W. H. Auden and the Meaning of Lyric Poetry
My thesis proceeds from recent critical discussion about the status of the aesthetic object after the decline of high theory of the 1980s and 1990s. The term “singularity”, articulated by critics working with the ideas of Martin Heidegger, has been variously applied to the artwork in the attempt to describe the generative power of art as separable from any historical or political determinants that may shape it. What makes the experience of art “singular”, that is, an experience governed by the artwork itself, without the scaffolding of theory or context? Such a question, I argue, actually demands a return to the first principles of close textual criticism, along with a rigorous approach to genre. The lyric poetry of W. H. Auden provides the ideal material for “singular” criticism. Unpacking the term lyric and redefining it according to Auden’s particular poetics, I consider how Auden inaugurated a new manner of experiencing modern poetry based on the notion, implicit to the conventional understanding of lyric, of vocality. After an account of Heidegger’s influence on contemporary ideas on aesthetics, I consult the work of Theodor Adorno, and later Hannah Arendt, in order to situate Auden’s early work in a European context, opposing the Atlanticism which has governed the vast majority of Auden criticism. Working to restore the power of the first encounter with the poem to historically and philosophically nuanced textual analysis, I present the key works of Auden’s early corpus in a new light.