Analysis: Auden the Man

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These notes will aim to cement your learning about Auden and provide some new critical material for you to consider in the run up to your exam. They should however be seen as a guide rather than an answer; as the examination will be looking for your own independent thought and the way in which you can bring in all of the exam texts that you have studied this year through the concept of narrative.

Auden the man

Auden was born in York in 1907, educated at Oxford University and emigrated to America in 1939. He returned to England in 1972 and died a year later. Auden decided to become a poet at the age of 13 when a friend asked him whether he wrote poetry; he didn’t but later identified this as the question which drove him to his vocation of poetry. Auden had always loved language and was also inspired by his religious background to explore the magical elements of poetry.

Auden thought of poetry as a form of personal speech between reader and poet. He sometimes thought of himself as a comic poet and believed that he could be greater and ultimately more serious as a poet this way.

Auden’s concept of language was that it was both original and indeed an imitation; in that language is spoken by different voices but that it is taught by listening to the voices of others. His poetry reflects this, with Auden rebelling against T.S. Eliot’s notion that verse forms were products of society and that traditional forms of poetry were too ordered for the chaos of modern times. Auden would write poems on modern themes in archaic forms yet at the same time he also experimented, later in his career, with different modern verse forms. [1]

Another important influence on Auden’s work was his life long battle between the idea of aesthetics versus truth. Generally he would find himself choosing truth over beauty; seeing poetry as having a duty to guide readers towards deeper moral and intellectual concepts. Yet he saw poems as having a dual function: ‘to Auden, a work of art is both a source of pleasure and a reminder of those aspects of reality that we prefer to ignore.’[2] In the ‘Thirties, Auden became known as a political poet; using his work to reflect the struggles associated with the war and his interest in revolutionary Marxist ideals. He was torn between his ideas of political revolution and those of private individual revolutions. By the end of 1930s, marked by his move to America, Auden became disillusioned by the idea of himself as a poetic spokesman for political causes. However he continued to be interested in political and historical notions such as the inevitability of history and indeed of war; he struggled between pacifist ideals and the Marxist idea that history inevitably leads to violent revolution.[3]

Love and sexuality are also important factors in Auden’s life and impact upon his poetry. Auden once remarked that ‘All the poems I have written were written for love’ which embodied his ideas about both personal love and his love of language. Auden’s battle for truth continued into his love poetry; aiming to reflect the true emotions of love rather than the theatrical expressions found in art. Auden’s own homosexuality was also important to his poems; despite being in relationships throughout his adult life the fact that homosexuality was not actually legalised until 5 years before his death meant that Auden was living in a world that had no arena for his form of love.

As mentioned, religion was also important to Auden although his study of poetry and of science meant that he spent a large part of his life disassociating from his religion. However his Anglo-Catholic background continued to be influential on his poetry and he maintained an interest in religion from an historical perspective.

The poems

‘Is there a ‘typical’ Auden poem? For the general reader it is characterised by three outstanding features: (a) a hauntingly dream-like ‘inner landscape’ for the setting; (b) a melancholy, wise voice...
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