Look, Stranger!

by Kenneth Ligda

W.H. Auden’s Look, Stranger! (1936) is an extraordinarily transitional work. The second of Auden’s three 1930s poetry collections, it lacks both the precociously distinctive voice that launched Auden to the forefront of his generation with Poems (1930) and the embarrassment of canonized riches in Another Time (1939). Yet as a major poet’s record of growth in the midst of political crisis, and as a document from the endgame of modernism, it has few rivals.

The poems were composed from 1931 to 1936 (Auden’s 24th to 29th years), during which time Auden taught at boys’ schools, collaborated with his friend Christopher Isherwood on two plays, worked in the new genre of documentary film with John Grierson at the General Post Office Film Unit, and finally committed to earning his living as a writer. He traveled to Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, and Iceland; lived in Scotland, among the Malvern Hills of England, and in London. Though homosexual, he married Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika (to whom Look, Stranger! is dedicated) to save her from Nazi persecution. Politically, he drifted through a flirtation with Communism towards a sort of transnational humanism. Still an agnostic, he experienced a religious epiphany in June of 1933. While distancing himself from the leader-worship associated with D.H. Lawrence and a peculiar Freudianism, he dismayed T.S. Eliot (his main editor at Faber) by failing or refusing to adopt clear “ethical and religious views and convictions.”[1] He cultivated many friendships and several lovers, adding to his social circle the popular scientist Gerald Heard and the young composer Benjamin Britten. Above all, to judge by the poems in this collection, he watched with growing dread the rise of Fascism abroad and the threats of social turmoil at home.

It is no surprise, then, that Auden’s works in this period are low on formal, stylistic, and philosophical cohesion. In one of Look, Stranger!’s poems, Auden explicitly renounces the mindset that made Poems and his 1932 prose-verse book The Orators possible (indeed, he goes on to renounce a worldview that made much of Look, Stranger! itself possible—see Poem XXX, lns. 33-56). He abandoned an epic dream-poem and was, apparently, uncertain of a new direction. The rather haphazard, catch-all arrangement of Look, Stranger!—29 untitled poems in no very discernible order, bracketed by a “Prologue” and an “Epilogue”—bears witness as much to his disorientation as it does to his creative profusion. Auden and Eliot contemplated four different titles before Eliot, missing Auden’s letter from Iceland, picked a fifth (Look, Stranger!), which Auden loathed (“a bloody title….It sounds like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist”) and ordered changed to a sixth (On This Island) for the American edition. The poems themselves are each formally strict, but range between sonnet and sestina, lyric and ballad, song, vers de société, and verse-letter. Though the tone is fairly self-assured, the influences of Yeats and Eliot, among others, make themselves felt. Wilfred Owen, whose characteristic pararhyme appears a number of times in Look, Stranger!, is invoked by name.

Through all this, Auden labors and plays at establishing a new voice, not simply through experimentation but a protracted engagement with the poetic self. The Orators had been, like The Waste Land, an exercise in ventriloquism and anonymity. In Look, Stranger!, the lyric “I” reemerges in a recognizably Romantic form: “Now from my window-sill I watch the night” (X 1); “Here on the cropped grass of the narrow ridge I stand” (XVII 42); “Out on the lawn I lie in bed” (II 1). As a more problematic counterpart, Auden also employs a “we/our” persona to voice the state of England and the tale of the human tribe: “Our hunting fathers told the story” (III 1), “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold” (IX 1). In either case, Auden articulates a locatable subject that is both assertive and vulnerable. This allows for a centering of community and a reciprocal identification of threat. On one side, Auden depicts lovers and friends (though the poems do not have titles, several have dedicatees), national and international publics, the human race as a whole, and the links made possible by love. On the other, there are political dangers like “Hitler and Mussolini” (XXI 33) and the totalitarian population’s “wish to be one” (XV 67); but also a fear of proletarian revolution (“the gathering multitude outside” [II 56]) oddly coupled with hatred of the bourgeois. More broadly, every level of human society— self, lover, friendly coterie, nation, species— is endangered by the human will towards evil and corrupted love. Invoking the World War One dead, Auden remembers that “when hatred promised / An immediate dividend, all of us hated.”

The major figuration of threatened self and community in Look, Stranger! is the island and the flood. At some points, such as a “A Summer Night,” Auden envisions the flood as a frightening but desirable apocalypse, as a class revolution that will sweep away much that is evil but also destroy himself and his friends. At others (e.g., “Paysage Moralisé” [VII]), he reflects on the sins and wretchedness of little communities, of “islands,” and wishes for a different sort of human association (what he here calls rebuilt “cities”). But more often, he is terribly aware that the looming tidal waves will bring no good whatever. Poem after poem ends with an open-eyed, stricken observation of “the dangerous flood / Of history” (XXX 94-95). A book title Auden proposed to Eliot was It’s a Way, the seemingly optimistic words that actually derive from the sobering last words of the last poem:

through years of absolute cold

The planets rush towards Lyra in the lion’s charge. Can
Hate so securely bind? Are They dead here? Yes.
And the wish to wound has the power. And tomorrow
Comes. It’s a world. It’s a way. (XXXI 32-36)

