I realized yesterday that today is February 21, the birthday of my favorite poet, W. H. Auden (I know it’s silly to mark the birthdays of dead people, but I like to do it anyway.). Since I’ve been wanting to write something about Auden for a while now, I figured today would be the perfect day to do it.
I hasn’t been long since I started reading Auden’s works, and to be honest, much of it still goes straight over my head, but what I understand of it, I love. Below are the six poems of his that I recommend most highly.
1. “The Unknown Citizen”
This is the poem that first introduced me to Auden. I read it in eleventh grade after it was assigned to me in English class (Coincidentally, that was the same year I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. Eleventh grade was fun.). Published in the latter years of the Great Depression, while Franklin Roosevelt was busy growing the government at an unprecedented rate, this poem is, rather obviously, a piece of satire against the idea of “the Nanny State.” Some believe this poem might have even influenced George Orwell in writing his novel 1984. Certainly like 1984, it reads like prophecy now. I’ve always had a penchant for stories about Dystopia, so this became one of my favorite poems, not just by Auden, but by any poet.
Prior to reading this poem, nearly everything I had read from Auden had been straight and serious, if not dark and somber. So this poem, which reminds me more than a little of that other luminary of English poetry Edward Lear, took me by surprise. I understand what Auden did here: love is a very important, usually very solemn, topic for poets, so he thought he would underline its importance by speaking of it in ridiculous terms. But nevertheless, it’s hard to regard this as a serious poem when it rhymes “Pajamas” with “Llamas.” It’s a good thing, then, that I like ridiculous poems too.
3. “Refugee Blues”
This is a beautiful poem, but heartbreaking as well, for it has its roots in some terrible history. During the 1930’s, German Jews poured into the United States and other countries trying to escape the persecution of the Nazi regime. However, U.S. immigration quotas leftover from the 1920’s meant that thousands of Jews made the trip across the Atlantic only to be told that America wouldn’t accept them. This poem is about one such Jewish couple who is denied entry to the United States on a technicality. The way Auden handles this poem shows one of the many reasons why I like him: he’s able to keep the focus where it belongs, on the victims and their plight, while at the same time subtly showing contempt for those in power.
4. “Epitaph on an Unknown Soldier”
A two-line punch in the gut. My fellow book blogger Suzannah Rowntree once wrote that “The real beauty of poetry lies in saying volumes in just a few brief words . . . .” Auden more than does that here.
5. “September 1, 1939”
Auden himself said he didn’t care much for this one, but I enjoyed it immensely. As you probably gathered from the title, this poem is about the beginning of World War II. I find sometimes when poets try to address contemporary issues directly, it comes out rather clumsy–not like poetry at all. This, on the other hand, is different: there’s no doubt that it’s about a current event (It’s right there in the title, for goodness sake.), and yet it still has the ambiguity and the imagery of a good old-fashioned poem.
Have you ever read something that made you feel as though the author stole a glance inside your head before he wrote it? That’s how reading this poem felt. As far as I can tell, it’s about the fears that plague writers, about failing, about not being good enough, etc. All things that I have dealt with quite often as of late. W. H. Auden apparently felt much the same, because this poem expressed those same sentiments that had been floating around in my head exactly.
Honorable Mention: “The Shield of Achilles”
Auden wrote this poem in the years after World War II, during which he served in an outfit that surveyed the damage caused by U. S. bombing raids in Germany. This is the poetic equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Next in Line”: I can’t agree completely with the message, but the form makes it one of the most amazing things I have ever read in my life. Good for study if for nothing else.