10 of the Best W.H. Auden Poems 

Wyston Hugh Auden was born in February of 1907, in York, England. He was versed in all poetic techniques and forms and became known for working contemporary events and everyday speech into his verse. From a young age he studied poems by writers such as Emily Dickinson, William Blake and Gerald Manley Hopkins. He also professed a strong dislike for the Romantic poets.  Auden’s first volume of poems titled, Poems, was printed in 1928.

In 1932, Auden publish his large work, The Orators. He also spent time working as a reviewer, lecturer and an essayist. In 1973, after giving a reading of his poems in Vienna, Austria, Auden died. Throughout his life Auden published approximately 400 poems and 400 essays and reviews, that were all extremely wide ranging in topic and form.

Today, Auden is remembered equally for his engagement with contemporary life and its most poignant troubles. As well as for the rich fantasy worlds he crafted which often resulted in vague, sometimes confusing poetic landscapes. 

Best W.H. Auden Poems

 

Lullaby

In this poem W.H. Auden describes the love one speaker has for his imperfect “beloved”. The speaker discusses how that love is going to be enough to content them both until they meet their ends. ‘Lullaby’ is a gentle piece that is commonly considered to be one of Auden’s best love poems. In it, the speaker addresses his “love,” asking them to lay down in his arms and find peace. He intends to spend as much time as he can with this person, despite what is going on around them. 

There might’ve been, in the past, lies between them as well as mistakes, but that doesn’t matter anymore. He expresses his belief that love is the most powerful force in the world. It allows lovers to move beyond the mundane and disregard the basic elements of human life that bother others. The lovers will relish their mutual humanity and put no faith in the divine to better their lives. 

 

Autumn Song 

‘Autumn Song’ is a poem that is equal parts beauty and bleakness. It expresses what are perhaps Auden’s own beliefs that Autumn is not a time of plenty but a liminal space that represents loneliness, death and insurmountable obstacles. The creatures in Auden’s poem are described as without sustenance and “dumb”. The angels as absent and the dead are close behind the living. 

 

Night Mail

This piece was written by W.H. Auden in 1936 while he was working on the film of the same name. The poem featured at the end of the film, set to music. It was arranged so that the rhythm matched that of a traveling train. The movie was focused on a mail train that traveled from London to Scotland. 

In the text of the poem Auden chose, with direction from the filmmakers, to focus on those receiving the letters. This included the rich and the poor. The train is a calming presence in the poem, always consistent and methodical in its progress. But, overwhelmingly the poem speaks on the lives or normal human beings and the way that they communicate with one another. 

 

Musée de Beaux Arts 

Musée de Beaux Arts’ discusses the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in order to speak more broadly about the impact of suffering on humankind. It was written in December of 1938 while the poet was living in Brussels, Belgium. When it was first published it appeared under the title, ‘Palais des beaux arts,’ or ‘Palace of Fine Arts.’ The modernist magazine New Writing published it in their Spring 1939 issue. 

The title of the poem is drawn from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, an institution that is known for its extensive collection of Early Netherlandish paintings. It housed works that the poet would later refer to as those done by “Old Masters”.

 

In Memory of W.B. Yeats 

‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ is an elegy written in 1939 just after Yeat’s death that same year. It focuses on his contributions to the literary world as well as the larger importance of poetry. Auden considers what purpose poetry has for the average reader, what it can do and whether it’s worth writing. 

 

The Shield of Achilles 

This poem was published by W.H. Auden in 1952. It was then republished in a collection of the same name in 1955. Today it is considered to be one of his best works. Throughout the text Auden reacts to a detailed description of Achilles shield, as featured in Homer’s Iliad. The poem is separated into sections. The first details the making of the shield and what scenes were depicted upon it. By the end of the poem the harrowing scenes upon the shield are described and Achilles’ mother reacts poorly to what they portend for her doomed son. 

 

September 1, 1939 

‘September 1, 1939’ was written by W.H. Auden as WWII was beginning. It was published in 1939 in The New Republic, then later in Auden’s collection Another Time. It was intentionally structured to mimic the format used by Yeats in his famous poem ‘Easter, 1916’. Just like Yeats’ work, Auden’s discuses an important historical event. The first parts of the poem speak the failures playing out on the world stage, and the second alludes to something more hopeful in the future. 

 

On the Circuit 

W.H. Auden wrote this piece in his later life. It tells a story, similar to the poet’s own life experiences, of a traveling intellectual. He spends his days going form place to place, on what seems to be a reading tour, hating every minute of it. The speaker looks down on himself for marketing his work in this way and on the audience for attending his readings. 

 

The Unknown Citizen 

‘The Unknown Citizen’ is one of W.H. Auden ’s most popular works. It describes, through the form of a dystopian report, the life of an unknown man. The poem was written while the poet was moving from England to the United States This was an important turning point in his life. Not only was his residence changing, so too were his opinions about the importance or powers of his written words. 

Without a doubt this poem is disturbing. But, because of Auden’s use of rhymes, and the outlandish nature of the text, it is also clearly satirical. He discusses individuality in modern society and the all powerful nature of a faceless government. 

 

If I Could Tell You

‘If I Could Tell You’ is a villanelle that discusses the importance of time and the role it plays in human life. The speaker goes through the ways that time controls early, middle, and later life. As well as how it allows human beings to learn from their mistakes and grow for the better. The most important part of ‘If I could Tell You’ is the fact that it is only though time that one knows anything. There is no reason to worry about or rush things that are out of one’s control. They will eventually come. 

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