These thoughts are never closer than when in the depth of personal happiness—while lying on the grass in the sun, when with a lover, while celebrating a birthday, in the “private joking in a panelled room” (XXX 53). This constant tension between private contentment and vast public danger makes Look, Stranger! a great compendium of paranoid phrases:

The dogs are barking, the crops are growing,
But nobody knows how the wind is blowing” (XVIII 7-8)

Are you aware what weapon you are loading,
To what that teasing talk is quietly leading?
Out pulses count but do not judge the hour. (XIX 10-12)

O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
…. Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming. (VI 1, 3-4)

Auden explored two major counterforces to disaster. The first, Communism, was a movement Auden guardedly approved of during the early to mid-1930s, though he did not (like his friends Edward Upward, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis) join the Party. Well before publication, Auden had become disillusioned with or lost interest in Communism, and he removed references to it from two of the Look, Stranger! poems (“Brothers, who when the sirens roar” and “The chimneys are smoking, the crocus is out in the border”). The second force, love, was to prove more compelling and durable. On the evening he recorded in “A Summer Night,” Auden had a spiritual revelation he would later describe as a “Vision of Agape”:

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues….[Q]uite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened….For the first time in my life I knew exactly…what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. [2]

The power and meaning of this experience and of love generally (erotic and agapic) obsessed Auden through many subsequent years.

Such thinking lead not only to the love poems of Look, Stranger!, but also toward an emphasis on developing human connections and communities. This involved erotic love, though Auden recognized its faults. It involved friendships, though Auden realized that this had to mean more than “Our kindness to ten persons” (II 60). The greater goal was the creation of a larger public. Auden’s lyrical self (first or third person) allowed the poet to speak for communities. The apostrophic poems (e.g., “Look, stranger, at this island now”) and his contemporaneous work in film and theater allowed the poet speak to communities. But there was also the matter of how the poet spoke, and this was to have major implications for the development, or decline, of modernism.

Auden’s early poems had been, like Eliot’s, evocatively mysterious. The Orators, with its many in-jokes and private references, was a seriously obscure work. And “obscurity,” Auden came more and more to believe, “is a bad fault” “‘obscurity,’” Auden came more and more to believe, “‘is a bad fault’” (qtd. in Carpenter 116). In his article “Psychology and Art To-Day” (1935), he wrote that art should “teach”; in his poem to Isherwood, he praises the novelist’s ability to “Make action urgent and its nature clear” (XXX 86). Look, Stranger! is frequently enigmatic and recognizably the production of a coterie poet, but its movements toward ready comprehensibility are unmistakable. With resonant phrases, recognizable subjects, enunciated ideas, and light verse and popular forms, Auden took private poetry public.

Light verse, in particular, seems a revelation for this volume. Though Auden had dabbled in popular forms since early in his career, the four songs, the doggerel, and the ballad of Look, Stranger!—not to mention the melodious rhymes of two long poems—marked a major expansion of terrain for him. As the volume went to the publishers, Auden discovered in Byron’s rollicking Don Juan “a form that’s large enough to swim in.” The next year he edited a groundbreaking Oxford Anthology of Light Verse, in which he celebrated verse productions that emerge from and for unified communities. Another Time would contain an entire section of “Lighter Poems,” not to mention serious works (“September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “As I Walked out One Evening”) whose clarity and poeticized plain speech have remained popular down to the present.

Look, Stranger! enjoyed a warm critical reception (despite the dissentions of F.R. Leavis and Edmund Wilson), sold through its first British printing of 2,350 copies within six weeks, won Auden a call to Buckingham Palace to receive the King’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and consolidated his place as the poet of his generation. The book has not, however, fared particularly well since the 1930s. Auden himself plucked out only 21 of the 32 poems for preservation (as compared with 44 of 50 from Another Time), dropping most of the longer pieces. Only a few poems—“A Summer Night,” “Our Hunting Fathers,” “O What is that Sound,” “Who’s Who,” “Autumn Song,” “On this Island”—are anything like well-known. It is true that set beside Another Time’s litany of masterpieces, Look, Stranger! appears an awkward achievement. Such awkwardness was, perhaps, inevitable for a young poet determined to develop away from the style for which he was known, without the easier consolations of dogma or philosophy, and under the shadow of chaos and war. It was precisely the urgency of these disasters, and Auden’s willingness to engage the unprecedented dangers they posed to himself, his friends, his culture, and the idea of poetry, that pushed him away from Modernist exclusivity, hero-worship, and unwarranted difficulty. As the epigraph to Erika Mann reads: “Since the external disorder, and extravagant lies, The baroque frontiers, the surrealist police; What can truth treasure, or heart bless, But a narrow strictness?”

  1. ↑ Letter to Herbert Read, quoted in W.H. Auden: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton, 1981. 137.
  2. Forewords and Afterwords. Selected by Edward Mendelson. New York: Random House, 1973.