The Social and Political Engagement of W. H. Auden’s Verse

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W.H. Auden gained American citizenship in 1946 after a period of permanent residency in New York from January 1939. At this time, Auden had earned the reputation as one of the most recognizable British poets. When the war eventually broke out, Auden not only became an American, many of his British colleagues also regarded him as both a coward and a rebel. Against this backdrop, the following paper will examine the social and political engagement of W.H. Auden's verse and the impact of his move to the United States with a specific focus on three of his works, namely “September 1, 1939”, “Spain” and "Lullaby."

Before his move to the United States, Auden had spent a significant amount of the preceding ten years in countries such as Germany, Denmark, and Spain. However, he was seen by many as an English poet who, in the various pieces he wrote, constantly portrayed landscape scenarios as well as their contrast to the world around them (Wasley 25). In this regard, Auden's decision to make his way to America might not have been only a private one, even not considering that this move coincided with what was seen as the start of another war. Wasley points out that in moving to the United States,

“Auden was confronted with the question of what kind of poet he was now to be. This new country to which he had no cultural, historical, or familial connection,” (p. 2).

It is evident that in relocating to the United States, Auden realized that he had to make changes to the type of poetry he wrote that would align with the new environment he now lived in. Sharpe suggests that Auden’s decision to move to the United States represented a form of rebirth that was critical for him as not only a person but also an artist. Sharpe points out,

“[Auden]’s decision at the end of the 1930s to relocate to America may have been driven by essentially personal and professional considerations but took on a public significance because of when it occurred” (pg.3).

In this regard, Auden’s choice to move to the United States also gave him the opportunity to develop a persona that was distinctly different from what he had fashioned himself to be before.

Carpenter further claims that when Auden acquired American citizenship, he went through a change that was similar to his decision to go back to Christianity. From the first moment that Auden reached New York in 1939, he appears to realize that, at his core, being in the country would have a profound difference (29). Auden desired to be considered an American and to think of himself as such. Auden argued that the experience of being in the United States played a significant role in determining the type of writer he would be (Thurston 30). Thurston claims that Auden’s work slowly evolved into,

“a call to action; an exhortation to the reader to awake from his political lethargy and joining the class-conscious forces of the working class” (p.6).

During this time, he realized that he was not only an introvert but that this character trait would be the main driving force for making him a better poet and writer.

Costello explains that this particular explanation revealed the significant lengths that Auden was prepared to go to, to prove to other people, and to some extent to himself, that by moving to the United States, he had changed into a new man (45). Many of the poems written during the late thirties are set in bars where people who felt isolated could engage in drinking. For instance, “September 1, 1939” which Auden wrote in the first year of his move to the United States contains criticism of the consumer society. He argued that this society might provide people with their needs but did not consider the spiritual aspect (Piette 32). Hawkins-Dady points out that "September 1, 1939” had a direct relation to the crisis because it was written at a period when war erupted in Europe. The poem, filled with a large amount of meaning as well as allusion, attempts to analyze the extent to which the private and the public can negotiate their often-complicated relationship (49). Hawkins-Dady sees this poem as a representation of the

“surprising shift from Frediancum-Marxist themes in the 1930s to Kierkegaardian Christianity in the 1940s and later” (p.3).

He saw his poetry as an essential element in the achievement of a country that seemed to be accepting of ideas that in other regions were mainly rejected.

Wald argues that Auden has always been viewed as a political and social poet in spite of the deliberate move he made from the activist verse as he moved from England to the United States. This particular retreat led critics to pay less attention to the political content present in the vast majority of poetry that Auden had written earlier (39). Wald argues that in the United States, Auden became,

“the ultimate inspiration for the pro-Communist but modern experimentalist “Auden School” even though the philosophy is infused with a ‘less Platonic’ conception of love by W.H. Auden” (p. 33).

This particular element reflected the significant change that occurred to Auden’s poetry and the impact he had on other writers during the period of moving to the United States. However, “Spain” did not suffer from this. Auden originally wrote it in 1937 with the aim of raising funds for the Spanish Medical Aid. It stemmed directly from Auden’s active support for the Republicans’ efforts during the war. It is an idealistic and outspoken call for activism supporting the Spanish left (Goldensohn 52). Goldensohn argues that Auden’s approach to war poetry such as “Spain” was unique in the sense that,

“It left [the audience] thereafter with soldier poetry as the most fertile ground for the exposure of both war and antiwar thinking. But the model of political and pacifist engagement that Auden initiated cast a long shadow” (p. 5).

The poem attracted criticism because it showed the extent to which Auden's political ideas evolved during the late 1930s. Piette explains that Auden went back to England completely frustrated by dealing with the Republican left. His subsequent rejection of the different political solutions and the public role he played is evident in Auden's decision to move to America (35). It also appears in the fact that Auden went back to various political poems as a way to get rid of their overt political elements. In this regard, "Spain" is unique if not otherwise than in the sense that it allows many critics to fill in the political gaps (Costello 47). They can develop a more consistent description of Auden's poetic and geographic move from Europe.

