Starting Out

The tradition of publishing poetry with visual art is not new. Stevie Smith, for example, published drawings, or doodles, with many of her poems. The purpose they serve, if any, is heavily debated; other poets have commented that they are childish and detract from her work (Barbera 221). According to Jack Barbera, "Smith's poems did not inspire her drawings nor did the drawings inspire her poems" (223). However, they are published as one work and inform each other. The drawings inescapably pull meaning out of the poems.

One of my primary influences for this project was Julian Peters, who has drawn a number of comic adaptions of popular poems (Peters). Peters draws very classic, comic-style versions of poems, including the words in text boxes and speech bubbles. His comics are beautiful, and greatly inform how I read each poem. When forming my own project, I decided to move slightly away from the classic style, and ultimately wanted each of my drawings able to stand and be viewed alone or in conjunction with the lines they illuminate.

I began my own drawing process simply by sketching on top of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" and "September 1, 1939," to see what images came naturally as I was reading the poems. Though they evolved, many of the ideas that came from these original sketches made it into the final versions.

Drawing Auden

Auden’s poetry reveals that he felt trapped in his body and his society. His work constantly comments on the meaning of freedom, especially within a society that tells people they are free while actively keeping people oppressed. Auden mused the meaning of freedom at a commencement address at Smith College in 1940, noting that “The concept of freedom presupposes the existence of a composite group and is concerned with the relations of the different parts to each other and to the whole which they collectively form” (Arana 32). Auden focuses on the parts that make up a person, how freedom is limited in the body, and how human bodies interact. Themes of anti-nationalism and self-ownership inspired me as a libertarian. I tried to illuminate these themes through my comics. In the drawings below I depict the body dissolving, confused, and pulling itself apart.

"September 1, 1939," lines 56-66

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 12-23

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 42-53

Lines 61-66 of "September 1, 1939" imply that it is in human nature to want to be loved as individuals distinct from the whole of society. This sense of individual freedom is universally pressing, innate “in the bone/ Of each woman and each man”, regardless of how that freedom might hinder group progress and unity. This representation of freedom looks much like individual freedom as it is held up as a primary value of libertarianism. However, Auden also asserts that this individualism is unattainable (64). Freedom in the personal sense that individuals seek is denied by the constraints of society. To represent this I drew people broken down to their bones, or what society cannot see.

The first section of “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” shows the body breaking down and “revolt[ing]” (14) against itself, ultimately to be “scattered among a hundred cities” (18). The physical body becomes part of other world systems, and the human ideas “Are modified in the guts of the living” (23). Auden implies that nothing belongs uniquely to one person. Our bodies are constantly warring with themselves and, regardless of whether we wish "to be loved alone" ("September 1, 1939" 66), our ideas are part of something larger.

In depicting lines 42-53 of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," I drew Yeats "laid to rest" (43) before "stares from every human face" (51) with his ideas, or his "poetry" (45) emptying from his body back into the world, or the larger system to which he belongs.

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 24-31

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 54-65

I also depict the body physically restrained. In line 27 of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Auden writes that "each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom". The word "cell" might be interpreted as a compartment, or a part of the body, but it carries the inescapable meaning of imprisonment.

The final two lines of the poem state "In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise" (64-65). This cements the idea that men might think themselves free, attempting to "Make a vineyard," or something positive, "of the curse" (59), but in reality they are living in a state of imprisonment.

"September 1, 1939," lines 34-44

"September 1, 1939," lines 78-88

"September 1, 1939," lines 89-99

I talk in great detail on this site about illumination and how I took the idea of an illuminated manuscript and applied it to the creation of comics that would illuminate Auden's poetry. The second part of this project's title, Illumin-Nation, comes from the political meanings of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" and "September 1, 1939." In both poems Auden looks at the role of the government and notes how society oppresses and confines the people, even when they believe themselves to be free. In "September 1, 1939," Auden poses "blind skyscrapers" (35) as a creation of "Authority" (82). Auden boldly declares that "Authority" is a "lie" (82) and "There is no such thing as the State" (84), capitalizing "Authority" and "State" to show the power and importance of these ideas in human society. In the three images above, I attempted to depict the overbearing nature of the State, the quiet fear it sparks, and the death it causes while promoting the illusion of freedom.

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 1-11

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats," lines 32-41

"September 1, 1939," lines 67-77

One final image that I carry through this project is the image of a mouth. The mouth represents something uniquely human, not only in the that it is part of the human body (though it does continue with the theme of bodily representation), but also because it is the means by which we speak and oppose oppression. I decided to focus my drawing for the first section of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" on the line "mourning tongues" (10), incorporating other images of death and "the dying day" (4) into the mouth-centered scene. I bring back the image of the mouth to represent the second section of the poem, and the idea that "poetry makes nothing happen" (36). This section indicates that Auden is frustrated with his inability to effectively create change with his poetry, or his voice.

Finally, the mouth appears again in "September 1, 1939" to overtly represent the repetition of "morning vow[s]" (70) and questions such as "Who can speak for the dumb?" (77). Placing the mouth alone in the frame makes it more important. In doing so I dedicate an entire drawing to speech, and speaking up for the voiceless.