WYSTAN HUGH AUDEN  (1907-1973)

“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know”

LIFE: Auden was born in York in 1907, the son of a doctor and a very religious Anglo-Catholic woman. He had a public school education and graduated at Christchurch College, Oxford. At university he met students who were politically involved and formed a group of left-wing poets who were later called the Auden Circle. After university he went to Germany for a year   and he witnessed the development of the Nazi anti-Jewish ideology.   He returned to Britain with an even stronger communist commitment and in 1932 he joined the Communist Party.

 In 1935 he married Erika Mann, the daughter of the famous Thomas Mann. It was a marriage of convenience because Erika had been deprived of her citizenship by the Nazis and Auden only wanted to provide her with a British passport to  escape the Nazis. He never lived together with her.

In 1937 he went to Spain to serve as an ambulance driver on the left-wing Republican side during the Civil War. Like the other European intellectuals who had enrolled in the International Brigade, Auden, too, was disappointed with the atrocities committed there by the Republicans and left Spain disillusioned with communism.

He migrated to the USA with John Isherwood and became an American citizen. He converted from atheism to Anglicanism. In USA he  met a young student, Chester Kellmann, with whom he fell deeply in love and had a lifelong relationship of supreme love and affection. Many of his later works were nostalgic reminiscences of the years spent together.

From 1948 to 1957 he divided himself between New York, where he stayed in autumn and winter, and Ischia, where he stayed in spring and summer. He died in Austria, where he had moved after Italy.

FEATURES: Auden is identified as a poet of the 1930s even if he wrote poetry for about 40 years. He belongs to the second generation of Modernists but he was greatly influenced by the first generation (Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf) and shared with them the interest in Freud and Greek myth. His literary career is divided into two phases: the British phase, when the poet, who was an atheist, was politically committed and the American phase, when he converted to Anglicanism.

The British phase shows the strong influence of Freud’s and of Marx’s theories which attributed man’s frustration and alienation to neurosis and to capitalism. The poems of this first phase deal with social criticism and protest and are concerned with the economic, social and political issues of the time such as unemployment, colonialism, the Civil War in Spain, the rise of Nazism and racial apartheid. Studying Freud, he came to the conviction that the great sense of frustration and the anxiety of his contemporary society were partly due to sexual repression and neurosis. He built up a philosophical system: there is an Enemy, symbolized by the neurosis of modern man that paralyses any source of life and creativity. The Enemy must be destroyed if we want to change the state of society and man and consequently improve the situation of mankind. To contrast the   Enemy and to    help man overcome his solitude and feel integrated with society we need a Healer. In this phase he identifies the Healer with love, poetry and culture.

The American phase is characterized by his gradual conversion to Christianity and his disillusionment with Marxism. He criticises his earlier works and realizes that life is much complicated to put down to one political belief or to one single solution. He goes under the influence of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and concentrates on the problem of sin and salvation and identifies the Healer with Christian love.

IDEAS ON ART: Auden was the leader of The Divided Generation ,that generation of intellectuals of the 30s (Spender, Isherwood) who lived the conflict between their vocation as poets and their political commitment. He wrote:’ There must always be two kinds of Art: Escape Art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and Parable Art, which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and to learn love.

 He thought that Art was to be put to the service of the ideals of freedom and that the POET was ‘a public voice that must speak in favour of the oppressed, must warn people against the danger of Anti-humanism” (i.g. Fascists and Nazis).

Like Eliot, he was aware of the hollowness of a disintegrating civilization during ‘A time of crisis and dismay’. Unlike Eliot, he found in his first phase his solution to the world’s problems in left wing political ideologies.

Auden believed in the close connection of music and poetry. Many of his poems have been set to music by the famous British composer Benjamin Britten. He often uses the Blues tradition of the Negroes of USA.

