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.
‘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. We’ve analysed this classic funeral poem here.
‘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.
‘Lullaby’. One of Auden’s most tender poems, ‘Lullaby’ is 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 one of the greatest English love poems of the twentieth century.
‘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, about the night train carrying mail from London to Scotland, remains a classic of British documentary filmmaking; you can watch the excerpt from the film featuring Auden’s poem here.
‘Musée de Beaux Arts’. This poem from late 1938 has the memorable opening statement, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters’. 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’.
‘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. 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.’
‘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.
‘If I Could Tell You’. There aren’t many great villanelles in the English language, 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 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’?
‘On the Circuit’. 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. You can hear Auden reciting the poem in this wonderful recording.
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.