November 21, 2009

W.H Auden is widely considerd as one of the most influential and all-around members of his generation of modernist poets. Even though his status as a modern poet is well-decided by his bold experimentation with the accepted literary forms and metres, Auden’s enormous intelligence, complex philosophical and moral vision, and keen wit distinguish him from his contemporaries. Perhaps the aspect that gives his poems power and makes Auden the towering figure of the modern age was the range of his social awareness. He seemed conscious of what was happening not just in his country, rather across the world. It is this awareness of social concerns that inspires his greatest poems.

Majority of the great poets write poetry of universal significance being the representatives of their age.  W.H. Auden is no exception in this respect. Like his contemporary T.S. Eliot, he mirrors and surveys different issues of his age. However, he is concerned to a greater degree than Eliot with social problems. His poetry is more relevant to contemporary social and political realities than that of T.S. Eliot. Auden explores social injustice, oppression and loss of human values. He thinks that it is one’s moral duty to protest all the irregularities and injustice. He finds the need of revolution to change in the structure of the society. Auden is the spokesman of the masses. He talks about the need for individual freedom and sympathy for the helpless. Auden finds his objects of writing among everyday sordid realities of diseased society. To be brief, social consciousness shapes the poetic career of Auden.

The following discussion hinges round the range or scope of Auden’s social awareness along with a critical inquiry into the major poems written by this great originator of modern poetics:


Auden’s social concerns are mostly expressed in the context of war. Auden is an avid observer of war. In his poetry he functions as the critic of war. He surveys different social, political, and economic upheavals caused by World Wars I and II, Spanish Civil War, and Communist revolution in Russia. He argues that most of the ills of the contemporary society results from war. Many of Auden’s poetry can be studied in this contextual consideration: The Shield of Achilles, In Memory of W.B. Yeats, Spain 1937, etc.

In the poem The Shield of Achilles Auden embodies in poetic myth, the desolation, savagery, and uninspiring barrenness of contemporary society. In this poem Auden compares and contrasts the current social condition with the values and unity of the glorious past.  Here Auden confronts us with two contrasting shields from two antithetical periods. One is from ancient Greek civilisation and the other is from modern civilisation. The classical/Homeric shield reflects a lively and gay picture of the glorious past, whereas the modern shield reflects an ugly picture of the degenerative modern civilisation, which is full of savagery, violence, aimlessness, and ailment. Thetis, the silent explorer looks for the classical virtues on her son Achilles’ shield, but finds instead a negative image, the picture of a barren land. The modern civilisation is full of decay, desolation and frustration. It is an era of deficiency, and artificiality, where massess unable to communicate their emotions, sufferings and spiritual loneliness. The whole world is now involved in warfare; people have lost their reasoning power and have become mechanical since they have no individual conscience and initiative. Moreover, the religious beliefs have been crumbled away and lack of morality is everywhere.

In his poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats Auden gives us an idea of the chaotic politics of 1930s. Here the poet tells about the atmosphere of war and hatred prevailing the European nations. When Auden was writing this elegy in memory of W B Yeats, the threat of Second World War was looming large over European nations. The rise of Nazism and Fascism was creating a sense of distrust and hatred among them. The aggressive policy of Hitler was creating a sense of insecurity among the European people. Thus although in this poem Auden is commemorating the death of Yeats, his private thing becomes commingled with the public one. Auden is here indicating that all the European nations are crying for war, like the dogs barking loudly. There is no fellow-feeling among the European nations. Rather they are separated from each other by their hatred. Auden seems to say that European leaders are not behaving in a rational way; rather they have gone mad. In this way, Auden superbly analyses the situation of Europe immediately before the Second World War:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark
And the living nations wait
Each sequestered in its hate.

The poem Spain 1937, has the war in Spain as its subject. It is a struggle between past and present. Like a telephoto lens, the narrative sweeps across the panorama of history, zooms in on the Spanish Civil War, focuses briefly into the future, and returns to the scene in Spain and the common realities of war. Spain 1937 is an urgent call to “Seize the Day”, recognizing the literal and symbolic importance of the Spanish Civil War. In this poem Auden considers the outcome of Spain's Civil War as a significant and historical event that will in turn influence the future. By placing it in the context of the whole sweep of history, the poet accurately identifies the struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism as significant not only for the Spanish but for modern civilization. The poem prophetically predicts this struggle throughout the 20th century; it has been enacted again and again in the past decades, both within nations and between them. Many historians have speculated that had the Republicans been successful, Mussolini and Hitler might not have been so bold or so successful and history might have taken a different course. Yet the fascist tyrants were unchecked for years, and with the end of World War II, civilization entered the postmodern era where the struggle continues.

