Excerpt from In Time of War
by W. H. Auden
His care-free swagger was a fine invention:
Life was to slow, too regular, too grave.
With horse and sword he drew the girls’ attention,
A conquering hero, bountiful and brave,
To whom teen-agers looked for liberation:
At his command they left behind their mothers,
Their wits were sharpened by the long migration,
His camp-fires taught them all the horde were brothers.
Till what he came to do was done: unwanted,
Grown seedy, paunchy, pouchy, disappointed,
He took to drink to screw his nerves to murder,
Or sat in offices and stole,
Boomed at his children about Law and Order,
And hated life with heart and soul
Auden may be describing himself in this opening line. He is often described as brimming with a confidence, intelligence and wit. Auden attracted other bright minds. A group of writers from his days at Oxford became known as the Oxford group – Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, (Daniel Day Lewis’ father), Christopher Isherwood; Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender. All would go on to have successful careers as writers with a common bent toward leftist politics, their politics a force in their writing. Auden voiced in his literature the dangers of Fascism, the inherit evil in totalitarianism and the trap of lethargy in standing up to that evil. He supported a more reasoned equitable socialist ethos in how humanity justly supports one another. Auden’s ability to articulate a greater complexity in our humanness is what makes his writing both sensitive and audacious. His poem Lullaby is one of the greatest love poems ever written.
Auden more than dabbled in the sonnet form. He wrote several sonnet sequences, Quest and In Time of War, along with several stand alone sonnets and un-rhymed sonnets. He obviously found the sonnet form both useful and challenging.
Auden wrote in so many different styles that in my mind it is unfair to classify him only as a formal poet. Auden is the kind of writer that in my opinion makes the difficult look easy. Auden received ample recognition throughout his career and made a reasonable living as a writer, poet and academic. I wonder what kind of writer Auden would be if he were alive today? What injustices would he be highlighting? Where would Auden sit on the subject of Brexit and global migration fleeing inequality and violence?
I think Auden brings an interesting perspective on how art can shape our definition of success. What if we could all see ourselves as artists of one kind or another? What if we spent more time creating our own images, writing our own stories, rediscovering our own myths? What if we changed the narrative in our society, that an artist is not a unique person, but rather every person is a special kind of artist?
From In Time of War
By W. H. Auden
Nothing is given: we must find our law.
Great buildings jostle in the sun for domination;
Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation
The low recessive houses of the poor.
We have no destiny assigned us:
Nothing is certain but the body; we plan
To better ourselves; the hospitals alone remind us
Of the equality of man.
Children are really loved here, even by police:
They speak of years before the big were lonely,
And will be lost.
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.
We learn to pity and rebel.