Canzone: by W. H. Auden - Summary and Analysis

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      Canzone was written in the late thirties or early forties. The lyric shows Auden's horror at the destructive forces let loose by Hitler and Mussolini, and his strong feeling that only 'agape', or universal love can, save humanity from total destruction. It is not one of Auden's inspired poems.

      Canzone is written in continental form, instead of English or American. Continental form means the repetition of two or three words at the end of the lines. This poem uses only five end words - 'will', 'day', 'world', 'know', and 'love'. Auden did more with the continental form than any other poet. This continental form helps the poet to maintain continuity and to carry on the theme from stanza to stanza.

The poem Canzone has six stanzas of twelve lines and five end words. Each line of the end-words is one of the five rhyme words in the order established by taking the sequence in the first rhyme word in each five basic stanzas.


      In the first stanza, the poet begins by referring to the evil and wickedness in the world. The poet says that people in this world are not free to love; they have no choice in love. Talking in terms of the evolution of man, he says that the mouse of yesterday has become an enraged rhinoceros of today. The values of life are now threatened. Everybody criticizes the modern world. The world is inhabited by absent-minded people and is ruled by wild-men. Such a world is bound to meet its destruction. The mad rulers of the world thrive on the resentments of the 'whole phyla'. We are being provoked and tempted to march on the high road to destruction. Disaster looms large on the horizon, and man's salvation lies in his learning to love rightly. Eros must be turned into 'Agape', there is no other choice open to man Dictators like Hitler are pleased to disturb or destroy the world.

      In the second stanza, the poet says that human beings are created in the world to suffer. This world is full of miseries and problems. Whether one is in the dream-world or in the world of actual existence, he is required to love those objects which have no fixed place of living. In other words, our attachment to materialism makes us love those objects in the world, which are transitory. Our self-centeredness makes us crave a world that may satisfy our physical desires only and nothing sublimating in it. The poet says that man should give up such 'dreadful appetites', transform 'Eros' into 'Agape' and regeneration will follow.

      The poet in this stanza says that the people of the present age are suffering from emotional-mental diseases marked by depression and ill-grounded fears. Dictators bring destruction in the world to achieve power and materialistic gains, but ultimately they achieve nothing. Actually, love requires self-denial, forgiveness and rising about selfish physical desires, but in the present materialistic world, it is not possible. Man's selfish love makes him psychologically ill. He does whatever he likes and then destroy the world, and gradually he becomes more and more ferocious.

      Such destructive rage is blind and unproductive. Those who want to possess and dominate those who are selfish and self-centered, cause destruction and are ultimately consumed. The poet warns us against such selfish love and asks to love all without distinction. Only love in the Christian sense can save humanity from the violent dog like Hitler and Mussolini.

      The poet in the fourth stanza says that worldly wealth, power and status, and not any spiritual and cultural values are the object of human love in the modern sick world. Addressing his beloved, the protagonist of the poem says she should be knowing better about matters of love. He (the protagonist) believes that materialism is not capable of providing any security. As the merchants are well-trained in their worldly affairs, so is his beloved expert in love. In the mirror of beloved's face, he can see the chaos of heart. The poet in this stanza says more that love requires forgiveness, but man in the modern age is not capable of it. One has to forget many things in love, but even that is not possible in the present age.

      In this stanza, the poet ironically addresses his beloved as "dear flesh, dear mind, dear spirit, O dear love." The poet knows very well that love in the true sense of the word is present in his soul, but then the monsters of his selfish, greedy desires, his wicked impulses and instincts cannot tolerate the presence of 'Agape' or universal love. His selfish instinct, hot and passionate like fierce are impatient and aggressive. They crave for immediate satisfaction and can tolerate no restraint or control. They simply rush towards every object of their love which can gratify the sensual man. But true love does never forgive any evil. The God of love tries and tests man in various ways, and those who are successful in the trial are suitably rewarded. Universal love is really a very difficult task but its performance is rewarded. The poet wants his beloved to join him in praising the God of love.

      In this concluding stanza, the poet says that selfish love or 'Eros' will always lead to suffering. So 'Agape' is extremely essential for human salvation. In case one becomes aggressive in love, he makes the present life 'a scarecrow'. Everything in his life will be at sixes and sevens. The present life will be ruined. If we want to save a life from utter destruction, we should follow the path of universal love forgetting and forgiving everything. The poet says that either we should love or die. There is no other alternative.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      The poem Canzone has six stanzas of twelve lines and five end words. Each line of the end-words is one of the five rhyme words in the order established by taking the sequence in the first rhyme word in every five basic stanzas. The same order of rhyme words is maintained in all second lines, third lines, and so on. The end-words are, of course, theological, and in a style serious but not ironically elevated. The style is capable of moving easily from the colloquial to the high.

      Canzone is a highly abstract and metaphysical poem, wherein the poet talks about the corruption in the world. The corrupted world makes people corrupted. The poem makes an interesting reading, especially to those who find Auden's theology in these years as an instructive.

      The poem begins by referring to the exile and wickedness in the world. Ferocious dictators like Hitler and Mussolini are making a lot of noise. Their torture and autocracy have violently and vehemently denounced the values of humanity. The people are absent-minded and unreflective, they are carried away by the 'orations' and 'wooing poses' of their wicked, selfish rules and are like 'dumb-driven cattle' in their hands. As the people cannot think for themselves, they become willing tools in the hand of the power-crazy dictators. To love rightly can only give men salvation and there is no other way. Auden says man suffers due to his selfish materialistic desires. He lives and moves either in a world of romantic notions which can not be realized, or he is greedy for worldly wealth and power, which too cannot be achieved. Man is selfish, he loves himself alone. From his self-centeredness result his panic and despair. His spiritual deadness and psychological fears are also the result of this self-centeredness. The 'dreadful appetites' should be given up an the 'Eros' should be transformed into 'Agape'. Universal love is necessary to save mankind from utter destruction. Melancholy and depression are wide-spread. People have grown lethargic and their wills are paralyzed. They are unable to act. The result is that the power-hungry dictators have grown all-powerful and deliver fiery speeches to incite them to their own destruction. But the dictators will never be able to get their hearts to desire in spite of their violence and destructive fury. Wordly wealth and not any spiritual and cultural values are the object of human love in the modern sick world. But all these worldly wealth cannot give man that security and tranquillity, which his soul craves for. If man wants spiritual peace and security, he must love all, and be prepared to forgive and forget. The poet says that to give up self-centeredness is difficult but its performance is always rewarding.


      In the early forties, Auden produced dazzling poems like "Kairos and Logos" with his extraordinary technical virtuosity. Auden had wanted to try out what he could do in virtually every form which was only possible in modern English. It is said that Canzone is his most dazzling piece of virtuosity. The continental form of the poem helps the poet to carry on the theme from stanza to stanza.

      In this lyric Auden shows his awareness of the contemporary situation in the early forties and prescribes his own cure. The only remedy for this dangerous disease is love in the Christian sense. Thus the lyric is concerned with Auden's Christian conception of love.

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