Context

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was born in York as the son of George Augustus Auden, a doctor and Constance Rosalie Auden, a missionary nurse. During the course of his graduation in English at Oxford, he was influenced by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, one of the icons of Modernist poet then. In 1930, Auden’s first collection of poetry entitled Poems was published and thus started the movement known as ‘The Auden’s Generation.’ In 1937 he married Erika Mann, daughter of the famous German novelist Thomas Mann. Auden was involved in the Spanish civil war in 1937. He was a prolific writer and won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Age of Anxiety” 1947 and in 1955 the National Book Award for “The Shield of Achilles”. In 1958 he moved to Austria and settled in a village near Vienna. There he died of a heart attack in 1973. He is buried in poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Educated at Oxford, Auden adopted a Marxist stance in his social outlook. His poetry, written mainly in the 1930s, is topical, comprehensible and political and often reflects his concern over the rise of fascism in Europe and for the victims of war. His works include the collections and poems Look Stranger! (1936), Spain (1937), inspired by the Spanish Civil War, New Year Letter (1941), and About the House (1967).

Refugee Blues by W. H. Auden deals with one aspect of the plight of the Jews, that is to say the misery of the refugees. The Jews were the people in World War II left with no choices – their fate was in the hands of a maniac. If they fled, their fate was in the hands of the countries in which they arrived. Auden vividly shows through simple examples and language, how this lack of choice and lack of identity left Jews in desperate and depressing situations.

What are blues?

Blues are melancholic songs which sing of sadness and misery. The expression, “I’m feeling blue” does, in fact, mean “I’m feeling sad.” European Jews were faced with two choices in the late 30s –leave their homes, jobs and friends and become refugees or stay behind in their country in an atmosphere of intense anti-semitic feeling. Their choices were not great.

Those who stayed behind, in fact, risked Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ – his dream of the extermination of all European Jews. By early 1945,Hitler had murdered 5,800,000 Jews from all over Europe. 9,000 of these people came from Italy. Auden’s poem, on the other hand, highlights the plight of those who chose to leave.

Conceptual Terms

1. holes: here ‘small, unpleasant houses/rooms’ (tuguri).

2. yew: a type of tree (tasso).

3. anew: literary for ‘again’.

4. banged: banged his fist on the table (batté il pugno sul tavolo).

5. rumbling: making a deep rolling sound (che rombava).

6. poodle: dog with thick curling hair (barboncino).

7. quay: a place where boats can be tied up and load/unload their
goods (banchina).

8. at their ease: relaxed and freely (con gioia e liberamente).

9. to and fro: from place to place (avanti e indietro).

Summary of Refugee Blues

The poem begins by introducing a city with 10 million people in it. Some have the luxury of living in a mansion; this is directly contrasted with the rest who are living in most disgusting conditions, ‘holes’. There is not even a ‘hole’ for this couple – they are beneath the usual poverty line, the repetition of the sentiment, of having no room for ‘us’, makes it sadder. “Yet there’s no place for us, my dear”.

The poem shows how they are exiled from their own country and cannot return. They can see it on a map, can look at it in an atlas – but cannot return. They are resigned to this fate when they say ‘We cannot go there now’. The tree can go through nature’s cycle and seem dead at certain times of the year but can be re-born, can grow again.

It’s natural for things to be given a new chance every year in nature, to bloom again. However, this is contrasted with man-made documents that, once lost, can never be recovered. They then go to three places where they need help. The consul, presumably at an Embassy, treats them badly and violently bangs the table and makes a ridiculous statement: ‘If you have no passport you’re officially dead!’. The speaker and his beloved have no place to go and they have no freedom. The poem ends by saying a dream of the speaker, he dreamed of a building with thousand floors, windows and doors but actually, they are standing on the great plain in the falling snow, where ten thousands of soldiers marched to and fro looking for the couple.

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Analysis if Refugee Blues

Refugee Blues is a poem by W. H. Auden written in 1939, one of a number of poems Auden wrote in the mid-to-late-1930s in blues and other popular meters, for example, the meter he used in his love poem”Calypso,” written around the same time. The poem dramatizes the condition of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the years before World War II, especially the indifference and antagonism they faced when seeking asylum in the democracies of the period. “Refugee Blues” is one of the poems about a sad and terrible plight of being a Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously, as a refugee, the couple has lost their home, their country and their identity. The melancholy feeling comes through strongly in the blues – a sad song. Though the poem is about two people at a particular time in the past the thoughts and feelings of the poem’s narrator might be similar to situations in any part of the world today. This poem is set in Germany in the 1930s when the Jewish people were being persecuted by the Nazi regime.

‘Blues’ is a slow, sad song, traditionally with 3-line stanzas with 4 beats to each line. The music features ‘blue notes’: mainly flattened thirds and sevenths. The Blues were first sung by African Americans working on slave plantations in the southern states of the USA; these melancholy ballads expressed the unhappiness of the slaves’ lives. Later, Blues became part of the development of popular song and jazz.

