained fond of aerial view of civilisation — he looked at inhumanity of his time with an unabated directness and force as is evident in his poem The Shield of Achilles (1955), which presents tragedy in an unwonted way. In the poem, Thetis encounters a vision of the future:
“The mass and majesty of this world, all / That carries weight and always weighs the same / Lay in the hands of others; they were small / And could not hope for help and no help came...”
Critics have pointed many loop holes in his oeuvre, including the poem which got him Pultizer Prize for Poetry in 1948 — The Age of Anxiety, which is generally regarded as his best work and also his failure by some critics. In the poem, through the psyches of four characters who meet by chance during wartime at a bar in New York, Auden creates an insecure consciousness dominated by fear, guilt and failure. Scottish critic GS Fraser showed his distaste for the poem with his remark: In this poem “the theme of our awkward malaise was all too faithfully mirrored in the elaborate maladroit handling.”
Yet there is brilliance in the poem which is evident in this expression of Auden: “We would rather be ruined than changed/ We would rather die in our dread / Than climb the cross of the moment / And let our illusions die.”
The enticing quality about Auden’s talent is that the reader can rely on him to be somewhat more lively, provocative, skilful than his contemporaries. But for multifarious reasons (e.g. inclusion of personal jokes and allusions in his poems) critics could never analyse his poetic range as they would have done for a major poet. Despite all this, he is considered a genuine talent who ended up exhausting his creative juices after finding niche quite early in his literary career.