On the Circuit by W.H. Auden

In ‘On the Circuit’ Auden speaks on themes of travel, capitalism, and happiness/unhappiness. His speaker has moments of happiness, but most of his travel is taken up by the dread of it continuing on indeterminately. He has been forced into, by his management company, a book tour that plays into “warm” and “rich” America. 

 

Summary of On the Circuit

‘On the Circuit’ by W.H. Auden depicts the travels and struggles of a writer, likely Auden, forced to go on an American book tour. 

The poem takes the reader through the day to day existence of a speaker who is constantly travelling and talking about his own writing. He moves from city to city with great frequency. He has no time to get to know anyone or relax for even a moment. Before he knows it he’s back on a plane and onto the next destination. This process is a terrible one and the people don’t make it any better. Most of them are forgettable, warm, and accommodating. 

In ‘On the Circuit’ Auden also discusses his speaker’s longing to return home and be in his New York apartment. This doesn’t appear to be possible at the moment, as he’s back on a plane and landing at a new destination as the poem ends. 

You can read the full poem here at poets.org.

 

Structure of On the Circuit

On the Circuit’ by W.H. Auden is a sixteen stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Auden structured the stanzas similarly. They appear similar in length on the page and follow a specific meter when analyzed. The first three lines of each stanzas have eight syllables per line and the final line has six. 

 

Poetic Techniques in On the Circuit 

Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘On the Circuit’. These include but are not limited to personification, alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. There are several examples in ‘On the Circuit’. These include the allusion to the novelist Graham Greene in the fourteenth stanza and that to capitalism and the cycle of American wealth in the final two lines. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “warm my welcome “ in line one and “frequently, so fast” in line two of the fifth stanza. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines two and three of the second stanza. 

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In the ninth stanza, Auden personifies his “Flesh” as feeling homesick and his “Spirit” as willing to continue on. 

 

Analysis of On the Circuit 

Stanzas One and Two

In the first stanza of ‘On the Circuit’ the speaker begins by describing a moment of travel. He uses the first-person narrator, introduced in the second stanza, to speak on his movements from city to city. There does not, at this point, seem to be a particular destination in mind. Instead, all a reader is aware of his speaker’s unhappiness but apparent need to get from “Massachusetts” to “Miami or L.A.”. 

The first line refers to the “pelagian travelers”. They are different from him. He sees them as being conceited, lost in their own belief about their destinations and free will. They are “lewd” and distasteful to him. They don’t see how they’re being controlled.

In the second stanza, he describes himself as an “instrument” that fulfills the will of “Columbia-Giesen-Management”. This alludes to the larger issue the speaker is dealing with. He is a writer and has been convinced to go on a tour. Although he is celebrated at each stop, he can’t stand the process nor does he understand why he even accepted the journey.

 

Stanzas Three and Four

In the third stanza of ‘On the Circuit,’ the speaker describes how he has been told that it’s his task to deliver his writings to the masses. This is depicted as a huge and meaningful task but it’s clear that that’s not the case for him. It is as though he is bringing with him a new religion he has to convey to all other religions. This relates back to the defence to “pelagian travelers” in the first stanza. He brings a new “gospel”. 

On his pilgrimage, he has to go from “talking-site to talking-site”. This alludes to a mimics the “holy sites” one might visit if they were on a real pilgrimage, which the speaker doesn’t believe he is. For him, the whole process feels lewd. He doesn’t want to be used this way. The planes, “jet-or-prop-propelled,” take him everywhere. He leaves one place to go to the next before he has a chance to grow used to it. 

 

Stanzas Five and Six

In the fifths stanza of ‘On the Circuit’ the speaker admits that things are not all bad. Its always “warm” where he arrives. Auden uses alliteration to increase the rhythm of this line, alluding to the positive nature of a “warm…welcome”. Everyone wants him there, but he leaves os quickly. He moves “frequently” and “fast,” another alliterative moment. 

The only time that he ever remembers one place, or can tell one from the next is if there is some singular event to make it stand out in his mind. It would “intervene,” as if alive and capable of doing so by its own will, and “save the place”. This is an interesting use of personification which speaks to the nature of these “singular moments” should they come to pass. 

Unfortunately, the moments are not of much interest really. They are usually a “soul-bewitching face” or an “asinine” or ignorant remark.

 

Stanza Seven and Eight

There are some better moments, such as meeting with fans of other writers and anything that comes about unscheduled. This connects back to the fact that it is really the scheduling and non-stop nature of this journey that bothers the writer. He addresses and shoots down the notion that he is ever nervous about speaking, despite the oddballs he meets sometimes. 

 

Stanzas Nine and Ten

In the ninth stanza, he splits his two natures in half. He is willing, in part, to repeat the same talk over and over again, as that is what is asked of him. But, there is another part of him, his “Flesh” which is “homesick”. Auden uses personification in these lines again in order to depict his “Flesh” and “Spirit” as having wants and needs. These lines also reveal that the poem is being directed at a specific listener, someone with whom Auden, or whoever the intended speaker might be, shares an apartment in New York. This person goes unnamed. 

The tenth stanza is interesting as it seems to switch briefly to the third person. He discusses himself as “crotchety” and stuck in his ways. He knows that he is grumpy and “sulky” at his age and does not want to have to deal with even the slightest change in his normalcy. The luxury hotels do nothing for him. 

 

Stanzas Eleven and Twelve 

The discussion of hotels continues into the next two stanzas. He explains that he might spend time looking at the Bible while he’s in one of these fancy hotels. This is a very clear and somewhat amusing peek into the disdain the speaker holds his life of travel in. The hotels really do mean nothing to him. They don’t impress or entrance him as they might’ve at a younger age. The Bible is far more interesting. 

In addition to the absurdity of the hotel, in general, there are several aspects that bother him the most. These are in reality trivial things but he brings them up as constant annoyances on his mind. They include the radio playing out of a young person’s car and music playing at breakfast. He refers specifically to “Muzak”. This is the light background music that’s played through speakers in public places. 

 

Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen

In the thirteenth stanza of ‘On the Circuit’ the speaker adds in the “worst of all”. He has a constant fear that the flights he has to mark on are not going to have anything good to drink. This is where his “everyday man” persona drifts away and the speaker begins to sound more snobbish. He cares a great deal about getting what he wants when he wants it. In the fourteenth stanza, he refers to  Graham Greene” and how something might be “grahamgreeneish”. 

This humorous phrase refers to a novelist known for writing entertaining and thrilling novels that were widely popular. It is clear from this line that Auden looks down at this kind of novel and does not want to travel inside one. It feels as though he is in one though when he reaches into his bag and takes a drink from his own bottle. 

 

Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen 

The final two stanzas depict the next morning and allude to the ongoing repetition of the whole endeavour. He speaks about the next morning light coming and being able to see the little houses down below the plane. They represent his next audience which was the same as the last. He won’t “see” them again after the stop. 

He asks God to bless them in the final stanza and he speaks on the absurdity of his journey. The USA is “so large” he adds, and “so rich” and his written works are now a part of that cycle of wealth. 

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