W.H. Auden wrote a number of poems from 1940 to 1942. These poems dealt with the conflict between self-willed love and grace-given love. ‘Mundus et Infans’ was first published in The Commonweal in 1942, later it was included in Collected Shorter Poems in 1950. The title of the poem is borrowed by Auden from an early sixteenth-century play with the same title. The Latin terms “Mundus” and “Infans” means “Child” and “World.” It focuses on the delights and natural selfishness of infancy.
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Summary of Mundus Et Infans
‘Mundus et Infans’ by Auden describes a child. The child is projected as an aggressive and demanding one from its birth. The child, like a ruler, a tyrant demands his mother to provide him with all he requires to satisfy his physical needs. Further, the poet draws a parallel between the child and a Saint. Both of them are innocent and unaware of manipulation. Auden’s observations about human nature are woven into the characteristics of the child, through political, historical, psychological, and economic terms. The underlying irony in the poem compares the authorities in the political and religious fields to the child. Similar to the child, they demand the people supplement them with all they demand without shame. The poet and the others with him hope for the child to become a good one, unlike the tyrants.
Form and Structure
‘Mundus et Infans’ is an example of Auden’s use of humor in poetry. It is one of the best comic verses of him. The poem is written in seven eight-line stanzas. Since the poem is written in free verse, no regular verse form is followed. Similarly, no regular rhythmic beat is found in the poem even though there are instances of an obvious rhyme scheme. The rhyme pattern of the poem follows as “AABBCDCD” in most places. Some of the rhymes are full: soul/role and some rhyme half: “into/through”.
In the first three stanzas, Auden touches on the daily routine of a child who operates like a tyrant. His only concern is getting his food and sleeping once his requirements are fulfilled. He operates in a world where no distinctions are yet made between oneself and others. In stanzas four and five, he compares the child to a saint. The advantage is that both of them are completely honest and exist without any worry about the past, present, or future. Stanzas six and seven distinguish between the selfless love and the selfish love that of the infant’s hunger.
Themes of Mundus Et Infans
The major theme of the poem ‘Mundus Et Infans’ focuses on the distinction between selfish love and Christian Selfless love. The poem used the child to symbolize those who fail to distinguish between ‘Me’ and ‘Us’. The poet suggests that lack of love and compassion could lead to tyranny. The other important thought of the poem is that man has lost his capacity to existing without shame for his faults. He has lost his courage to own his faults and blames others.
Literary and Poetic Techniques
Auden has made extensive use of poetic devices in Mundus Et Infans to reflect and highlight his ideas and concept of the birth of a child and its life on earth. His poetic diction, especially the jargon used along with the metaphors, irony, and idiomatic expressions make this poem an interesting one to read.
Metaphors in this poem are politically motivated. References to Hitler and political motives are found in the phrases “dictated peace”, “raw materials”, and “new order.” These metaphors might look odd being compared to a small defenseless child, but it is the humorous aspect of the poem. Being a comic verse, the poem is garnished with humorous comparisons of the child. The child is addressed as a “cocky little ogre” who has been given “supreme powers” with that he “resist tyranny” in his little world with all “forces at command.”
Satire & Irony
The poem is a satire on the thought processes of the grownups, who like the child think with taste than with thoughts. It also provides hope in future adults who may not follow the same thinking. This basic contradiction in the usage of imagery and the diction gives rise to Irony in the poem. Through this poem, the poet hopes to get across the message that the childlike quality and innocence of the child must remain even when the child has grown into a full-fledged adult. The “hypocrisy” and “lying” that grown-ups tend to adopt once they become adults are however characteristically absent in the child.
Language & Jargon
The poet’s use of language highlights the ironic effect of the poem. He has used words that describe the activities of a child, although it should best represent the adults. Moreover, the language of the poem being paradoxical to the subject of the poem gives it a unique quality of being serious and playful at the same time. Its exalted and affected rhetoric combined with the colloquial humor that is ironical in nature.
Auden used jargon handpicked from Theological, Philosophical, Political, Economic, and Social to demonstrate the characteristics of the child. “Soul”, “pantheist”, “solipsist”, “New Order”, “Dictated peace”, “Supply”, “raw materials”, “delivery”, “Shortage”, and “Cocky little ogre” picked from various fields compares between the child and grownups.
