Auden’s Poems Speak for a Generation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of W. H. Auden’s Poems in 1930 immediately established him as the spokesman for the interwar generation in Great Britain.

Summary of Event

The University of Oxford in the late 1920’s was a breeding ground for poets. When W. H. Auden entered Christ Church College in 1925, he soon met John Betjeman, C. Day Lewis, and Rex Warner, all of whom would make their marks as poets—and all of whom were impressed by the intelligence and talent of this eighteen-year-old from York. Subsequently, Auden and Day Lewis jointly edited the 1927 edition of Oxford Poetry. A year after Auden entered, Louis MacNeice enrolled at Merton College; although he and Auden were not close friends at Oxford, the two would be viewed as confederates a few years later. [kw]Auden’s Poems Speak for a Generation (Sept., 1930)[Audens Poems Speak for a Generation (Sept., 1930)] [kw]Poems Speak for a Generation, Auden’s (Sept., 1930) Poems (Auden) Poetry;Poems (Auden) [g]England;Sept., 1930: Auden’s Poems Speak for a Generation[07670] [c]Literature;Sept., 1930: Auden’s Poems Speak for a Generation[07670] Auden, W. H. Eliot, T. S. Isherwood, Christopher Day Lewis, C. MacNeice, Louis Spender, Stephen

W. H. Auden.

(© Jill Krementz)

Also in 1927, Auden submitted his first book of poems to Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber), the London publisher whose poetry editor, T. S. Eliot, had leaped into prominence a decade before with the publication of his Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and had attained the status of a major modern poet with The Waste Land (1922). Eliot rejected the book but, as Auden judged, offered encouragement.

Following his graduation in 1928, Auden issued a book of poems that was privately printed by another Oxford friend, Stephen Spender, then an undergraduate at University College. Thereafter, Auden left England to spend a year in Berlin, where he continued to read and write and incidentally witnessed the profound German unrest of the time. Violence between Communists and the police erupted on May Day, 1929, not far from where Auden lived. “All this time was anxiety at night,/ Shooting and barricade in street,” he wrote. Both the violence and the anxiety would become characteristic Auden themes. Returning to England two months later, Auden found employment in London as a tutor; the following year, he secured a position teaching English and French in a private boys’ school in Scotland. Around this time, Faber accepted for publication Auden’s Poems (1930), a collection totally different from the 1927 submission, although containing some poems from the 1928 effort.

By 1930, the errors of the World War I settlement were becoming obvious. A worldwide economic depression had set in, and “communism,” “fascism,” and “Nazism” were becoming household words. It was a time when young artists and intellectuals could hardly have escaped preoccupation with social and governmental ills, and Auden’s early poetry, despite its obscurity, ushered in a period in which young poets expressed the bitterness and frustration of a failed economic order and—as became increasingly clearer—a failed peace.

According to Spender, Auden did not think of himself as the leader of a movement or as a public figure. In his poetry, he was trying to apply the techniques he had learned from such older poets as Eliot and William Butler Yeats to the composition of poems that spoke to a generation embittered by the economic breakdown, by the drift toward dictatorial regimes in some European countries, and by the complicity of free nations. A number of the poetic movements of recent generations, such as French Symbolism, “art for art’s sake,” and Imagism, had produced a private poetry of interest mainly to sophisticated coteries; Auden and his companions—particularly Spender, Day Lewis, and MacNeice—wanted to bring poetry within the orbit of people distressed by the political and social evils of the time.

Insofar as Auden and his contemporaries had a literary hero, it was Eliot; despite the older poet’s bold new voice, however, he seemed too conservative to be a model. The year of Auden’s first commercially published book was also the year of Ash Wednesday (1930), Ash Wednesday (Eliot) the first of Eliot’s religious poems signaling his growing Church of England sympathies. Although Auden saw that wasteland imagery effectively symbolized aspects of the modern world, Eliot seemed too detached, too much a part of the older generation that had inflicted that world on those in the new century. To Eliot, the modern city was “unreal”; to Auden (in a poem that came to be called “Family Ghosts”), it was “assaulted.” The Waste Land is populated by merchants, habitués of pubs, and bored lovers; Auden’s 1930 poems are populated by spies, secret agents, and vengeful proletarians. Eliot had heaped scorn on decadents; Auden now warned against enemies.

