ENG320A, Sec. 001
6 December, 2015
The Auden Generation: A Modern Voice
In the early 20th century, a group of young leftist poets found a new, modern voice. These poets were none other than W.H. Auden and Louis MacNiece, a generation of writers educated at Oxford and writing for a new purpose – sociopolitical criticism and a call for change. Hailed as “spokemen for a generation” (Tuma 302), Auden and MacNiece wrote with detail and cutting realism that revolutionized the use of poetry for sociopolitical critique and call for reform, a feature that set them apart from other writers of their time. Auden and MacNiece were also influeced by poets just as revolutionary in their respective time periods – the most notable being Thomas Hardy. This inspiration can be seen in the central themes, tones, and shared perspectives of Auden and MacNiece’s work. Through inspiration from poets such as Thomas Hardy, writers like Auden and MacNiece marked a shift in social, political, and cultural views through their writing.
Before exploring their writing, it is important to understand the history and ideologies of writers such as Auden and MacNiece. Auden and MacNiece were educated alongside one another, and their writing is similar in many ways. At the beginning of his biography, Auden is described as “an ‘angry poet’”, whose verse is “distinguished by the most extraordinary vigour” (Tuma 301). His writing is prolific, and his identity as a poet is one of a “pedagogue or doctor advising others what the truth is” (Tuma 301). MacNiece, though not like Auden in being the“leading poet of his generation” (Tumas 301), also wrote with the same tone and style as Auden. MacNiece is said to have “fears of cultural decline” that he “shared with many poets and intellectuals” (Tuma 330). It is also noted that, “like other members of the “Auden group,” MacNiece’s basic sympathies were leftist” (Tuma 330). In Auden’s short biography, he is described as “[…] voicing a leftist critique of England’s rigid social structure and contempoary decadence […]” (Tuma 302). He is also credited with being “the source of a “revolution in diction”, which could exploit the possibilities for poetry of “all the jargons, from social science to advertising””, which enabled Auden “just enough irony of tone to save himself from being identified with these jargons” (Tuma 302). The leftist lens through which Auden and MacNiece express their discontent with the human state, along with their disapproval of contemporary culture and sociopolitical norms, permeates their work and serves to set them apart form other conemporary writers of their time.
Auden and MacNiece’s impact on contempotrary British and Irish poetry can be fully explored through explication of some of their best and most prolific work. For the purpose of illustrating their contribution to modern writing, this essay will analyze Auden’s September 1, 1939 and Spain, as well as MacNiece’s Carrickfergus and Valediction. From these works, Auden’s Spain best encompasses the voice of both modern poets such as MacNiece and their counterparts. This poem, written in 1937, expresses criticism for the current human state, riddled with greed and hypocrisy. Auden voices his awareness of the challenging human state with the recurring line, “But to-day the struggle.” Auden cites political and social issues to be at the core of his criticisms and concerns, referencing the “corrupt heart of the city” (59) as a source. Auden also cites materialism and violence as current issues, with lines such as “projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb” (73). Because of perspectives and opinions such as this, Auden is often hailed as “[…] the first modern poet, in that he could employ modern properties unselfconsciously” (Tuma 302). As well as voicing criticism for sociopolitical plagues of society, Auden surprises his readers by expressing his hope for a better future. In Spain, he expresses hope for good things to come with the line “To-morrow, perhaps the future” (77). He hopes for “the enlarging of consciousness” (80), “the rediscovery of romantic love” (81) and “all the fun under/ Liberty’s masterful shadow” (82-83). This hope, however, is always checked by the recurring line “But to-day the struggle.” This dual perspective exhibits a characteristic of Auden’s writing that sets him apart from other critical writers – he acknowledges that there is hope in the future, but only if we reform ourselves and improve the human condition.
In his poem September 1, 1939, Auden continutes with expressions of sociopolitical criticism seen in Spain, namely those pertaining to social and political fallacies and modernization. The poem opens with Auden admitting that his hopes were in vain, as he states that his “clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade” (4-5). He goes on to criticize modernization and industrialization due to the “blind skyscrapers” that “use/ Their full height to proclaim/The strength of Collective Man” (35-37). He also expresses criticizes “The windiest militant trash” (56), a reference to the impending dawn of World War II. He expresses direct political criticism with mention of “what dictators do/ The elderly rubbish they talk/ To an apathetic grave” (26-28). It is in this poem that Auden also showcases his true intentions and purpose for writing. He states “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie/ […] And the lie of Authority/ Whose buildings grope the sky” (78-79, 82-83). In expressing his purpose, he answers his own question he poses in the poem – “Who can release them now,/ Who can reach the deaf,/ Who can speak for the dumb?” (75-77). In this sense, he is very likely seeing his own voice as the answer to such a question. He writes that “Defenceless under the night/ Our world in stupor lies” (90-91). The ‘night’ in this passage could be said to be the lies he mentions earlier in the poem, and in following them we shroud ourselves in deception and ignorance. Auden’s tendency to express hope for future also shows in this poem, much like Spain. He writes with the hope that “I, composed like them/ Of Eros and dust/ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair/ Show and affirming flame” (95-99). This change in perspective again serves to separate Auden from other writers – he is not only conscious is societal discrepancies and atrocities, but he is able to process and formulate a genuine response and hope for change. This last passage could also signify his appreciation and comradery with the other writers of his generation. Havine a unique purpose and collective voice, many of these authors can be described as “Ironic points of light” (93), whose poems “Flash out wherever the Just/ Exchange their messages” (93-94). The writers of the Auden generation could be said to be the ‘Just’, exchanging messages through poetry designed to bring consciousness and truth to their audiences.
