Academic journal article Style

Moral Affects through "Wind" and "Bone": Reading W.H. Auden's "Refugee Blues"

Academic journal article Style

Moral Affects through "Wind" and "Bone": Reading W.H. Auden's "Refugee Blues"

Article excerpt

Dubbed as "a low dishonest decade" by W. H. Auden ("September l, 1939," Another Time 112), the 1930s was the period when Europe and Asia drifted into aggressive fascism, which was considered as one of the severest ethical disasters in human history. In Europe, Italian fascist leader Mussolini assumed power in 1922, and Hider followed and surpassed him in the following decade. In Asia, Japan started minor military incursions into China on 18 September 1931, and began an all-out invasion on 7 July 1937. Suffering, horror and death became the common human lot of the 1930s, posing huge threats to human civilization. In particular, to remove the Jews from Germany, and eventually from Europe, was a principle objective of Nazis based on their ideology of anti-Semitism. From 1935 till the outbreak of WWII, a series of discriminatory measures and policies against Jews had been adopted by Nazi Germany. Being deprived of various kinds of rights and almost all ways to make a living in Germany and its occupied areas, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to emigrate to seek asylum (Stevenson 199-200; Crowe 23). (1) Deplorably, anti-Semitism also existed outside the areas of Nazi influence (Stevenson 15); in many democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the German Jews were regarded as "undesirable immigrants," and "there is evidence of explicit anti-Semitism in the reluctance of many countries to admit more Jews" (Rubinstein et al. 216), (2) which obviously added to the woes of the Jewish refugees.

Auden's famous lyric "Refugee Blues" was composed around March 1939, the month when tens of thousands of Jewish emigrants, though having managed to escape from their European homeland, were suffering differently and considerably in the new lands. The poem's subject matter was exactly the plight of the Jewish refugees arriving at a new country; biographically, its setting--"this city" with "ten million souls" might be the city of New York. (3) Himself a perplexed self-exiled man in an alien landscape, naturally, Auden was rather sympathetic and empathie with the refugees. Considering Auden's religious family background, as well as his sexual orientation, as Beth Ellen Roberts pointed out, "the poem is more of a lesson to Christians about loving one's neighbor than an apologia for Judaism," despite the fact that both Jews and queers are "geographically mobile." "This was a condition that characterized the European Jewish refugees Auden met in New York and that Auden not only experienced himself, but lauded as an ideal" (89).

WHAT THE POEM IS

Granted, biographical information (as is employed by some critics of the poem) sheds much light on the poem's theme as well as on the poet's intention, yet it is far from sufficient for any substantial interpretation and criticism. On the other hand, mere statements of the poem's paraphrasable content or the reader's response(s) may not be strictly literary, and the latter would even be suspected of an "affective fallacy." To better elaborate the theme and affective power of "Refugee Blues" as verbal art, I will shift my interpretive focus of the poem to its language and style.

Among all literary genres, lyric poetry is considered as the most suitable form of recording and communicating affects (or emotions). (4) And in particular, moral affects conveyed in a lyrical poem, motivated by the poet's moral consciousness, should be the most sublime one among various kinds of lyrical affects. Readers of Auden's "Refugee Blues" were likely aware of the origin of the blues in black southern American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Ryan 2015). "Refugee Blues" as well as his other poems of similar subject matter written in the same period (such as the sonnets from China), are sure to be influenced by his well-versed rhetoric intertwined with moral affects and characterized by his skillful interplay of sense and style. I would argue that the Auden "blues," as a prime example of his earlier "engage" verse, manifests what the Chinese ancient stylistician Hsieh Liu calls the "force of wind and bone [phrase omitted] ("Wen-hsin tiao-lung" 227)--a literary vigor out of the balance between affects and rhetoric, ideas and words. …

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