W. H. Auden: Consider as A Modernist Poet

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Controversy Over His Greatness as A Poet:

      It is quite hard for a poet or an artist to get recognition and, to maintain that recognition in the same way always. W.H. Auden's case was not exceptional too. In his early stage, when Auden began to write, critics saw in him a poet of great promise and recognised him as the leader of a literary group committed to radical political programmes. But after sometime, Auden made his critic disillusioned when they found him go back to the Christian fold and start religious poetry. Again, his migration to America also made his critic underestimate him and his lower position. According to F.R. Leavis "Auden had no future as a poet," Joseph Warren Beach, described Auden as a poet "uncertain of his own identity". He dismissed Auden as "careless, irresponsible and frivolous" and without any development as a poet.

Auden was criticized mainly on five grounds: (1) for leaving his political programme and betraying the people who had high hopes from him; (2) for migrating to America and writing religious poetry; (3) for his ideologies which were described as "a series of rationalization of his own psychological peculiarities", (4) for his constant revision and corrections which raised the question of his poet's identity; and (5) for not, being able to keep up the high standard of his poetry, and for having the mental equipment only of a minor poet.
W. H. Auden

      Auden was criticized mainly on five grounds: (1) for leaving his political programme and betraying the people who had high hopes from him; (2) for migrating to America and writing religious poetry; (3) for his ideologies which were described as "a series of rationalization of his own psychological peculiarities", (4) for his constant revision and corrections which raised the question of his poet's identity; and (5) for not, being able to keep up the high standard of his poetry, and for having the mental equipment only of a minor poet.

      In reply to the first charge Auden said that: "In the 1930s I thought that war could be stopped by opposing Fascism. We failed to do this, so idealized that subsequently nothing that I could do would be effective" Thus, it was only proper that Auden withdrew from politics when he felt that he could not serve any useful purpose by remaining in it.

      Against the second charge, it is said that Auden did not leave England out of despair or disgust with the English scene. Actually he left because of his convictions that "aloneness is man's real condition" Auden's genius is basically English. He no doubt retained his British character to the last, but he found England too small a country, too domestically intimate and, with much too homely a cultural life. He needed a large urban setting and a kind of anonymity which a big city like New York alone could provide him. Besides, America gave him a more detached attitude which he was trying to cultivate from the very beginning. After he was thirteen, he lost interest in religion, as most boys do at this age, but he continued to sing in his school choirs both as a student and as a teacher. He became particularly interested in loneliness, anxiety and fear, in "the lost, the lonely and the unhappy". No body would argue that these poems are as great as some of his early poems but no body can ignore them in studying the development of Auden as a poet. In the beginning, Auden contemplated cure through love, then through social revolution and finally through Christianity.

      In the first stage Auden's poetry was towards defining the concept of Love. The romantic poets basically had the idea that he was without any development as a poet. Whatever charges have been brought against Auden's poetry, he 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 by "pure accident" but because of its intrinsic qualities, as has been shown elsewhere in this study. The charge against Auden is that he could not maintain the high standard of his early verse. Besides, Auden's involvement in different things - politics psychology, religion and so on at different times and sometimes at the same time, created problems for him which he often could not resolve. He was of the opinion that a poet belongs to the whole of society and is not or should not be a solitary person hidden in the light of his own thought'. He wished to establish contact with the masses and that is why he tried to remove as many literary hindrances as he could in the way of establishing that contact. Thus he compels us to change our conception of a major poet.

      To Auden, a poet is "a kind of chemist who mixed his poems out of words, while remaining detached from his own feelings. Feelings and emotional experiences were the only occasion which precipitated into his mind the idea of a poem." This is basically an anti-romantic attitude.

      Actually if anyone judge Auden's poetry from romantic standpoint, he would definitely do wrong or injustice to his poetry. 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 communications do not become artists either; they become mystics or mad men." Auden was remarkably at ease with his ideas though they changed strikingly during his long life. He enlivened English verse as a few poets have done in our century.

