"Mundus et Infans"

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Commentary and analysis of W. H. Auden's poem "Mundus et Infans".

Submitted: January 02, 2012

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Submitted: January 02, 2012

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“Mundus et Infans”

By W. H. Auden

 

By Niamh Jiménez.

 

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Born on February 21, 1907, in York, England, Wystan Hugh Auden is a widely celebrated poet, whose poems have many psychological and political dimensions. As the third son to a father who worked as a medical officer and psychologist and an Anglican mother, he demonstrated great religious and scientific interest throughout his poetic works, as well as a particular fascination for psychosomatic conditions. He grew up in an industrial area, which features prominently in some of his poems.

The title “Mundus et Infans” means the world and the child in Latin. It is obvious from this poem that W H Auden had an interest in the examination of relationships, both ecological and those which exist between mankind. In a purely ecological sense, Auden explores the link or relationship between the baby and its surrounds, i.e. the mother’s womb. The baby’s relationship with the womb, its natural environment, is equivalent to man’s relationship with the earth; the mother’s body supplies the child with the “raw materials” it requires for sustenance, and is thereby responsible should the baby want for anything, through its own deficiencies or “shortages.” This responsibility or symbiotic interconnection is equivalent to man’s hunger following a failed harvest due to infertile or deficient soil; the soil is responsible for man’s hunger or deprivation as it is the fundamental source of his sustenance. But Auden also examines the thinking relationships, or rather the absence of them. In this poem, Auden emphasises the child’s lack of mental development and its lack of exposure to culture, which shapes expectations and obligations in those who are exposed to it. Without exposure to culture or any understanding of the temporal world, the child is simply a respiratory, feeding lump of flesh.

This lump of flesh “thinks as his mouth does.” In other words, the child ceases to contemplate or think beyond satisfying his present gustatory cravings. In this way, he lives entirely in the present and is exclusively concerned with the nourishment of his body. At this point, Auden seems to imply that the mind is hardly even present; all bodily and carnal longings are primeval and fundamental to this single-minded existence. There is no retrospective thought or even mulling upon the future; there is simply one present circumstance and a strong commitment to self preservation. In some ways, the baby is self-centred and blasphemous. His longings are entirely one-sided and unscrupulous; he is one-dimensional and is concerned with nourishing only his body and nothing else. At this point in evolution, the divide or boundary between the mind and the body is at its most unequivocal. Auden even describes the baby as guilty of “loud iniquity”.

However, a paradox soon presents itself when one considers the nature of the child’s existence. While he is seemingly self-absorbed and insatiable, he is also incapable of lying or of committing even the mildest subterfuge.  Seeing as a child can only experience its own carnal cravings and feeling states, it is incapable of thinking. Something which is incapable of thinking is therefore incapable of dishonesty or any deliberately obstructing justice. Justice and ethics are temporal concepts which a foetus has never been exposed to; this lack of exposure to the culture of ethics vindicates and even justifies the child’s “iniquitous” behaviour. He acts iniquitously because he has no awareness of what is right or wrong. Auden even goes so far as to equate the foetus with a saint, as saints too are beyond contemplation or the act of thought.  Without compromise and lies and the intricacies of adult relationships, a baby lives a simple life based upon hunger and satiation, feeding and excretion, sleeping and dazed wakefulness. There is no so called “muddle to work through.” In our constant thinking and “over-analysing” state, we perpetually mistake lies for truth and illusions for realities; the reference to “mirror” and “reflection” picks up upon this prevalence of illusion.

The child is also saintly through the demonstration of an unashamed helplessness. As adults, we feel the compulsion to invent or even fabricate reasons to justify our helplessness; we blame events or shortcomings for our vulnerabilities in an effort to minimise our shame. The child, on the other hand, cries unashamedly and receives the love, support and sustenance it craves through the blunt display of this helplessness. Hence, the child demonstrates a consecrate purity in its helpless state, as it does not blame the blameless for its own feelings of insecurity or need. This is a pure instinct which all babies possess; it is the innate instinct of an unsocialised infant, who has not been taught to think within the restrictions of a controlled social network and a world plagued by time.

This baby, as an uncultured and unsocialised specimen of the human race, is uncorrupted by the biases or needs of others. In fact, as Auden defines it, he knows no distinctions. Every cry, every action and every instinct has been shaped and refined by his “Creator”; he has not been in the corporeal world long enough to adopt worldly habits or inherit the judgements and opinions of other human beings. Hence, he is as pure and untainted as any human being can be. In the words of Auden, he is “frankly subjective”. In other words, he is untainted by man’s philosophical or psychological concepts, the honed and anthropocentric art of “objectivity.” There is no pretence or deceit in his cries or his expressions of need.

