A General Estimate: W. H. Auden as A Poet

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Auden A Distinguished Poet:

      Auden for his distinguished art has been called the Picasso of verse a poet of general ideas; primarily a satirist; fundamentally a romantic; a poet who is more successful in light verse. Auden's span of active poetic production extends over a period of more than thirty-five years. During this period says Barbara Everett, "he has produced a large body of profuse, brilliant and uneven work, in a dazzling variety of styles and on a formidable range of subject.... it is the variety and fertility of his work, rather than its unity, which first commands attention."

      But usually, Auden shows a delight in elliptical thought and close packed imagery, and if, his proletarianism has sometimes led him into flaws of taste, it has also led him to exploit more fully than any one of his predecessors the riches and vigor of everyday idiom and vocabulary.

Auden shows a delight in elliptical thought and close packed imagery, and if, his proletarianism has sometimes led him into flaws of taste, it has also led him to exploit more fully than any one of his predecessors the riches and vigour of everyday idiom and vocabulary.
W. H. Auden

His views regarding the Poet as A Maker:

      Auden in his verse, "can argue, reflect joke, gossip, sing, analyze, lecture, hector and simply talk; he can sound, at will like a psychologist, on a political platform, like a theologian at a party, or like a geologist in love; he can give dignity and authority to nonsensical theories and make newspaper headlines sound both true and melodious." Auden is a devotee to the art or words.

      As an artist and experimenter, Auden showed intellectual curiosity and picked up ideas, facts and suggestions from several quarters. He was influenced in his technique by Eliot, Owen, Hopkins and the French symbolists.

      "From Eliot came the symbolic method, the use of modern imagery and of abstract expression; from Owen the use of assonance, and internal rhyme; from Hopkins 'Sprung Rhythm', and from both Eliot and Hopkins the example of severe condensation, at whatever pains to the reader."

Auden as An Inspired Artist:

      Auden plays with words with delight and uses them with extraordinary skill. He has saved many words from oblivion by constantly hunting dictionaries for the most appropriate word. It was primarily in search for a new idiom and a new word usage that he went to America, and in this way sought to enrich the English language Auden believed that the poet is a Maker' he makes language and then makes poetry out of that language. Therefore words for him are of the utmost significance.

      Auden speaks of poetry as a "game of knowledge", he is genuine and true to his utterance specially on philosophical and theological terms. He has vast knowledge in theology and philosophy, which he has imparted in his poems.

      To Auden, a poet was "a kind of chemist who mixed his poems out of words, while remaining detached from his own feelings. Feelings and emotional experiences were only the occasion which participated into his mind the idea of a poem."

      This point of view is basically anti-romantic and, therefore, to judge his poetry from the romantic standpoint is to do great injustice to his poetry.

Pivotal theme of Auden's Poetry:

      The pivotal theme of Auden's poetry was the psychological, the social and moral. As an artist he has looked for a "verbal, contraption", an "artistic fabrication" that would present a faithful analogy to the good life and the good place; by the beautiful coordination of its several elements suggesting the reconciliation of turbulent and contradictory feelings in the mind of the individual, and the peaceful and fruitful co-existence of human beings in a community.

      Auden studied the life of the common men and the social problems confronting him in the post-war world. He was disgusted with the anemic social order and advocated violent social reforms for bringing about a change in society. He worked for a revolution of communistic lines for the regeneration of the downtrodden and miserable masses. Auden shows clearly in his early poetry a faith in violent social revolution as a means of ushering in a better social order. He was all for the 'proletariat', and his sympathies were for the 'unloved' and the unlucky. His poetry became extremely class-conscious and was dominated by the Marxian view of society. He worked above all for the creation of a society in which the real and the living contact between man and man, may again become possible.

      Auden came under the influence of Freud and his psychological approach to the problems of human life, He was also influenced by the teaching of Homer Lane, He laid emphasis on "change of heart" for the betterment of the common people. He wanted better understanding among the high brows rather than a sentimental sympathy for the sick. For Auden pity was a sterile and evil thing. A real change of heart was needed for the settlement of human life.

Auden's Questing Hero:

      Auden though markedly a poetic "free agent", he has been a free agent after the fashion of his own favorite character, the 'Questing Hero', who has haunted his creative and critical work for thirty years. His 'quest' has been at once for the perfect verse form and for the good place, for a stable poetic voice and for the Good Life, for an audience for whom he may write and for a coherent community in which the isolated individual may take his place. The figure of the wanderer, the quest hero, constantly serves in Auden's poetry; his landscapes are always landscapes with a lonely figure wandering through them.

      The symbolic pattern of the Quest appears, as we have seen, in Auden's early poetry: the individual is singled out for a terrifying responsibility, is required to leave his comfortable life for a dangerous mission. In the early verse, this pattern has no very definite conceptual meaning. The individual chosen has no special qualifications. He is not a Hero; no distinction between the Average and the Exceptional is implied. The sonnet sequence, The Quest is Auden's fullest exploration of the rich complex of meaning in this pattern.

