Auden utilises poetry to access and describe all that is latent within society and condemn those who outcast others because of their prejudicial mindset. He comments on various situations, all of which come to represent people who do not have the true ability to speak out against the problems they endure because of the lack of attention they receive if they do. All the environments in which they are placed symbolise the cruel, impersonal, perhaps even callous nature of humanity as they seek to deal with problems which involve individuals’ own self-interests, and therefore, are reluctant to accept the problems of others as being of the same merit as theirs. Auden feels that it is his due civil responsibility to voice his concerns about this and he does so convincingly conveying the emotional and psychological weight and consequence of the problems that these people have to deal with. However, contrary to making the audience empathise with the individual characters, Auden invites us to be amused at their circumstances, to laugh at their lack of ‘worthiness’. It is through this method that we soon realise the problems we have in identifying with people in less desirable situations and we begin to recognise the problems that society, as a whole, has in the way it tries to understand people such as ‘Miss Gee’.
In Miss Gee, Auden, in my opinion, inappropriately uses the ballad form to bring to light the tragic story of Edith Gee. Her characteristics (“she had no bust at all”, “her lips were thin and small”) are used to illustrate the nature of someone that we all can recognise in our own lives. She has qualities which deem her an introvert (“lived in a small bed-sitting room”) and perhaps even an outcast (“she’d a left squint in her eye”). She then goes on to yearn for the love and affection that passed her whole adult life by; she dreams of the local vicar (“And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius / Asked her Majesty to dance”) and feels nothing but contempt for “loving couples”, who in themselves could represent the people that have held her back her whole life, the ones who have been critical of her mere existence or maybe it is just the simple reference back to her lack of romantic experience.
Almost as if by fate, she is diagnosed with cancer shortly after this – that may be representative of the illness that plagues society (the nature of which they hate so freely) and, indeed, Edith could have taken on the persona of the general public and the cancer might be retribution for the way in which they act. From this point onwards, there is a transfer of focus onto Doctor Thomas whose insensitive approach to his job even irritates his wife (“Don’t be so morbid, dear”). He invites her to the hospital for an operation and she is ruthlessly used as a learning tool, as if she is has no worth at all. Suddenly, we feel increasingly regretful for our earlier bemusement and seek to rescue her from the fate that has befallen her life, but it is too late. We cannot save her. It is disturbing to think that if the parish spinster who is rewarded for her life of sexual propriety with an emphatic and inoperable sarcoma, then what is to happen to us? The remarkable difference between the use of the ballad form (+ ACBC rhyme scheme) and the tragic nature of this story in itself represents the failure of society to meet its responsibilities to look after those who are less fortunate and less able to become fulfilled by living normal lives.
The people in O What Is That Sound are characterised by the way in which they interact – the dismissive and even unsympathetic temperament of the character who speaks in the latter lines of each stanza enables us to fully understand the situation of the person who speaks in the first lines. The characters are specifically identified because they come to represent the ambiguity and universality of the situation. A consistent tone is taken throughout the piece aside from one line in which the 2nd character’s annoyance seems to shine through (“or perhaps a warning”). Her naivety is glaringly obvious and, similarly to other poems by Auden, this could represent the ignorance of society to threats on their doorstep because they are merely that, threats. They do not immediately have an effect and so we are willing to ignore them in order to carry on with our lives until they do become a problem; Auden, however, feels strongly against this. He maintains that we should prepare for the worst even we do not see it coming. This is wholly embodied in the 2nd character that deserts their partner for fear of their own life; irrespective of the matrimonial vows they swore to abide by.
On a simpler level, the betrayal and introduction of war could purely stand for the betrayal that the 2nd character was going to make all along; war was always an approaching prospect and the desertion planned (“I must be leaving” – he has already considered the eventualities). We gather from the introduction of long-term themes, that the 1st character has always had a sense of abandonment and isolation within their marriage. They have not had the entire support of their partner and they are disappointed in the lack of moral fibre that comprises their personality. With reference to Auden, as a social critic, perhaps this story serves a multi-functionary purpose; he may be critical of the role of marriage in society and how that the standards expected of both man and woman are impossibly high, so as to ensure that failure will result in some circumstances. He’s trying to prove through the characters that the very qualities we traditionally deem to form the foundations for a society that we can depend on, one that won’t betray us have been wrong all along. He even goes as far as to mock religion in the way it has helped implement a repressive but socially-acceptable mindset in people – “why are you kneeling?” Alternatively, the characters may serve as a metaphor for his disgust at the lack of leadership in politics at the time the poem was composed, given the way in which the people readily submit to the army of a foreign country (i.e. a reference to the Chamberlain appeasement of Hitler’s Third Reich).
The first person narrative used in 1st September 1939 effectively means that Auden is the narrator of the poem and we can therefore see that the point comes directly from him, as opposed to a character that he has created. In a similar fashion to the other poems that he has composed, Auden uses 1st September to criticise the way in which society operates and how its self-indulgent attitude leaves many others out in the cold when it comes to needing help. Although the narrator appears to be very well versed in historical figures (and therefore suggests that he is of noble birth), Auden dismisses his inherited wealth as he comes to realise that strength should lie in the “Collective Man” who should “live for long / in a euphoric dream” whilst maintaining their “love for another”. Various statements in the poem lead us to believe that poet is trying to answer the questions prompted by war, such as, how did we get there in the first place? He locates blame in those who have “imperialist” tendencies, corrupting the very democracy them claim to represent. They have ignored the plight of the workers and their impersonal approach to the war, because of the fact that the only scar they will bear will lie in their ego, is completely indictable. Their “competitive excuses”, their “dishonesty”, the “driv[ing] of a culture mad” and the “stupor lies” all should make us want to rise up against such blatant disregard for our welfare, but Auden, through his character, negates this theme by implying that violence isn’t fought with through other violence. We have to show an “affirming flame”, and Auden’s voice ‘I will be true to my wife’ leads us to believe that he will be the figurehead of such a tidal movement against the stalemate of complacency. He must, at least, stay true to his message, because that is what will set him apart from the deceptive “militant trash”.