Anti-Romanticism: Modern Poetry of W. H. Auden

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      Anti-Romanticism is the opposite of romanticism. It may share some attitudes and attributes with Classicism. The poems which are characteristically ironic, indirect and impersonal are "anti-romantic". The relationship of "anti-Romanticism" to "classicism" may require some clarification since the latter is the traditional term opposed to "romanticism". Classicism generally implies a world-view based on principles which happen to be opposed to those of Romanticism. Anti-Romanticism is designed in reaction against Romanticism. Auden's all poems are concerned with modern problems and other various issues. In all his poems Auden has exposed these problems and its solutions in disguise of satire.

      The anti-Romanticism of Eliot's concern for tradition is made clear early in "Tradition and the Individual Talent", He proposes that both critic and the poet become conscious of the relation of each new work to the existing order of works. The effect of Eliot's conception is to devalue the unique, subjective and "Original" qualities in poetry so valued by the Romantics.

The anti-Romanticism of Eliot's concern for tradition is made clear early in "Tradition and the Individual Talent", He proposes that both critic and the poet become conscious of the relation of each new work to the existing order of works. The effect of Eliot's conception is to devalue the unique, subjective and "Original" qualities in poetry so valued by the Romantics.
W. H. Auden

Auden was Influenced by Eliot:

      During his Oxford years, starting in 1926, Auden came in touch with the theories of Eliot which define the general outlines of the modern mode, and then went on to carry the same principles further than his master. Auden was not a slavish follower of Eliot's theories. He has developed Eliot's ideas into his own distinctive contribution to modern poetry and this have led him even further into anti-Romanticism.

      For the purpose of describing Auden's particular version of the modern, we may divide Eliot's conception of poetry into three major areas of concern : (1) the relation of the poet to the body of existing poetry - that is the problem of tradition; (2) the relation of the poet as a man to his poem as an aesthetic artifact - that is the problem of personality; and (3) the relation of the poem to the audience - that is the problem of communication. Eliot's position in all three of these categories may be roughly described as anti-Romantic and as formulated in reaction against dominant literary notion of the nineteenth century.

Auden: The Anti-Romantic Modern:

      From the beginning Auden has wanted his skill in playing with words to stimulate efforts towards 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 the crucial problem. First, he felt compelled to reject the direct communication of moral truth as a presumptuous assertion of his own will to power, analogous in polities to fascism, 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. 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 reduce his reader into serious self-examination, but simultaneously he seeks to avoid prejudging the terms in which the self-assessment should take place.

      To create the tension another way he must create a poetic mirror which is incisive, memorable, while insisting only that the reader should see in it his own deepest self. Paradoxically, one of Auden's difficulties in achieving this elusive and in his brilliance of technique. Each new poetic deftness contrived to circumvent or may allow him to be satisfied with himself for perceiving that brilliance. The poetic technique which makes didactic effectiveness possible may be just that instrument which defeats itself. Wrestling with this was only the occasion which precipitated into his mind the idea of a poem.


      Auden's studious avoidance of the Romantics is understandable since he is fond of developing his own views in explicit rejection of the ideas of the earlier poetry. Auden therefore chooses to imitate the satiric and light verses of Burns, Byron and Blake rather that their more serious poem.

      Most pervasive in Auden's poetic theory and practice is the impersonality enunciated by Eliot:" Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality".

      Auden has justly seen the poet's task as impersonal and this makes him anti-Romantic. Stephen Spender gives reports of Auden's view that Auden told him that the subject of a poem was only the peg on which to hang the poetry. A poet was a kind of chemist who mixed his poems out of wards, whilst remaining detached from his own feelings. Feelings and emotional experiences Auden's Canzone can be discussed in this contest. It is one of the most Auden's inspired poems. With the repeated use of the words Day', Love', know, 'will' and 'world' Auden has brilliantly carried over his thought in this poem.

      The poet begins the poem by referring to the evil and wickedness rampant in the world. Ferocious dictators like Hitler and Mussolini are making a lot of noise. They have grown big like rhinoceros, and the cherished values of humanity are being denounced, violently and vehemently. The masses are absent-minded and unreactive, they are carried away by the 'Oratius' and 'Wooing poss', of their wicked, selfish rules, and are like dumb-driven cattle' in their hands. They cannot think for themselves and so become willing tools in the hands of the power crazy dictators. Disaster looms large on the horizon, and man's. salvation lies in his learning to love rightly.

