“Look, stranger, on this island now,” commands Auden in the opening line of “On This Island.” The landscapes of Auden’s early poetry are landscapes of repression, as enclosed and solitary as his island. Like T. S. Eliot, he lionized detachment and austerity in poetry, taking Eliot’s description of poetic talent to heart: “What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is Auden’s focus on space, not self, that gives his poetry form, a map of boundaries and borders, populated by figures that appear as an extension of the landscape. Stephen Spender observed this, and wrote in his journal, “I do not think of him having ordinary feelings and [what] I felt about his early poetry is the lack of any ‘I’ at the centre of it.”
Even the central figures in the poems are unnamed, lacking an identity to anchor them to space. Instead, the strongest emphasis is on this portrayal of space, the psychic-geographical location; as Christopher Isherwood quotes Auden as saying, “the only exciting things are volumes and shapes…poetry’s got to be made up of images of form.” The American poet Elizabeth Bishop explored similar themes within her own work, encapsulated in the alienated figure of “The Man-Moth,” through which a surreal view of New York City is presented. He “returns / to the pale subways of cement he calls his home,” his loneliness shadowed against the routine of daily existence. Like Bishop, Auden has a strong dichotomy of home and stranger in his early poetry; figures are lost, or betrayed, or forced to roam in wild, unknown lands with a yearning for home, or else they are stranded in the domestic, unable to change their setting. However, there is a sense of transition in this poetry. Auden’s figures are free to roam the geographies of his poems, seeking the release of crossing the threshold. In “Questions of Travel,” Bishop asks, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” This questioning of where to be is reflected in the explorations of Auden’s characters. The poems discussed in this essay begin in 1927, away from home in isolation, and end in 1937, rooted in the domestic and struggling with issues of love, much like Auden’s own struggle to accept his sexuality.
“The Secret Agent” is an unrhymed sonnet, veering between desire in form, and repression. The reader is introduced to an indeterminate subject, an unnamed he, who is “seduced by the old tricks,” and ultimately betrayed, leaving him in intense isolation away from home when “[t]hey ignored his wires.” Auden maintains the form of the Petrarchan sonnet by including the volta between the octet and sestet, triggered by a change in location. A sense of space is therefore crucial in continuing the air of remoteness that exists within the Petrarchan form between the speaker and object of the poem. Indeed, Auden uses a translation of the Old English poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” for his final line of “[p]arting easily two that were never joined,” referencing unconsummated love. However, despite Mendelson’s comment that “the guarded border between Auden and any real satisfaction is too strong to be breached by sex,” the isolation is not merely sexual but spatial: “The nameless, faceless figures who inhabit these poems are too far off to be recognised, too isolated for speech.… Should they try and make their way back to community and purpose, they find their roads almost vanished, the rails blocked, and the bridges out.”
The secret agent is lost in the lines of the poem, until he is “[w]oken by water / Running away in the dark,” and even the landscape evades him, signaling “the moment when his entrapment and separation will be complete.” This theme of running water continues through “The Watershed.” This time, an unnamed stranger wanders through a decaying mining landscape, but is frustrated by the way “[t]his land, cut off, will not communicate.” Like the reader, he is a stranger to the space of the poem and so may roam freely inside the borders, but impact nothing. Gaston Bachelard claims that deep water is an “anthropo-cosmic fear that echoes the great legend of man cast back into primitive situations,” and so faced with the isolation of “flooded workings,” the stranger retreats to known, domestic borders. However, even though the stranger’s headlights invade bedroom walls, he “wakes no sleeper,” remaining fixed in his space.
Bishop’s questioning of whether a person should stay at home and think of here, or change location is seen very clearly in the internal struggle of “The Wanderer.” The figure is tied to mobility, flitting between his boundaries of the domestic and the wild, where “[d]oom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle,” and constantly dreaming of home. As with the translation in “The Secret Agent,” Auden transforms the Old English “The Wanderer” into the history of the poem. According to Bachelard, “the house shelters daydreaming,” and daydreaming is the essential nature of poetry. However, the memory is unable to record duration, and so Auden’s poetry moves through space, not time, unlike Bishop’s focus on today. The wanderer is impelled by this unreachable history to roam, to be isolated as a “stranger to strangers,” and within the secretive land which holds him, he dreams of home. This dream is echoed in the image of the sea as “houses for fishes.” Auden claims, “I loathe the sea,” because of its formlessness, but by imposing a miniature domestic space onto it, its formless space is bordered, marked clearly by inside and outside.