Literary Technique

Foreshadowing

Each stanza has two rhyming lines that relate in some way to the plight of Jewish European refugees during the Second World War such as lack of housing, shelter, expired and nonrenewable paperwork, unhelpful bureaucrats etc. The refrain of each stanza is essentially the German refugee personalizing these woes. The tone of each stanza hints at the desperation of the refugees as all doors are closed to them and all their rights gradually removed. This tension is gradually built up foreshadowing the events of the final stanza where the refugees are pursued by ‘ten thousand soldiers’ reference to the Nazi death squads who pursued the Jews relentlessly to their deaths.

Imagery and symbolism

The images of a vast building with seemingly many rooms, doors and windows imply a place that could shelter many people yet has no space for the refugees. Much like Europe at the time, there was ‘no room’ for the Jews in Nazi-controlled territory even though there was enough physical space. It is also a metaphor for the other countries of the world that had room to take in refugees yet restricted their entry citing lack of room and resources.

Through his use of the term ‘thunder rumbling’, storm clouds symbolise dark times and trouble which directly relates to the situation European Jews found themselves in during the Second World War. The term also symbolizes the Luftwaffe – Nazi Germany’s air force. The noise generated by these warplanes and their bombs would have resembled a severe thunderstorm.

Rhyme scheme of aab

The poet has used two lines that end with a rhyme followed by a refrain. This refrain personalizes each stanza to the plight of the refugee, almost a realization of their eventual fate.

What is the refugee blues theme?

‘Refugee Blues’ by W. H. Auden is a poem about the harsh realities of war; including themes such as: loss, suffering, and change. ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen is similar in this manner and it also echoes the same message Auden is trying to convey; the wastefulness of war.

What is the setting of the poem Refugee Blues?

This poem was written in 1939. The poem is set in some foreign country wherein the speaker and his companion took refuge. This is seen from the indifference of people and also from the sentence / verse ‘If we let them in, they take will steal our daily bread.

Questions and Answers

I. Answer the following questions

1. In which collection was “Refugee Blues” included?

a. Ten songs
b. The Double Man
c. Poems d. None of these

Ans: Ten songs

2. Which tree blossoms every spring anew in Auden’s poem?

a. Teak.
b. Oak
c. Yew
d. Pine

Ans: Yew

3. “They had no politicians and sang at their ease”. Who?

Ans. The birds

4. Who said to the narrator: “if you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”?

Ans. The counsel

II. Answer the following questions in a sentence or two:

1. What is the context of the poem “Refugee Blues”?

Ans. Refugee Blues was written in March 1939, when anti-Semitism was at its height in Germany. It laments the sad plight when the Jewish people were being persecuted by the Nazi regime.

2. What makes the poet to state that there was no place for him and his beloved?

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Ans. The poet states that there was no place for him and his beloved because they were refugees and they had no place to go.

3. What is described as ‘the thunder rumbling in the sky’?

Ans. The thunder rumbling in the sky was the voice of Hitler says that Jews must die.

4. How does Auden compare the old Yew tree and the old passports?

Ans. Auden compares the old yew tree and the old passports as the old yew tree blossoms every year anew but the old passports can’t be renewed.

5. What makes the poet to state the following: ‘O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind’?

Ans. In these lines, the poet states that Hitler had ordered to kill all Jews including the speaker and his beloved that is why the poet says ‘we were in his mind’.

6. Explain: ‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread.”

Ans. The politicians or rulers of other countries think that if they accept the refugees means they will take up all the jobs and thus the local people will lose their jobs and thus their bread.

7. In what context is the question ‘where shall we go today’ asked?

Ans. When the speaker and his beloved went to a committee, they politely told them to come next year but the speaker asks them where shall they go today because they had no place to go.

8. How does the poet compare the human race and the birds?

Ans. The birds all are free to go anywhere because they have no boundaries or politics but the human race is not free to go everywhere.

9. Comment on the use of hyperbole in the poem.

Ans. So many exaggerations of things (hyperbole) are used in the poem ‘ten million souls’, ten thousand soldiers’, ‘a thousand floors’, ‘a thousand windows’, a thousand doors.

10. What was the feeling of the poet when he went down the harbour and stood upon the quay?

Ans. The poet feels that the fish enjoys life better than the refugees because they were free to swim where ever they like.

III. Answer the following questions in a paragraph:

1. Discuss the animal imagery in “Refugee Blues”.

Ans. In the poem “Refugee Blues” the poet uses animal imagery to convey the mental toll of being trapped and isolated from the rest of the world for the refugees. The poet used animal imagery like birds and fishes to show how free there are to live in this world. Animals are less civilized, learned and sophisticated than human but they have no politicians to govern them, they sing and swim at their ease.

Auden presents the “fish” as an image to show its freedom to go wherever it likes, and the image of birds to show their ease to sing. The comparison of the animal world to the human race drives home the point that animals are free. They are more humane than the human race that is contrasted as being oppressive. This contrast is evident by showing the images of animals appear to have more rights in this world than the two refugee Jews.

