Auden’s Sonnets

by Daniel Hartley

W. H. Auden perceived in the sonnet the incarnation of lopsided equilibrium. The sonnet is split by nature, and its two halves are unequal; yet this imbalance is the source of its creative potential. What Auden does in his two major sonnet sequences, ‘In Time Of War’ and ‘The Quest’, is to exploit this immanent structural wound and to seek therein its resolution. It is no wonder, then, that the latter sequence should appear in a work entitled The Double Man. Somehow, it would seem, the fissured sonnet form is bound up for Auden with his perception of man’s duality. Given the limited space of this essay, it is to ‘The Quest’ that most attention shall be paid, since it is in this sequence of poems that Auden most profoundly articulates the sonnet’s essence.

Not one major Auden scholar has noticed that the opening sonnet of ‘The Quest’ is, among other things, a reflection on the sonnet form.[1] ‘The Door’ is indeed Kafkaesque, just as it clearly draws on Alice’s barrier to the wonderland, but it is also symbolic of the sonnet. Out of it step ‘Enigmas, executioners, and rules’:[2] the sonnet was twinned at birth with the enigma of the Golden Mean and Fibonacci numerology;[3] one of its most pioneering English exponents, Henry Howard, was wrongly executed for treason by Henry VIII; and it is one of the most rule-bound poetic forms in existence. Likewise, ‘Great persons eye it in the twilight for/ A past it might so carelessly let in’ (p. 99). The sonnet’s history is so deeply inscribed into its form that the poets (‘Great persons’) who choose to wield it cannot subject it to their individual whims; there will always exist a superabundant residue of their predecessors. And this temporal obsession of the octave then gives way to a spatial exploration in the sestet:

We pile our all against it when afraid,

And beat upon its panels when we die:

By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland

That waited for her in the sunshine, and,

Simply by being tiny, made her cry.            (p. 99)

Like a claustrophobe, the less adroit verse practitioner, who finds the narrow confines of the sonnet stifling, panics and consequently ‘piles [his] all against’ the potentially restricting form. The dead, moreover, ‘beat upon its panels’: the sonnet can be used as a prosodic sarcophagus, whose metrical beats become the pulse of the deceased they enshrine. Finally, ‘Enormous Alice’, the human creator, espies in this segmented quatorzain a ‘wonderland’, a space which encloses some mysterious essence of the temporal and spatial nature of human existence. The wonderland is ‘tiny,’ just like the sonnet form, and it remains only partially accessible, there but not there. It is also worth noting that ‘The Door’ is a hybrid of the English and Italian sonnet, fusing rima baciata (rima chiusa) with rima alternata. What this opening poem does, then, is to appropriate a typical feature of the sonnet form – the blason – and use it methodically and metaphorically to catalogue the essential traits of the very form in which it is written.

But if Auden here consciously aligns himself with earlier exponents of the form, then he also wittingly challenges them. In order better to understand this, one must turn to sonnet XIII of ‘In Time of War’. It is located roughly at the centre of the sequence, uniting a broad history of man and his consciousness with a series of more historically specific sonnets upon the Sino-Japanese war. It opens with a translation of Rilke’s ‘Rühmen, das ists!’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, I. vii), and its octaval structure (‘Certainly…But…’) mirrors Rilke’s ‘dennoch preisen’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii).[4] In terms of Auden’s thinking on both the sonnet form and on the dual nature of man during the late 1930s, this sonnet could be said to be its embodiment. The volta appears at line 5, whereas at line 9, where one traditionally expects the turn, there is the following: ‘History opposes its grief to our buoyant song’ (p. 71). In other words, for a balanced rhetorical progression of the ideas articulated in the first quatrain, as a reader expects from a second quatrain of rime baciata, Auden substitutes the transformation which should only appear four lines later; at the opening of the sestet, on the other hand, the site where tradition locates antithesis, he inscribes balance. By manipulating expectations of the sonnet form, the poem enacts at the formal level the idea contained in its matter. The ‘buoyant song’ is this sonnet, propped up by the ‘history’ of the sonnet tradition, and it is necessarily impossible to experience one in isolation of the other. In more complex terms, sonnet XIII captures Auden’s overarching philosophy of healed rift, of simultaneously entertaining mutually contradictory possibilities. If the structure of this particular sonnet is ‘Certainly…But…’, then this could be said of the structure of the sonnet form tout court. It is the poetic form of innate contradiction; it opposes the Positive Way of the octave, where a thesis is logically developed, to the Negative Way of the sestet, in which it is undermined in some way. Indeed, much of ‘The Quest’ is a warning against pursuing either of these paths exclusively: in ‘The Presumptuous’, for example, people pursue the ethics of the octave in perceiving only the monumental, and by ignoring that which raised up the monument in the first place; the ascetic desert fathers of ‘The Adventurers’, on the other hand, ‘went the Negative Way toward the Dry’ (p. 108), they focussed so intensely on the sestet’s antithetical deeps that they became ensnared and forgot the positive purpose which had led them there in the first place. Ultimately, then, unifying contradictory entities seems to be at the heart of ‘The Quest’.

