The Poet & The City: W.H. Auden and Social Responsibility


A Brief History


Alan Hollinghurst, a famous Oxford alumni and prize-winning writer described Auden’s circle of friends as a ‘generation of artists who saw it as part of their social obligation as artists to concern themselves with public affairs.’ This is how they have remained embalmed in the public imagination – as a group of young, effete bourgeois men dressed in flannel blazers, who took the part of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.


However over the course of his entire career W. H. Auden’s verdict as to what degree of responsibility art should bear to society, was mixed – even contradictory. For a poet who was considered by many to be the spokesman of his generation, it seems ironic that his most oft-quoted line, ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives … a way of happening, a mouth’ (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, II. ll.5-10). seems to emphasize the inability of poetry to affect any sort of change, political or social.


This idea seems to be reaffirmed by Auden’s ‘Dialogue’ with Howard Griffin (1949). In this interview he states; ‘The frivolity of art is that it cannot have much effect in changing people. No matter how utterly convincing, didactic art cannot succeed in changing society.’ However, these are the opinions of his later years, when he had learnt to resent Yeats and the rhetorical flourishes of Yeats’ poetry. His condemnation of the ‘self-proclaimed poets who, to wow an / audience, utter some resonant lie’ (‘Ode to Terminus’, final stanza), is actually a self-criticism, and is manifested by Auden’s much-discussed revisions and in some cases deletions of ‘didactic’ poems from his collected works. Auden’s apostasy to the Episcopal Church in 1940 and his emigration to the United States indicate a critical turning point in his life and thinking on this matter, and cleaves his career into two, usefully balanced halves.


The ‘social commitment’ exemplified by his poetry of the 1930s, in which he attempted to diagnose the neuroses of society, was concomitant upon a left-wing political vision, highly influenced by Marx and Freud. In later years though he never denied that poetry had a social function,* this did not translate itself into a particularly political vision. In other words though he acknowledged the social act of writing and the contingent community of readers, he refuted the idea that poetry should have a social effect. Auden had a lifelong dread of the potential perversion and mismanagement of poetic sentiment in the political realm. He lived at a time in which it was well known that Adolf Hitler had trained as an artist before becoming a soldier, and the American poet Ezra Pound was broadcasting on the radio in support of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.


If they advocated anything at all, the poems of his later years advocated a curious brand of Christian existentialism. Otherwise they became markedly less provocative in subject matter. Auden found a new enthusiasm for landscape or pastoral writing, Homeric writing, and even domestic writing. Though the polemical content of his earlier poetry is dismissed or renounced, however, a self-consciously authoritative and commanding tone remains. As Buer notes: ‘Auden’s political alignment and argumentation of the thirties have been abandoned; much of the spirit that informed them, however, remains intact.’ It is telling, for instance, that even in the 1950s and 60s Auden was fascinated by the medium of opera libretto* – showing a continuing though contained predilection for strains of passionate, emotional and dialogic content in verse.  


In his early years in Oxford the whimsical and facetious project ‘Mortmere’ became an epithet and by-word for a self-enclosed domain of private, public-school fantasies that he shared with a group that included Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood. The slapstick, mock-Gothic, English provinciality of Mortmere shares much in common with the atmosphere of Auden’s early poetry, with its obscure coordinates and landmarks. It is arguable Much of the obscurity of his first collection Poems can be attributed to the way it drew upon and reflected on this private society. The significance of ‘Mortmere’ however, resides in the fact that even at an early stage Auden found ‘a private group an imaginative necessity’ and shows in Buer’s words that ‘he is the kind of poet who needs first to have conceived of an audience for a poem, in order to write, as he does, with one eye upon that audience.’


In the 1930s, Auden’s audience simply expanded and Auden met the demands of this extended audience by writing polemical social verse. This verse was deliberately more accessible than his earlier writing of the 1920s and its success was partly achieved by what Stan Smith would call the ‘Auden effect’:  the ability to ‘catch the changing moods of the time in luminous images, magical phrases, and breathtaking apercus.’ The ‘Auden effect’ was a very self-conscious adjustment of poetic style, written in what Auden would later call the ‘common meditative norm’, a deliberately populist form of versification. In it, Auden married didactic political and social commentary with rhetorical virtuosity and ‘polymorphous perversity’ of language.


