This month marks Auden’s birth centenary, reminds the Guardian. He was born on Feb 21, 1907. He was the people’s poet, says the article in the Guardian. The writer, Theo Hobson, says: “Auden’s rise to fame in the 1930s is hard to believe now: it is impossible to imagine a young poet achieving comparable status today.”
Poets no longer enjoy the kind of fame that Auden, Eliot or Yeats had. Perhaps the last poet to receive such attention was Alan Ginsberg. He may not be in the same league, but each of them was the voice of his generation. And their words resonated with those that followed. Yeats, Eliot and Auden were widely read and quoted during my schooldays in Calcutta (Kolkata), when Ginsberg was shocking people with poems like Howl. That also happened to be the time when the Beatles and Bob Dylan were making waves. And the singers eventually became more popular than the poets.
Hobson writes in the Guardian:
“Auden’s centenary highlights the poverty of contemporary literary culture. More particularly, it highlights the decline of poetry as a vital public medium. In a sense he was the last Romantic, for no poet since has echoed the sheer ambition of that tradition. It is not enough for the poet to be accomplished in a fiddly verbal skill that is admired by a tiny subculture; he should strive to help an entire culture to think. He should be a special sort of public intellectual, a pioneer of sensibility.”
“Auden’s genius, or part of it, was to develop a highly intellectual poetry that was also friendly, accessible, public,” he adds.
He is right. Auden is not a difficult poet. One doesn’t need a guidebook to understand what he is writing about. And his poems are full of social commentary. He remains relevant to this day. What poem could be more contemporary than The Unknown Citizen?
And now, here is The Unknown Citizen:
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.