The sonnet, Sir, No Man’s Enemy, which is also known as the Petition poem, by W.H. Auden is addressed to the strong feeling of sexual love personified as love-god. Auden here images it as a glorious god whose facer radiates beams of light and power. As such, this god, called in psychology Eros is the embodiment of the “Life-force” in man.
Sir, No Man’s Enemy (Petition Poem) Summary
The poem, Petition, was composed by Auden in October, 1929. Its earlier title was Sir, No Man’s Enemy. It was published in the poetic volume, Poems (1930. It was the last poem in the volume. At the time of its composition, Auden was a psychologist poet. Under the influence of Sigmund Freud, George Groddeck, Homer Lane, Johm Layard, an D.H. Lawrence, he believed that man’s ‘psychological ills’ were ‘greater’ than this ‘political’ ones. His belief can be stated as follows: Sexual love is the main urge in man. It draws man and woman together. If it is allowed a free play, it bursts forth as the Life-force, called Id in man.
But there is another force too in man. It is the death instinct, which reflects itself as the fear of death. It lies vested in the faculty of mind and is called the Super-ego. So the belief under which the present poem was composed can be summed up as follows: Modern human culture and civilization have systematically repressed sexual love in man and in society for ages and ages. The result is that society is ruled by morals and laws of the Super-ego which is the Death-force to sexual love.
In effect, society is ruled by Death-force and man and society are ‘sick’, or rather, inhibited by death-wish. Let me tell you here that society and individuals are sick because men and their culture have repressed vital human forces (in themselves). The Super-ego has nearly defeated the ‘id’ (i.e. Life-force). Cure demands a change of heart, a change in the individuals. The power of the super-ego must be overthrown and the languishing ‘id’ released from its fetters.’
Theme of Petition
Evidently the theme of the poem is Auden’s psychological message. It is that constant repression of the erotic ‘Id’ causes neural and physical diseases in men and women. It also makes them cowardly, spiritually exhausted, and sexually frozen. Their repressive response to sexual love may be traced back to their cultural inbreeding. The modern society consists of the spiritually and sexually ‘dead’. The need of the hour is a new attitude towards sexual love and its role in life. So messages of the new Freudian culture should be conveyed to all the nooks and corners of the human society. And there must be a change of heart in favour of the new culture of Freudian sexualism.
Sir, no man’s enemy, forgiving all
And the distortions of ingrown virginity.
Respectfully addressing sexual love personified as love-god, Auden, the poet of this poem, which can be read in full here, prays it to be lavish of its grace on mankind. He adds that it is nobody’s enemy as the life-force. It forgives even all those who indulge in sexual gratification secretly and indirectly. Yet it will never forgive man’s repressing his sexual impulses and urges. For such restrain on, and habitual shrinking from, sexual gratification turns its force inwards as the destructive death-force). Auden then prays it to fill us with power of life-force and enlightenment regarding the role of erotic impulse. He also prays it to invest our sexual activity with such panacea power that can cure neural itch, exhaustion caused by a constant repression of sexual desires, inflammation of the throat or tonsils caused in a person by his lying about his sexual life, and the tumours of cancer which grown in the wombs of unmarried women when they repress their desires for sexual life and children.
Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.
In the further lines, the poet is shown praying the love-god punctually to check man’s inbred repressive response to sexual impulse and desire, and gradually to set right his cowardly attitude towards realities of sexual-love in life. Eros is also prayed to send, in good time, its beams of light into those people who are running away from the realities of sexual urges in life, so that, being freed from the spots of cowardice towards sexual love, they may turn back to obey its commands, even though their return were difficult.
The love-god is also prayed to send forth to the public every healer’s message whether he lives in a town or in the country. Finally, the poet prays it to plough and sow with seeds of sexual-love the graveyard called modern society whose members are spiritually and sexually dead. It is also prayed to look, with favour, on the ways of the new Freudian culture of sexualism and also to bring about such change in the human heart that it may love this culture deeply.
Rhythm and Versification in Petition
The rhythm of the poem is syllable-stressed, much of it is iambic. In some verses it has been sweetened with alliteration. In the fifth and the tenth lines the syllable-stress rhythm has been balanced against speech rhythms. The metre is characterized by variety, although the syllable-stress rhythm dominates everywhere. For example, the poem consists of seven couplets. In the first couplet, the first lien is an iambic pentameter whereas the second line is a hexameter. The rhymes of couplets are assonantal and consonantal. For instance, in the third couplet, ‘quinsy’ has been made to rhyme with ‘virginity’. In the last couplet, ‘at’ has been made to rhyme with ‘heart’. The poem is a sonnet made up of seven rhymed couplets. It has been constructed on the pattern of the sonnet of Rainer Rilke (1875-1926), the great Austrian poet who wrote in German. Auden was impressed by his poetry during his sojourn in Germany.
The sonnet, Petition, which also bears another title, Sir, No Man’s Enemy, reflects Auden’s immature style, prosodic skill, and the impact of Freudianism on his poetic thought. It belongs to his early poetry about which it can be said that the voice, most high filled with diagnostic precision and epigrammatic assurance, suggests that here is a man who knows what he is talking about. On the whole, this sonnet is not bad; rather it is one of the most chronologically diagnostic of Auden’s poems. It is typical of Auden’s early poetry, both in its matter and manner.