Excuse, my lord, the liberties I take
In thus addressing you. ...

Written during his Iceland visit after having read Byron's Don Juan for the first time, Auden's Letter to Lord Byron is exactly that: a letter. A very long poem, both critical and funny, it is in parts literary survey, social commentary and autobiography.

The poem, about thirty pages long, is comprised of four parts and written in rhyme royal, rather than Don Juan's more difficult ottava rima. Auden alludes to this himself, actually, in the twenty-first stanza:

Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper,
The proper instrument on which to pay
My compliments, but I should come a cropper;
Rhyme-royal's difficult enough to play.

Writing from the geographical remove of Iceland, Auden satirizes the culture and politics of England under the pretense of filling Byron in on all that's happened since his death. Although Auden is clearly fond of industrial landscapes (Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, / That was, and still is, my ideal scenery), he draws attention to the dehumanization and shallow commercialism of the modern age.

We're growing up and up and up indeed.
Advertisements can teach us all we need;
And death is better, as the millions know,
Than dandruff, night-starvation, or B.O.

Not even Byron is quite safe from his barbs:

You never were an Isolationist;
Injustice you had always hatred for,
And we can hardly blame you, if you missed
Injustice just outside your lordship's door:
Nearer than Greece were cotton and the poor.

There's so much in this poem, more than can properly be summarized, and I find the parts lambasting contemporary poetry and academia particularly good, as well as the autobiographic focus the poem takes on during its last section. If you'd like to read it, Letters from Iceland will do, but much easier to find would be a copy of Auden's Collected Poems, which any good library should have.

First published in Letters from Iceland, his and Louis MacNeice's 1937 travelogue.

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