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

Also Read


      The Plains was first published in The London Magazine, in 1954. It is a lyric of nine stanzas, each of eight lines. It conveys Auden's horror of the plains. It is one of the seven lyrics which together constitute the Bucolics which was later published with The shield of Achilles. The poet breathes his personal life off from his poetry. We find ourselves longing for some concentration of direct experience, out of which the generalization could grow.

      The landscape has been moralized in Plains. In this poem, the abstract aspects of nature have been given a concrete shape. The poem is an unrhymed eleven-syllable lines, personal in tone. "The poet expresses his horror of plains as dead-level equality, uniformity, a ground for warriors and totalitarian governments.

Plain dwellers are without choice in love, and are at the mercy of the strong. Plains are a reminder of the extensiveness of evil. The poet is afraid of plains as they maintain a level of equality and uniformity.


      In the first stanza, the poet imagines the ending up on a desolate coast. There he would not hesitate to beg a drink from a quarrelsome, disreputable and unwary old man, and would prefer to spend his life in a valley writing worthless poetry on hundreds of pages, rather than live on a plain.

      The mountain peaks reduced to plains is horrible. Goddesses are supposed to be keeping on mountains, but when land slides caused by the 'pecking rain' and 'squelching glaciers' destroy the peaks, the sleeping Goddesses are woken up, and what is left behind by thos 'blind brutes' is nothing but plains; merely clay to be used by a potter. That gravel, when used in the form concrete will leave a particular place without name, form or direction.

      The plain dwellers have no choice. The poet is horrified at the dead level equality of plains. In plains where everything is equal, there can be no growth of human mind; on a hill-ridge, one can dream of ones land of marvels. Poor people living in valleys can go downstream in search of money and status. But in plains, there is neither of the either. It would be an uphill task for an undeveloped genius to choose between art and science in plains. Destruction is the ultimate goal of the people living on plains.

     The poet in this stanza says that people living on plains have no choice in love. To illustrate this point, the poet gives an example from Ovid's writings. The reference is to Ovid's Ars Amatoria which taught in the medieval period how to make carnal love more pleasurable. Ovid's charmer who led four couples for dance in Arcady and who had complete control over the hearts of others, would soon die of cold or sunstroke in plains. The lives of the lovers are in other hands. Instead of cupid, "the old grim she" - presides over their love-lives. She makes the blind-dates.

      The people of plains are at the mercy of the strong like Caesar and his lieutenants. In hills and forests, there is no violence: if a tax-collector disappears in hills or if a 'keeper' is shot in the forest nobody takes the unusual notice of it. But if such a thing happens in the plain, the political authority of the country punishes the people. In the hills, anything can happen without disturbance while in plains, zeus is with those who are strong.

      When some young lad wins some battle, fought by him from some strategic point, he becomes strong politically and chambers with Clio. In plains, again, Christian cross-bow vanquished the Heathen scimitar (sword) and the Duke of Mammoth made his a 'final charge' with the help of his light cavalry, and defeated the enemy in the cabbage fields

      The poet says that if he were a plainsman, he would hate all the plain-dwellers, like a mechanic agitating 'for a cheap leaf' like a rich sophisticated person. He would hate the painter who paints the picture of 'Twelve Apostles,' as well as a priest who cannot give any concrete proof of his teachings. He would smile at plains wrought his destruction at 'bloodshot images of rivers' 'marbles in panic' and 'don't care made to care.'

      The poet says that he knows those rich and common people personally. There is nothing common in them besides landscape. The poet has tried to run away from plains, knowing "there was no hiding and no help" and in the process, he lost his way and found himself amidst a desolation. For Auden, plains are a landscape of victimization. He desires to escape the plains.

      The poet is not afraid of plains, but the evil inherent in them, and he fears lest he should adopt this evil in his life. Like everybody, he wants to be strong. Nothing is lovely in the world, not even in poetry is anything lovely, and poetry is not real. So it is useless to think that the poetic world is lovelier than the actual world.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Plain dwellers are without choice in love, and are at the mercy of the strong. Plains are a reminder of the extensiveness of evil. The poet is afraid of plains as they maintain a level of equality and uniformity.

      The poet, therefore, is filled with horror at the thought that the combined action of mist and snow many reduce the mountains to the level of plains, at some time in the future. In the plains, love and romance are forbidden by the stern grandmothers. So the marriage is arranged by them, and not by the cupid, the god of love. Life goes without any thrills any sensations. The guilty are punished and forced to conform to the accepted social code. The poet says in this stanza that the plains have no virtues, all have to live the same dull and prosaic life there. They are places where "mechanics riot for cheap bread, where the painters paints portraits by stealing ideas from others, and where the priests deceive people with their ineffective and useless religion. They make him feel that nothing in the world is lovely" not even poetry, His prayer to God is, "Don't ever make me live there".


      The poet in this poem expresses his horror of plains as they maintain a level of equality and uniformity and this makes the works of warriors and totalitarian governments easy: It is here they chamber with Clio. In plains, history is created. In mountains and valleys Cupid presides over love-lives. So plains symbolize the forces in the human psyche that deaden and chill sensibility and make a man effeminate. They symbolises spiritual decay and desolation. They kill all initiative and urge to action. Otherwise, Mountains are symbol of action, effort, adventure and romance. Hence the poet's horror of the plains and its dwellers who are like Tarquin and Caesars.

Previous Post Next Post