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Auden Essay

1939 words - 8 pages

W.H. Auden'sLook, Stranger! (1936) is an extraordinarily transitional work. The second of Auden's three 1930s poetry collections, it lacks both the precociously distinctive voice that launched Auden to the forefront of his generation withPoems (1930) and the embarrassment of canonized riches in Another Time (1939). Yet as a major poet's record of growth in the midst of political crisis, and as a document from the endgame of modernism, it has few rivals.The poems were composed from 1931 to 1936 (Auden's 24th to 29th years), during which time Auden taught at boys' schools, collaborated with his friend Christopher Isherwood on two plays, worked in the new genre of documentary film with John Grierson at the General Post Office Film Unit, and finally committed to earning his living as a writer. He traveled to Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, and Iceland; lived in Scotland, among the Malvern Hills of England, and in London. Though homosexual, he married Thomas Mann's daughter Erika (to whom Look, Stranger! is dedicated) to save her from Nazi persecution. Politically, he drifted through a flirtation with Communism towards a sort of transnational humanism. Still an agnostic, he experienced a religious epiphany in June of 1933. While distancing himself from the leader-worship associated with D.H. Lawrenceand a peculiar Freudianism, he dismayed T.S. Eliot (his main editor at Faber) by failing or refusing to adopt clear "ethical and religious views and convictions."[1] He cultivated many friendships and several lovers, adding to his social circle the popular scientist Gerald Heard and the young composer Benjamin Britten. Above all, to judge by the poems in this collection, he watched with growing dread the rise of Fascism abroad and the threats of social turmoil at home.It is no surprise, then, that Auden's works in this period are low on formal, stylistic, and philosophical cohesion. In one of Look, Stranger!'s poems, Auden explicitly renounces the mindset that made Poems and his 1932 prose-verse bookThe Orators possible (indeed, he goes on to renounce a worldview that made much of Look, Stranger! itself possible-see Poem XXX, lns. 33-56). He abandoned an epic dream-poem and was, apparently, uncertain of a new direction. The rather haphazard, catch-all arrangement of Look, Stranger!-29 untitled poems in no very discernible order, bracketed by a "Prologue" and an "Epilogue"-bears witness as much to his disorientation as it does to his creative profusion. Auden and Eliot contemplated four different titles before Eliot, missing Auden's letter from Iceland, picked a fifth (Look, Stranger!), which Auden loathed ("a bloody title….It sounds like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist") and ordered changed to a sixth (On This Island) for the American edition. The poems themselves are each formally strict, but range between sonnet and sestina, lyric and ballad, song, vers de société, and verse-letter....

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