      The Door of the first sonnet is the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and the theme is, roughly, that most of our troubles, political and personal, stem from the unconscious, the religious, or semi-religious, contrast between self-love and unselfish love is the basis of The City and of the three following sonnets, describing the temptations which reduce exceptional individuals from the quest and which end in egoism and isolation.

Rapid Movement and Piling up of details in his Poetry:

      Auden writes freely, easily, restlessly and voluntarily turning from style to style and from subject, exploring the potentialities of a situation or an idea, an image or form tone of voice, a verse forum or a rhythmic cadence. Formal or organic unity will not be the outstanding characteristic of a poem by Auden. Rather, a poem of Auden's will be a rapid, easy moving piling up of idea upon idea, image upon image, insight upon insight; "a loosely cohering amalgam of brilliant, idio-syncretic details", might be the best, brief description of a poem by Auden.

      Auden is one of the versatile and prolific of poets in the English language. His span of active literary production covers a period of over thirty-five years. During this long span of time, he has been extraordinarily active and he has written on an immense variety of themes, and experimented with every imaginable mode, style and technique. He has constantly been becoming, changing and growing different. So he had to adopt new ideas and pile them up in his writings, and the change was also very rapid which gave his writings dignity.

Auden's Concept of Good Life and Good Place:

      Auden, during a visit to Berlin in 1929, came into contact with the doctrines of the American psychologist, Homer Lane. Auden was particularly interested in Lane's theories of the psychological cause of disease - of one's refusal to make use of one's creative powers, he or she grows a cancer instead etc. Auden was influenced by the well-known psychologist like Freud. The need for change was felt by the psychologists. They believed that a 'change of heart would change society. Auden in the earliest phase under the influence of psychologists came to believe in the blessedness of life, despite all its imperfections, Auden's definition of the good life and the good place have changed very largely in the over thirty-five years he has been writing; and this also contributes largely to the sense of fluid variety left by his work. As a poet Auden leaves the impression of being a man engaged in an extremely private and personal pursuit, or "quest"; who seizes hopefully and experimentally on whatever dogmatic language offers itself at the moment but who maintains a fairly detached and arbitrary relation to the dogmatism he uses. Thus though Auden was called as the best of the political poets of the nineteen-thirties, it is perhaps to the point that the one "terminology" to which Auden has held consistently through his career is the terminology of the romantic fable or fairy tales. To quote Barbara Everett, "The language and the imaginative world of fable and fairy are closer to his essential concerns poet as a pact than is any doctrinal or dogmatic language whatever." Auden himself has made it very clear that he is a Christian poet of the nineteen-thirties. No poet has produced so many wonderfully clear strong inspiring call-to-action, slogans, commands and injunctions.

Auden's Waste-Land:

      T.S. Eliot was the strongest influence on the young English poets of the 1930s. After the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, Eliot had become a recognized force in English poetry. Younger poets looked upon him as their model and he remained the literary dictator' for a whole generation of poets and critics. Auden too came under his spell even while he was a student at oxford. He is reported to have told his tutor at Christ Church that "only Eliot was worth the serious consideration of poetic aspirants." Auden therefore closely studied Eliot's poetry and criticism assimilated in various theories and later developed them in the light of his personal ideas and belief. Auden's works will leave anyone convinced about his great catholicity of taste and profound understanding of tradition, respect for which he might have learned from his early master T.S. Eliot.

      As an undergraduate at Oxford, Auden studied the work of T.S. Eliot which immediately and lastingly influenced his own; he learned to analyze his own Waste Land or Land, cut off that he found in England around him, an England that was the antithesis of the "good place". The scene that the "stranger" sees is at once a symbol of an industrial economy moving into its last, ruinous stages, and of the psychological malaise accompanying such ruin; the men who live in such a world are also sterile, "frustrated and vexed". Auden's setting is provided by the countryside around Birmingham the great Midland's industrial city where he grew up, and one of the first to show the signs of economic decay and distress at this period; Auden has found in this period a highly personal vision of a world and a psyche that is in the last stages of fear, sterility and death, which awaits a catastrophic destruction.

The Conflict of Opposites:

      Auden was interested that is to say, in the political situation in so far as it offered objective analogies of a personal conflict. As a religious' poet, Auden is using very much the same fables of duality, though their terminology differs. The divided liberal has become the Kierkegaardian divided mind, aspiring "will one thing', and the quest has become a pilgrimage. Hence as a "political" poet Auden's principal subject was the profound division of sympathies in the middle-class leftist, who was torn between the corrupt middle classes he liked and the pure working classes he felt he ought to like. Between his feeling for England, Home and Beauty and his feeling for "the Marxist ideal", between fantasies of private love and facts of public service Auden's poetry is a battle-ground of opposites which the poet always tried to harmonize and reconcile, and this he could achieve only towards the end of his career when he acquired a "Comic vision". The battle of dualism animates all Auden's work in many different form; the individual and society, Freedom and Law, Poetry and Reality, Art and life, the Aesthetic and the Ethical, the poet and the city. These irreconcilable dualities are certainly expressible in political and theological terminology.

