- Alcaics In Exile: W. H. Auden’s “In Memory Of Sigmund Freud”
On September 23, 1939, Sigmund Freud died in exile in London, a refugee from Nazi Austria. Within a month, Auden, who had been living in the United States since January of that year, wrote a friend in England that he was working on an elegy for Freud. 1 The poem appeared in The Kenyon Review early in 1940. A stately public ode, the poem mourns not only the death of a publicly significant individual, but the collapse of a world. Hitler had overrun Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland; assaults on Jews had intensified; England and France had just declared war on Germany. There would be, indeed, many who would have to be mourned:
When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,
of whom shall we speak?. . .
Someone encountering this poem for the first time, on the page or in the ear, might be pardoned for puzzling over its form. It sounds prosy. It seems to have some recognizable English cadences, pentameters (“[inline-graphic 01]”), tetrameters (“ ”), and even trimeters (“ ”). But the pattern seems unruly, with some [End Page 111] lines stretching out beyond five traditional beats, and ignoring any iambic order: “turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he.” Groping for a more satisfactory principle of organization, a reader with some knowledge of versification may be moved to count syllables. Such a reader will discover that the poem is indeed organized syllabically in lines of 11, 11, 9, and 10 syllables. “Aha,” says the reader, alert to Auden’s intimacy with Classical civilization: “A Horatian ode. Not inappropriate for a formal elegy.” Reflecting further, and leafing through the pages of Horace, that reader will find, or remember, that two thirds of Horace’s odes are in these quatrains, the alcaic stanza. Auden, it appears, has composed his elegy in some version of the meter of Alcaeus, the 7th century b.c.e. Greek poet whose stanza became second nature to Horace. And we cannot enter the world of Auden’s poem without asking, why alcaics? And how do they work here?
“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is sometimes said to be Auden’s first syllabic poem. 2 Others demur, proposing both earlier and later examples. 3 Whatever the spats about dating Auden’s early syllabic practice, scholars conventionally agree that his turn toward syllabic composition reflects his evolving interest in a discursive poetry; in the poet as a private intelligence with a public voice; and in the work, respectively, of Horace and Marianne Moore. Having identified the poem as syllabic, many critics move on to heftier topics like psychoanalysis versus Marxism, Auden more than most poets having laid himself open to an overridingly thematic criticism of Big Ideas. But if, having acknowledged the influence of Horace and Moore in Auden’s refusal of English iambic lyricism here, we stay with the question of meter, we are led back to the older progenitor, Alcaeus, a great poet of exile, whose stanza Auden adopts and adapts. I shall ask how it affects our reading to observe that the stanza itself has a genealogy, and brings its expressive burden to bear on Auden’s poem.
“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” relies on a counterpoint of two metrical systems, the largely iambic accentual/syllabic system, traditional in English since Wyatt, and a flattened version of Greek quantitative meter, which was a musical notation of syllable length. For Auden, whose great prosodic facility was almost a handicap, the problem was, “not how to write in iambics but how not to write in them from automatic habit.” 4 Throughout his poetic life, he reached for cadences to interrupt the “natural” iambics, sometimes recalling the Old English alliterative beat, and often turning to ballads and popular tunes for rhythmical variation. By the late thirties, he was not only disillusioned [End Page 112] with the Spanish Civil War and his role as quasi-Socialist bard, but was seeking new compositional principles as well. Free verse was not an alternative: his ear required an evident...