By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
W. H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote a great deal of poetry, with many of the best Auden poems being written in the 1930s. In this post, we’ve taken on the difficult task of finding the ten greatest Auden poems – difficult because, although certain poems naturally rise to the surface and proclaim their greatness, there are quite a few of those.
Here’s our top ten. Are there any classic poems by Auden that we’ve left off the list? Follow the title of each poem to read it.
1. ‘Stop all the clocks’.
Also known as ‘Funeral Blues’, this poem, one of Auden’s ‘Twelve Songs’ originally published in 1936, needs no introduction, perhaps. Since it was recited in the funeral in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, it achieved worldwide fame and brought Auden’s poetry to a whole new audience.
The poem offers a number of symbols of mourning. But mentioning these poetic tropes has a dual purpose: as well as rejecting the usefulness of such romantic talk in the face of his grief, the speaker is also saying that the world – indeed, the entire universe – is of no worth if it does not have his lover in it.
The word ‘dismantle’ verges on the flippant in the second line of the final stanza, as if the sun is a mechanical device that one can simply take apart, like a watch. It suggests that even the natural world seems fake and unreal now that the joys of the world have been taken from him.
But who is ‘he’ here? And did the poem start out as a sincere expression of mourning? As we discuss in our analysis of this classic funeral poem, the story of the poem’s origins reveals a slightly more complex picture.
2. ‘Autumn Song’.
Another one of the ‘Twelve Songs’ along with the more famous ‘Stop all the clocks’, this is a fine lyric about the brevity of youth and life’s disappointments. Auden wrote two different versions of the final stanza, although the tone of the poem remains largely the same in both.
The poem helps to show how, as well as engaging with the specific events and political climate of the 1930s, Auden also captured a timeless sense of disappointment and sadness in much of his finest work.
One of Auden’s most tender poems, ‘Lullaby’ is perhaps the greatest gay love poem of the whole twentieth century (although as it is directly addressed to the recipient one can easily read the poem and forget that it is a male poet writing to another man); it is rightly among Auden’s best-loved poems.
In many ways hopelessly romantic, in other ways relentlessly realist (the addressee of the poem is only ‘human’; Auden himself is ‘faithless’), it is the sort of poem that many Auden devotees have committed to memory.
4. ‘Night Mail’.
Thanks to the classic film which featured it – and for which it was specially written – ‘Night Mail’ remains one of Auden’s best-known poems.
The film in which it features, a 1936 documentary produced by the General Post Office (GPO) film unit about the night train carrying mail from London to Scotland, remains a classic of British documentary filmmaking, thanks to Auden’s verse narration and Benjamin Britten’s musical score. You can watch the excerpt from the film featuring Auden’s poem here.
5. ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’.
This poem from late 1938 has the memorable opening statement, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters’. Auden wrote ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ in December 1938, while he was staying in Brussels with his friend Christopher Isherwood. The museum and art gallery mentioned in the poem’s title, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, is the Brussels art gallery, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which Auden visited.
In the poem, Auden muses upon how, in many old Renaissance paintings, while something grand and momentous is taking place – the Nativity, say, or the Crucifixion – there are always people present in the painting who aren’t much bothered about what’s going on.
Auden then poignantly considers a painting (thought to be) by Peter Brueghel the Elder, of Icarus, and the presence of a ship whose occupants seem unconcerned by ‘a boy falling out of the sky’.
6. ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’.
Auden wrote a number of poems about his fellow poets, from A. E. Housman to Edward Lear, but this powerful elegy written in the wake of Yeats’s death in 1939 is his finest commemoration of another poet.
As well as being an elegy for the dead poet, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is also a meditation on the role and place of poetry in the modern world. What is poetry for? Can it make anything happen? Should it make anything happen?
Auden describes Yeats’s death, concluding that, with his passing, Yeats ‘became his admirers’: once Yeats the man had ceased to be, Yeats the poet became whatever his readers and fans decided he was.
Here, we can sense Auden making a broader point about the ‘immortality’ of poets: they survive or don’t survive depending on who reads them, and how those readers read them.
The closing lines of Auden’s poem are inscribed on his own memorial stone in Westminster Abbey: ‘In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.’
We have analysed this classic poem here.
7. ‘September 1st, 1939’.
Auden later disowned this poem, written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War (though uncannily anticipating events in another dark September, in 2001), arguing that the rhetoric won out over truth (‘We must love one another or die’ should, he reasoned, strictly be ‘We must love one another and die’).
As a result, you won’t find it in the Faber Collected Poems (the only poem among this selection of best Auden poems that isn’t in that book). But you can read it by following the link in the title above.
As the poem’s title indicates, ‘September 1, 1939’ was written in early September 1939 – and although Auden didn’t actually write it in a New York bar, he was living in New York at this time (having moved there from England only months earlier). September 1, 1939 was the day on which Nazi Germany invaded Poland, causing the outbreak of the Second World War.
We have analysed this poem here.
8. ‘If I Could Tell You’.
There aren’t many great villanelles in the English language (we have collected together some of our favourite examples here), but Auden’s ‘If I Could Tell You’ is up there with William Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’ and with probably the most famous villanelle in English, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’.
Written in 1940 during the Second World War, the poem conveys Auden’s, and much of the world’s, sense of uncertainty concerning the future. ‘If I Could Tell You’ teeters on being a love poem: the speaker tells the addressee ‘I love you more than I can say’. That much, it seems, is certain at least. The two refrains of the villanelle appear to alternate between certainty (‘Time will…’) and uncertainty (‘If I…’).
But what is so masterly about Auden’s use of these two refrains is how both actually pull in opposite directions, poised somewhere between knowability and conjecture: ‘If I could tell you’ is the first half of the line, but the second, ‘I would let you know’, promises the surety of personal guarantee in an uncertain time.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. ‘The More Loving One’.
In this 1957 poem, Auden meditates on unrequited love. ‘If equal affection cannot be,’ he confides, ‘Let the more loving one be me.’ Cleverly and beautifully, Auden dismantles the argument that, in a case of unrequited love, it is better to be the loved rather than the lover. How should we like it if the stars burned with ‘a passion for us we could not return’?
We might summarise the thrust of this poem as follows: as an individual, we can respond by believing that the universe has a purpose for us; or we can respond by saying it doesn’t, and ask what the hell’s the point of anything. Or we can meet the universe’s indifference to us head-on and take pride in the fact that we, products of nature, have been instilled with the ability to care, to feel awe in the face of nature’s sublime aspects, and to love.
We have analysed this poem here.
10. ‘The Fall of Rome’.
Written in 1947, ‘The Fall of Rome’ is one of W. H. Auden’s finest poems of his middle period. As its title indicates, it is about the fall of the Roman empire.
But many of the details in Auden’s poem are clearly anachronistic for a poem about the Roman empire in the fifth century BCE, such as the idea of a clerk writing on a ‘pink official form’ (rather than scratching things onto a tablet, which is what a Roman official would have done). So the poem is, if not quite an allegory for another empire and another time, a poem about both the fall of Rome and the fall of other great civilisations.
It is worth remembering that Auden was writing this poem about the fall of an empire in the immediate wake of a world war: 1947 was just two years after the end of the Second World War, of course, but it was also the year that India gained its independence from the British Empire, and the year that, in the wake of the end of the war, the breakup of Britain’s imperial possessions seemed to be inevitable (as, indeed, the next few decades showed).
Auden’s anachronisms reinforce the notion that history repeats itself, and that mighty empires always have their time in the sun but are inevitably doomed to die.
We have analysed this great Auden poem here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.