Justification as A Great Modern Poet:

      To justify Auden as a great modern poet it can be said that Auden stands out among modern poets by his earnest effort to be a great modern thinker. He was well versed in history, philosophy and theology and had a remarkable grip on contemporary currents of thought in political theory, science and psychology. His virtuosity, and the versatility of his powers over language will long remain a source of inspiration and in course of time may earn him the title of the 'poet's poet'.

      Auden, actually did not want to restrict poetry to its quiet essential function, its purest and most intense manifestations as Eliot did. On the contrary he was opposed to all notions of artistic decorum. He, like others of his time, aimed at brevity, condensation rather than at diffuseness and elaboration. Professor Beach is right when he calls Auden "a typically modern poet", who "sedulously avoids the 'frontal attack' on his subject, whose thought is characteristically rendered by the 'oblique' or indirect method, the terms of his discourse being, not philosophical abstractions and plain statements of fact, but symbols, myths, and implication and whose effect are complicated by the use of such such rhetorical devices as irony, ambiguity and dramatic impersonation".

      Auden's extraordinary style and diction make his poetry strikingly obscure. Sometimes the style makes his poem difficult to understand. This difficulty and obscurity arises from the extreme density and epigrammatic terseness of his style. He often writes in a telegraphic style in which connections, conjunctions, articles, even pronouns, are often missing. Further difficulty is created by his frequent use of the terminology of modern psychology. Auden coins new words, and does not hesitate to use archaic, obsolete and unfamiliar, unusual words if they suit his purpose. Abstract nouns are personified and written with - a capital letter. Similarly objectives are turned into, nouns by the use of 'The' before them. In all these ways he makes his diction concrete and picturesque.

      In the modern age man is suffering from a sense of boredom. Man is lonely even in a crowd, and is spiritually dead. Auden has used different types of landscape to symbolise the spiritual and psychological states of the modern man, and so are his peoples and places. Auden has conveyed spiritual desolation of a sick industrial society by the use of desolate rocky landscapes.

      The final message of Auden's poetry, that life is a blessing and it must be accepted as such occurred as a sequence to his faith and universal love for the cure of human ills. The adoption of various style and technique by Auden made him to express his thought in a single way and his use of a long flowing line made his diction to grow simple and rhyme to become colloquial and conversational.

      Though there is much inequality in his work, though much inferior matter mingles with matter of the highest quality in his poetry, since his migration to America in 1940, there has been a decline in intensity in his works, still Auden is a major poet by virtue both of the quantity and quality of his work. His amazing versatility and virtuosity of his power over language will long remain a source of inspiration and in course of time, may earn him the title of 'the poet's poet'?

      Thus inspite of the apparent contradiction of his different phases, he was, in the words of Anthony Thwaite, "all-of-a piece". The shifting themes and poetic styles often, confuse the reader but in the body of his work one cannot fail to notice similarities of poetic attack and intent that are, in fact, predispositions of his imagination.

Auden's Achievement as A Modern Poet:

      Auden has been accepted as a leading poet and one whose influence was felt in much contemporary verse. It has been said that he merely followed the fashion; rather in his day he set the fashion. He came under the influence of Hopkins and Eliot, and like the latter, he was deeply aware of the hollowness of a disintegrating civilization during A time of crisis and dismay. But unlike Eliot, Auden found his solution to the world's problems in left-wing political ideologies. A spokesman of the masses, Auden showed clearly in his early poetry, a faith in violent social upheaval as a means to a better order. Yet, Auden was out-spokenly anti-romantic and like others in his group of writer friends, stressed the importance of 'clinical' and 'objective' attitudes. At times he over-simplified issues for the sake of emphasizing his radical views, he often swept on in generalizations; but he had the ability to experience and express the spirit of the age, the questionings and hopes and dreads of a generation about to confront fascism. However, the frequent image of a lone wonderer in an empty landscape makes one consider whether Auden himself had any sure faith in the creeds which supposedly were his guides. Modern influences strongly felt in his work were those of the psychologists, particularly of Freud; and Auden was profoundly conscious of sex and its importance in human relationships. His approach to everything around him was that of the intelligent intellectual, and he followed Eliot in his partiality for the poetry of the Metaphysicals, especially in their use of allegory and or detailed images unified into a pattern.