2. Comment on Auden’s poetic style in “Refugee Blues”.

Ans. The poem “Refugee Blues” has a rigid pattern concerning the use of repetitions, allusion, imagery, metaphor, hyperbole and a simple rhyme scheme. There is a total of twelve stanzas each having three lines in the poem. The poem is divided into tercets whose first two lines rhyme while the third present a repetition. This repetition is effective in emphasizing the content of the individual stanzas. Through the whole song, there is a refrain as the author always repeats the words “My dear”. The structure of the text is carried on through the use of contrasting images- the mansions and the holes; expressing the gap between normal rich people and Jews. There is no direct sentence stating the extent of damage done to the Jews nor is there any verse saying the speaker is speaking to a female companion. These are understood by the speaker’s words and descriptions. The language used is common, colloquial, informal, while the tone is sad, resigned and melancholic. The poem “Refugee Blues” was a well-thought-out poem which was brilliantly written in form of a blues song.

3. What characterizes the alienation of the Jews in the poem?

Ans. This poem gives a pretty accurate description of the situation of Jews in Hitler’s rule. It is to show the people the plight of their fellow humans, and how just because they were Jews they were denied basic rights. It is an indirect appeal to show compassion by emphasizing that they (the Jews) were humans too, the same as the readers. The hypothetical speaker, a German Jew, is concerned about Jews’ conditions, regarding in particular homeless people, bureaucracy and social differences. There’s an analogy of the Jews with all suffering and persecuted races in history, though here there are no cotton fields or whips, but rather passports, committees and public meetings. Those make the song no less ominous. Death is present throughout and the poem ends with the image of the soldiers looking for the Jews.

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4. Explain the dream with which “Refugee Blues” is concluded.
Ans. The poem concludes by saying about the speaker’s dream of a huge building with thousands of floors, windows and doors and there wasn’t a single door opening for them. He stood on a great plain in the falling snow and had no shelter and hence had to roam in the open, constantly in fear of being hunted by the soldiers. Then finally he saw tens of thousands of soldiers marching towards them. The speaker ends the poem by saying that the ten thousand soldiers were looking to find these two Jews (looking for you and me). This contrast shows how much they are wanted compared to how much they are unwanted. The dream of the speaker suggests the emotional impact of their rejection and isolation which they were facing in their our country.

IV. Answer the following questions in about 300 words:

1. “Refugee Blues” is a documentation of the denial of the human rights of the migrant population of the world. Discuss.

Ans. “Refugee Blues” by W. H. Auden is a documentation of the denial of the human rights of the migrant population of the world. The poem is all about the plight of a group of refugees, specifically about the alienation faced by the Jews in Nazi Germany. The poem was written in 1939, though the poem has taken in a timeless accurate description of the situation of refugees all over the world, it describes about refugees, who were seeking asylum in nearby countries and what they actually face is the main theme of the poem.

The refugee problem is a complex one. They face many problems, not simply the threat of refoulement (forcible return of refugees) but arbitrary detention, lack of due process, degrading treatment, xenophobia etc. In the last decade, refugees who have been forcibly returned to their countries have been killed, tortured, arbitrarily detained, or forced to live in conditions of extreme insecurity. The situation of many of them is excruciating, as they are often forced to remain within combat zones, are undernourished and have no access to clean water or medical supplies. The problems of refugees do not end when they finally cross borders and go through the first phase of seeking asylum, they may be confronted by numerous restrictions and obstacles.

The universal declaration of human rights allows people to stand up for what they believe in no matter the repercussion. “Human rights violations are a major factor in causing the flight of refugees as well as an obstacle to their safe and voluntary return home. Safeguarding human rights in countries of origin is therefore critical both for the prevention and for the solution of refugee problems. Respect for human rights is also essential for the protection of refugees in countries of asylum”-United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This concept of human rights is not new. Many states and communities have been established on the basis that individual members have certain inherent rights which must be respected by those governing. But the growing number of refugees in the world is apparent proof of the failure of the system of international human rights protection. Some people believe that the international “law“ of human rights is not really law at all but simply a set of noble aspirations describing an ideal world which has little relation to reality. Some examples such as attacks on Palestinian refugees in Lebanese camps, Rohingya crisis, attacks on the Thai-Cambodian border and so on.

Through this poem, Auden emphasizes the plight of refugees by including the juxtaposition of opposite ideas in almost every stanza. The poet juxtaposes symbols of society, nationality, identity and freedom by highlighting their displacement. People do not welcome refugees into their homes, or offer them what they want or need, but they look after the dogs and cats they can come and go as it pleases. Animals have no problem in welcoming other species but the human are different they look at their own species as aliens. Human beings are governed by pieces of paper know as passports as proof of existence. The sense of being denied basic human rights, being sought out and persecuted is apparent throughout the poem as one by one all the doors to a better future are shut.

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