Use of Wit in the Comic Poems: of W. H. Auden

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      Auden positively take help of wit in his comic poems, which are the best of his works. An anti-romantic poet is one who can freely and openly expose the realities. If we find Auden's comic poems trivial or distasteful we will fail to enjoy his poems properly. Auden's poetry far from being frivolous is the most sweeping and profound vision of human existence. Auden's speakers are human beings, endowed with the contradictory parts of their temperament. Both the tragic and the comic views begin with the common fact. Men, imperfect, perpetually fall. Looked at from up close these falls seem painful and disastrous, even if ennobling. This is the tragic view of life. Seen from father off the some falls seem less painful, from very far off, even amusing. This is the comic view. The comic view of life begins at that point where pain and suffering become less important than something else serenity, amusement, laughter even amuse contempt.

Auden's early comic poems did not produce a consistent comic vision of life. But after 1940 his poetry became increasingly comic in the sense of having both vision of life as well as the comic style. In most poems from Nones on, life with its perpetual follies nearly always seem more amusing than painful, and frequently appears delightfully absurd.
W. H. Auden

      Auden's early comic poems did not produce a consistent comic vision of life. But after 1940 his poetry became increasingly comic in the sense of having both vision of life as well as the comic style. In most poems from Nones on, life with its perpetual follies nearly always seem more amusing than painful, and frequently appears delightfully absurd.

      Since no one can escape pain, the certainty of human trust becomes a fact so obvious it scarcely warrants more than a prefunct or glance. Though when observed close up, "all is never all", from a distance life appears, like Ischia itself, absurd, silly, splendidly blessed. The comic vision is stated explicitly in "Tonight at Seven-Thirty".

For the funniest
Mortals and the kindest are those
Who are most aware of the baffle
of being, don't kid
themselves our care
Is consolable, but believe a
Laugh is
less heartless than tears

The followings are the Salient Features of Auden's Comic Poetry:-


      Being a 20th century poet Auden has to take help of mockery to expose the realities which is very cruel and unsympathetic. He has used mockery - his favourite technique as a weapon to attack his contemporary societies.

      In the poem The Shield of Achilles the shield symbolises wit, image of the human condition. Auden's version, however is mock heroic, contrasting the Homeric description to the life the modern artist must represent. In The shield of art Hephaests (the artist) shows Thetis (the audience) not the classical city but the plain of modern life on which multitudes are ordered about by totalitarian rulers (a faceless voice reciting statistics through a loudspeaker) Instead of the "ritual pieties" we have barbed wire enclosing an "arbitrary spot: where there is a travesty of the crucifixion being performed by bureaucrats while "Ordinary decent folk" watch, in which helpless individuals are shamefully deprived of human dignity before death.

      In this poem implicit here is the difference between the attitude to war by Thetis, the mother, and that by Achilles, the professional killer-soldier. Her attitude is one of dismay, his one of pleasure. But this iron hearted man-slaying Achilles would "not live long" those that take up the sword shall perish by the sword. On the shield of Achilles there was a portrait showing the serving of wine in honour of God with all ritual pieties: "while flower-garlanded heirers / Libation and sacrifice". But on the other hand, on the shining metal of the modern shield, there was a mockery of crucification of Christ or of religion, which presented quite another scene. Auden says that there is no place for religion and faith in the modern society, which is crumbling.

      In his poem Miss Gee the conventional Christian virtues such as chastity, are being parodied. Miss Gee has been censured for cruelty and callousness. The influence of Freud is clear in the poem. Since Miss Gee does not have a normal healthy personality, her abnormal self satisfies its physical desire in the dream. In the dream she presumes herself to be the Queen of France, and the Vicar a Prince, who seeks her favour for a dance. Her body has been torn apart by suppressed sexual passion, in the manner a storm blows down a palace.

Gesture of Love:

      The word 'Love' constantly recurs in Auden's poetry. Auden always remained suspicious of romantic love, which in his view is self-love in disguise. lt is a lie, a falsehood, which takes our attention away from reality and makes us incapable of facing it.

