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Meva Onyurt

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Robert Frost versus W.H. Auden: Two Poets and the Modern Concept of Diminished Man
by Meva Onyurt   

Last edited: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2003

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This article is mainly a critical interpretaiton of Frost's poem 'Departmental' and Auden's famous poem 'Unknown Citizen'. I found out that these two 20th century poets' awareness of the diminished and worsened values of a new generation is given to the reader following two different routes. One the Frost way the other Auden. Discover the variety among poets and take a ride. But first read the poems;)



‘Diminished Man’

In this brief essay I will try to analyze the two poems I chose from two of the most imminent poets of twentieth century. America’s one of the most acclaimed poets, Robert Frost and equally influential poetic voice of W.H Auden intermingle in their two poems: “Departmental” and “Unknown Citizen” respectively. These two poems are similar in many ways especially in the subject matter they cover which is ‘diminished man of the modern world’. Both Frost and Auden had woven their poems with a kind of social sensibility and satire. In each poem we see the ‘diminishment of the idea of man’ which was a wise statement describing the milieu of the first half of the twentieth century by another American poet, Archibald MacLeish in his critical essay The Revolt of The Diminished Man. “ The arts with us became aware of a flatness in human life, a loss of depth as though a dimension had somehow dropped from the world- as though our human shadows have deserted us” ( MacLeish 21)
This loss of our own shadows, our transforming into robots and living in a highly flat world is what Auden critisized in his “Unknown Citizen”. The existing but at the same time non-existing human being, namely ‘the citizen’ Auden portrays us, is a kind of mockery of his kind. When a reader look at the poem, the very first things s/he encounters are the irregular rhyme scheme and non-metrical assembly of the long sentences. The poet tells us many things about the life of his ironic and stereotypical ‘citizen’. Even before reading you can feel the statistic-like structure of the poem which launches the main purpose of the poet quite wittingly. Line by line Auden gives us all the knowable and calculable information about him-the mediocre citizen of the modern state. You can feel the ‘grim humor’ of Auden at work when the poem slowly turns into a sharp but not didactic social satire. We cannot exactly figure out what Auden feels as it is an impersonal voice that is speaking to us; is he ashamed or enraged by this state of modern man? But we can clearly point out that he is not indifferent to the loss of our human soul in a society where everything is calculated and estimated with your obediency to the rules and non-exceptional identity. You are inevitably moulded into forms which are determined by the state. So, you are like a commodity or easy-money; productive, reproductive, obedient, and national. This way of creating ‘subjects’ out of human beings is what is critisized in “The Unknown Citizen” by the accessible plainness of Auden’s language. Actually, this idea of an inoffensive civil servant draws back its origin to a century earlier in the heart of St.Petersburg, where Nicolai V. Gogol wrote the very first cornerstone of Russian realism, “The Overcoat”.
As George W.Morgan states the position in his The Human Predicament: “ The sheer weight of accumulated but uncontrolled knowledge and information, of print, views, discoveries, and interpretations, of methods and techniques, inflicts a paralyzing sense of impotence” (MacLeish 23) This anasthetic effect of the modern age finds echo in W.H. Auden’s poem. Even right after the title in the paranthesis, he writes “( To JS/07 M 378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)”. As you see, the machinery of the state that tends to create subjects of its own, transforms the soul and flesh into a marble monument. In conclusion, the open remarks of Auden on bureaucracy, on state and on institutionalizing effects of the modern age establishes a direct social criticism as well as a realistic account of what is going on.
When we shift our focus to Robert Frost’s poem the “Departmental”, we at once find ourselves following another route, but leading to a similar conclusion with “The Unknown Citizen”. Robert Frost was actually seen as the ‘inheritor of poetry of wit from the English poets Auden and Hardy’ by the critics(Miles 226).
In this poem the metaphorical Frost comes to the foreground and makes his point through the use of the natural world of ants. He uses such interesting vocabulary like; Janizary, dormant, Formic, commissary, sepal, ichor that he gives you the feeling that you are one of the ants in the hive. “Departmental” is a fable with strict rhyme scheme. In fact, when it is read it is like a children’s riddle with the short and neat sentences following each other. Then, when we plunge into the realm of ants we see a highly structured and categorized society. Frost parallels the modern world of men with the antian realm. The symbolic language calls us to decipher it. When an ant runs into another type of insect even if it is death, he would not care the least for it. On the other hand, when he encounters a dead ant, he will pass a word to other ants with his antennae because this is his duty. Then appears the Janizary, the Queen, and finally the mortician who all obey the rules and bury the ‘selfless forager’ Jerry. The only ceremony is the fulfilling of duty respectively by them who has something to do in this job of burying Jerry.
To sum up, the narrated incident in ‘Departmental’ places a mirror for the human situation. As a critic remarked before, Frost focuses on a ‘world of little things’ but creates an ‘epic ambition’ by his social sensibility and intellectual point ( Longenbach 104). Frost seems to tell us the tragic end of Jerry and the sad indifference of his people, but he implicitly satirize the society and institutinalizing state which kills the tender part of humanity to create more practical society.
When I brought forward Auden and Frost in the same context, I was aware that they had in fact very different styles and manners when they are dealing even with the same subject matter. Still, you can see the satire on the modern man in both of the poems. They use irony and hidden meaning in their poems. On the other hand, their comparison and contrast is possible in many ways starting from the structure and form. Firstly, in Auden’s poem there is never oversimplification or didactic teaching of a principle, but he makes us aware of the status quo and he ‘directs his criticism to smuggness and complacency’ of a citizen (Brooks 127). Auden’s direct objectivity turns into symbolic representation in Frost. Frost creates a new world by his metaphors and hids his purpose behind the fable. He wants us to find out for our own what part of social reality he is contemplating on. To this purpose, he uses a form that can be read easily. The departmental lives of ants and the departmental lives of modern men. In conclusion, we can say that the bitter criticism of Unknown Citizen in Auden changes to a more gentle and comical presentation in Robert Frost.










Works Cited
MacLeish, Archibald; Riders on the Earth, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978
Miles, Josephine; Eras,& Modes In English Poetry, University of California Press, Los Angeles 1964
Longenbach, James.The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Ed. by Micheal Levenson, Cambridge University Press, 1999
Brooks, Cleanth; Moderrn English Poetry and The Tradition, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1939



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