W.H. Auden is one of the most interesting, enigmatic, and provocative poets of the early twentieth century. He spent his days roaming around the mines of the English countryside, driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War, teaching in various schools, and occasionally making the odd film about postal trains. From his wealth of quirky experiences and a lifetime of love and loss, Auden’s poetry is unique in theme and style, and never fails to engage the reader. However, hardly anyone knows about him.
Despite being successful during his life he is slowly fading to obscurity. This is a resurrection, or an attempt at such. This article will be something between An Idiot’s Guide to W.H. Auden and W.H. Auden: The Greatest Hits. So here’s a little guide to five of Auden’s best poems and why you should read them and hopefully after this you’ll go explore his poetry for yourself.
‘Funeral Blues’ is Auden’s premier poem. This is the one where you sing off the first line and people say “Oh yes, I think I know that one!”
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dogs from barking with a juice bone,’
Originally one of twelve songs and intended to be set to music, ‘Funeral Blues’ is the ultimate funeral poem. Although it is said that Auden wrote it mocking the death of a politician, the poem depicts the earth-shattering despair and hopelessness of one who’s love has passed away. The first half of the poem is dedicated to the outer world, describing how the world has turned silent in respect for the deceased.
The second half turns inward, “He was my North, my South, my East and West,”, telling the reader how the subject of the poem meant literally the world to the writer. All of this serves to touch the emotional heartstrings of the reader while maintaining a relatively uncomplicated vocabulary and style. Funeral Blues is a poem that anyone can read and understand. It is a picture of grief and the effect is has on a person, a subject that inevitably touches everyone.
Written for a documentary commissioned by the G.P.O.(General Post Office) on the postal rail service in Scotland, Night Mail is a poem that almost steam rolls off the page.
‘This is the Night Mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,’
The rhythm of the poem is its most striking feature, particularly in the first handful of lines. As you read it you can feel the rhythm of the train he is describing as it pushes through the morning into Scotland. Auden combines a variety of images such as farms in the countryside and people in bed asleep with descriptions of the types of letters the Night Train is carrying to these people, including:
‘Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printing and the spelt all wrong’
These elements produce a poem that both entertains and excites the mind of the reader. It is both playful and provides able imagery with which you picture the scene at hand, making it a joy to read. And try reading it out loud, as fast as you can.
Throughout his career as a writer, Auden wrote extensively on the subject of love, particularly on the various kinds of love that a person experiences in their lifetime. In ‘The More Loving One’, he writes about unrequited love, but takes an unexpected stance, he doesn’t mourn it but celebrates it. He uses the stars to demonstrate the various ways an unrequited love may appear. He asks the reader if they would like the stars to burn with passion for him, a love he cannot return, and concludes
‘If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.’
He continues by saying that if he loved the stars and they were to disappear he would eventually get used to not having them around. All of this evokes in the reader a strange mixture of sorrow and hope. Although he is clearly hurting from the unrequited love, he is hopeful of getting over it and in fact celebrates his love. Here Auden puts forward the notion that all love is good, regardless of the situation and that he would prefer to love and not be loved than not to love at all. A notion that leaves the reader wondering if they feel the same.
In ‘Lullaby’ Auden again explores the theme of love. The final poem of a sequence of love poems written when Auden was in his late twenties, ‘Lullaby’ like many of the other poems in the sequence deals with a love that is unsure and transitory.
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love
Human on my faithless arm;’
Here Auden points to a number of things which threaten his love, including death, old age, infidelity, and uncertain futures. However, he continues throughout the poem to attempt to ground the reader in the moment itself. He says the lover’s are protected in the moment from the outside world through their love (Venus’s sympathy). He emphasises that regardless of all the external factors that may eventually come to destroy their love; in that moment it is immortal and everlasting.
This is one of Auden’s more interesting love poems in that although there is reference to sexual and romantic love, the poem is more concerned with Love in general and the way in which the world interacts with it. It feels from the reader’s perspective as though they are intruding on a private moment. ‘Lullaby’ is one of Auden’s most popular poems and it clear why; very few pieces of writing manage to capture a moment which is simultaneously personal and universal.
Part of the same twelve songs that ‘Funeral Blues’ is part of, ‘O the valley in the summer’ is not a very well known poem, one might go as far as to say it’s pretty much unknown, but it is this writer’s favourite and so on the list it is. ‘O the valley in the summer’ once again tackles themes relating to love. In the poem he describes himself and “my Johnny” who are clearly a couple, in a number of different scenes including at a charity ball and a grand opera.
However, although the speaker is very clearly enthusiastic about the relationship “‘O marry me Johnny, I’ll love and obey'” he is continuously shunned by his lover “But he frowned like thunder and he went away”. This line is repeated in various forms at the end of each stanza. The poem presents a heartbreaking situation where the love is both unrequited and not full commitment either. Despite his love for Johnny and his hope for the relationship, Johnny is unsure and never will commit to the speaker. This is a story that is wonderfully conveyed in Auden’s verse and if it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye you might have to question your sanity.
Hopefully after reading this (and the poems) you will be convinced that W.H. Auden is a poet worthy of your time. His poetry remains as interesting and thought provoking as well as fun and playful as it was when they were first published. Auden’s poetry is both accessible but also deeply technically wonderful. For this reason he is among this writer’s favourite poets and hopefully will soon be yours too.
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