Thursday, September 25, 2014

Paid on Both Sides & Poems 1927-1932 by W. H. Auden

Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted on Facebook: May 17, 2011

I’m finally done! This is the last of my old Facebook reviews to be re-posted on the blog. I still have a few guest posts on other blogs that I wish to reformat and post on my own blog, but am happy to finally be done with the old reviews.


These notes are a continuation of my poetry project. I borrowed this book from the library, but hope to find my own hardback Auden collection in the future.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in England in 1907. He later moved to the United States and is thus considered, like T. S. Eliot, to be an Anglo-American poet.  

On the one hand, Auden is strikingly different from the earlier and more traditional poets I have read. His poems are dense, often difficult to understand, perhaps intentionally incomprehensible. This fits with his classification as a modern poet. On the other, he often uses familiar rhyme, meter, and stanza schemes. In particular, these early poems show a use of blank verse and the three line stanza.
In this collection, Auden will occasionally attempt political commentary, often with apocalyptic language. I suspect much of this would have resonated better with those of that time and place – I am not up on British politics from the ‘20s and ‘30s to understand all of his points and references.
I read two distinctly different works in this case. Paid on Both Sides is a one act experimental play about love and a feud – somewhat similar in plot to Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the setting is the Scottish highlands in older days, but the play itself is staged with nothing but a wall and chairs. Thus, the dialogue and poetry take center stage, without the distraction of costume or action.

In addition to the Scottish setting, the play contains inside references to the English boarding school system, only a few of which I can claim to have recognized.

This play is at its best in the musings of the characters about the feud. For example:

           I will say this not falsely: I have seen
           The just and the unjust die in the day,
           All, willing or not, and some were willing.

The second section was the collected poems from 1927 through 1932. These are the earliest poems published by Auden. There is great debate as to whether the early poems or the later poems are better. Since I have read only a few of the later ones, I will leave the debate to more experienced at this time.
Many of these poems tell stories, often in blank verse. Auden at times sounds similar to Milton in meter and use of blank verse and in his syntax. The themes and topics are different. Auden focuses on detail and obscure characters rather than the sweeping themes and familiar types in Milton.
Also similarly to Milton, Auden uses subordinate clauses and verbals as a style of writing. (English majors will, I hope, forgive my limited analysis of the grammar)
Auden (and Milton) both start a section with a series of subordinate participle or gerund based clauses, delaying the main clause with its stronger verb until the end of the sentence. This gives a sense of building the foundation before allowing the final meaning to emerge. While this is effective if done well, it requires quite a bit of rereading.

An example here from the opening of “Half Way” may be illustrative:

           Having abdicated with comparative ease
           And dismissed the greater part of your friends, [compound participle clause?]
           Escaping by submarine
           In a false beard, half-hoping the ports were watched, [gerund phrase?]
           You have got here, and it isn’t snowing:
           How shall we celebrate your arrival?

The structure itself builds the suspense as to what the end result of the action that occurred in the past was.

Perhaps my English major friends can explain the mechanics of this better than I have. In any case, I found it interesting in its effects. Auden, like Milton, was a craftsman of the English language – the form itself adds to and bolsters the meaning of the words.
There are far too many excellent quotes to use in my review, but I will select a few that particularly resonated with me.

In “The Letter”, these lines appear:

           Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
           The swallow on the tile, spring’s green
           Preliminary shiver…

Then later:

           Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Well written indeed.

I also enjoyed “Too Dear, Too Vague”, a musing on the nature of love too long to quote, but worth looking up. Auden uses short lines and frequent rhyme to good effect in creating a feeling of love cut too short.

Another moving poem is “Between Adventure”, which I read as discussing the line between acquaintance and something deeper, and the danger it implies. This poem uses the three line stanza mentioned above.

One interesting poem, if it may be called that, is entitled “Shorts”, and consists of a series of short aphorisms which may be connected to each other in a thematic sense, but only loosely.

           Pick a quarrel, go to war,
           Leave the hero in the bar;
           Hunt the lion, climb the peak:
           No one guesses you are weak.

And then:

           The friends of the born nurse
           Are always getting worse.

           When he is well
           She gives him hell,
           But she’s a brick
           When he is sick.

And less amusingly:

I’m beginning to lose patience
With my personal relations:
They are not deep,
And they are not cheap.

And one of my all time favorites:

           Let us honor if we can
           The vertical man,
           Though we value none
           But the horizontal one.

Although these were definitely not the easiest of poems to read and understand, I found many gems of both language and meaning there. The time I invested to work through them slowly and carefully was worth the effort and yielded rewards.


  1. You might be interested in reading Alexander McCall Smith on Auden: What W.H. Auden can do for you. It's a short, easy read, but I think insightful.

    1. That does sound interesting. I do like McCall Smith (as do my children, for some reason). I know he is a big Auden fan, as the poems make it into the mysteries from time to time.