Throughout this piece, readers are going to be confronted with numerous symbols, many of which can have multiple interpretations. It’s possible to read this poem in a couple of different ways. Plus, it often benefits from a second, third, or even fourth reading to ensure one catches everything Auden was attempting to accomplish.
‘Adolescence’ by W.H. Auden is an image-rich poem about a young man’s life and home. It is filled with symbols.
The speaker begins the poem by describing the man looking back at his life and the landscape he grew up in. He’s noticing differences in it, such as the mountains, which now appear much taller (perhaps more imposing). He sees his mother in the hills and traces as if looking at a map, the places he knew. The word “fond” is used here, suggesting that he does not hold any animosity towards his home. As the poem progresses, the main character’s relationship with his contemporary world grows more complicated. He finds himself set apart in one way or another (some have suggested because he’s gay) from everyone else. The poem ends with a striking image of a giantess that has inspired several different interpretations.
You can read the full poem here.
By landscape reminded once of his mother’s figure
All the family names on the familiar places.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by describing what it’s like to look back on his youth and revise the places he remembers from his childhood. They remind him of his family, but are strikingly different than when he was there before. The “heights” get “bigger and bigger” as he explores the landscape of his youth. This is an interesting concept, one that could have a deeper metaphorical meaning depending on how one interprets the rest of the poem.
He’s looking over his family history and the “family names on familiar places.” There is an emphasis on family in these lines, one of the things that have led some readers to consider the character as a gay man considering his lineage and the fact that he will be unlikely to continue it on. As Auden was gay himself, there may be some truth to this interpretation. Other readers consider the four stanzas as a man looking back on his adolescence and the impact it had on him. It’s something that he can’t get away from.
Among green pastures straying he walks by still waters;
‘Dear’ the dear beak in the dear concha crying.
In the second stanza, the speaker suggests that “he” is “Surely a swan…to earth’s unwise daughters.” This is another line that has led some readers to consider the possibility that “he” is gay, but the world is unaware. Much of the imagery in these lines is up for interpretation. There are also some religious allusions in these lines, such as the reference to “green pastures” and “cool waters.”
Under the trees the summer bands were playing;
Is really to argue, he smiles, with any stranger.
In the third quatrain, the speaker says that under the trees, the boy heard the “summer bands…playing.” The band tells him to “be brave as these roots.” The roots, the image suggests, are brave due to their steadfastness and commitment t the survival of the tree. But, at the same time, an argument can be made that they do not stray from their origin and aren’t the bravest image one might come up with.
The phrase “Carries the good news gladly to a world in danger” is another interesting one. It also contains a religious allusion to the word of God.
And yet this prophet, homing the day is ended,
The giantess shuffles nearer, cries ‘Deceiver’.
The final stanza uses the word “prophet.” The speaker is described as such and noted as knowing the “day is ended” and that he’s back in the country “he so defended.” This brings the poem into Auden’s time and suggests that the main character is not accepted as the person he is or is seen in a negative light in the context of World War II, something that features in other Auden poems.
The giantess image is one of the most confusing and striking. It may be a symbol for the land itself, tied to the feminine, but made grotesque and perhaps even dangerous.
Structure and Form
‘Adolescence’ by W.H. Auden is a four-stanza poem that is separated out into quatrains, or sets of four lines. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on. There are two examples in which Auden uses half-rhymes rather than full or perfect rhymes. They are “figure” and “bigger” in stanza one and “fever” and “Deceiver” in stanza four.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “bigger” and “bigger” in line two of the first stanza and “family” and “familiar” in line four of the same stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet breaks off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of that stanza. It requires readers to jump down to the next line in order to figure out what happens next.
- Imagery: is seen when the poet uses evocative and interesting descriptions. For example, “Among green pastures straying he walks by still waters; / Surely a swan he seems to earth’s unwise daughters.”
The tone of this poem is descriptive and somewhat distant. The speaker is only describing events that happen to the main character, albeit in a very lyrical way. Some readers may be confused by the contrast of the tone and the vague imagery used.
The themes at work in this poem include identity, growing up, and conflict. The “prophet” experiences the latter in his desire to be accepted by the country he defended (and then there is the war itself). The speaker also emphasizes the changes that he’s gone through and how he considers the landscape he grew up in.
It’s unclear who the speaker is. They are someone who has a view on the main character’s life and understands him in a way that the “country” he defended does not.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Adolescence’ should also consider reading some other W.H. Auden poems. For example:
- ‘1st September, 1939’ – was inspired by the start of the Second World War.
- ‘A Walk After Dark’ – a beautiful and complicated poem in which W.H. Auden uses a series of metaphors and other forms of figurative language in order to describe a walk at night.
- ‘Funeral Blues’ – is a morose, sad elegy that wonderfully describes the feelings associated with grieving.