The 1930 volume contained thirty-nine poems bearing roman numerals rather than titles, a feature that encouraged readers to regard them collectively as a kind of sequence rather than as an assortment from which one might pick and choose favorites. The first lines of the poems often projected urgency, even alarm: “Control of the passes was, he saw, the key” (VIII), “Consider this and in our time” (XXX), “Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own” (XXXI), “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle” (XXXVII). Auden’s voice differed distinctly from any heard before in English poetry.


It would be a mistake to assume that Auden’s book, despite its publisher, made a large impact on the literary establishment of 1930. The Times Literary Supplement found the poems “eccentric,” and The Listener professed an inability to understand them at all. The favorable reviews came from Auden’s Oxford friends Spender, MacNeice, and Day Lewis, more or less obscure young men who would, in time, be recognized as among the most important writers of their generation.

The impact on young activists in England, however, was immediate and profound. They took such lines as “Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own” as signifying the necessity of transforming a failed society. Auden had articulated in Poems what such activists had been feeling all along. Some joined the New Party, formed by a few parliamentary dissidents in February of 1931 in opposition to the Labour Party, which had had little success in dealing with the massive unemployment caused by the 1929 stock market crash. Later that year, Action, a weekly radical newspaper, began publication. Auden did not contribute to the paper, but his friend Christopher Isherwood did. Hopes of engineering change by political means faded, however, when the New Party, some of whose spokesmen clearly frightened voters with assorted fascist and communist sentiments, won no seats in the general election of October, 1931.

The young people motivated by Auden were attempting not just political but also social reform. Formal education, seen as denying students the chance of developing free personalities, came under attack. Young radicals scorned marriage as an unnatural and immoral institution; they urged sexual freedom, including homosexual and bisexual relationships.

Auden’s second book, The Orators, Orators, The (Auden) issued by Faber in 1932, created more of a stir in the literary establishment. Almost impossible to describe, the book is a mélange: hortatory prose, poems, diagrams, and journal entries. The first part, heavily indebted to the thought of the recently deceased D. H. Lawrence, consists of four diverse “orations” united by a theme Auden referred to as “the failure of the romantic conception of personality.” The second part, which critics found most interesting, expresses the plans of a dedicated but mentally disordered revolutionary leader. The third part consists of six odes that dramatize, ambiguously and often parodically, the sentiment for a leader who can “save” England.

As often happens with the second book of a previously neglected author, the new work drew attention back to the earlier one. Although few critics professed any great understanding of Auden’s poetry, they agreed on the brilliance with which he had caught the perspective of his generation. He spoke for an embittered, confused, and worried generation with no settled views but with a sense of the need for action to remedy a civilization sinking deeper into a mire. Faith in democracy, capitalism, and traditional religion were all fast waning; the most committed people were either communists or fascists. Neither the obscurity of the book nor the apparent incoherence of its author’s philosophy were regarded as flaws.

Not only did reviewers for Criterion and The Times Literary Supplement praise the book, but influential men of letters on both sides of the Atlantic also took notice. Edmund Wilson began advising his literary friends to read The Orators, Poems, and Auden’s 1933 play The Dance of Death. The influential editor of Scrutiny, F. R. Leavis, chose to attack Auden’s work, a sure sign of Auden’s growing importance. In retrospect, much of the criticism both pro and con looks imperceptive or even irrelevant, but it made Auden a very famous man while he was still in his twenties.

Auden was essentially a private man much more interested in doing his own work than in leading a movement, but by force of his intellectual interests he was leading one anyway. No other poet could match his command of Freudian psychology, Marxist political theory, and general scientific knowledge. His formidable poetic vocabulary and the exceptionally wide range of his allusions confounded efforts to interpret individual poems, but collectively, they communicated an indelible impression of a poet fully engaged with the world and society of his time. Isherwood pointed out in 1937 that when Auden contemplated a ruin, it was not that of an ancient abbey such as Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, or even Eliot might celebrate, but of an abandoned factory or mill. Auden’s poetry accommodated subject matter outside the ken of other poets.

