Ballad and Folk-song: in W. H. Auden's Poetry

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      A ballad is a poem or song with short verses, which tells a popular story. Ballad is a very well-known technique in English literature. From his attempts at popular light verse, however, Auden did preserve an inclination toward this unserious poetic technique.

Auden's Relation with his Audience:

      The appeal of light verse for Auden Purpose of ballad goes beyond personal pleasure. In the perspective of cultural history, he finds that lightness in poetry reflects an intimate relation between the poet and his audience. The modern poet who inherits no sense of community with his readers finds himself in the paradoxical situation. What Auden can do, recognizing the problem is to manufacture lightness as a possible means of reopening communication. In the late 1930s light verse seemed to Auden for a time promising means for reacting a large audience. It also served indirectly as a stimulus to developing his unserious technique, suggested striking variations on folk figures presumable having wide cultural circulation. It sanctioned verse forms in which colloquial diction and witty rimes were appropriate. It provided a vehicle for treating serious, subject in an ironically lowbrow manner.

A ballad is a poem or song with short verses, which tells a popular story. Ballad is a very well-known technique in English literature. From his attempts at popular light verse, however, Auden did preserve an inclination toward this unserious poetic technique.
W. H. Auden

Three Kinds of Poetry:

      From 1935 Auden started making experiments in the light verse, By 1940 he had written many of his songs; he had tried out music-hall satire in his plays, and had worked substantially in the popular vein. In his 1938 anthology, The Oxford Book of Light Verse Auden has provided working definition of light verse. There are three kinds of poetry included in this volume: (a) Poetry written for performance, to be spoken or sung before an audience (e.g. Folk Songs). (b) Poetry intended to be read but having for its subject matter the everyday social life of its period or the experiences of an ordinary human being (e.g. the poems of Chaucer, Pope, Byron). (c) Such nonsense poetry as, through its properties and technique, has a general appeal (e.g. nursery rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear).

      Auden's own practice has been considerable in the last category. He develops an entire fully-two page section of his Collected Poetry to "Song and other musical pieces". Into his second category fall many of his shorter poems and most obviously, Letter to Lord Byron, Auden offers a personal tribute to the poets in this third category, although he has written little nonsense poetry.

      Auden had a good background of music. He had been a singer and piano player. He said that the intention of writing for music produced new and beautiful kinds of poetry, and that it was a close association of poets and musicians that produced so rhythmical and poetry in the Elizabethan age. Auden's Look Stranger on this island is a beautiful musical poem.

      Auden's experience of writing something explicitly for music and often with the possibility of musical setting had a great effect on his poetry in general. He maintained his interest in the relation of music and poetry.

      Auden's belief that a poet should write objectively led him to write songs, for he thought of songs as "the least personal and most verbal." His fondness for light verse was also the consequence of his belief in the theory of objectivity in poetry. Auden wrote light verse not for the pleasure it gave but because lightness in poetry ensures a rather close relation between the poet and his audience. Light verse provided Auden a stimulus to develop his unserious technique. It also suggested striking variation on verse forms in which colloquial diction and witty rhymes were appropriate. It provided a vehicle for treating serious subjects in an ironically lowbrow manner. Auden, therefore, tried his hand at all kinds of light verse-madrigal, limerick, clerihew blues and ballad. He excelled in ballad which in his hands revived the case and flexibility of the folk type.

      Auden's experiments in light verse provided him an opportunity to explore the principle of poetic unexpectedness. He had learned from Kierkegaard that - "the most direct source of aesthetic interest is the unexpected or the incongruous. Auden continued to apply this principle to his poetry and made it a part of his technique even in his later poetry. His ability to make the most serious point in an unserious way led Stephen Splendor to remark that a kind of frivolity is dominant in Auden's poetry. Auden successfully cultivated the style in which he could treat the most serious subjects in a trivial way. Since 1940 Auden began to assert that the world of poetry should not be taken as something more serious than "Playway Hypothesis" though after the Second World War he stopped writing songs and instead started writing Opera Libretti. Whereas in the song the poet is usually dominant, in the libretti, the poet provides the composer with the maximum of musical opportunities. Auden's contribution to the rehabilitation of Opera libretti is mentionable.

Auden's Use of Ballad Form:

      Auden preserved an inclination toward unserious poetic technique from his attempts at popular light verse. The Ballad As I walked out one evening is one of Auden's most exemplary production. The poem is introduced by a common folk-song mouth-piece, the passive observer whose reports appear trustworthy because they are carefully detailed: He even specifies that his walks took him down Bristol Street. This persona disappears in the second stanza behind the lover, who is overheard singing from under an arch of the railway. The location of the lovers, implying a quick mating under the bridge. His song is filled With overstated claims for his love in typical folk-song manner:

I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up dry.

