W.H. Auden: A few thoughts

IMG_2972W.H.Auden, Collected Short Poems 1927-1957 (London: Faber, 1966)

This semester at university I opted for a module on British Poetry post-1930 and thus over the coming weeks I will hopefully be disciplined enough to delight or bore you with my ramblings on works by writers such as Auden, Larkin, Plath, Ted Hughes plus various others (Heaney, Muldoon anyone?). I’m thrilled to get the chance to study and discuss such wonderful writers and can’t wait to get my teeth into them! Exciting times.

This week we set the ball in motion by looking at W.H.Auden and the poetry of the nineteen-thirties. A poet I’d shamefully never read before, simply reading parts of his biography made me eager to get my hands on the poetry (Coincidently I also found out that Auden refused to write his own autobiography or collaborate in the production of his own biography as he believed that a poet’s life offers no insight whatsoever into the poetry. An interest point of view. I feel a lot of students and critics nowadays do actually use authors’ biographies as a starting point to reading the text and I think it is relevant to question whether biography is useful/necessary in literary studies). Auden came from a professional middle-class family (detected from his delightful and quintessentially British accent, check it out!) in the Midlands (near Birmingham, UK) and ended up reading English at Oxford. He began writing poetry at around the age of 16 and was influenced by T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland amongst other texts. Although he did have occasional sexual relationships with women, Auden was a homosexual and experimented with his sexuality during a trip to Berlin in the late 1920s. Later when he moved to New York he fell hopelessly in love with a younger man named Chester Kallman with whom he lived for 25 years and produced a number of works, both personally and collaboratively in a life based between New York and Austria.


Auden seems to me a poet of variety. In theme, form, style, voice, ideas, virtually everything, Auden is ceaselessly change. Indeed American critic Randall Jarrell famously mangled Heroclitus to claim that “We never step twice into the same Auden”, and in this he was spot on. Especially in form I don’t think I’ve read any two Auden poems which take the same form, and even if a poem does use a particular form it most definitely does not stay within the rules, which Auden seems to break on every instance. Many of his poems from the thirties have a note of doom and gloom about them; they seem expressive of their epoch during which people were increasingly aware of the fascist rumblings in Germany and Italy and terrified at the possibility of another war, which was lurking just around the corner. One example is his poem ‘O What is that Sound’ during which the speaker comes to realise that the once-distant soldiers are coming not for the farmer, nor the parson, but for him(/her).

Yet at other moments Auden is brilliantly funny, amusing and light-hearted. During this documentary I viewed on Youtube Auden says that when he wrote poetry he tried to fun, because if you don’t have fun, what’s the bloody point!? Although capable of writing highly serious, complex, challenging verse such as ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (Which I struggle to understand/enjoy, any elucidations would be welcome?!) he also sang to the tune of his times which was being increasingly influenced by ‘fun’ poems such as limericks and other forms which were sprouting up at the time. I’d like to share two of my favourite Auden poems at the moment and see what you think. Both are taken from his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 as seen above in the picture.


Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

(W.H.Auden, The Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, p.91)


Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

(W.H.Auden, The Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, p.94)

The first of these two poems is perhaps one of Auden’s poems which actually follows a particular form, although the form is not rigidly abided by. The ABABCDDC rhyme scheme gives the poem its light-hearted feel and I enjoy the mixture of longer and shorter lines in the poem. But what I think I adore about this poem is it’s ‘message’ (even though it is a hideous word when applied to poetry I feel?), that we should all stop dilly-dallying around and attack life or love or whatever with a certain amount of purpose and determination. The natural images in the final stanza of the ‘geese in flocks above you flying’ and the ‘icy brooks beneath you flowing’ are particularly memorable and persuasive. The poem reminded me of Herrick’s ‘To The Virgins’ in message and looking at that poem now the voice of the poem is not a million miles away either.

The second poem, often referred to by the repeated line ‘O tell me the truth about love’, I chose because once again it contains a similar light tone but also I feel this poem bathes in Auden’s comic genius. The poem may be simply put as describing mankind’s futile attempt at comprehending love and about the very nature of love which is both inexplicable and elusive, running away just as you think you have it. But by evoking some common ideas about love, Auden turns the poem from a philosophical enquiry about love into comic accounts of us trying to pin it down. In the first stanza you can’t help but smile at the line “And when I asked the man next-door,/ Who looked as if he knew,/ His wife got very cross indeed,/ And said it wouldn’t do”. I think everybody can sympathise with the poor man next-door. And the next paragraph is similarly charming and witty posing whether love looks “like a pair or pyjamas,/ Or the ham in a temperance hotel?”. Despite the obviously humorous tone in the poem, don’t be deceived. Auden is a chameleon and even in such apparently self-evident poems as this one, he still manages to tackle polemic questions. In this poem, for example, Auden is certainly probing questions of social class and sexuality. This is probably what makes this poem one of Auden’s most famous: it is easily accessible to a wide audience and the reader can extract as much as he/she wants from the poem, as long as he/she is willing to dig.

What do you make of the two poems? I will be studying Auden and the poetry of the Thirties for a little while longer so any recommendations of poems/books by/about Auden or other poets would be welcomed and appreciated!

Thanks for reading


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