Though political ideology was a considerable force in his early writing, his methodology was also more far-reaching that other contemporary artists. Driven by the possibility of political reform (his cure), his method was still that of the psychologist. As Gerard Nelson writes:


‘He believed that man could be good if purged of his self-induced ills, and that society could be healed and a New Jerusalem brought about. He believed in the healing powers of psychology and in material advancement, and he used images from both to construct his poems. Finally he viewed himself and his friends as teachers, his poems as vehicles for teaching, and mankind as capable of being taught.’


In no poem of the 1930s period is Auden’s political determination better demonstrated than in ‘Spain’ and ‘September Ist 1939’ – two poems which he would later excise from his Collected Works.


Written in April 1937 during the civil unrest in Spain between the left-wing Republicans and the fascist faction led by Franco, this poem came about as the result of Auden’s wish to ‘do something’. Offering us a panoramic scope of history from the assembling of nations, ‘the language of size’ through the beginning of the ascendency of reason above primitive man, ‘insurance by cards, /The divination of water’, past great inventions such as ‘Of cartwheels and blocks’, the establishment of societies and religion, ‘The trial of heretics among the columns of stone’ to industrialisation and iconic texts ‘On the Origin of Mankind’ – the poem stresses among the flux of ‘yesterdays’ and the future, the importance of acting ‘today’. History is no longer a matter of evolution, but at all stages a process of intervention or recoil. Auden’s message to us is the importance of personal responsibility and action in framing the course of history: ‘for / I am your choice, your decision. Yes I am Spain.’ For Auden, personal intervention and risk (‘to-day the struggle’) was essential to secure the defeat of fascism. The consequences of projected failure would be too dire to countenance, ‘The stars are dead. The animals will not look’. As Auden writes, ‘History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.’


Though there is no clear metrical or rhyming-scheme in the poem, ‘Spain’ ensures its effectiveness as a vehicle for political ideology by projecting throughout a grand, epic tone and quality. This is achieved by the poem’s sense of historical depth and the tirade-like roll of enjambed sentences. Throughout, Auden’s voice is unequivocal. The poem’s call for participation is underlined by the clear, hard-hitting consonants. The first world of each line is capitalized and largely stressed.


‘September 1, 1939’, is a reaction to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In this poem Auden asks the reader to shun Eros in favour of Agape –  as only then can the ‘Just Society’ be founded. Auden suggests that at present society is beguiled by the fascist-capitalist love of Eros, ‘Not universal love / But to be loved alone’. It is the ‘lie of Authority / whose buildings grope the sky’. What he polemically advocates is the realisation that ‘no one exists alone … We must love one another or die.’


While this poem is clearly an indictment of Nazism (‘Linz’ refers to Hitler’s birthplace and his unhappy childhood that made ‘a psychopathic god’), and consequently a comment on the cyclical and self-perpetuating nature of evil, ‘Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return’, it is also a comment on the dangers of nationalism and spiritual supremacists, ‘the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad’, and a condemnation of the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment who Auden saw as responsible for the anxieties of modern and economic man. It is the ‘romantic lie in the brain’ the dualism proposed by Descartes and Machiavelli which has led to the modern sickness of disassociating the individual from its community, in the same way it severs its mind from its body. Gaining some perspective in America, ‘September 1, 1939’ compasses Auden’s reflections on ‘a low dishonest decade’, ‘Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong.’ Though metrically and rhythmically it is still irregular (like ‘Spain’), it conveys a direct political message with an urgent, catechistic tone. Auden’s contention is to ‘show an affirming flame’ in the face of history and historical determinists.


I have analysed two of Auden’s most didactically effective early poems. Here Auden seems to have forged a direct link between literature and social commitment.  Through poetry he directs, he expounds, he instructs and openly calls for political reform. His tone is even coercive.