This sense of proportion is central to Auden’s ordered domestic spaces. In “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the absurdist, idealistic declarations of the lovers are countered by the clocks, who invite them to “[s]tare, stare in the basin / And wonder what you’ve missed,” suggesting that love is a false consciousness that distracts from the passing of time, which cannot be conquered, even by love. This is enforced by the strict rhyme scheme, but the clocks are also a human invention, and so are tied to the cultural/social construct of time. This is shown in the equally absurdist miniature domestic description:
the glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
The poem is again narrated by an unnamed character, whose observational stanzas bookend the clocks’ speech. Mendelson argues that “the subject of Auden’s love lyrics is the double subject of sexual success and emotional failure.” In the figures of the lovers, Auden shows sexual success, but the central figure of the poem listens without comment as the clocks claim that “you shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart,” their non-idealized view of love very different from that of the lovers. Despite this, the central figure is still isolated at the end of the poem, left by the lovers and the clocks, with only the river running on, marking continuous time beyond human conventions and the impassable border of the poem, much like the river in “The Secret Agent.”
In addition to marking borders, the river also awakens the agent to the primal need for companionship in the dark: “…he often had / Reproached the night for a companion / Dreamed of already.” Despite dreaming of contact, the figure remains isolated; he knows that the parting will be easy because of the impossibility of unity. Richard Johnson claims that in Auden’s poetry, “the uniqueness of each person, and his capacity for loving, are based, at least in part, on his internal landscape.”
The barren desert of the agent’s imprisonment, with the water running away, suggests the same sterility as the figure’s resignation to solitude and death. Similarly, in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the central character’s inner landscape is reflected in the outer landscape of the poem. The clocks command, “‘Oh stand, stand at the window / As the tears scald and start,’” directing the characters through the spaces of the poem, and pointing them towards “the world that waits beyond the enclosing walls of the self.” However, if like in “The Wanderer” the house protects the dreaming that is poetry, here the perceived mobility ends at the window and presents a border to be breached. Mendelson argues that Auden never approved of his sexuality, but instead found ways to acknowledge it, claiming that “it was not his sexuality that mattered, but his isolation. And if the one could not be changed, the other could.”
Auden’s sexual isolation reveals a striving to traverse across a boundary. Although Herbert Greenberg claims that for Auden, “islands represent isolation and withdrawal because they are detached from the mainland,” “On This Island” shows a yearning toward contact made manifest through movement. The noise of the ocean penetrates the stranger, meandering through the chambers of his ear as the stranger wanders through the landscape of the island: “that through the channels of the ear / May wander like a river / The swaying sound of the sea.” This haunting of the stranger’s inner landscape by sound is echoed in the way the view enters the stranger’s memory in the final stanza: “And this full view / Indeed may enter / And move in memory as these clouds do.…”
Although the central figure is still isolated and unnamed, like the characters who populate Auden’s earlier poetry, there is a fuller exploration of the thresholds of the poem, revealing a possibility of reaching and crossing edges like the mingling of physical and psychic space. However, this poem still maintains Auden’s typical austerity and restraint in the hesitancy of may. The character allows himself to be haunted by the space of the poem, in the same way that he haunts the island; this notion of haunting reoccurs throughout Auden’s early poetry as a way of reconciling a need for contact with isolation.