This is the point at which Auden ceases his exploitation of the sonnet form for its philosophical virtues. While the sonnet does indeed uphold at least two antithetical dimensions, traditionally it also ends in resolution. The type of resolution which Auden seeks, however, is not closure, but ‘opening’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1). His archetypal Hero, apart from delighting ‘in details and routine’ (‘The Hero’, p. 108; l. 11), which are hallmarks of the sonnet form, ‘was always glad to[…]/ Pour liquids from large bottles into small,/ Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.’ (ll. 12-14). According to John Fuller, the last two lines represent respectively the objective practice of taxonomy and the subjective nature of points of view; in a verse form which traditionally achieves resolution, Auden suggests that the ‘novelist must transcend both attitudes by absorbing them’, thereby enabling him to ‘reach his strange Christian conclusion beyond the self-destructive scenario of dualism.’[5] Auden has found a way of keeping the door open. The solution is to become Rilke’s Orpheus: ‘Erst in dem Doppelbereich/ werden die Stimmen/ ewig und mild.’[6] One must inhabit the Doppelbereich, the double realm. Like Orpheus, who descended to the land of shades and subsequently returned, man’s conscious foreknowledge of his own death renders him dual.[7] His duality is embodied in the ‘longed-for answer’: ‘but’ (‘The Waters’, p. 109; l. 14). This single word incarnates being and non-being, thesis and antithesis; it denies the illusory finality, ‘the angler’s lie’ (l. 6), with which men attempt to plug the temporal holes of their being. Humans are the ratio-animalistic form of the ‘but’, in opposition to themselves, and in a state of constant becoming. And yet, there is a certain way of living, that of Auden’s Double Man, and within Rilke’s double realm, which overcomes these fissures to enable the attainment of the wonderland.

The octave of the final sonnet of ‘The Quest’ opens thus: ‘Within these gates all opening begins’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1); while the sestet commences ‘All journeys die here’ (l. 9). The restrictive sonnet form pens in the poet, just as it simultaneously releases her. Likewise, it is here that the inherent ‘journey’ of human beings – their ineluctable state of becoming – must die. Don Paterson succinctly summarises Rilke’s similar conclusions when he says that for a human to sing is to unite ‘the time-based events of our words by recalling them back into the presence of one another through the repetition of their sounds.’[8] The exacting rhyme schemes of the sonnet, then, defy time’s passing; they create the sense of the infinite within the finite: they are paradise regained. It is for this that Rilke wrote:

Wir, gerecht nur, wo wir dennoch preisen,
weil wir, ach, der Ast sind und das Eisen
und das Süße reifender Gefahr.[9]

To ‘praise nevertheless’ is to re-enter into that ‘perfect circle time can draw on stone’ (‘The Garden’, l. 6). It heals the wound of becoming and transmutes into pure being. And in the final line, the very point at which a sonnet should resolve itself, one reads the following: the gaunt and great ‘felt their centre of volition shifted.’ Finality is not here, it is elsewhere; the sonnet form can simulate this realm inaccessible to man, one devoid of nullity, but man’s only means of approaching it is through a will which is not his own. The good sonneteer, like the good human, Auden seems to suggest, is she who is neither active nor passive, but who simply tries to hold in equilibrium all subjective and objective entities. The crux is never herself, but she becomes akin to one by praising nevertheless.

In short, Auden made a quite deliberate decision to align his work with previous exponents of the sonnet form. He made the sonnet articulate itself by employing certain of its attributes to express others. And in exploiting its dialectical nature he tried, ultimately, to redeem it. If the sonnet tradition dictates the necessity of resolution and closure, Auden, like his forebear Rilke, turned this resolution on its head: in order fully to purge the sonnet, and oneself, of the agonizing temporal nullity of becoming, one must first become the glorifying void in which all things are held in eternal balance.


[1] By ‘major Auden scholar’ I mean, among others: Edward Mendelson, John Fuller, Anthony Hecht, Rainer Emig, and Arthur Kirsch. For their respective principal works, please see the Bibliography.

[2] W. H. Auden, ‘The Door’, in Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 99. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[3] Phillis Levin, ed., The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. xlii-xliii.

[4] John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 237. Edward Mendelson makes the same observation in his Early Auden, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 351. For all further discussion of Rilke in the original German, however, I am indebted to the aid of Julia Kröger, who provided me with word by word translations (into French) of selected passages, enabling me to perceive crucial links between the ‘Santa Claus of loneliness’ (‘New Year Letter’) and his English counterpart. Rilke’s sonnets can be accessed here: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/rilke/orpheus/orph.htm.

[5] John Fuller, Commentary, pp. 342-343. Whilst here it is specifically novelists of whom Auden is speaking, the idea applies to all writers in general: ‘Most writers, except the supreme masters who transcend all systems of classification are either Alices or Mabels.’ W. H. Auden, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 30.

[6] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, I, ix. Don Paterson, in Orpheus (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 11, renders these lines ‘Only in the double realm/ is the voice both infinite/ and assuaged.’

[7] Paterson says as much in his afterword, ibid., p. 68.

[8] Paterson, p. 69.

[9] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii. Paterson has: ‘Only when singing are we just and true -/ for then we are at once the axe, the bough/ and the sweet and ripening danger in between.’ Paterson, p. 53.