Analysis of Mundus Et Infans
Kicking his mother until she let go his soul
( . . . )
Having dictated peace,
The first stanza of the poem ‘Mundus Et infans’ describes the birth of the child as a violent process. The child seems to be aggressive, for it is kicking his mother until she let go of his soul. The mother’s womb is compared to prison from where the child wants to be released. After entering the world, the child is concerned only to get his needs supplied by his mother as per the New Order. Similar to a dictator who gets the raw materials freely supplied, the child gets whatever it desires. If there be any shortage “She will be held responsible.” Also, the mother has promised to give him the attention that befits his age.
With one fist clenched behind his head, heel drawn up to thigh,
( . . . )
Sworn to resist tyranny to the death with all
Forces at his command.
In the second stanza, Auden compares the child to a “cocky little ogre,” who dozes off once his needs are met out. The child is sleeping with his “one fist clenched behind his head, heel drawn up to thigh.” He is ready to fight with the world “at the drop of a hat or the mildest/Nudge of the impossible.” The poet presents an irony in the following lines. The child who acts like a tyrant in getting his need, swears to resist tyranny to death. Like every dictator who justifies his action of usurping supreme power on the plea that he has to fight tyranny in the world.
A pantheist not a solipsist, he co-operates
( . . . )
Is a matter of taste; his seasons are Dry and Wet;
He thinks as his mouth does.
In the third stanza, the poet explains what the child or the tyrant thinks. Auden presents him as a “pantheist” (who believes God as everything) not a solipsist. According to Auden, the child finds nothing special between a funny face and an elephant. However, he cooperates with the word to get entertainment from them. The child seems to have only feelings than thoughts. For his distinction between self and society is based on taste. His seasons are “Dry” and “Wet” depending on how he is satisfied. If his mouth waters, he thinks that as good, if not, he decides that as not good. His reactions and responses are solely based on his mouth or physical needs than his intellect or thoughts.
Still his loud iniquity is still what only the
( . . . )
Without rest, without joy.
In the fourth stanza, Auden compares the child with a saint. A child and a saint have some common things. Particularly both do not “lie”. To lie one must think and manipulate the idea. Since the child does not think and the saint works by faith, they both have no reason to lie. The child lives in the present as it neither has a past nor has any hope or idea of the future. In the case of a saint, he lives in a time that comprises the past, present, and future. In the concluding lines, the poet presents the modern era and life as a muddle. The world seems to be in contrast to the attitude or the nature of the child, for the world to be passed through without rest and joy.
Therefore we love him because his judgements are so
( . . . )
History or Banks or the Weather for: but this beast
Dares to exist without shame.
In this stanza, Auden tells us that we love the child because his judgments are frankly subjective. He is innocent and honest and his abuses carry no ill will or malice. The child is symbolically representing the people who offer their helplessness as a bargain to get what they want. He also criticizes the attitude of blaming others i.e. History or Banks or the Weather. Capitalists blame the rest of the world and Economists blame the banks. The uncertain weather conditions are blamed for drought, famine, price-raise, and other day-to-day issues. But, if this continues, the child/tyrant will continue to exist without any shame. In other words, the child remains unconcerned with what is happening in the outer world. His actions are confined to the satisfaction of his own desires.
Let his praise our Creator with the top of his voice,
( . . . )
Whoever we are now, we were no worse at his age;
So of course we ought to be glad
In the sixth stanza, Auden continues the analogy of the saint. The child cries for his physical needs. For example, he knows only food and excrement. We piously hope that he will become mature and will not become an important personage like Hitler. But, we can only hope that he would prove to be a good man, as grows up for we do not know the potentialities of the evil in him. In our hope, we take things easy, for however bad he may be, “he has not yet gone mad”. We give justifications and rationalizations for we are not as bad him at his age.
When he bawls the house down. Has he not a perfect right
( . . . )
Either or both, we had never learned to distinguish
Between hunger and love?
In the concluding stanza of ‘Mundus Et infans’, Auden says that if a child bawls the house upside down we should not be sorry for him for it is his rights. The house here symbolizes the civilization that is turned upside down by people like Hitler and Capitalists. Even then the poet justifies it to be their right to do so as one has the right to go for a walk or go upstairs. By this, the poet says that we should be above this tyranny and capitalist society. He concludes by stating that we have not yet learned to distinguish between hunger (selfish love) and true love.
Auden’s poems are often a satire on socio-political situations. The themes are woven into the simple and easy to understand poems with his rich use of language and metaphors. To understand his style of writing better, read the following poems: “In Praise of Limestone”, “O What Is That Sound”, “The Unknown Citizen”, “The Age of Anxiety”, “For the Time Being“, “A Walk After Dark“, “The Love Feast“, and “The Fall of Rome.” You can also read our picks of Auden’s best poetry.