Paysage Moralise: by W.H Auden - Summary and Analysis

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      Paysage Moralise is Auden's second published Sestina (a poem containing each stanza of six lines). The poem first appeared in the Criterion, July 1933. Auden has derived the technique from Rilke. Like Rilke, Auden has expressed abstract ideas in concrete terms. W. H. Auden has used landscape or various Geographical features to present emotional and spiritual states in a concrete form and in this way he is able to concretize his comments on the human situation. The poem was later included in the Collected shorter Poems, 1950.

The very title of the poem Paysage Moralise indicates Auden's allegorizing of the landscape. The beauty of the poem lies in developing the natural symbolism in which landscapes represent emotional states or situations.
Paysage Moralise


Stanza I
      The poet praises the founders of human civilization in the first stanza. It was expected to ensure the prosperity and security of this human civilization by following the footprints of the "founders" of our "cities". The modern people who are the followers of religion and the romantic notion of love have gone astray. The poet tells that those who had earlier undertaken this journey to the islands were shipwrecked. Those who leave the "valleys", cross "the mountains", and go to the "islands", are escapists, and will leave the human civilization starving, morose and dejected.

Stanza II
      The modern world is just the opposite of what the 'founders' thought and did. The founders' never expected us to leave n civilization founded by them and escape to the island of romantic notions. Now the people are "dreaming of evening walks through learned cities" and are riding high on the horses of their aspirations and ambitions.

Stanza III
      In the third stanza, the poet says that the founders built cities by rivers which provided them happiness and comforts. But now everybody sees romantic dreams about islands and wishes to escape to them. They believe in love to be innocent there "being far from cities". They wish to escape to the islands in the hope to concretize their romantic views.

Stanza IV
      Throughout the night the escapists visualizes various dreams of their escape but in the morning they return to their wakefulness. Mountains abound in material wealth and prosperity but there is no way out of the realities of this world where people are starving. Religion also makes people weak, fearful and superstitious, and in the name of "Heaven" and "Hell" the poor ignorant villagers have always been exploited by the villains or tyrants of the society.

Stanza V
      In this stanza, the poet has given the idea that many people perform various religious ceremonies to please the gods in order to get heavenly boons and benedictions. But this is nothing but escapist tendency. Auden has satirized the villain of religion.

Stanza VI
      Many ambitious people died of execution in the mountains although they made all efforts to climb up crags to have a view of islands. Some return dejected and frustrated, some died in water. The people who did not leave their valleys remain passive.

Stanza VII
      In this stanza, the poet feels that the ice age (modern age) should be melted into water. Then only the modern sick culture which lacks warmth of feeling and health of mind will perish.

Development of Thought:

      The poet begins with a word of praise for the founding fathers off human civilization. They came crossing the mountains, settled down in the valleys and founded our cities. The poem is an allegory of the human condition, a poem in which various geographical features have been used to present the human predicament in a concrete form. Lost in romantic dreams of love and religion man sees visions of islands where life would be paradisical or Edenic. Such escapism is tha cause of his sorrow. The result is that of decay. The real source of on sorrow lies within; It is spiritual. So healing can come only from within, not from without.

      The poet uses a six-line stanza in the poem. The last word of each line is a symbol being repeated throughout the poem. These six words - valleys, mountains, water, islands, cities and sorrow - the key words of the poem. Valleys symbolize, innocence, the female principle: mountains are the symbol for effort decision, the male principle. Water symbolizes belief, potentiality creations of man that satisfy his sense of purpose, i.e. art. Island stands for escape, isolation. Cities are the symbol for society, civilization and sorrow symbolizes the condition of man, his motivating passion.

      The beauty of the poem lies in developing the natural symbolism representing all these emotional states or situations. The very title of the poem indicates Auden's allegorizing the landscape. The poem is a picture of sick society. The dwellers of this sick society try to escape from the reality as the reality shatters their imagination or romantic love, but their escape does not give them any relief. Moreover, they sink to a state of more and more agony and dismay.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      The very title of the poem Paysage Moralise indicates Auden's allegorizing of the landscape. The beauty of the poem lies in developing the natural symbolism in which landscapes represent emotional states or situations. Auden in his poem has easily identified some features of the landscape with an abstraction, and then projected on to the and scape and arrangement of human faculties.

      To be sure, the poem presents the picture of the sick society. Whole generations cross their various mountain frontiers seeking health. Allegorically, the poem presents a contrast between the healthy good and the unhealthy bad.

      Religion and romantic love are the two types of escape from the sick society as presented by Auden in the poem. Both these nation have all along been misguiding the people, and slowly and gradually been leading them to a state of passiveness and indolence, Auden has pricked the balloon of romantic visionaries. There is a message at the end of the poem that civilization should be rebuilt so that the present society becomes healthy.

      Auden in this poem has rightly pointed out that escape from sickness does not ensure health. Many simply turn away from it, deny its reality. Mountains represent the unreality of self-deceptions, a retreat from the valleys where life must be lived, even if corrupt. Many gangs on the mountain have gone sick, decadent. Bravery lies in resisting the temptation to escape. The poem is considered as a satirical parody of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress where the Christian leaves the city and goes to heaven. Auden in this poem has used various geographical features as mountains, rivers, valleys, cities, fields etc. as symbols of the human condition in the modern age. A complex natural symbolism runs through the poem, and enables the poet to present complex psychological truths in an easy concrete form. Justin Raplogle says that "mountains" symbolize man's romantic dreams and visions, such as dreams of romantic love, and visions of paradise held out by religion. They are the barriers between the real world, represented by the valleys and the romantic world of escape and withdrawal from life as symbolized by the islands.


      Religion and romantic love are the two types of escape for the sick society as presented by Auden in the poem. The poet has given the account of the villains who always misguide people slowly and gradually leading them to a state of indolence. The poem is a satire on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Certainly, it is an allegory of the human condition. Natural symbolism imports to the lyric both concreteness and richness of texture. Auden's use of Sastina, a difficult verse form is quite successful in this poem and matches with the texture of the poem.

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