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

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      Auden's poem Lakes was first published in New Poems by American Poets in 1953. The poem was reprinted in The Shield of Achilles, 1955. It forms part of a series called Bucolies, seven poems in different meters and displaying Auden's technical exuberance and virtuosity. Each poem is written in a different meter and stanza. Auden has used a special kind of diction. 'These poems are essentially Auden's commentary on the kinds of people who would have lakes, mountains, valleys etc. as their ideal innocent places. The nature of the countryside can also project the general condition of a civilization. Nearly every image from a landscape is moralized or humanized. These Bucolics are not conventional pastoral verses but philosophic meditations on natural forces and the qualities in a man that they symbolize.

      The lakes that W. H. Auden is concerned with are charmingly described in family-sized terms. Anything larger is, he says, "estranging sea, which separates one human being from another. Of the seven, Lakes is perhaps the least serious. This is in keeping with the theme that lakes are human and cosy in contrast with the 'estranging sea'. This coziness is reflected in the deliberately homely idea that Nature is to be measured by Man, as the opening lines comically declare:

A lake allows an average father, walking slowly
To circumvent it in an afternoon,
And any healthy mother to hallow the children
Back to her bedtime from their games across


Auden's Poem Lakes contrasts the humanity and cosines of lakes with the estranging and alien quality of oceans and rivers. The poem also suggests that they are usually false Eden.


      In the first stanza of the poem, a lake symbolizes the concept or family unity. A father can go for a walk on the banks of a lake. A mother, on the other hand, can call her children back home in the evening, from across the lake, when they have done with their games. Anything bigger than such a family-sized lake, for instance, lake Michigan in America, or lake Baikal in Russia, is like 'estranging sea', which separates one human being from another.

      In the second stanza, it is said that the people living on lakes do not suffer from any psychological fear. They are by nature, realistic and alert. Like romantics, they do not fight "with their shadows over blasted health". Since they are not psychological ill, they are not aggressive in their action and attitudes - they are not split personalities. Those living on the banks of rivers, if happen to live in lake district for a month, will forget rivalry and develop mutual understanding and affection.

      This stanza refers to the painting on the walls of catacombs which is one of the symbols of the early Christian representing communion with Christ. Christ is known as Fisherman who had been fishing for lost souls. Saint Paul had to face stiff opposition when went to preach Christianity. He was sent to prison and was tortured. Then the prophets of Christianity started preaching through symbols. The symbol of "three small fishes in a triangle signifies communion with Christ."

      The first council of the churches (Roman Catholics) was held on 'the Ascanian lake' at Nicaea in Bithynia (in Asia minor) at which Constantine made Asianism heretical. Therefore Christianity started from the Ascanian lake.

      In the fourth stanza, it is shown that in the modern age clever and hypocritical Foreign Ministers meet beside lakes to negotiate and discuss their mutual problems. When they walk clockwise or anticlock-wise direction they hurriedly rush toward lakes like two old donkeys that are out of breath because of exertion. But this mere physical meeting of the Foreign Ministers may not guarantee the end of wars and destruction wrought by them, though it might help to stop the war for a short while.

      The poet in this stanza says that it would be very wicked of a man who is drowning in mid-Atlantic Ocean to think that Poseidon (god of Sea) has been cruel in marking him as a fit individual to be drowned. In fact, sea does not show compassion to anybody; it treats the whole humanity equally. On the other hand, a man who is drowning in a lake of the modest scale has a sense of fatalism, he thinks that he is being taken care of by "the little lady of the glacier lake".

      In this stanza, the drinking water of the city that come from reservoirs is neither comparable to the sea nor to a lake. The drinking water comes from the reservoirs. The guards are always afraid of being followed for neglecting their duty like Webster's cardinal who saw something horrible in a fish pool. The poet say: "I know a Sussex hammer-pond like that."