      The poet in the poem has tried to make us understand that worldly wealth, power and status, and not any spiritual and cultural values are the object of human love in the modern sick world. This worldly wealth is dishonestly acquired, hence the poet refers to it as stolen language. But all this worldly wealth cannot give man that security and tranquility which his soul craves.

      The poet concludes on not of warning. If man fails to give up his selfishness and cultivate "universal love" there will be total ruin, death and desolation. Life will become empty and meaningless like a scarecrow. Selfish love Eros' will always lead to suffering, and 'Agape' is essential for human salvation.

      Though Auden in this poem conveys the message that only love is the true healer of the contemporary situation in the early forties but the notion of his love is totally different from that of Romantic poets. This love is not merely for enjoyment or pleasure paralyzing the emotions, it is rather an upliftment of intelligence and loosing of all senses to face the reality. It is not to accept the reality as it is but to accept what is should be. So note of anti-Romanticism prevails almost all the poems of Auden. In the poem New Year Letter also Auden has presented his anti-Romantic view.

      Paradoxical aesthetic moral problem has been Auden's major concern as a mature writer and an important stimulus to his inventiveness. The basic stances he has developed to deal with the problem constitute his poetic mode. In general orientation and method, the resulting poetry is clearly "modern". His poems are characteristically ironic and indirect, impersonal and largely "anti-poetic"

Auden's Search for an Audience:

      A poet must be able to locate audience to communicate with and this problem was a crucial one for Auden for many years. Though he may have wanted a more popular audience, he was settled most often for the educated and somewhat sophisticated literary public. A related opposition to Romanticism evoked Auden to search for an audience to communicate with. Though he may have wanted a more popular audience, he has settled most often for the educated and somewhat sophisticated literary public. The audience he could and did reach in the late 1930s was that of the educated middle class with left-wing or revolutionary sympathies. Marxism was only indirectly an influence on Auden's poetry. Auden felt that he could make his private vision public through a well-designed audience. So in the middle of 1930s he relied more than ever before on anti-Romantic impersonality in organizing his poems.


      There are two essential types of obscurity in Auden's early verse. First is obscurity created by his manipulation of language especially syntax and occasionally diction; second is obscurity resulting from the small self-contained audience Auden felt he could write for. Eliot had predicted that modern poetry must be difficult. Auden from 1926 till roughly 1935, seemed sometimes to take Eliot at his word and to manufacture obscurity so that he could be "modern". The anti-Romantic starkness of expression is the more startling because so many of the themes of these early poems reveal attitudes traditionally associated with Romanticism. Since the year 1940 Auden's themes become as consistently anti-Romantic as his mode of presenting them.

      Auden understood that the most direct source of aesthetic interest is the unexpected or the incongruous. Thus a clergyman who steals is aesthetically interesting; one who simply performs all his dutie properly is dull. Stephen Spender has suggested that a kind of frivolity is dominant in Auden's mode of poetry. He calls it a "serious insistence on unseriousness - on reducing the cosmos to the personal and gossipy even". Certainly Auden's handling of intensely serious subjects in apparently trivial terms in one of his most pervasive and delightful uses of poetic incongruity. What Auden has insisted on since 1940 is that the world of poetry must be taken as no more serious in itself than "playful hypothesis".


      There is a genuine resemblance between some of Auden's verse and some of Byron's, but these are precisely those aspects of Byron that are not typically romantic. 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 manmen".

      Specially anti-romantic in attitude Auden's verse form seems specially important in Auden's process of creation. To support his own statements we have his far-ranging exploration of different form, which reflect more than simply a craftsmen's interest in the tools of his trade.

      Perhaps his most dazzling piece of virtuosity is in canzone where sixty-five lines employ only five rime world altogether. The appeal of such traditional forms for Auden lies less in their belonging to the poetic heritage than in the complex and impersonal demands they make on his creative faculties.

      Auden is much attracted to an easy conversational tone and flexible rhythm which, in the fixed forms constitute a 'four de force' that cannot be repeated indefinitely. Less obviously the complex forms allow him to disguise formal control behind apparent case and fluidity and probably this has made him successful to portraying his anti-romantic attitude so magnificently apparent paradoxes. For example, interrupt the flow of the reader's comprehension and thus make him conscious of the verbal manipulation of meaning.

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