In the early stanzas, the shock and aggression of birth is conveyed. The child “kicks” and “clenches his fist” in an attempt to free himself from the clutches of his mother’s womb. The child’s dependence is also emphasized through the use of stark political metaphors. “Raw materials,” “dictated peace”, “fist clenched” and “New Order”, all seem to connote communist or Hitlerian ideals. The poet injects subtle humour into the jocular poem by calling the child a “cocky little ogre” in emphasising the solipsistic self-centredness of the baby. The political metaphors, all evoking grand authority, pomp and power, are also quite humorous when associated with a seemingly defenceless foetus. “Seizing supreme power” and uniting all the “forces at his command” convey the supremacy of this little child within his own environment. Within the child’s own environment, he exerts a certain undisrupted omnipotence.  As an unthinking being, the baby exists in a wordless, grammarless world, where “large and noisy feeling states” complete his whole experience. The poet cleverly conveys this important point through the use of the phrase: “Funnyface or Elephant as yet mean nothing.”  The poet emphasises the correlation between the baby and a saint, both of whom have circumnavigated thought and reflection on their way to implicit, unquestioning “obedience”. Auden even intimates that adults’ constant cycle of contemplation does not allow for “rest” or “joy”, and hence further promotes the superiority of the baby/saint modus vivendi.

Auden describes our need to blame unimpeachable things like “History” and the “weather” for our own helplessness. This is pure absurdity. The baby, incapable of thinking and unacquainted with these concepts, simply “offers its helplessness” without shame or forethought. Auden also presents the child as a beacon of hope for adults, as he may “never become a fashionable or important personage.” In essence, he has not yet been corrupted by the worldly obsessions and artificial needs of the modern world. On this level, Auden asserts that the child is not yet “mad.” He has not yet acquired the insanity that comes with the blind, meaningless pursuit of fashion or power.

The final stanza offers an abundance of meaning and different interpretations. The poet asserts the child’s incapacity to distinguish love from hunger, something at which adults are usually adept. In my humble opinion, Auden intimates the superior purity and lack of artifice in the melding of love and hunger. To us, these are two discrete appetites, which, when separate, may fail to nourish us wholly and completely.

Finally, Auden affirms that the child is a “pantheist” not a “solipsist”. In short, this means that, to the foetus, God and the universe are one indivisible entity and all entities are manifestations of the divine. In this way too, a child is saintly. 

In examining Auden’s poetic technique and his mode of conveying the poem’s central message, one finds that Auden uses free verse or open form. In other words, this poem does not conform to any well-known conventional poetic forms, such as the villanelle or the ode. While he does utilise quite a prominent rhyme scheme, his rhythm does not seem to conform to any recognised regularity, such as iambic pentameter for example, but instead follows the subtle, natural inflections of the narrator’s voice. He does use some syntactical inversions or irregularities, which seem to have an effect on the overall rhythm of the lines. For example, in the first stanza, the line: “Should there be any shortage/She will be held responsible” is an inversion of the more natural syntactical arrangement: “She will be responsible/Should there be any shortage.” He demonstrates metonymy through his use of a subtle synecdoche in the second stanza, where the word “thigh” tends to represent his mother as a whole. The poet also utilises enjambment or run on lines throughout the poem, which enhance the richness of the lines in terms of connotation and nuance, occasionally introducing double meanings. To counteract these energetic, run on lines, Auden has placed caesuras within certain lines, to reduce the rhythm and speed and draw attention to important ideas. A wide variety of different figures of speech are employed throughout the poem to deepen the overall meaning and enhance the effect it has on the reader.

 For example, he uses common idiomatic expressions or clichés such as “at the drop of a hat” and “cry over spilt milk” to put his reader at ease and diversify his often sophisticated, mildly baroque use of diction. Certain lines reflect a mild inversion or hyperbation in conventional syntactic order, as illustrated above, a rhetorical technique known as “anastrophe.” The poet also employs a rhetorical technique known as “asyndeton”, which omits conjunctions between clauses or phrases, something which tends to accelerate the rhythm, examples of which can be seen in the second and third stanzas. Hypallage, a pale echo of a similar device called transferred epithet, is the projection of a human state or feeling onto a seemingly unrelated, often inanimate noun. This mild form of hyperbation is used frequently by Auden who modifies “feeling states”, “obedience” and “iniquity” using epithets such as “noisy”, “passionate” and “loud.” His description of “feeling-states” as being noisy seems rather incongruous and may even qualify as a form of synaesthesia. Throughout the poem, Auden’s descriptions of the child’s iniquitous, purely carnal cravings seem to qualify him as almost animalistic in nature; this projection of animal characteristics onto the foetus could be seen as mild zoomorphism, another linguistic device. Auden does not refer to God by his proper name, but instead substitutes this for “our Creator”, a figure of speech commonly known as antonomasia. He also describes the baby’s natural process of defecation in euphemistic terms: “the motions of his bowels.” While this poem is for the most part devoid of assonance or consonance, Auden does employ some mild alliteration in the line: “Whoever we are now, we were no worse at his age.” There is also a subtle trace of anaphora in the final line of the fourth stanza: “without rest, without joy.” This rhetorical term describes the repetition of the first word of a phrase in consecutive lines or phrases. The final stanza, which seems excessively verbose and stilted, uses a linguistic device known as circumlocution

