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date: 06 July 2022

Abstract and Keywords

This essay explores the work and influence of poets who came to prominence in the 1930s, especially W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, and also Stephen Spender. All were poets who produced major work both during and after the 1930s, the ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden called it in ‘September 1, 1939’, with which they are most immediately associated. Auden and MacNeice, in particular, exercise influence in apparent and surprising ways, the former as formal mentor and ideological guide, the latter as exuberant yet melancholy lyricist of the urban and individual. MacNeice praises the particular; Auden looks for the general law that underpins a detail. For Auden, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, where the phrasing calculates its double suggestions to a nicety: poetry is not a causal agent; poetry does have the capacity to give a local habitation and a name to the ‘nothing’ of imagination, and is, as the same poem (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’) goes on to remark, ‘A way of happening’. For MacNeice, in his most representative poem ‘Snow’, ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, | Incorrigibly plural’. Spender, for his part, occupies a place on the poetic spectrum that is very much his own, remarkable for his conviction that, in an age of political extremes, fidelity to subjective experience has a unique value. The essay is organized into two main sections, focusing, in turn, on Auden and then, more briefly, on MacNeice and, much more briefly still, on Spender as poets in their own right and as shapers of the work of others. Throughout, influence is understood to cover a wide range of phenomena: from direct imitation to fostering a climate favourable to the production of particular kinds of poetry.

Keywords: Auden, MacNeice, Spender, thirties, Heaney, Mahon, Muldoon, Motion, Fenton, echo, allusion, bequest, influence, self, choice, reflections, dialectic, history, form

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