When “[d]oom…dark and deeper than any sea-dingle” propels the man to leave his home for the isolation of the wilderness, an “unquiet bird” haunts the landscape, emphasizing his loneliness through the impossibility of communication. Bachelard asks, “Where is the root of silence?…It is deep,” and like in any space, echoes can be heard in the landscapes of Auden’s poetry. These echoes reveal a depth to the geographies that are closed in, while sound as hauntings lead the isolated characters to their thresholds. In contrast, Mendelson views the central subject of Auden’s early poetry as “their own failure to be part of any larger interpretive frame. Their metaphors refer to their own state of division and estrangement.”
However, while the geographical space of Auden’s poetry is insular, and the characters’ mobility is unable to affect their situation and surroundings, the fact that there is movement through space suggests a yearning for change. Even Auden’s use of language creates rooms and spaces for the figures to move through, and by “multiplying hyphens, this syntax obtains words that are sentences in themselves, in which the outside features blend with the inside.” This is evident in “On This Island.” The stranger is directed to look as, “the shingle scrambles after the suck- / -ing surf.…” Here, the enjambment not only evokes the rhythm of the waves, but the split hyphen forces the stranger’s view to the eventual sight of the boat. This directional syntax is used much more aggressively in “The Wanderer.” In the first stanza, the comparison of doom to a “sea-dingle” already creates a gully for the figure to wander into, and this half-indoors, half-outdoors pathway is further hemmed in by the amalgamation of hyphenated words. Indeed, it is not until he acknowledges that he has become lost, seeing “[b]irdflocks nameless to him,” that he is propelled to a doorway, hearing “through doorway voices / Of new men making another love.” Here, the figure realizes the possibility of human contact after the exclusion of unknown lands, directed through the architecture of language.
Auden’s preoccupation with created space began long before his early poetry, in childhood, when he “imagined himself an architect and engineer, the maker of a fictional landscape.” However, these spaces provide the ideal metaphor for exploring isolation and entrapment stemming from his views on his sexuality. In his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden announces that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and this view is summed up in the insular nature of Auden’s early landscapes. The lonely, nameless figures that populate the poems can change nothing, but instead roam the self-contained geographies which reflect their own internal psychic spaces. Like Bishop’s quote, Auden’s poetry begins far from home and struggles toward a comforting, familiar place. However, in contrast to the poised indecision of Bishop’s unresolved questions of location, these characters wander ever closer to the boundaries of the poems, threatening eventually to cross the thresholds.
Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Man-Moth.” The Complete Poems 1927–1979. New York: FSG, 1983, p.14.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Questions of Travel” The Complete Poems 1927–1979. New York: FSG, 1983, p.93.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Whitefish: Kissinger Publishing, 1920, pp.39-50.
Greenberg, Herbert. Quest for the Necessary: W.H. Auden and the Dilemma of Divided Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Isherwood, Christopher. “Lions and Shadows.” In Critical Essays on W. H. Auden, edited by George W. Bahlke, 194–98. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1991.
Johnson, Richard. “Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden.” In Critical Essays on W.H Auden, edited by George W. Bahlke, 128–45. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1991.
Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
Spender, Stephen. Journals: 1939–1983. Edited by John Goldsmith. New York: Random House, 1986.
 Auden, “On This Island,” l.1.
 Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 47.
 Spender, “Entry for 11th April 1979,” 355.
 Isherwood, “Lions and Shadows,” 196.
 Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 14.
 Bishop, “Questions of Travel,” 14.
 Auden, “The Secret Agent,” l.4.
 Mendelson, Early Auden, 37.
 Auden, “The Secret Agent,” l.10.
 Mendelson, Early Auden, 36.
 Auden, “The Watershed,” l.21.
 Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 23.
 Auden, “The Watershed,” l.8.
 Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.
 Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.
 Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.9.
 Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.39–40.
 Mendelson, Early Auden, 230.
 Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.55–56.
 Auden, “The Watershed,” ll.11–13.
 Johnson, “Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden,” 130.
 Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.53–54.
 Mendelson, Early Auden, 237.
 Greenberg, Quest for the Necessary, 34.
 Auden, “On This Island,” ll.5-7.
 Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.
 Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 180.
 Mendelson, Early Auden, 10.
 Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 213.
 Auden, “On This Island,” ll.12–13.
 Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.
 Mendelson, Early Auden.
 Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” part II, l.5.