In "Spain", Auden sought to reveal a picture of the people who took part in the civil war but also had a reflective side. At the same time that the speaker examines each person's social motivation, he also presents a hope for a more peaceful future (Carpenter 33). Sharpe points out that even though it might not be accurate to state that Auden had become bitter because of the experiences he had during the Spanish Civil War, by 1939, he had started to display a sense of weariness with the way the world was operating. It is in this time that he moved to the United States (37). Wasley notes that the overall tone of "Spain" was generally nostalgic and sad. In the first six stanzas of the poem, Auden remembers the successful history of the country examining its focus on exploring the world and the role it played in expanding trade (29). He also points to the advances made in Hispanic civilization including the engineering of different machines and the construction of railroads.

Thurston observed that “Spain” was characterized by an antagonism that sought to bring together the social versus the inner struggle. It was, therefore, a representation of the increasing amount of isolation Auden was feeling (34). It is this need to find his way back to the society that defines the unstable character of the dramas written by Auden. Goldensohn argues that it also pointed to Auden’s lack of knowledge of political matters. After writing "Spain", Auden slowly moved from the Left and over time converted into an anti-communist (56). Logan is quick to point out that he does not suggest Auden’s changes in thinking and his movement to the right started with "Spain". However, the revisions made to the poem, which ultimately ended with its complete withdrawal, were pushed by political as opposed to aesthetic considerations (32). Irrespective of this perception, "Spain” retained its strength as a poem that illustrates the importance of choice as an element in determining the direction that history will take in some critical situations.

"Lullaby" on the other hand, was Auden's attempt at celebrating the element of erotic love. Auden's move to the United States allowed him to practice homosexuality more openly than he could have in Britain. For Auden, homosexuality was a core source of internal conflict largely because his Freudian beliefs taught him that his preferences were abnormal and a sin. At the same time, it was also a deep source of pleasure (Costello 52). Wasley explains that Auden’s description of love in “Lullaby” was unique because it focused on the often-troubled relationship between sex and friendship (36). “Lullaby” exhibits the constant regret that these two types of love have never managed to exist alongside each other. Goldensohn points out that Auden’s views on love went through significant changes during the 1940s (59). During this time, Auden shifted from the tendency to see the love and sexual desire as different from each other to the idea that the two are joined together. Moreover, the clash between these two elements and the vast dichotomy which divided them from one another is readily seen in “September 1, 1939” as but one example: “Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth, /Obsessing our private lives;/The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night” (lines 5-11). The ironic clash of fear and distrust in tandem with love, hope, and pleasure make for a contentious internal and external debate within this work.

Auden's work in the 1940s was significantly influenced by the idea that love and sexual desire could be brought together in spite of their constant conflict with one another. In conjunction with these themes, works by other poets such as T.S. Eliot provided another layer and dimension for Auden’s work within the contemplation of the self, about how one’s identity is shaped and developed by internal and external forces alike, and how romance and similar notions factored into this interplay ("W.H. Auden," par. 6). As Auden settled into his life in New York, the political environment in Europe was worsening (Thurston 37). It already appeared inevitable that Britain, and potentially the United States, would engage in a war with Nazi Germany. In 1939, Auden wrote in the poem "September 1, 1939” that it was critical for people to find a way to love each other or they might not survive. The poem’s idea of love is characteristic of the vague and shifting perceptions Auden had about love during the 1930s (Costello 57). Costello analyses this poem and finds that,

“He was deeply engaged in questions pertaining to the poet’s relationship to audience and to the public more broadly, and he thought a lot about marriage and brotherly love. But Auden’s interest in groups was not only conceptual; it was emotional and practical” (p.15).

In this instance, the description of love in the poem does not focus on the sexual aspect. Instead, it is depicted as self-centeredness. Wald points out that Auden set up his poetry as a basis for exchange between himself and his readers. In this space, art and love could exist in a manner that is productive. At the same time, this love held a large amount of faithlessness and doubt (46). In ‘Lullaby’, Auden argued that love continues to hold on to its sense of ideality in spite of how frail it is. For Auden, America represented a place, which accurately represented his poetic desire to better himself through both action and self-knowledge.

In conclusion, Auden’s poems had always focused on love, politics and its various discontents but after he set up a home in America and entered into a romantic relationship, the erotic element of his work adopted a new and unique character. The likelihood of a genuine and reciprocal relationship became more real and this hopefulness, together with a sense of realism, found an expression in the poetry he wrote while in the United States. In each of his works, Auden sought to inspire the reader to engage with the content and understand it. In ‘September 1, 1939", Lullaby" as well as "Spain", Auden sought to cultivate readers' consciousness and the impact of their choices. Each of these poems outlines the fact that recognizing one's imperfections as well as those present in the world helped people to remain both constructive and hopeful. Auden saw his move to the United States as a chance to cultivate new and unique cultural goals that would have allowed him to become a different artist.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. W.H. Auden: A Biography. Faber & Faber, 2011.

Costello, Bonnie. The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. Dismantling Glory. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Hawkins-Dady, Mark. Reader’s Guide to Literature in English. Routledge, 2012.

Logan, William. Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Piette, Adam. Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Sharpe, Tony. W.H. Auden in Context. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Thurston, Michael. Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. UNC Press Books, 2012.

Wasley, Aidan. The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene. Princeton University Press, 2010.

"W.H. Auden". Biography, 2018, Accessed 10 Dec 2018.