Social and Political Background

The most obvious political backdrop to Auden’s life and poetry was World War I (1914-1918) which had devastating effects both socially and economically - it should be noted that Auden blamed his 'deviant' sexuality on the absence of his father during the war years. Economically Germany’s reparations had ruined England and indeed other country’s economies; for example there was no market for British coal because Germany had been forced into giving her coal and other resources away. Hence an economic decline occurred in the twenties which the industrial regions of Britain suffered from severely. It should be noted, however, that the upper classes and the Home Counties bourgeoisie were less affected. This effect of the war can be see in poems such as "Who stands, the crux left of the watershed". The final economic blow was dealt at the end of 1929 with the Wall Street Crash. At this point it seemed that capitalism was in its final state of collapse.

Emotionally Auden’s poetry can be likened to that of contemporaries such as Wilfred Owen in its summing up the bitter disillusionment with the lies of war, patriotism and imperialism. He seemed highly aware of how poetry could be used as a medium for warning the public. Unlike poets such as R G Sheriff and T S Eliot, Auden was able to write about his experiences as they happened. Sheriff’s Journey’s End, a play about life in the trenches, and Eliot's The Wasteland, a pessimistic view of the world post WWI were both written after the poets had suffered the events. The war also resulted in political extremism in the form of Fascism emerging in Europe and also in Britain.

The Thirties were labeled "the Marxist decade" by FR Leavis in his Retrospect of a Decadeand as "a low dishonest decade" by Auden himself in September 1st 1939, David Gascoyne called them the "grim Thirties" and Eugene Lyons referred to them as "the Red Decade". Certainly Communism was rife - the Communist Party reached a peak in membership of 18,000 in 1939 but was reduced to 9,000 in 1940 with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact. However, it should be noted that Auden and other poets such as MacNeice, Isherwood, Orwell and Dylan Thomas never signed up to Communism. Christianity was a popular alternative: Greene had been a member of the Communist party in the twenties and then left and turned to Catholicism. T S Lewis became Anglicans in the twenties and Waugh a Roman Catholic in 1930. The United Front was set up by intellectuals to rally against Fascism. It was a patchwork of views, not all Red, or even pink. Many writers gave a fashionable nod to Marxism without truly being converted to its ideology, hence much of the irony and burlesque that emerges in so much of the thirties writing as illustrated by Auden’s mocking voice in the later stanzas of Consider This.

Throughout the thirties there was a major sense of crisis, even as early as 20th October 1936 The Daily Worker had the headline that "The Crisis Hour is Here" and in 1929 Caudwell had written ‘the final economic crisis of capitalism.’ In England there was some economic improvement in new industries in towns like Coventry, Cowley, Dagenham and Slough, nonetheless in the North and Wales there was still a great deal of suffering as illustrated in poems such as Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

Many writers found a forceful analogy between their illicit homosexual lifestyle, an illegal, hidden lifestyle with images of trench warfare and mining. Again note Auden’s conviction that an absentee father was the root of his homosexuality. There was a sense of middle class young men espousing left-wing views and thus a crossover between schools of though was formed. This might explain the predominance of travel imagery (metaphorical and literal journey) in a journey to socialism and Moscow or Christ in the Church. Many of the writers literally exiled themselves for example in Spain (became de rigueur after the Spanish War) and therefore escaped family, schooling, class etc - Auden took US citizenship. The ideas of Freud were also widely influential (his thoughts on dreams and the subconscious) and young thirties writers experimented with surreal poetry (often Marxism and Freud were fused) as proven by David Gascoyne’s The Very Image.

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