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W.h. Auden’s Insight on What It is to Be Human in The Modern Age

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W.H. Auden’s timeless and universal poetry transcends the barriers of the Modernist period. O’ What is that Sound, written in October 1932 and Spain written in March 1937, both explore the effects of war and the loss of love. Although both these poems differ greatly in their tone and technique, Auden remains to convey the universal themes to the modern-day reader. O’ What is that Sound is a heart-breaking poem reminiscing on the suffering that many individuals endure during times of war. Spain is Auden’s recount of the viciousness of civil conflict while he served in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s as a stretcher-bearer. Both poems explore Auden’s disillusionment with this context and seek to comment on the insight of what is to be a human in the modern age.

Both O’ What is that Sound and Spain portray the negative impacts of war on the “modern man” and fears associated with the outbreak of global conflict. O’ What is that Sound captivates the reader in style through the use of rhyme scheme and imagery, creates a frightful atmosphere, that allows the reader to fill the shoes of those at war. In the opening stanza, we are introduced to the dialogue “Only the sun on their weapons, dear, as they step lightly.” Auden is deliberately vague about what weapons were being used by the soldiers, allowing the time and place to be interpreted by the reader. Openly relating to the effects of war and how the human condition has manipulated our situations. Auden considers the effects that war is a physically and emotionally scaring experience in the extract “And their eyes are burning” which refers to the indication that their lack of humanity that has been lost due to the political oppression. Using this metaphor, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of blood shot red eyes from crying, causing mass destruction to themselves having false hope that has been enforced onto these families. Spain similarly examines the effects of war both on veterans and family members with their loved ones off at war. The poem talks of the past, present and future and how they affect us during times of war. Auden explores the idea of the effects of war through the phrase, “Raise the vast military empires of the shark and the tiger, establish the robin’s plucky canton?” This sounds like a cry from the country itself. The shark and the tiger represent the fiercest military forces on land and sea, while the robin’s plucky canton gives a sense of honourableness. He further comments “Descend as a dove… or a mild engineer, but descend” it is here that Spain is crying for anybody to save it from its misery in any means. The image of a pleasing future is swiftly swallowed back up into the ferocious present of today. Today death and murder are realities, and there are very limited things that make life worth living. Even an embrace has to be condensed before it hurts the recipient. This is supported when Critic Bone when he says “Nobody knows the controlling forces and there seems to be no one willing to accept the responsibility for controlling these forces, which constitute the real dynamic of history.”

Equally Spain and O’ What is that Sound expose the idea of loss of love on “modern man” and the effects of dehumanisation on love. Spain mesmerizes the reader through its bleak visual imagery and metaphors, exploring the ideas of how corruption has destroyed our sense of love for one another, and the world we live in. Auden observes this loss through the passage “And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart… Not to-day, not to you.” This excerpt explores the thought that the civilians, are the ones who will truly decide the outcome of the country’s future. The metaphor “replied from the heart” allows the reader to truly feel what Auden was experiencing and how impacted the people of Spain were by the deprivation of love. Not being able to freely express themselves for fear of what might happen to themselves or their families. Auden, an open homosexual man defies these boundaries set in place by society, and was never fearful of being his true self. Towards the end of the poem we are introduced to the dialogue, “To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love.” The indication that love isn’t dead, there is still hope for the discovery of different demographics of people that haven’t necessarily been made aware of yet. Using the word “to-morrow” shows the reader there is a long way to go, before parting the loss of love from society. Similarly, O’ What is that Sound explores the theme of loss of love through the family’s desperation for their loved ones to return from war, and how dehumanisation has corrupted their idea of love while they have been gone. Auden directly address this in the dialogue “O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,” it is here he examines the indication that their love has been broken and may never be repaired. The metaphor of the lock being broken hits the heart of the reader, as a lock gives us security and a sense of safety by keeping those we don’t want, out of our lives. Towards the end of the poem we are introduced to the extract “Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?” The sacred vows of marriage, in the eyes of the law and religion are binding, they are promises that you wish to for fill, but for this couple we see that their loss of love causes their motivation to uphold those promises die. Using the repetition of “deceiving, deceiving” conveys to the reader the sense of anxiousness, questioning his or her desperation for their loved one to show the loved their pledged to each other. This theme is reinforced by Critic Mendelson when he says “Auden returned home after years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love – or not to love – one’s neighbour as oneself.”

W.H. Auden’s O’ What is that Sound and Spain transcend the reader through time to the 1930’s with the context to seek and comment on the insight of what is to be a human in the modern age. Both works explore the effects of war and loss of love, while Auden remains to convey the universal themes to the modern-day reader. 

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W.H. Auden’s Insight On What It Is To Be Human In The Modern Age. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from
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