      Time insistently catalogs the terrors of human existence in stanza six. The description of the "land of the dead" depicts an invasion of the pleasant fairy-tale world of childhood:

Where the beggars raffle the bank notes
And the Giant is enchanting to jack,
And Lily white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

      In the last line, there is the unexpected colloquialism. It has further been emphasized by rime and so most effective. The reader is startled into greater attention by the slang that he may never have encountered before in a poem.

      The poem retains the ease and flexibility of a fold-ballad. The ballad meets the demands of distinguished.

Auden's Incongruousness:

      Auden seems to believe that the most direct source of aesthetic interest is the unexpected or incongruous. For example, a clergyman who steals is aesthetically interesting: one who simply performs all his duties properly is dull. To exploit this principle, Auden establishes in the reader's mind a series of expectation which he then disappoints by injecting the incongruous. The lover in As I Walked out express an extravagant romantic infatuation, which no one expected to take seriously. Similarly, the falling in love of Victor with Anna, their marriage, the murder of Anna by Victor when he comes to know her as a faithless wife, all these things make the reader guess the sentimental overstatement.

Summing up:

      The appeal of light verse for Auden goes beyond personal pleasure. Auden in his ballads and other folk-songs follows the collective emotion. We can take the two poems Miss Gee and Victor to establish this point.

      Miss Gee believes in the conventional Christian virtues, being orthodox Christian. She could have made her life happy and comfortable if she had not believed in chastity as a religious virtue. The very self-denial of physical desires proved her doom. Auden mocks at puritans and gives the view that religion hampers the normal growth of a personality. Auden through the character of Miss Gee brings into focus the callousness of the world that goes an undisturbed on the death of Miss Gee. The poet makes the readers aware to the fact where the cause of moral distress and unhappiness actually lies. To quote John Fuller, "Miss Gee responses her sexuality into guilty dreams about the victor, and thus develops an incurable tumor. The ballad is not intended to be a psychologically subtle or sympathetic character study, but a direct piece of polemic, rather Brechtian in tone. Our natural desires may defeat us if we deny them. The point about the Oxford Gropers dissecting her knee is that such a pious and sanctimonious movement as Moral Rearmament has a totally irrelevant notion of where the cause of moral distress and unhappiness lies.

      In the poem Victor, a boy, living in the rustic atmosphere, has been taught by his father to follow all the traditional Christian rituals and injunctions. The strength of the poem lies in Christian words and phrases juxtaposed to colloquial phrases and words of day-to-day life. The poem shows "how a repressed personality can break out into religious mania when faced with a sexual situation it is unable to control. Victor"'s impulse to murder his faithless wife arises both from a hinted sexual inadequacy and from what Auden later called "the constant tendency of the spiritual life to degenerate into an aesthetic performances spiritual dialogues with nature confirms only the projection of his own neurosis into the real world, the Super-ego acting as the supposed agent of the divine. The violence of the story (both in Victor and Miss Gee) is suited more to the genre of popular ballad than. are the mere commonplace."

      This ballad may be taken to be a satire on religious fanatics as well as on the distorted values of the contemporary wasteland. It also brings out evil consequences of sexual repression. Victor is one of the sick of the Auden world and he has been treated with comic contempts.

      Dennis Davision's comments are noteworthy in this reference Victor is a comic Victorian-melodrama written in the form of a ballad. It is the tale of a 'mousey' bank cashier whose goody piety is the result of paternal puritanical indoctrination. Not, perhaps, that a regard for the family, name, telling the truth, or remaining pure in heart, can as such be labeled puritanism, but Auden's comic details suggest that Victor's religious instruction was purely theoretical, having no contact with concrete living: The naive and untested piety of Victor reading his Bible in bed at the 'respectable boarding-house, is hardly of any help to him when he falls madly in love with the seductive Anna, who, far no very convincing reason, finally agrees to marry him. When victor accidentally hears the other clerks boasting of their affairs with Anna (God, what fun! had with her / In that Baby Austin Car) he weeps, and in bewilderment question the God he had been taught to believe in this tormented state he hears voices telling him to kill Anna, and there follows the episode, a curious mixture to comedy and horror, as Victor chases Anna round the house with a carving knife. After he has murdered Anna, like an avenging religious fanatic, Victor is taken away in a van, insanely calling himself the son of man"

      Actually, Auden through this ballads continued to extol the virtues of lowbrow art and bring the poetry to the reach of people who do not read poetry as a means of enjoyment.

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