Sonnets from China XVI
(sometimes titled The Embassy)
Two gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes;
A chauffer waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain;
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.
WH Auden (1907 – 1973), whose full name is Wystan Hugh Auden, has been described as many things, including one of the great (or greatest) poets of the twentieth century, as an English, and as an American poet. He was born and grew up in England, studied English at Oxford, travelled, went to the USA in 1939 and became a US citizen in 1946. Indeed, he was a major mover in modern poetry and modernist verse in the years after TS Eliot’s groundbreaking The Waste Land, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound.
Much about him, his life and work, was controversial as he moved around shifts in political activity, experimented with different styles of poetry and preoccupations. He wrote plays and prose and once said a good poet has also to be a good journalist, but something that seems to have remained, often found throughout his work, is a concern for people – one may say he was a humanist, but this concern seems repeatedly proletarian – for ‘the people,’ for humanity.
Among the things they described him as was a ‘political poet,’ but his politics in those poems is radical, humanist, left wing and, one may say, socialist. They lend themselves invitingly to Marxist analysis and Auden edited an anthology of Socialist Verse. He also edited an anthology of American Poetry in which he raises the question of who to include. In its widest context, his political position, particularly from a Marxist standpoint, does not vary, does not waver, across these poems at all, despite reports of his change in political views and evidence of his disillusionment after experiencing the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Soviet War. What might have been the main thing that became clear to him, was not a moving away from left wing positions, but a clarity in his mind of the difference between what poses as radical politics and tyranny, totalitarianism and oppression.
He comes out against rising signals of this tyranny in European, and perhaps world, politics in references in several poems. It is difficult to separate those from the wider context of a concern for humanity, for human rights and human suffering as different from a Marxian interest in the working class struggle, and will require painstaking analysis to do so. Both are interwoven in many of the poems, while several are clearly broadly humanist.
The examples in the poems are numerous and may be found in the following few examples: “The Shield of Achilles”; “The Novelist”; “O What Is That Sound”; “The Unknown Citizen”; “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”; “Museé des Beaux Arts”; and “Sonnets from China XVI” (or “The Embassy”). In many cases the political references are delivered in great irony and understatement such as the remark in the tribute to Yeats that the poor are “fairly accustomed” to suffering or the conclusion that if anything was wrong in the circumscribed, oppressed life of “The Unknown Citizen” we would surely have known.
Similar techniques abound in “Sonnets from China XVI”. The style and structure of the poem reflect Auden’s preoccupations. It is a sonnet with a definite order and the pattern of the English sonnet in the octave (first 8 lines), but something more resembling the Petrarchan sonnet in the sestet (last 6 lines). To be noted is the disarrangement of the rhyme scheme in the final stanza which describes lands ravaged and overturned by war. There is noted contrast in the luxury, peace and tranquility of the embassy and its landscape in the octave, as against the disruption, confusion and suffering caused by the waiting armies going to war in the sestet.
The first two stanzas (the octave) are set in the affluent suburbs where an embassy or ambassador’s residence is located. Two diplomats might have come to the end of a meeting and are probably walking back to their cars. Everything is ordered and “cultured”, calm and peaceful looking like “a picture of the private life.” Yet there are many contrasts, ironies and understatements as the class struggle is dramatised. Note how the gardeners are separated from the diplomats – they “watched them pass and priced their shoes.” The differences are not only class, but economic, so what is foremost in the minds of the working class is the price of the expensive clothes. It is an extremely effective way of introducing the differences and contrasts that will dominate the poem.
Even the weather mirrors what is taking place as everything clears up after the rain. “Far peaks” coming “into focus” is the clearing away of mist and dark clouds, but it could also suggest that agreement between the parties draw closer. But there is heavy irony as the discussions taking place are called “conversation” making it appear relaxed and casual. The debaters are “highly trained” suggesting skill, articulateness and wisdom. Further, it becomes a mere “exchange of views”. The talks of nations in conflict and on the edge of declarations of war are so understated, bearing no hint of the devastation that may follow. Such destruction rests on the “charm” of the envoys.
The difference between war and peace is so on the edge that it can be tipped over by “a verbal error” – one diplomat saying the wrong thing, even unintentionally, to throw the world into conflict and war. Note also, the way the armies are waiting, poised and already ready to spring into combat. Add to that the way the utter destruction that may be caused by the fighting is described in a tense that suggests it has already happened.
Another important contrast is the location of people and places. The embassy and the men who are about to order the armies to attack are “far off” from the scene of battle. They and their ordered luxurious environment are untouched, unaffected by the violence while the so-called ‘ordinary people’ have their lives thrown into turmoil.
The poem seems a protest against war but at the same time comments on its many ironies. It is an effective dramatisation of the issues surrounding the tensions and issues surrounding the governed and the governors. It is a class issue as well as an economic one. “Sonnets from China” is one of the political poems of Auden referred to above that are guided by a socialist standpoint, evident in many of the details and contrasts used by the poet.
Yet, overall, it reflects Auden’s constant humanist preoccupations, even if a Marxist reading did not apply. The poet’s concern for ‘the people’ pervades and informs the strategies employed in the third and fourth stanzas. It is a good example of poems that show not only a poet’s cry on behalf of humanity but speaks to a consistency in his radical political outlook.