By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Refugee Blues’ is the title commonly given to the first song in W. H. Auden’s ‘Ten Songs’. The poem was completed in March 1939, while Auden was living in New York. The fact that ‘Refugee Blues’ was part of a cycle titled ‘Ten Songs’ prepares us for the rhythm of the stanzas, each ending with a refrain-like line featuring the expression ‘my dear’. The poem is spoken by a Jewish refugee living in New York, who is addressing his lover and reflecting on the fact that he – and many other refugees in a similar position – are not made welcome in the city. You can read ‘Refugee Blues’ here.
The best way to summarise the content of the poem might be to paraphrase it (even though something is inevitably lost in paraphrase, it can help to clarify the meaning of a poem before proceeding to an analysis of it). ‘Let’s assume there are ten million people living here in New York City. Some of them are rich, and some are dirt-poor. Yet apparently there’s no room for us, refugees fleeing persecution and death in Europe. We used to have a country where we belonged: it was ours. And although it still exists, we cannot return there. Yew trees growing in graveyards can bloom again every spring, but once we relinquished our passports and fled our homeland, we did so for good.
‘Fleeing here to New York, we were told if we didn’t have a passport we were “officially dead”, even though we’re clearly very much alive. I went to a committee to get a position, and they told me to sit down, but they turned me down for the job and said to come back next year. But how are we going to eat in the meantime? At a public meeting, somebody got up and argued against letting refugees like us into the country, because he said we will steal native New Yorkers’ work and food.
‘I heard the thunder rumbling and it put me in mind of Adolf Hitler calling for Jews like us to be killed. I look around and see European dogs and cats, which have been allowed into America to live; but German Jews like us are not allowed to come here. Even the fish nearby in the harbour seem to be freer than us, and the birds singing in the trees. I dreamed I saw a vast apartment building with a thousand floors, a thousand windows, and a thousand doors – yet there still wasn’t room for us here. I stood in the snow and saw ten thousand soldiers marching around, looking for illegal refugees like us.’
A powerful poem, this, though not as well-known as many of Auden’s other poems written as Europe and America lay on the brink of another world war (‘September 1, 1939’, written following the outbreak of the war, is much more famous, in spite of the fact that – or perhaps precisely because – Auden himself later sought to suppress it).
It’s important to keep in mind the musical title of the poem and the fact that it was originally grouped with other poems to form a suite titled ‘Ten Songs’: this is poetry, but poetry that is lyrical in the truest sense, demanding to be sung.
The bitter irony of the Jewish speaker’s position – a refugee to New York, home of the Statue of Liberty with its inscription proclaiming America the ‘Mother of Exiles’ – is neatly captured through the ambiguous words and phrases Auden includes in ‘Refugee Blues’: ‘Went to a committee; they offered me a chair’ – not a chair as in a position on the committee, we realise in the cruel twist of the next line (he’s to try again for that next year, but right now, forget it), but merely a seat at the table where they will explain to him that they cannot offer him a job (the other kind of ‘chair’).
And that word ‘souls’ in the poem’s opening line strikes us at first as synonymous with ‘people’ (New York has, let’s assume, ten million inhabitants, the speaker surmises), but ‘souls’ will take on an added poignancy when we realise that there are many in the world – not just Hitler (seeking to exterminate the ‘German Jews’ such as the speaker and his lover), but many ‘ordinary’ inhabitants of the city – who would vehemently deny the idea that Jewish people like him even have ‘souls’.
‘Refugee Blues’ is underappreciated as one of W. H. Auden’s thirties poems. If this brief analysis does nothing more, perhaps it will encourage one or two new readers to seek it out.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.
Continue to explore the world of Auden’s poetry with our analysis of his ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, his short poem ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, and our thoughts on his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’. If you’d get hold of all of Auden’s major poetry, we recommend the wonderful Collected Auden.
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.
Image (bottom): Photo of W. H. Auden, 1970, by TorontoPeter, via Wikimedia Commons.