Wysten Hugh Auden is remembered as one of the best American poets of the 20th century. Even much before the time that the World War II broke out, Auden was engaged in highlighting various loopholes in the political systems of the world which engendered flaws in the social apparatus as well as the economic paraphernalia of any country. This article carries out an exegesis into some of the ideas in W.H. Auden’s poetry, based on his social analysis of the world.

The “Oxford Coterie”of young poets that included Stephen Spenders and W.H. Auden together catalyzed the process of introducing themes that are now archetypal to the modernist poetry of the 20th century. One sees Auden’s poetry as beautiful and at times surreal on a normative vision, but upon a deeper level of study, his poetry unravels its underlying explanations to the problems that the world is confronted with. Not only does Auden talk about the social and political problems but the problems of identity, reclamation of space, and the herculean difficulties associated with war-affected nations that breathe perpetual pessimism and existential crises. 

At Oxford in the late 1920s, Auden read the work of Eliot and was inspired majorly by the latter. Auden’s earliest verse was also influenced by Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owens. His poems are fragmented, hinging on substantial images and colloquial concerns to convey Auden’s political and psychological fears.

In the 1930s his poems mirrored his travels as well as his obsession with the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Journey to War, written with Christopher Isherwood, a regular collaborator, featured short sonnets and a verse interpretation. The famous Spain, dealing with the Spanish Civil War, is from this period.

One of the chief factors that sets Auden different from his lot is his ability to explain matters and topics of sheer intellect with use of the simplest linguistic facility, easily graspable and pragmatically structured.

A terse description to define Auden as a poet could be taken from one of his own very brief poems, Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets

The More Loving Oneis a poem by Auden that talks about him looking up at the stars and while examining these, it can be understood that the poet makes significant allusions. The “stars” in the poem could allude to the ruling hierarchy, the upper tiers that rule over masses. It is a substantial interpretation to the poem that the poet hinges his idea upon; Auden, being the social analyst that he was, through this poem placed emphasis on the discordance between the government tiers and the ordinary masses—drawing people’s attention towards the asymmetrical society—the widening of the gyre between the bases and the superstructures. It is this ever-widening gap between the proletariat and the bourgeois class that engenders a social conflict between the two, which ultimately becomes a cause of the struggle that the proletariat class undergoes in order to eventually bring a revolution.

The poet refers to himself as the more loving entity, a kind of proverbial glue that would keep the bases together by forging unity of purpose. This particular notion is inclined towards critiquing capitalism in which cleavages are formed within a society,

If equal affection there cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The Marxist idea in the poem is brought under perspective by highlighting what capitalism is capable of doing to a society, creating factions and divisions within it and polarizing it to a lethal extent. It is this idea that is mirrored in the tone of the third stanza:

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day

When the working classes and middle classes of a country feel alienated and realize that they have been brutally left on their own, downtrodden and disenfranchised, they stop relying on their elected representatives, the ones that they bestowed their trust upon—their so-called support-systems and the ones that they admired.  

This paves way for a pro-Marxist ideology to set in, which for the most part, is a revolution brought about by the toiling bases.

The poem is partly pessimistic and partly optimistic. The pessimistic part of the poem manifests itself in the last stanza whereby the poet says,

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky

It needs to be understood that the poet here is trying to establish the idea that all ‘big stars’ that one admires and deems as his savior and protector are petty in themselves, their shine is transient and short-lived, which is why one should be prepared to open his eyes to witness an empty sky. The empty sky could allude to a society without social hierarchies and class structures.

The optimistic approach, however, is closely linked to the very idea of a silver silhouette seen being engendered by an impeccable belief in revolution which would dissolve the anxieties and pressures endured by the working class.

Auden is famous for highlighting contemporary issues that were prevalent under totalitarianism under the veneer of lyrical pieces of beauty.

In The Unknown Citizen, Auden describes an individual who is robed off his individuality in such a way that he has been displayed as an entity recognizable by the various external agencies that keep a track of his life:

For in everything he did he served the greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues

One could argue over the nature of the title of this poem, it is essential to bear in mind the reality that the readership is made to imbibe by the poet rightly pointing out that an individual is nothing but a cog in the social machinery—and this mechanical existence fosters nothing evolutionary, rather paves way for a life punctuated by stagnation. As the individual grows older he becomes emotionally sterilized, transposed into a robot. What the poet means to willfully state is the abstract notion that any individual, towards the later years of his life in any society, does not remain the person he was born as.

The Press are convinced that he brought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way

The names of all the agencies begin with capitalized letters, this shows that the poet is hinting at the idea that in societies, from a bird’s eye view, the individual himself coupled with all his obstinate pursuits of individuality, is dwarfed by the system that runs the society and affects the major stakeholders. The major stakeholders could be the mega institutions, institutionalized norms and major private owners in the managerial, working apparatus of any country.

This again makes the idea of Marxism very prominent in Auden’s work as it is inexorably this very situation that results in demarcations and cornering of individuals who are constructive citizens of the society, demeaned and dwarfed by the big fishes in the game who not only use their well-established image and infrastructure to crush these individuals but also use art, religion and politics to exert their influence.

Was he happy? Was he free? The question is absurd

The absurdity about the question arises straight from the time when one looks up at the title of the poem, The Unknown Citizen, ideally the citizen is the state’s responsibility but in the poem, Auden explains how the state treats the citizen as nothing more than a duty that needs to be kept a check upon with the help of a few external sources- ensuring the veritable happiness of the citizen has never been on the state’s list of priorities.

In his poem, In Time of War, Auden gives an in-depth analysis of the complete process of proto-industrial capitalism. He talks about the various aspects of capitalism affecting the natural fabric of any country which is responsible for instilling unity within individuals.

In the Engines bear them through the sky: they’re free
And isolated like the very rich;/

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

The effects of capitalism as we see it, the machines and the mechanical devices are what have reduced the ‘human” in man. Man has become a prey to dejection feeling strangulated by man-made social orders, the poet describes how war is itself the biggest of human follies and the biggest of human failures in essence. It is important to note here that Auden relates war and the “journey to war” directly with the idea of capitalism. Marxism, being a binary to capitalism, is what Auden, socially, propagates in this poem. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, being the hallmark of an asymmetrical society is what Auden has carried out a spoken battle against.

But ideas can be true although men die/

Requires their skill; will never see how flying
Is the creation of ideas they hate,

Auden points out here that the valiant skill with the art of soldering is what the higher authorities require from the individuals, the citizens, but the ideas dwelling within these mindsets might be true, Auden throws light at the fact that it is easier to see men dying in a war but an ideology cannot be buried so plainly. The perplexity of war is what Auden has talked about as failure and a futile exercise but at the same time the motivation that these men have, that provides the impetus for such an exercise in the first place, is what bears significance in Auden’s eyes and it is this motivation that Auden defends and revels in. The poet says that it is this motivation that would make the people actualize their true potential as veritable individuals, cognizant of the fact that they should not waste their energies on activities like war, but ought to channelize their energies to bring essential changes to the very system that creates room for war.

In a nutshell, Auden worked not only as a beautiful poet but as one whose poetry did not do away with creating an impeccable balance between reasonable excess and required reality, beautiful in its form, yet practical and poignant in its message.