      Technically, Auden was an artist of great virtuosity, a ceaseless experimenter in verse form, with a fine ear for the rhythm and music of words. Stephen spender, described Auden as the most accomplished technician then writing poetry in English. Essentially modern in tone, Auden had a wide variety of styles-often he wrote with a noisy jazziness and gaiety, often in a cynically satirical vein, and on occasions he could be slangly 'tough'.

Auden's Influence on Modern Poetry:

      There are two schools of thought regarding calling him a modern poet. Some modern writers are of the opinion that he is a great poet who has exercised influence on modern poetry. They feel he is modern with some reservations. John Blair called him a second generation modern. They are of opinion that he was old fashioned and traditional in his views, concepts, dogmas and ethics.

      This view has been contrasted. Most of the modern critics has stressed that he is modern through and through. He exercised great influence on contemporary ideas and topical evil. He can turn inward when he wants. He leaves his poetry as obscure as any modern poet. Modern age is highly obscure. It is because of the fact that there is too much sense of loss and anxiety. Most of his poems are like the Waste Land of T.S. Eliot. Hence the modern generation owes too much to Auden. Modern poets can get popularity if they interpret the modern society and modern concepts. The note of modernity is due to obscurity of the poet.

      He has influenced the modern poets because of his technique. All the modern poet imitate his modern technique. Younger poets noted in him a stylistic and versatile person who has changed according to the modern circumstances. Our age has no fixed motives, views and concepts. If we compare with the Victorian age, the modern man has to put heart and soul to probe into various concepts. Victorian age and modern age are poles apart. Victorian man has views which are not changeable. But modern society has deep rooted obscurity. Hence Auden influenced the modern poetry and drama. Prof. Beach, a great modern critic calls Auden a typically modern poet. He says, "Auden sedulously avoids the 'frontal attack' on his subject, whose thought is characteristically rendered by the 'oblique' or indirect method, the terms of his discourse being not philosophical abstractions and plain statements of fact, but symbols, myths, and implications, and whose effect are complicated by the use of such rhetorical devices as irony, ambiguity and dramatic impersonation. We may conclude that like other poets of out time he, aims at brevity, condensation rather than at diffuseness and elaboration.

      Auden's influence is tremendous because he stands out among modern poets by his earnest effort to be a great modern thinker. He has a remarkable grip on history, philosophy and theology and contemporary currents and cross currents of thought. His political theory, science and psychology have great impact on all poets of second generation. Some critics regard him the "poets' poet" because of his source of inspiration.

Auden's Influence on Modern Poetry is Undeniable, because he is the anti-Romantic:

      Most of the modern poets have imitated him. Their style is also anti-romantic. Modern poet should be detached and objective. His theory of objective co-relative have been copied. "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". His poem are characteristically ironic and indirect, impersonal and largely "anti-poetic". In general orientation and method, the exalting poetry is clearly modern.

      He is anti-romantic like the modern poets because he is a didactic poet. "In place of the primary Romantic uses of poetry for self-expression or celebration of the poet's sensibility, he substitutes a dominant concern for what the poem can accomplish for the audience. If autobiographical details are present in the poem, their origins will be irrelevant. Auden asks acceptance of his vision not because it is unique or because it is his, but because the reader, he hopes, will feel compelled to recognize its relevance to his: personal: existence. The poem in other words, becomes a performance for the sake of the audience.

      "...Auden sees each man as independently responsible for evaluating every suggestion of what he should be or become. What the teacher and the poet do is to offer fresh perspectives which are worthy of a place in an individual's critical self-examination. To take the poem literally is to twist it into a command or a moral imperative".

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