While Auden’s poems are excellent for their purpose, they can be even further enriched and supported by other works of poets from Auden’s era. MacNiece’s Valediction most closely aligns with the sentiments expressed in Auden’s writing, as it criticizes not only the current human state, but details how MacNiece personally is affected by modernization, sociopolitical strife and, most importantly, war and industrialization. Throughout many of MacNiece’s poems, he mentions the industrialization and mechanization of Ireland and the effects it poses on the population and politics of his home country. He details how “[…] in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies” (12) and that the people of his country “[…] cannot depose logically what they want:/ Died by gunshot under borrowed pennons” (4-5). This atmosphere and heritage, he says, has given him “Indifference and sentimentality/ A metallic giggle, a fumbling hand” (26-27). This use of violent and mechanical imagery, very similar to the violence referenced in Spain, aligns with central underlying the themes in Auden’s writing, as he is said to have written with an “urbane and cosmopolitan” (Tuma 301) style, and his poetry contained “psychologized landscapes and images of closed factories and abandoned machines” (Tuma 302). The industrialized diction in MacNiece’s Valediction can be seen throughout the poem, with references to “hammers playing in the shipyard/ Time punched with holes like a steel sheet” (16-17). This mechanization also spills over into the human population of Ireland, with “time/ Hardening the faces, veneering with a grey and specked rime” (17-18). MacNiece also details this industrialization in Carrickfergus, noting that “The brook ran yellow fom the factory stinking of chlorine” (9). This critique of the mechanized, polluting human state is a central undertone in MacNiece’s poems, as with Auden’s. While it is true that the industrialization of Ireland benefitted the population in numerous ways, there is significant value in MacNiece and Auden’s criticisms. Their writing serves to encompass both perspectives – the recognition of the advances that industrialization allows, and the significant negative impact it has on their surroundings and sociopolitical and economic state.
Writers like Auden and MacNiece, though talented and visionary, were not self-made. The Auden generation of contemporary writers was influenced by writers “[…] as diverse as John Skelton, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Laura Riding, and Bertolt Brecht” (302). The influence of Thomas Hardy on the Auden generation of writers is apparent through explication and comparison of shared themes and tones in their writing. Hardy wrote with “descriptive realism” (2), and was seen as “an imaginative historian of the revolutionary changes in ninteenth-century moral consciousness, an autodidact who keeps stumbling into sublimities of intuition” (1). The tones of Hardy’s poems are also very similar to those of Auden and MacNiece’s in that they are not only realistic, but deeply critical as well. Several of Hardy’s poems exhibit melancholy and monochromatic diction, indicative of not only personal dissatisfaction with the human state but also a state of personal conflict. An example of this can be found in his poem Channel Firing, in which he states “‘All nations to make/ Red war yet redder./ Mad as hatters/ They do no more for Christes sake/ Thank you who are helpless in such matters’” (13-16). Another example can be found later in the poem, with the lines “So down we lay again. ‘I wonder,/ Will the world ever saner be’” (25-26). In this poem, Hardy expresses discontentment with the current human state and the inhumane effects of war and politics. These criticisms and sentiments can be seen in poems such as Auden’s Spain and MacNiece’s Valediction, thereby linking the three authors and the similar lens through which they produce their writing. This use of prose to express the desire for reform and dissatisfaction with current social norms is an identifying factor of Auden’s generation of writers, derived from earlier poets such as Hardy. Hardy also frquently expresses sentiments of desolation and human isolation, such as in the poem Hap, with descriptions of “some vengeful God” (1), for whom “thy sorrow is my ecstasy”, and “thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting” (3-4). Auden also expresses similar sentiments of desolation in Spain, saying that “The stars are dead. The animals will not look./ We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and/ History to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon” (101-104). Sentiments of desolation permate Hardy’s writing, and the feeling of isolation and disillusionment is expressed as a side effect ot Auden and MacNiece’s sociopolitical concerns.
To conclude, modern writers such as Auden and MacNiece made invaluable contributions to the progression of contemporary poetry through their content and criticisms. From subjects of religion and politics to industrialization and war, these poets wrote for the sake of societal reform and the hope for a better future. Through influence from writers like Thomas Hardy, these poets transformed a melancholy and desolate voice into one that spoke for truth and consciousness. Auden’s Spain and September 1, 1939 serve to illuminate sociopolitical wrongs and Auden’s hope for a better future, while MacNiece’s Carrickfergus and Valediction expound upon the effects of industrialization and war. The value of their brutal honesty and realism serves to not only illuminate the plagues of a generation, but also to set the Auden generation of writers apart from others. Their use of their writing and individual voice for the greater good makes them truly modern poets, the definers of a generation of writing that still holds its value in the current era.
Tuma, Keith. Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.