Idealism in Auden’s O who can ever gaze his fill, Out on the lawn I lie in bed (A Summer Night 1933), and The Shield of Achilles
W.H. Auden’s poems are celebrated for their intelligence, detachedness, and musicality. Often, idealism is associated with romanticism and the excessively personal, because it is an attempt at envisioning the world as it ought to be and not as it is. However, Auden successfully blends idealism into his objective poems, and this idealism manifests itself in his “O who can ever gaze his fill,” “Out on the lawn I lie in bed” (“A Summer Night 1933”), and “The Shield of Achilles.”
In “O who can ever gaze his fill,” mortals from various walks of life comment on their ideals while Death watches over them. Composed of four stanzas, Death’s refrain succeeds the mortals’ thoughts and gets the last say in each instance. In the first stanza, the farmer and the fisherman look upon the water and the land fondly, believing that the traditional life of hard work coexists with their closeness to nature. This ideal life is how their forefathers have lived, and it is how “the pilgrims from [their] loins” should live in the years to come (6). However, Death remarks as it oversees the “empty catch” and “harvest loss” (9) that, “the earth is an oyster with nothing inside it” (12). Therefore, it advises, forget this ideal and “throw down the mattock and dance while you can” (15). This advice can be seen as giving up on the traditional way of life, so that the fisherman and the farmer no longer have to be bound to their toils. Death also says, “Not to be born is the best for man” (13), and this phrase is repeated in the subsequent stanzas. In the ideal world, perhaps mankind is not born into a land of work and suffering, or perhaps it is suggested that the traditional way of life does not last forever.
In the second stanza of “O who can ever gaze his fill,” travellers wish that life were longer so that they can spend more time with “friends who share” (16). In this ideal world, people welcome strangers into their homes and share friendly stories with one another. Death notes, “a friend is the old old tale of Narcissus” (27). It is unclear if Auden refers to the self-loving Narcissus in Death’s remarks, “An active partner is something disgraceful” (29). If by “active partner” Auden means “a friend who has no time for others,” then Death has a solution for this: find new friends and continue to enjoy life. In the third stanza, the lover speaks of erotic love. In the lover’s ideal world, the beloved will travel across the sea to him or her, and their sensual, “brief bed” will be fertile, as alluded to by the image of green grass (34). Surrounded by nature, there will only be “mild and vegetarian beasts” abound (36). Death cautions, “The greater the love, the more false to its object” (42). Exaggerations of love, especially that of spoken affection, are ambiguous: actions speak louder...