      Auden gave emphasis on libido that libido must be given free play; therein lies health vigour, and the growth of a balanced personality. Auden believed that love is a powerful, creative force but it must be disciplined and controlled otherwise it can become a powerful force for destruction. It not controlled and disciplined it can assume the form of insane striving for worldly recognition.

      Love is the one thing needful that it is there, that it needs only to be sought with care and when found, nourished and developed. At the prospect of building the city where "the will of love is done," and where "grace may grow outward/and be given praise / Beauty and virtue be vivid there, Auden becomes lyrical:

....Love finally is great, greater than all, but large the hate,
For large than man can ever estimate.

      Love united to positive action to scientific and social discipline, and give some sort of harmony to the separate and incomplete concepts of Freud and Marx.

      Auden conveyed the message that worldly wealth, power and status, and not any spiritual and cultural values, are the object of human love in the modern sick world. But the worldly wealth cannot give man that security and tranquility which his soul craves. The poet says that, materialism can only lead to spiritual chaos and disintegration mockingly or ironically using the terminology of love, "Dear Flesh", "dear mind", "dear spirit etc', the poet knows 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. The poet mocks at this worldly wealth, power and status.

      In praise of Limestone is one of Auden's comic masterpieces. It is a complex collection of incongruities, many of them subtle and delicate and unobtrusive in this mildly funny poem. Formal, oratorical syntax and pastoral subject may lead the new reader innocently forward for as much as half a dozen lines before the incongruity becomes apparent. The correct nicety of the subjunctive opening, the old-fashioned gentility of Mark these rounded slopes, the pleasant fragrance of thyme from, them world of Cuddy and Hobbinall: all this becomes highly suspective with the unlikely appearance of "Spurt" and "Chuckle". In this green and proper verbal landscape springs might decorously flow. bubble or even laugh but hardly "spurt" or "chuckle" the genteel firm, style and subjects turn mock beneath the course subjects and rebelesian style ("a clever line/or a good lay") As the poem unfolds the texture of incongruities becomes particularly complex and skilful. According to Roplogle, "whatever their original soberness, jumbled together in "In Praise of Limestone" all the unlike usages become mild absurd, and they are very verbal stuff of the entire poem. Thin incongruity of diction gives the verbal liveliness and comic effects to Auden's poem.

Auden's Comic Style:

      The style is part of the message, and in Auden's comic poem it is usually the most important part. In his comic style, Auden has created a poetic language of striking originality and skill. Auden's comic style does not usually satirize, it celebrates.

      Auden's comic style depends entirely on the incongruity. "The word "incongruous" means our expectations are being rather violently upset. His most general comic procedure, then, should probably be labelled "mockery". He has caricatured and parodied the contemporary society. And for this he took help of mimicry. Auden is extraordinarily talented in the use of mimicry. The mimicry of attributed absurdity can produce vicious satire, since its works of uniform excellence and there is no doubt about his technical skill. Auden was of the opinion that a poet belongs to the whole of the society and is not, or should not be a solitary person 'hidden in the light of his own thoughts'. He wished to established contact with the masses and that is why he tried to romance as many literary hindrances as he could in the way of establishing that contact. He wrote popular verse, comic verse and such other forms to make his literary works wide read and thus convey his message to the general masses or to the people who do not ordinarily read poetry. Thus his playing with words, use of wit and mimicry are part of his poetic strategy.

      But Auden's mimicry is not cruel at all. Actually Auden's target was not to hurt anyone but to show the right way of life. And this implies his love rather than hates, abuses or condemns. So his mimicry of absurd attributes ultimately implies affection.


      Auden had learned from Kierkegaard that " the most direct source of aesthetic interest is the unexpected or the incongruous". Auden continued to apply this principle to his poetry and made it a part of his technique even in his later poetry. He can make the most serious point in an unserious way. This led Stephen Spender to remark that a kind of frivolity is dominant in Auden's poetry There is no doubt that Auden successfully cultivated a style in which he could treat the most serious subjects in a trivial way. In fact since 1940 Auden began to assert that the world poetry should not be taken as something more serious than "playful hypothesis".

      Actually Auden like to write poetry which is "the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people". And moreover Auden was against the notion of giving too much importance to art as a guide to life. For this reason Auden has taken refuge to the use of with, comedy and humour.

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