Rejection of Conventionality

In his poetry Auden rejects the notion of conventionality and advocates individualism and its manifestations. In the poem In Praise of Limestone, Auden speaks against conformity in society, a conformity that would submerge the individual. Ironically, Auden, in this poem, takes to task the poet who insists on being pragmatic, on calling “the sun the sun” and who finds the limestone landscape disturbing to something more truly poetic.

Callousness of Society

In many of his poems he observes the narcissistic side of the contemporary society. For instance, in Musée des Beaux Arts Auden presents the philosophical truth about human suffering. He sees suffering at the heart of human existence. Auden respects the ancient artists because they had a powerful sense to enter deep into the nature of human suffering. They understood that suffering is something universal and inevitable for human being. Moreover, people generally remain indifferent to the pain and suffering of an individual. While a man suffers, others are engaged in their usual labour.

In order to prove the fact of human indifference and callousness to the suffering of others, Auden presents the case of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. Auden here refers to the painting of Brueghel called “The Numbering at Bathlehem”. The picture shows that the religious-minded old people wait for Second Coming of Jesus Christ while children keep skating joyously on a pond at the edge of the wood. Thus to the people, even the great fact of crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nothing but a normal event that happens for other criminals too. Again, the event of crucifixion did not happen in a sacred place but in an untidy spot of a secluded place. Here Auden is praising the ability of the artists like Brueghel for their extraordinary power to observe human nature and present it in their works. These artists well understood:

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 torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

At the time of crucifixion people went on their regular works, showing no special concern to it. People saw the event with the same instinctual interest as that of a dog or a horse. A dog leads its life according to its animal instinct, which the poet terms “doggy”. In the same way, the horse of the killer of Jesus went on rubbing its back against a tree. Again Auden refers to another painting by Brueghel namely “Icarus”. According to the Greek mythology, Icarus managed to flee from Crete by using wings of feather and wax. But as he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he was drowned into the sea. Brueghel deals with this event in his painting “Icarus”. What particularly moves Auden while reflecting on Brueghel’s painting “Icarus” is how the ship and the ploughman look at the falling Icarus and then turn their attention to their own affairs without any worry or care at all for the boy. This is the reality of our society where no one cares of any one.

Human Sufferings

Auden’s poetry is also concerned with the predicament of human beings. His As I Walked Out One Evening is a viciously nihilistic assertion of the triumph of time over life and the futility and transience of love. The poem is basically labelled a love poem. But underlying its simple theme of love there is a serious subject matter. It is about the harsh reality or tragedy of human life. In initial stage the pot depicts the charming side of human life by showing the fascination of romantic love. But very soon, he realizes that life is full of miseries, and it is not made up of simplicities and certainties. In material life one cannot hide himself from the real horror, loss and fear of life, nor from the ravages of time. Time destroys everything. Thus the poem illustrates with great cynicism the sufferings of human beings in the modern world:

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.

Loss of Human Values

As a conscious social observer Auden also deals with the moral problems of the 20th century society. For instance, his Lullaby gives a trustworthy picture of the faithlessness of modern lovers. In this poem we are confronted with a pair of faithless couple who have gathered together to enjoy sexual pleasure. The lover knows very well that his beloved is disloyal to him and her love for him is just for one night but still he decides to love her devotedly. As a materialistic man the lover feels that nothing in this world is perfect. Human beings are subject to decay and demise. In the same way their physical love is also subject to this decay and death.  His beloved is a human being and she is not free from human imperfections or characteristic shortcomings. So he ignores her inconstancy and endears her without any complaint. The problem mentioned in Lullaby is, undoubtedly, one of the most pervasive problems of modern society. Nowadays the society has become morally corrupted. So, illicit and unstable relationship between men and women is a common phenomenon.

Psychological Ills of the 20th Century Society

Auden is the first major poet to incorporate modern psychological insights and archetypes as a natural element of his work and thought. He was among the first English poets to employ Freudian concepts in poetry, for example. In his poems Auden presents a clinical diagnosis of the psychological ills of the 20th century society.

In the conclusion we may say that the range of Auden’s’ social conscious is absolutely imposing.  He is a master poet in representing the true aspects of his age.

Auden’s Social Consciousness
Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


  1. Thanks for giving the answer in a easier language!

  2. A perfect example of de-romanticizing! We expect beautiful images such as trees, cities and rivers in the shield of Achilles. However, what Auden presents are barren plains and expressionless people. A great technique to talk about the ways of the modern world. Hats of the poet. Thanks for sharing the post.
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  3. I am very happy to read this article. . I have learnt many different aspects of W.H Audens poetry. ..visit my website for latest Bangladeshi results


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