The best Auden poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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? Click on the title of each poem to read it.
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. However, as we discuss in our analysis of this classic funeral poem, the story of the poem’s origins reveals a slightly more complex picture.
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.
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.
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’.
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? 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.’
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.
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. We have analysed this poem here.
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 have analysed this poem here.
Along with ‘The More Loving One’, this is the only one of the Auden poems from his late period (1963, to be precise) which we’ve included here. It tells of the life of a jobbing public intellectual – which was what Auden was in later life, as much as he was a man who wrote poems – travelling around the United States and giving public lectures.
Are there any favourite Auden poems we haven’t included here, which should be on the list? (We’ve discussed his short poem ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant‘ here, for instance.) What is the best Auden poem of the lot? Continue to explore Auden’s work with the wonderful Collected Auden. For more modern poetry, see our pick of Louis MacNeice’s best poems and the greatest Ted Hughes poems. For other poetry suggestions, check out these classic evening poems.
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.