Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Auden the Marksman
May 4, 2012
By Aaron Belz
W. H. Auden (1907-1973) might be best known for his love poem “Funeral Blues” (Four Weddings and a Funeral, etc.), but at heart he was a poet of diplomacy. He spent the first half of his life in England, moved to the U.S. in 1939 and spent the rest in New York. But it’s hard to say that Auden called any one place home because he traveled so often and for such great lengths of time—to teach, vacation and in some cases to conduct field investigations. His natural curiosity led him to scenes of social and political conflict.
When he was only 21 he spent nine months in Berlin, in the wake of the “Bloody May” Communist uprisings. In 1937 he spent weeks on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, and, the following year, six months in China witnessing the Second Sino-Japanese War. The result of this latter venture was a book, co-authored with Christopher Isherwood, titled Journey to a War.
When World War II began he was living in America but offered, via the British Embassy, to fight for his native country. In 1942 he was drafted by the U.S. Army but didn’t pass medical tests and never made it into uniform. Auden was, as they say, all over the map. All of these details and more are available in Richard Davenport-Hines’ excellent biography (1999).
As a result, Auden had a knack for recognizing political realities—maybe in more of a European sense than an American sense. Contrasted against an American author such as Henry David Thoreau, whose romantic naturalism led him into the woods to ponder his own identity, Auden refined an outward, social view: towards civilization. Thoreau was bearded; Auden clean-shaven. Thoreau was a philosophical idealist, Auden a practical realist and, to best serve this end, a dramatist. His strength lay in irony. And war, writes Paul Fussell, is inherently ironic (The Great War and Modern Memory, 2000).
Although there are many great Auden poems about war and war’s circumstance, such as “Refugee Blues,” mentioned in a prior installment of this column, perhaps the finest is a short poem titled “Embassy” (the fifteenth of his “Sonnets from China,” dated 1938). Although its irony is as patent as the leather shoes worn by the diplomats it portrays, it’s of a high enough quality and consistency, and is pinioned on music so exact, as to make this poem worth committing to memory. Here is the first stanza of “Embassy”:
As evening fell the day’s oppression lifted;
Far peaks came into focus; it had rained:
Across wide lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
The beauty of night’s approach, post-rain, is qualified, ever so slightly, by the word oppression, whose double meaning becomes apparent as the poem progresses—as do the words cultured and trained. Second stanza:
Two gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes:
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
The introduction of socio-economic contrast in stanza two enlarges the ironies embedded in stanza one and creates a dramatic situation. Here are actors on two sides of the stage, very different in status, vocation, action. We, the audience, hold the larger view; we know more than either group of actors, which is the textbook definition of dramatic irony. But after these two quatrains, there’s a shift—the momentum increases in tercets:
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain:
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.
In formal terms “Embassy” is a slight variation on a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet—turned perfectly. But what’s more remarkable is its sense of political realities, which is as refined as any literary text of the 20th century. “Embassy,” like so many of Auden’s other poems, is trained on its target by the steady hand of an expert marksman.
(See W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Vintage Books, 1991)
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”