                                   FUNERAL BLUES

  1.Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
   Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
   Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
   Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

5.Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

9.He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,
I thought that love would last forever: ‘I was wrong’

13.The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

1.Fermate tutti gli orologi isolate il telefono
fate tacere il cane con un osso succulento.
Chiudete i pianoforti e tra un rullio smorzato,
portate fuori il feretro. Si accostino i dolenti.

                                   5.Incrocino aeroplani, lamentosi, lassù                                                                                         e scrivano sul cielo il messaggio: Lui è morto.                                                                                                Allacciate nastri di crespo al collo bianco dei piccioni.                                                               I vigili si mettano guanti di tela nera.

                                    9.Lui era il mio nord, il mio sud,il mio est e ovest,                                                             la mia settimana di lavoro e il mio riposo la domenica,                                                                                 il mio mezzodì, la mezzanotte,la mia lingua, il mio canto.                                              Pensavo che l’amore fosse eterno e avevo torto.

                                   13.Non servono più le stelle,spegnetele anche tutte,                                                          imballate la luna,smontate pure il sole,                                                                                                     svuotatemi l’oceano e sradicate il bosco                                                                            perché ormai più nulla può giovare.

Auden wrote this poem after the death of a dear friend of his. The “blues” in the title suggests his state of depression, typical when a person who lives next to us dies. Auden uses some very striking images to express his grief: Silence will accompany the coffin, the airplanes will write in the sky the message that “he is dead”, the traffic policemen will “wear black cotton gloves” instead of the usual white ones. Even if Auden hasn’t given any personal detail about the person he has lost, it’s more likely that he was his lover. He was very important for the poet.   In the lines 9-11 he focuses on the relationship between them:” He was my North, my South, my East and West,/My working week and my Sunday rest,/My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song ”. They convey the idea that he was everything for the poet. Line 12 expresses  the poet’s attitude to love  before and after the death of his lover. The first half “I thought that love would last for ever” represents his romantic attitude before the death while the last part  ”I was wrong” represents his realistic attitude after. This line introduces the striking images of the last stanza in which he expresses all his grief:” The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;/Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.” They mean that life has got no purpose after the death of his beloved; it is not the same life he had known before, then the stars, the moon and the ocean are now of no use for him and he can’t appreciate them any more:” nothing now can ever come to any good”.

  Musée Des Beaux Arts (1938)


1.About suffering they were never wrong.
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
5.How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forget
10.That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer´s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel´s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
15.Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
20.Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

1.Sulla sofferenza non erano mai in torto,
i Vecchi Maestri: come capivano bene
la sua umana posizione; come essa si svolga
mentre qualcun’altro mangia o apre una finestra o cammina annoiato;
5.come, mentre i vecchi attendono rispettosi e appassionati
la nascita miracolosa, ci siano sempre
bambini a cui non importa niente che essa avvenga, e pattinano
su uno stagno al limite del bosco;
non dimenticavano mai
10.che anche il tremendo martirio deve avere il suo corso
in qualche modo in un angolo, in qualche squallido posto
dove i cani continuano a vivere da cani e il cavallo del torturatore
si gratta l’innocente deretano contro un albero.

Nell’Icaro di Breughel, per esempio: come ogni cosa si volge
15.del tutto tranquilla dal disastro; il contadino
può avere udito il tonfo, il grido desolato,
ma per lui non era un problema importante; il sole splendeva
come doveva fare sulle bianche gambe che scompaiono nel verde
dell’acqua; e la nave lussuosa e snella che aveva pur visto
20.qualcosa di sorprendente, un ragazzo che cade dal cielo,
sapeva dove andare e calma continuava a navigare.

Auden drew inspiration for this poem from some paintings by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder probably after a visit at Brussels Museum of Fine Arts: The Nativity, The Massacre of the Innocents, some crucifixion  and above all The Fall of Icarus, described in the second stanza.