However, despite this I think that it would be unfair to demarcate Auden as a poet who believed in the political and social function of art, in view of his later, substantial change of heart. By his later years, he no longer believed as Shelley did that ‘poets are the acknowledged legislators of the world’, but conversely that ‘The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.’


Those attempting to trace a line of continuity throughout Auden’s career will be grievously disappointed – a spokesman he remains, as ‘Moonlanding’ testifies to – but he concludes with an entirely different message, in a modified tone. Following his residence in Greenwich Village, in Italy and Austria, and in the comfort at last of his own property, living like a social exile, Auden’s work adopted a new classicized and Mediterranean aspect. ‘The Bucolics’, a sequence of pastiche pastoral poems sketched on various aspects of the landscape, testify to this, as does ‘In Praise of Limestone’, a beautiful eulogy to the forgotten landscape of Auden’s youth, which he relates closely to the geometry of his mother’s body.


This poem is serene and meditative, it is no longer tormented and incisive. ‘In Praise of Limestone’ the Halcyon days of his youth become the model of the ‘days to come’, the future is no longer the political unknown quality of ‘Spain’ – ‘When I try to imagine a faultless love / or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur / Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’ In a similar vein follows much of the vilified anecdotal, ‘domestic fiction’ like ‘Since’ written in 1965:


‘In a flagged kitchen

we were served broiled trout

and rank cheese: for a while

we talked by the fire,

then, carrying candles, climbed

steep stairs. Love was made

then and there…’


Prominent among the range of new subject matter towered Auden’s theological interests. We see this manifest itself particularly clearly in his ‘Horae Canonicae’, a series of poems recalling the events of Good Friday, and structured around the monastic canonical hours. The ‘Just City’ of Auden’s political paradigm is now replaced by a religious one – the New Jerusalem. The various Madonnas turn their faces to ‘our completed work: / Pile-driver, concrete mixer, / crane and pickaxe wait to be used again, / But how can we repeat this?’ The furtively questioning tone of Auden’s earlier work persists but it is subdued, and it is now only mournfully that he notes the building blocks of the new society. ‘Discarded artefact of our own, / Like torn gloves, rusted kettles, / Abandoned branchlines, worn lop-sided / Grindstones buried in nettles.’ The question that he rhetorically asks in ‘Compline’ – ‘Can poets … be saved? It is not easy / to believe in unknowable justice / Or pray in the name of a love…’ has found an answer: it is to turn to God, ‘whose name one’s forgotten.’ Auden’s evangelicalism did not go away, but it found new expressive content. He was always devoted to the New Society but moved the agency from Art to Religion, as primary catalyst.


Auden was a poet fundamentally ‘in love with language’. In this and the fact that poetry is an ineluctably social and even socio-political process – it seeks to communicate a message, to influence its audience – Auden could not have failed to be a ‘socially-committed’ poet. Poetry committed him to society. At a deeper level, Auden acknowledged that ‘there resides in some men – perhaps latently in all – a social longing, a desire to join with other men to form associations…’ and he is no exception to this. Since the very early days of ‘Mortmere’ it was clear that Auden was a poet who wanted to reach out to a particular group. But what crucially differentiates Auden’s early and later poetry was his more mature conviction that poetry was unethical if it was didactic or emotive. Emblematic of this was his renunciation of Yeats’ influence over him. This coincided with a later dismissal of politics per se, perhaps occasioned by is disbelief in nationality and the idea that borders and countries are merely geometrical lines, thematic preoccupations that emerged in later work. He began to see his purpose as a poet enshrined in the superior message of Agape – a selfless Christian love, a brotherhood of men in an enduring city. Political will had been simplified and stream-lined into one core message, that of love, compassion and charity. So it is little wonder that the word ‘love’ is indexed more in Auden’s canon than any other modern poet.




*never denied that poetry had a social function, as he said in ‘The Poet & The City’ collected in The Dyer’s Hand: ‘In our age the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act’.

* the medium of opera libretto, in 1951 Auden collaborated with his long-term partner Charles Kallman on the libretto for Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. They also translated operas such as The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni together. { }