      Auden has continually attempted to reconcile the contraries and dualities that haunted his mind-Freedom and Necessity, Isolation and Community, Art and Reality; and he has done so in a terminology that was, in the earlier part of his career, political, in a very romantic and personal way, as it was later 'religious' in a very romantic and personal way.

      The charge that Auden's constant revisions and alterations prove that he was without any development as a poet is made mainly by critics who have a basically romantic conception of poetry and who, therefore, regard all revisions and alterations as a 'desecration'. Auden very careless about polishing his verses, but he was neither irresponsible nor frivolous and it is not correct to say, as Beach does, that "the success of any individual poem was a pure accident". Auden had the great gift of a poet and a greater technical competence than most poets of our time, and he has written some great poetry too; which succeeds not be 'pure accident' but because of its intrinsic qualities as has been shown elsewhere in this study

Auden's Emotional Involvement with the Contemporary Scene:

      In various later autobiographical passages, Auden has described the extreme fascination that such scenes held for him in his childhood and youth; the strange feeling, akin to romantic love ruined workings, scenes of industrial decay, evoked in him. Such a letting - the antithesis of the analytical condemnation - is implied and insisted on. The trenchant and energetic heroes of the Norse Sagas have come to color in his poetry the very different world of England in the nineteen thirties.

Continuity of Auden's Poetry:

      Auden creates an almost symbolic bird's-eye view of "gothic" North and "Sunburnt" South, that illustrates a thesis to be expanded easily, leisurely, and at some distance from the personal. The heroic tone has been dismissed. The poet's quest continues but instead of the good state, the quest is now for the city of God. The later Auden - widely traveled and for some twenty years an American citizen - sees Europe with a different eye.

Auden's Achievement:

      Auden is a great representative poet who has distilled the very spirit of his age in his poetry over the long period of thirty-five years, and faithfully recorded the fluctuations of that spirit during this long stretch of time. He has his own individual way of saying things, which may look eccentric at the first glance, but once it is understood, it is a to be extremely forceful, and adequate - the highly original voice of a great master. There is no denying the fact that Auden's work is uneven and is mingled by frequent eccentricities. Auden was the most important and influential English poet after Eliot, and remained so until his death in 1973. In 1970 John Fuller remarked that "for breadth, Wisdom, myth, moral power and sheer technical excitement, he is the greatest living poet writing in English". But Auden's reputation has not always been the same. When he began writing poetry, critics saw in him a poet of great promise, a prodigy, a Messiah, and recognized him as the leader of a literary group committed to a radical political program.

      Unlike the Romantics, Auden was keen to communicate his views to his readers and if possible, to establish a rapport with them. As early as 1936 he remarked, "Those who have no interest in communication do not become artists either; they become mystics or mad men". As for himself, he said, "personally, the kind of poetry I should like to write - is the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people."

      Auden wrote so variously and copiously that he baffled his readers. He was remarkable at ease with his ideas though they changed strikingly during his long life. It has been said that his power of assimilating influences was extraordinary. He assimilated American idiom in an even more living way than he did the English. He was a born craftsman. He enlivened English verse as few poets have done in our century. He tried more traditional genres than most modern poets.

      Neither Freud nor Marx could give a complete solution for the ills of mankind, for the disease of modern society. It was Auden who could find out the real cause of the illness and so tried to make his society free from this disease.

      This makes Auden a modern poet totally different from the other contemporary poets. Even without knowing the author's name, any reasonably sensitive reader or a poem by W.H. Auden would speedily be aware that he was looking at a 'modern' poem. Regardless of how traditional the stanza form might be, the tone, diction, and imagery work together to make a poem unmistakably, post-victorian. From the beginning Auden has wanted his skill in playing with words to stimulate efforts toward moral reform in his readers, but by the middle 1930s, when the basic terms of his characteristic mode had reached maturity, he was conscious of two crucial problems. First, he felt compelled to reject the direct communication of moral truth. At the same time, his probing of the human psyche convinced him that direct preaching at an audience was simply ineffective. Highly self-conscious himself, he saw that modern readers would have to be trapped into self-awareness by indirect means. Since about 1935, then, most of his developments in manner and technique grew out of his search for more effective, though always indirect didactic means. His philosophical position has changed over the years, but the root problems of writing a poem in his mode have not. In every poem, he seeks a poetic strategy which can surprise, shock, or seduce his reader into serious self-examination, but simultaneously he seeks to avoid prejudging the terms in which the self-assessment should take place.

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