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Abigail Robles Professor Eric Rawson English 102 December 2011 Through a Glass, Darkly: An Analysis of Three Poems

by W. H. Auden In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise (65-66). This is an excerpt form W. H. Audens famous poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeats. It encapsulates the focus of most Audens poetry, which can be described as Audens effort to honestly make sense of the human condition. Auden was a humanist at heart. Auden was also known for his versatility and a mastery of poetic form. With his skill in poetry, he sought to expose poignant and unpleasant realities and truths. Wystan Hugh Auden was born to an Anglican family in York, Engand on February 21, 1907 (Baughman). His father, a physician, exposed him to the sciences and to the Nordic mythology, and his mother, a devout Anglican, exposed him to Christian doctrines in the Anglican tradition. He attended the Oxford University, initially, to study engineering but eventually changed his focus of study to English. At Oxford, he met Stephen Spender, C. Day Lweis, and Louis MacNiece, who later on was collectively known as the Oxford Group or the Auden Generation. After graduation, he continued to pursue poetry and had his first book, Poems, published in 1928. While working on his poetry, Auden also worked as a teacher to support himself. In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann to enable her to obtain a British passport and leave Nazi Germany. The two remained amicable, and Auden pursued homoerotic relationships throughout his life (Wystan).

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In the 1930s, Auden traveled extensively and was exposed to the disgruntling realities of the time. After his travels around Europe and China, Auden emigrated to America and became a naturalized citizen in 1946 (Meyer). The 1930s saw the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Audens poetry during this decade reflected the dark, foreboding sense rooted in the political tensions in Europe. The younger Auden was a leftist sympathizer, but his travels in the latter half of the decade left him dissatisfied and disillusioned. His poetry in this decade reflects the social problems and political tensions of the time. As I Walked Out One Evening, Musee des Beaux Arts, and In Memory of W.B. were all published in the 1930s. Themes of human suffering, human indifference, and the human condition overarch each poem. Audens disillusionment and his increasing exposure to the human condition are reflected in all three poems. The ballad As I Walked Out One Evening was published in November 1937. As I Walked Out One Evening addresses how reality fails to live up to the hopes we have. Specifically, the poem addresses how human love, initially hopeful and full of promise, is debased. As the title indicates, the poem follows the speaker and relates what he perceives on his evening stroll. In the course of his stroll, he hears a lovers song, which is related in the poem for the next twelve stanzas. The tone at the beginning of the poem is bright and hopeful, and the imagery is of fullness and fecundity. The metaphor the speaker uses to describe the street scene he encounters is an example of Audens use of language to establish the bright and hopeful tone at the start of the poem. The crowds upon the pavement / were fields of harvest wheat (3-4), says the speaker. This tone is carried out as well into the first three stanzas of the loverss song, but at the next stanza, Auden transitions to a darker tone, indicating a darker, grittier image of

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reality. Auden seems to make the argument that time eventually erodes the bright, hopeful promise of the human existence to show its perverted, almost nefarious core: But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time.

In the burrows of the Nightmare Where Justice naked is, Time watches from the shadow And coughs when you would kiss (21-28). What promise love once held is seemingly lost, and the lovers song ends, You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart (55-56). Auden closes the poem on a more somber and solemn note, and as he does, the poem leaves us with an unsettled, empty sense that reality has not lived up to our hopes and, at the same time, that there is more depth to reality than what we experience and perceive. A year later, Auden would further examine the reality of human existence and how people respond to notable events in Musee des Beaux Arts. Musee des Beaux Arts, one of Audens better known poems, was published in December 1938. The poem is written in free verse and is divided into two stanzas, the first longer than the second. Lines in the poem run through the end of a line and are ended in the middle of the subsequent line. This enjambment of lines results in a rhythm that mirrors more casual conversation more closely. Auden does this purposefully, as the subject of the poem is human response to tragic and miraculous occasions within the context of daily living.

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The title of the poem refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, which houses the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Charters). This painting is the object of rumination for Auden. He uses this to bring into further focus the subject of the poem. Auden points out how momentous occasions, whether they be miracles or tragedies, are framed within the context of daily existence: They never forgot 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 torturers horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree (9-13). In the second stanza, Auden brings our focus to the painting housed within the Belgian museum. In the poem, the narrator who is presumably Auden casually comments on the how the inanity of daily living frames the tragedy of Icarus. how everything turns away 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 (14-18) At this point, Auden finally addresses the subject of the poemthat is, how humans react to momentous occasions, both miracles and tragedies. In the poem, Auden shows us the tragedy of human existence, how people can turn away from a miracle or tragedy unmoved, untouched. Later, Auden would reexamine the same theme in his elegy for the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats.

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In Memory of W. B. Yeats, published a month after Yeats death in 1939, was written by Auden to honor Yeatss life and contributions. The elegy is divided into three, distinct sections, in accordance with the elegys traditional form. Audens treatment of Yeatss death in this elegy innovates upon the traditional form for elegies, by his choice not to idealize Yeats nor his work. Rather, Auden addresses the subject of Yeats, his work, and his death realistically, within the context of historical and common human existence. The first section, written in free verse, mourns and ruminates on the day of Yeatss death. The tone is dark and heavy, which is immediately apparent upon the opening line of poem: He disappeared in the dead of winter:. Audens alliteration of words with a d sound emphasizes this: The day of his death was a dark cold day (6). In this section, Auden reexamines the theme of human indifference to tragic events: But in the importance and noise of to-morrow When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, And each cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom, A few thousands will think of this day As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual (24-29). Auden more extensively addressed this theme in his earlier piece, Musee des Beaux Arts. The subsequent section, which, in a traditional elegy, proclaims the admiration for the dead, follows a twelve-syllable, unrhymed scheme. This section is untraditional for not glorifying Yeats. Auden opens the second section, You were silly like us; your gift survived it all (32), and by saying such, he compares Yeats to the common man. Neither does he glorify Yeatss work; Auden reflects,

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For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; (36-40). In the final section, Auden moves from mourning Yeatss death to living in the aftermath of Yeatss death. This section is more structured, with stanzas organized in quatrain, has seven syllables per line, and follows an AABB rhyme scheme. As the poem draws to a close, Auden offers a resolution of sorts to the dismal darkness of not only death, but the darkness that hovered over the rest of the world. Indeed, Auden had great poetic technique and dexterity. This he used it to tackle difficult and unsettling themes in conjunction with the issues of his timea time defined by terrible wars and great technological advances. While poetry may not influence the rise and fall of stocks, Auden well understood that it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth (40-41).

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Works Cited Baughman, Judith S., et al. Wystan Hugh Auden. American Decades. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography in Context. Web. 11 November 2011. Charters, Ann and Samuel Charters. Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 3rd ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2004. Print. Meyer, Michael. W. H. Auden. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, and Writing. 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martins, 2001.Web. 14 November 2011. Wystan Hugh Auden. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1994. Gale Biography in Context. Web. 11 November 2011