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

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      Auden's poem Petition was first included in the 1930 volume of Poems. It was dropped from the 1950 edition of the Collected Shorter Poems. It is a seminal poem and shows the early influences on the poetic technique of Auden. It is an example of the early experiments of W. H. Auden with poetic forms.

      As the heavily clinical imagery of the poem brings out, Auden was influenced at this time by the psychological teachings of John Layard who attributed many physical ailments to psychological causes.

      The poem is a Rilkian sonnet. It begins in the abrupt Hopkinsian manner: "Sir, no man's enemy. The Sir in the poem, unlike in Hopkins' poem is vague. It has been taken to refer to God, Satan and the modern Psychiatrist. God, no man's enemy, forgives all except the will of man which negates the divine will. The poet requests God to the prodigal and forgives even that. The poet further asks for power and light for guidance, 'a sovereign touch to cure the neural itch, a neurotic disorder, mental disorders caused by the suppression of natural and physical desires.

Auden's poem Petition was first included in the 1930 volume of Poems. It was dropped from the 1950 edition of the Collected Shorter Poems. It is a seminal poem and shows the early influences on the poetic technique of Auden. It is an example of the early experiments of Auden with poetic forms.


      Petition is typical of earlier Auden's poetry in technique, style and content. The poem opens abruptly and ambiguously in the manner both of Hopkins and Rilke. 'Sir' to whom the sonnet is addressed may be either God, The Supreme, or the Spirit of Homer Lane or of John Layard, spoken of as Supreme Healers. The poem begins in the manner of a conventional prayer by praising the Supreme Being. He is the enemy of none and he forgives all. He is the embodiment of Christian virtues of love and charity. He forgives all the sins of mankind except the negation of the divine will. The poet prays to the supreme to be prodigal of his generosity and forgive this deadly sin.

      The poet also requests God, the Supreme Being or Supreme Healer to send to us "power and light," "a sovereign touch to cure neuroses exhaustion of weaning," "the liar's quinsy" and God is further requested to correct "the coward's stance". Cowards are those whose feelings are repressed. Owing to restrictions young lovers are not able to express their love freely. When the love, or repressed emotions do not get the natural outlet, it becomes dangerous both for the individual as well as for the society.

      The poet wants the retreaters to be caught in the beam of the flashlight before they have got too far away. The poet wants all the healers, whether they live in cities or country houses, to be publicized. At the end of the poem the, Harrowing of Hell is fused with the image of the old civilization as a house of the dead", and the "new styles of architecture are given importance equal to that of "a change of heart."

      'Petition' is a slightly puzzling poem in its tone. The reader feels that the poet is poking light fun and writing in a subtly humorous vein. Only the last two lines of the poem ring serious. "Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at new styles of architecture, a change of heart".

      In this poem, Auden follows the technique of compression which makes the meaning and sense of the poem strained. The images of 'the house of the dead' and the 'new styles of architecture' are daringly unusual and strike a sudden and different mood in the poem.

      Both Homer Lane and Layard emphasized that it was dangerous to permit the mind to repress the body. Instincts were natively healthy, they believed, and in the "pure in heart, they flourished without any interference from intellect or society. Born free, the instincts lay everywhere in chains in modern society and illness. Thus in the poem, through the prayer, the poet is satirizing modern values.

      It is a typical parody through which Auden has criticized a bourgeois society. Auden's prayer in this poem is for both - a change of the social order and a change of the human heart. It is a transitional poem marking the end of Auden's "Psychological phase" and the beginning of his "Marxist phase".

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Auden's Petition is the last poem of the 1930 volume. This Rilkean sonnet with an abrupt Hopkinsian beginning is a political and psychological prayer. In the poems of 1930, there is a large number of contemporary influences conflicting with each other. "His point of view hovers between Freud and Marx, discussing the contemporary situation at one time as a Marxist observer, at another time as a clinical psychologist. The illness of the modern world is to be interpreted sometimes as an economic disease and sometimes as the symptom of a diseased state of mind".

      Auden thinks our psychological ills are greater than our political and for this notion he was very much influenced by Freud. In Berlin, he became an enthusiastic convert to the psychological doctrine of John Layard, who was a disciple of the American "healer", Homer Lane. That physical disease is always symptomatic of a psychological cause was part of this doctrine. Auden said, "when people are ill, they're wicked; a sore throat means that the sufferer has been lying; cancer means refusal to make use of creative powers; rheumatism means obstinacy, refusal to bend the knee, deafness and short sight are attempts to shut out the exterior world; epilepsy is an attempt to become an angel, and fly." Auden diagnosed the disease as morally symbolic. It made possible a new more of rendering moral abstractions concrete and vivid. Moreover, it evoked the desire to revolt against the existing system.


      Auden's Petition is a Rilkean sonnet. In this poem, the poet does not follow the conventional sonnet division into either (a) octave and sestet or (b) three Quatrains and a couplet. The poem is divided into seven couplets. Though there is use of psychological terminology, the Sonnet is free from the vagueness of Auden's poetry of 1930's. The bulk of the imagery clearly shows the effect of Layard's teachings on Auden, that all illness has psychological origins. From Homer Lane and Layard Auden, learned that man's greatest sin was "disobedience of the inner law of our own nature" and this has been depicted in the sonnet.

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