Despite being written in free verse, the poem has an identifiable rhyme scheme.  Verses one, three, five, six and seven bear the scheme aabbcdcd.  The second and fourth verses or stanzas bear a slight irregularity, deviating from the latter rhyme scheme with an alternate abccdede. Overall, masculine rhyme and slant rhyme are the predominant forms of rhyme to be seen within the poem. Masculine rhyme occurs in the final stressed syllables of words, usually monosyllabic, such as “soul/role”, “place/face” and “boy/joy.” Slant rhyme is a form a rhyme where the sounds are similar and may even display traces of assonance or consonance, but do not share a precise correspondence.   For example, “impossible/all” and “us/does” echo mild similarities in sound. Generally, the presence of rhyme seems to enhance the overall musicality and lyricism of the poem, while linking words such as “blame” and “shame” to reinforce the ideas expressed in each stanza. Structurally, the poem consists of seven 8-9 line stanzas. The lines vary in length and form, bearing very little, albeit some parallelism.

The tone or attitude of the poet towards the child transitions from slightly resentful to loving. In the first and second stanzas, the language is peppered with harsh military metaphors and the poet evokes the violent manoeuvres of the child in its struggle to exit the womb. Tension is created through Auden’s description of the baby’s posture inside the womb: “fist clenched behind his head” and “heel drawn up to thigh.” These combatant military evocations, as well as the child’s expectations of the mother’s delivery of “raw materials” seem to create a certain hard, warehouse like environment. Auden’s description of the child as a “cocky little ogre” introduces some jocular annoyance at the child’s self-centredness and his aggressive omnipotence in the womb, as he is “resolved....to seize supreme power” at all costs.

The third stanza softens the light resentment directed towards the child in the first two stanzas. Auden describes the child as a “pantheist”, associating the child with the divine and celestial, while simultaneously emphasizing his most animalistic tastes and cravings: “He thinks as his mouth does.” This stanza hence introduces a profound paradox, which is further examined in the fourth stanza; the child is “loudly iniquitous” and simultaneously “what only the greatest of saints become.” A mood of reflection and veneration permeates this stanza: the poet admires the child for his “thoughtless” state. The fifth stanza is more personal and self reflective, where Auden employs the pronouns “we” and “our” in comparing the child’s shameless helplessness with the irreconcilable helplessness of thinking adults. Auden also uses the word “love” for the first time in this stanza, seeming more human and tangible as a narrator. The sixth stanza is filled with the spirit of optimism and celebration: “Let us rejoice that he lets us hope.” At the same time, a subtle undercurrent of pathos undulates beneath these lines: while the child is untainted and pure in this phase, there lurks a sense of the inevitability of eventual insanity, as the line illustrates that he “has not yet gone mad.” The final line of this stanza, “We ought to be glad”, illustrates that they do not feel glad, despite the fact that they ought to. This pathos and nostalgia emanates from the final stanza with greater force, as the poet ruminates over our incapacity to “distinguish hunger from love.”

 

Glossary of Poetic Terms

 

Paradox: an apparent contradiction 

Connotation: the other associations or suggestions evoked by a word, as well as the literal meaning or denotation. 

Free Verse: a poem written in free verse does not correspond or conform to any set form.

Villanelle: a poem consisting of 19 lines, divided into five tercets and a final quatrain, built upon two repeated rhymes.

Ode:  a long, lyric poem, known for its characteristic sobriety and meditative qualities, and bearing a formal structure. 

Iambic Pentameter: a metrical foot consisting of 10 syllables and bearing stresses on every second beat.

Metonymy: the substitution of one word with another similar or associated word, for example the use of sword to represent authority or power.

Synecdoche: use of one part to represent or denominate the whole. 

Enjambment: in poetry, enjambment refers to lines which are not end-stopped, i.e. they run into the next line without the insertion of punctuation or pauses.

Hyperbation/anastrophe: deviation from the natural syntactical order

Asyndeton: lack of deliberate omission of conjunctions in a clause, sentence or paragraph. 

Hypallage/ transferred epithet: the projection of a human adjective or modifier onto an inanimate or seemingly unrelated noun. 

Epithet: a descriptive or modifying adjective, expression or phrase. 

Synaesthesia: the description of one sense impression using a word of phrase conventionally associated with a different sense impression. 

Zoomorphism: the projection of animal characteristics to humans or non-animal personifications. 

Antonomasia: the substitution of a person’s proper name with a certain phrase or modifier, e.g. Elvis was known as the “King of Rock.” 

Euphemism: the substitution of an offensive phrase or word with a less offensive phrase or word. 

Assonance: corresponding or similar vowel sounds in close proximity.

Consonance: corresponding or similar consonant sounds/arrangements in close proximity (usu. towards the end of words).

Alliteration: a succession of similar sounds or letters at the beginnings of words in a clause/line 

Anaphora: repetition of the same word/phrase at the beginning of successive clauses of sentences. 

Circumlocution: the act of being excessively verbose or wordy. 

 

 


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