Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Adolescence" - W H Auden

The previous poems I have considered have all given up their meanings quite easily. Their appeal has been either the way they say something (as with One Art or the multiple meanings of a single complicated metaphor (as with No Second Troy).

WIth this poem I want to examine the idea of poetry as a crossword puzzle, or a detective story. It can force you to grapple for a meaning and, in doing so, stimulate complex thoughts along the way.


By landscape reminded once of his mother's figure
The mountain heights he remembers get bigger and bigger:
With the finest of mapping pens he fondly traces
All the family names on the familiar places.

Among green pastures straying he walks by still waters; 5
Surely a swan he seems to earth's unwise daughters,
Bending a beautiful head, worshipping not lying,
'Dear' the dear beak in the dear concha crying.

Under the trees the summer bands were playing;
'Dear boy, be brave as these roots', he heard them saying: 10
Carries the good news gladly to a world in danger,
Is really to argue, he smiles, with any stranger.

And yet this prophet, homing the day is ended,
Receives odd welcome from the country he so defended:
The band roars "Coward, Coward', in his human fever. 15
The giantess shuffles nearer, cries 'Deceiver'.


The striking thing about this poem is that a meaning doesn't emerge on a first, or even a second or third, reading. A process of logical analysis is needed to extract anything. Some will find that annoying. Others will find it stimulating. Let's go through that analysis by considering some of the key images in detail.

It is clear from the first stanza that landscape, family and a sense of place are central to this poem. Landscape Reminds the hero of his mother's figure perhaps both because of its gentle curves but also because he always feels a special affinity for the landscape of his childhood when he is closest to his mother. There is a clear link between family history and particular places. The first verse also brings out the idea of the strong gravitational pull that is exerted by one's place of birth and history. You might expect the hills of his youth to appear smaller as the hero grows up, but in fact they appear taller. Perhaps this is because, when he was young, it never occurred to the hero that they might be climbed: they were just features of the landscape of his youth. It is only as the hero starts to grow up and contemplates the idea of leaving home, that he realizes how tall those mountains really are.

The next stanza introduces us to the hero as an adolescent lover. But he is not a typical adolescent racked with lust. He is described in strongly spiritual terms here. Firstly there is the explicit reference to the Psalms (green pastures, cool waters) that operates to distance the reader from ideas of physical love. Girls who are "unwise" enough to fall in love with him come to view him as being like a "swan": aloof, curiously asexual and more likely to act out the platitudes of love (indicated bythe clumsy repetition of the word "dear" that the hero does not whisper sexily into a girl's ear but rather into her, terribly unsexy "concha", her outer ear). You get the sense that his girlfriends are left disappointed by the absence of physicality.

Our hero's idealism continues in the next stanza. Summer bands are playing but he is not tempted by these charms. Roots of trees exhort him to be as "brave" as them which doesn't appear to be terribly brave given that roots, by definition, stay in one place. Despite the strong gravitational pull of his locale and family, he sets out with almost missionary zeal to spread "good news": another spiritual reference.

Despite his strong individualism, the hero prophet still returns home in the end. There he is dismayed to find that he is not thanked for his efforts. Here perhaps we have an echo of the proverb that no prophet is appreciated in his home country.


What I like about this poem is its economy of expression. It seems to me to be saying lots about individuality and history in a few short sentences. Were the language less opaque, it would not say as much. What the poem
seems to me to be saying is that you can never escape the formative influences in your life, the landscape and "roots" in the imagery of the poem. You may devote significant effort on developing your own persona, and may even think that you are swimming against the tide of your background as our hero does by adopting a spiritual pose, and rejecting the "summer bands" and easy promises of physical love. Yet however much you strive to do this, you will still find yourself drawn home and will look for approval there. If that approval is not forthcoming, that will still hurt even if you think you have cast off the influences of your youth.

So in short, for me, a poem about the difficulty of rebellion and the enduring gravitational pull of childhood influences.


  1. The point for me is that the prophet is gay. The poem charts the nemesis of many a gay prophet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Wilde or Turing - the latter committed suicide, rejected for his homosexuality in spite of having saved his country). This is why the poem is opaque, and why the girls are disappointed. The roots refer to genealogy - the exhortation is to leave progeny, like his roots, which, of course, gay people often don't do. It is perhaps him, and not the World itself, that is meant to be in danger; the band represents the stigmatization of gay people, probably in a military context, (the "human fever" fitting here)and the giantess recuperates the mother and augmenting mountains, as a grotesque female archetype of nationhood in patriarchal society.

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