      In the seventh stanza, it is shown that a lake which is visited by the people again and again, no longer remains a symbol of health, harmony and unity. It becomes a haunted lake, dry, sick and ghostly. The people who visit such lakes are advised to get their tactile fevers cured with the help of the visible world, where the beaks of the people are dumb like boughs of trees and faces calm and helpless like lifeless houses. The poet says that even water-scorpion does never give us the impression that it desires identification with the rest of mankind.

      It is said in this stanza that man's nature in the modern civilization is different from those living on lakes. Man in the modern age is cruel, self-centered, conceited and without any fellow-feeling. One Fall because of the original sin. Auden, therefore, defends his own ideal landscape.

      In this stanza, the poet says his ideal lake will not be like any other lake visited by people. Nothing can stop the poet to imagine the type of lake he would like his own. His lake might be like "moraine, pot, orbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple", etc. But merely the mention of the names of these lakes is just comforting for the poet. Actually, the poet in his paradisal retreat is not like to keep a swan "or build a tower on any small tombolo".

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Auden's Poem Lakes contrasts the humanity and cosines of lakes with the estranging and alien quality of oceans and rivers. The poem also suggests that they are usually false Eden.

      Auden is concerned with those lakes which are small in size, and around which families live. Anything larger, though drinkable, like Michigan or Baikal, is an 'estranging sea'. Oceans or big rivers separate men, whereas lake brings them together. The people residing on the coast of a lake have mutual trust, affinity, family unity and peace, while such values of life are missing from the lives of those living on the sea coast. The 'lacustrine atmosphere' breeds good manners. Auden is confirmed to say Christianity started from the 'Ascanian lake', and peace talks, in the modern age, are also held on lakes. Auden's best easy manner, culminating, in the penultimate stanza, with the acknowledgment that one is likely to defend ones ideal landscape aggressively because it represents a paradisal retreat which no appeal to common humanity can make one wish to share.

      Auden is adjusting, as he continually does the tone and diction of his meditation to suit the meaning, and the meaning here is that so paradisal retreats are dangerous. Illusion and that contemplation of owing one is not only a comfortable activity but with all the social overtones of the phrase, ever so comfy.

      There is a sense of whimsicality in the poem. Whimsicality in this sense means if we can seriously accept his assertion that the moral influence of lakes is so powerful that Foreign Ministers should always meet beside one, as it will provoke a 'physical compassion' that will help to unite their respective armies. Wordsworth really believed that Nature had a beneficial effects on Man: Auden himself seems to suggest that he has merely been indulging in a sentimental fantasy as he lists the curious names for lakes and admits in the final self-mocking line, that it is something of a game. Even to reel off the names of lakes creates an illusion of comfort. Lakes are after all paradisical retreats.

      John Fuller quite rightly points out that the lakes that Auden is concerned with are charmingly described in family-sized terms, with an acknowledgment that one is likely to defend one's ideal landscape aggressively because it represents a paradisal retreat which no appeal to common humanity can make one wish to share. This critical point governs the final stanza's conscious whimsy about one's day-dreams;

Moraine, pot, orbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple. ..?
Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.

      According to Raplogle, the poem might well have been titled "Some Beneficial Attributes of Lakes," since most stanza breaks mark off the attributes, without a smooth transition between the bold list of items the whole poem moves forward by comic stops and starts. If these large devices cannot be conveniently illustrated, their incongruous effects can be shown in miniature lists that work the same way. The definition of a lake is comic. A lake is the space "an average father, walking slowly", can "circumvent in an afternoon" or a body water, "any healthy mother hallo the children back to lead time from their games across."


      Auden in this poem is adjusting, as he continually does the tone and diction of his mediation to suit the meaning. The meaning in the poem is that the paradisal retreats are a dangerous illusion and that contemplation of owning one is not only a comfortable activity. The informal manner in this poem allows Auden to range freely over many topics - the fortune, the scarred history of Christendom, Pozeidon, a play by webster, water-scorpions. Jack and Jill gives his poetry the appeal of lively, intelligent conversation.

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