W. H. Auden, On the Hero in Modern Poetry: October 11, 1954

The Poetry Center presents W. H. Auden, delivering a lecture titled "On the Hero in Modern Poetry" before an audience at the newly opened San Francisco State College campus at its present Lake Merced location. Auden introduces his theme, and indicates what he considers the start of the period of modern artists, i.e., those (noting Yeats, Eliot, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Schoenberg) born in the later decades of the 19th century, "before 1890," whose work began before World War I. He indicates what he means by "modern" (a period in his view still continuing) and by "the hero" (as the figure who is celebrated). He then reads and addresses variously W. B. Yeats' poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion," Robert Frost's "The Most of It," a passage from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" ("We shall not cease from exploration...."), and D. H. Lawrence's "Baby Tortoise." The common "hero" of all these poets, he notes, in contrast to other world periods, is not a worldly success. He cites Yeats' poem "A Model for the Laureate" ("The Muse is mute when public men / Applaud a modern throne..."), Lawrence's "Worm Either Way," and William Empson's "Homage to the British Museum." He notes the ascendancy, at the end of World War I, of the unknown hero, "an individual about whose history nothing whatever is known, except that he gave his life," that this is the only kind of hero possible "in a technological civilization," and that "art cannot touch it." Note: the swift fade-out is as per the original recording.

Background on this program: Ruth Witt-Diamant, as Professor of English, persuaded SF State President J. Paul Leonard (who Auden thanks at the start of his talk) to invite W. H. Auden to speak at the dedication ceremony for the new Lake Merced Campus. San Francisco State College paid Auden a $200 honorarium, and he gave half of it to Witt-Diamant as seed money to contribute to the fledgling Poetry Center. (Source: Franciscan Yearbook, 1962). The first Poetry Center reading had taken place early that same year, presenting Theodore Roethke: February 25, 1954

Photo: W. H. Auden, San Francisco, October 1954, by Ruth Witt-Diamant.

American Poetry Archives
San Francisco State College
Event Run Time

©© American Poetry Archives. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. For all other uses please email poetry@sfsu.edu.


Related Items