Many of the young Auden enthusiasts rushed off to support the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War against General Francisco Franco, and some lost their lives there. Auden himself went to Spain for a few weeks early in 1937, presumably with the intention of driving an ambulance. He attributed the fact of his finding little to do there to his having failed to join the Communist Party.

When, later that year, Auden accepted the King’s Medal for Poetry for his 1936 collection of poems Look, Stranger! some of his support among young radicals fell away, but his general readership had increased greatly. Also in 1937, Geoffrey Grigson devoted one issue of his New Verse (which had been featuring Auden’s poetry since its inception in 1932) entirely to articles about Auden.

An assessment of the impact of Auden’s early poetry must take into account its effect on the poet. A comparison of Edward Mendelson’s edition of Collected Poems (1976), including only those poems that Auden wished to preserve, and the same editor’s The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939 (1977) demonstrates how many early poems Auden later rejected, including some of the incendiary ones that had excited his early champions. Whether dissatisfied with these poems or afraid that they distorted the body of his work by implying a Marxist outlook to which he never committed himself (although he was for a time in the 1930’s taken up enthusiastically by Marxist critics), Auden did much throughout the 1930’s to modify the impression that his poems of the late 1920’s and very early 1930’s had made on the reading public.

Finally, in a celebrated 1939 poem, Auden repudiated a conviction that, rightly or wrongly, both friendly and unfriendly critics had widely attributed to him. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” following within weeks of the death of the great Irish poet, asserts that “poetry makes nothing happen.” His point was not that poetry has no effect on people—quite the contrary—but that poetry is a celebration of its subject matter and of language itself. It is not propaganda, not a blueprint for a program.

Like Eliot before him, Auden turned religious, disappointing followers who, for the most part, continued to admire him immensely. He continued to write forcefully for more than three decades, until his death in 1973, but by 1940 he seemed less the leader of a poetic generation than the imposing individual he had always been. Auden settled in the United States in 1939 and acquired U.S. citizenship in 1946, although he served as professor of poetry at Oxford from 1956 to 1961. Poems (Auden) Poetry;Poems (Auden)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auden, W. H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939. Edited by Edward Mendelson. New York: Random House, 1977. The works that established Auden in their complete and original versions as edited by Auden’s literary executor. Meticulously re-creates a body of work, some of which Auden, from the perspective of his maturity, sought to suppress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bozorth, Richard R. Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Argues that Auden’s work was directly influenced by his homosexuality and his efforts to understand how to be a homosexual poet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Comprehensive and extensively documented life of the poet. Does a thorough job of tracing reviews of, and reactions to, Auden’s early poems. Chronological narrative features considerable information about Auden’s literary friends. Includes many photographs and a good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, John. W. H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Designed to help readers understand Auden’s poetry and other works by placing them in the context of the times in which they were written, explaining allusions, paraphrasing passages, and providing information on sources, publication history, and so on.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930’s. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Scrupulously scholarly and nonpartisan work (in contrast to the Spender and Symons books cited below) with a firm and balanced sense of historical context. Illuminates the often neglected subject of the influences of Auden’s contemporaries on his own development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spears, Monroe K., ed. Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Excellent essays include Christopher Isherwood’s “Some Notes on Auden’s Early Poetry” and G. S. Fraser’s “The Career of W. H. Auden.” Isherwood’s essay, originally printed in Geoffrey Grigson’s 1937 Auden issue of New Verse, represents the best in 1930’s criticism of Auden.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spender, Stephen. The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1970. New York: Random House, 1978. Collection of Spender’s essays includes reminiscences of Auden and Louis MacNeice as well as somewhat edited versions of Spender’s early pronouncements on the relationship between poetry and revolutionary thought and on his espousal of communism. The final essay is the memorial address delivered at Oxford in 1973.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Julian. The Thirties: A Dream Revolved. 1960. Reprint. North Yorkshire, England: House of Stratus, 2001. Quotes from a variety of literary and journalistic sources, many of them leftist, and comments on them to convey a sense of the intellectual, social, and political background of a decade in which the author himself was young, leftist, and thoroughly imbued with Auden’s poetry. Deftly evokes the period with well-chosen photographs of social, artistic, and theatrical subjects.

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