The poem starts with a statement: “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood its human position;”,  that is the great painters of the past knew the importance of suffering in man’s life and could recognize the perception of the relation between  great events   and suffering, on the one hand, and common everyday events on the other. This statement introduces the main themes: a meditation on the nature of human life, the loneliness of man with his own suffering and the indifference   of nature and man in front of both great events of history  and individual sorrow. An important point of the poem is   the contrast between these great events and what happens around them. Some   images reveal  suffering and others  reveal  everyday events: while someone is suffering, “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking”.    As the Old Masters, Auden too, seems to accept  suffering and joy as a law of life. Unlike them he seems to think that it is unfair that it should be so.   In The Nativity  the children are skating indifferently on a pound while a great event is going to happen, Jesus Christ’s birth,” the miraculous birth”. In  The Massacre of the Innocents , in front of a tragic event  a dog and a horse go indifferently on their everyday natural life:  “anyhow in a corner  …..the dogs go on with their doggy  life  and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree”.

In the   The Fall of Icarus (in Greek mythology Icarus and his father Dedalus escaped the Labyrinth of the Minotaur through wax wings; Icarus flew to close to the sun and his wings melted and he fell into the sea and got drowned)   nature and the human beings are indifferent towards what can be considered both a tragedy, Icarus’  death, and an exceptional event, “a boy falling out of the sky”. This tragic event is not noticed and   the ploughman and the ship go on their usual work as if nothing had happened: “ the ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry/ but for him it was not an important failure;   …….the delicate ship sailed calmly on”. Nature, too is indifferent. The natural course of nature cannot change because of human actions and the sun cannot stop shining because of Icarus’ death: “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water”. The closing “sailed calmly on” may be interpreted as positive; it seems to suggest that life should go on over individual failure.In the picture the ordinary events, the ploughman,the ship are in the foreground while the tragic/extraordinary event,Icarus’ death, is in the background.

 Refugee Blues

1.Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

4.Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

7.In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

10.The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

13.Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

16.Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

19.Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

22.Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

25.Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

28.Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

31.Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

34.Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

This poem deals with the Jews who in 1939 had to flee from German because of Nazi persecution. It is written in the form of a blues song, following the blues tradition developed among the negroes of the United States probably because Auden wants to stress the analogy between the Jews with all the persecuted races in the world. The narrative voice is a German Jew refugee speaking to his wife.   Their condition,  described in this poem, may be the same as for millions of refugees  both past, present and future, then he may speak for them, too. They are homeless( stanzas1-2 “there is no place for us …..we cannot go there”), have no passport (stanza 3 “old passports can’t do”), Burocrats deny the refugees’ existence (Stanza 4 “if you have no passport you’re officially dead”),  Burocracy delays any help (stanza 5 “asked me politely to return next year”),people in the new country are hostile towards them (stanzas 6-7 “if we let them in,the will steal our daily bread ….They must die”). The poem ends with the image of Hitler’s soldier looking for them:” Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro/ looking for you an me,my dear”.

Like blues songs, the subject is hardship and suffering, the tone is melancholy, there is widespread use of repetitions, the language and syntax are simple. The poem has got three-line stanzas rhyming aab with a longer third line. All rhymes are not regular because there are para-rhymes (a rhyme that does not rhyme fully but has got similar sounds) in some lines (fair/there ll.4-5, chair/year ll.13-14). The first two lines describe an event and the third line provides the answer and acts as a sad comment.  The third line  is composed of two repeated sentences separated by the expression “my dear”. The verbs are used without subjects and all refer to the speaking Jew’s action. This unusual syntactical structure makes the language seem more spontaneous and colloquial. The poem is built in a series of opposites (”living in mansion/living in holes”, “dead/alive”) to stress the difference between the refugees and the people of the country they have fled to.   There is also an opposition of two seasons, spring and winter, which correspond respectively to their past life in their old country and to their present situation as hunted people. To stress their tragic situation, three stanzas of the poem are devoted to the animal world: pets in stanza 8, fish in stanza 9 and birds in stanza 10. Dogs and cats are given, unlike the Jews, a home “Saw a door opened and a cat let in” and even clothes,“Saw a poodle in a jacket”; the fish swimming in the open sea know no boundaries and passports; the birds in the trees sing freely.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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