W. H. Auden’s Societal Critique: “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen”

Image: W. H. Auden British Library

W. H. Auden’s “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen” features a speaker who has experienced a number of societal changes, and he is making statement condemning the atmosphere of declining morality and loss of spiritual fervor.

Introduction and Text of “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen”

The speaker in W. H. Auden’s “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen” begins by revealing that he is not a spring chicken, instead he is a “senior citizen.” He then warns his listeners that his pontification is simply “doggerel.”  But the claim is made in ironic jest; what the “doggerelist” is about to spew is the bitter truth, or at least in his humble opinion, about the progress of social trends, fashions, and mores.  By jesting ironically that his utterance will be only a bit of doggerel, the speaker forestalls any blame he may receive, or any pushback against his views.  Those views and  resulting criticism reflect similar attitudes offered by the speaker in Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen.”

Doggerel by a Senior Citizen

(for Robert Lederer)

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bath-rooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

The automobile, the aeroplane,
Are useful gadgets, but profane:
The enginry of which I dream
Is moved by water or by steam.

Reason requires that I approve
The light-bulb which I cannot love:
To me more reverence-commanding
A fish-tail burner on the landing.

My family ghosts I fought and routed,
Their values, though, I never doubted:
I thought the Protestant Work-Ethic
Both practical and sympathetic.

When couples played or sang duets,
It was immoral to have debts:
I shall continue till I die
To pay in cash for what I buy.

The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.

Sex was of course —it always is—
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news-stands did not then supply
Manichean pornography.

Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Nor are those Ph.D’s my kith,
Who dig the symbol and the myth:
I count myself a man of letters
Who writes, or hopes to, for his betters.

Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those class-rooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
There is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young,
Who will not learn their Mother-Tongue.

But Love, at least, is not a state
Either en vogue or out-of-date,
And I’ve true friends, I will allow,
To talk and eat with here and now.

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is Real.

Commentary

Announcing through his title that his offering is a piece of doggerel, this senior-citizen speaker is elucidating his personal estimation regarding the nature of life in the year 1969.

First Movement:   Living Differently from Yesteryear

The speaker alerts his readers/listeners that he is reviewing from the year 1969, and he then offers an exaggeration that the earth no longer represents the same “planet” upon which he had formerly existed.  This new place—”earth” “planet” “world”—has turned into a place of mayhem, and the disorder is so egregious that he has difficulty keeping it out of his own life.  He suggests that he prefers the way life was lived in the Edwardian age, a period of prosperity, especially significant in fashion and art.  The speaker further suggests that religion then remained a central feature in family life, as they sat down to the dining table and said “Grace” before consuming their meals.  The speaker makes it clear that for him those times were “[his] Eden”—likely he does mean prelapsarian Eden. He employs that rest of his discourse to show how the times in which he is now living can be considered quite postlapsarian.

Second Movement:  The Efficacy of Nostalgia

The speaker then refers to the common inventions of the day, labeling the mode of travel by car and plane “useful” but “profane.”  He still wishes for the steam engine  and old-timely wind sailing. Although he believes that he may be required to accept used of the “light-bulb,” he cannot bring himself to “love” the object.  He prefers the gaslight resembling a fish tail, which resulted form two gas jets spewing through two holes, which fanned out and formed the fish tail shaped flame. Nostalgia often outweighs efficacy when it comes to every-day useful appliances.

Third Movement:  Familial Mores

The speaker has overcome the idiosyncrasies of family life, coming to love those whom he had earlier found unpleasant; he has, however, always accepted the basic moral rectitude of those family members.  They adhered to the “Protestant Work-Ethic,” which the speaker has always deemed practical and proper. Back during the time when party entertainment often consisted of “couples [playing or singing] duets,” the society deemed acquiring debt an immoral act.  The speaker assures his listener that to his dying day he will continue to accept that societal feature and continue to pay “in cash for what I buy.”

Fourth Movement:  Religious Controversy 

The speaker remembers that before certain religious reforms a “Book of Common Prayer” held sway, and it dated all the way back to 1662, during the era of the Restoration of King Charles II.  Religious reformation always comes about through controversy.  Those who have become accustomed to certain practices of worship distain any change and thus argue against “liturgical reforms.”  This speaker has already placed his likely position on such reforms; he naturally comes down solidly on the side against them, labeling such actions “hell.”  The speaker then cites “sex,” which is always engulfed in “mysteries, as an example of one phase of life that has suffered because of “liturgical reforms”:  the obnoxious duality of “Manichean pornography” now sits on “news-stands,” whereas in the more modest past, such sights would not have been tolerated.

Fifth Movement:  The Art of Speech

The speaker now tackles “Speech,” the art of the word, the use of letters that creates literary art.  But first he delves into the vulgar act of belching or farting, which along with the “mannerly” use of language, would not be acceptable.  Children would then learn to avoid the grossness involved in such human effusions.  The speaker says he has not decided which art form is more vile: “the Anti-Novel” or “Free Verse.”  The proliferation of those holding doctoral degrees, particularly the Ph.D., does not impress this speaker; he finds this who revel in “myth” and “symbol” hold little interest for him.  He contrasts himself with those book-learned fellows: he assures his listeners that he himself is “a man of letters.”  But instead of trying appeal to the vulgar, profane masses, he strives to compose for “his betters.”  He remains a bit humble in his claim by inserting “or hopes to.”

Sixth Movement:  Permissiveness Gone Awry 

The speaker then refers to permissiveness as the bane of success in education.  He finds the old-fashioned disciplines focusing on learning “Greek and Latin” to be a much “saner” focus for the classroom.  He was such a student and now feels he has benefited for the rigor of such study of language.  Mentioning the buzz-phrase of the late sixties “Generation Gap,” he says its likely a worthless expression, even though he does detect that such a thing exists.  But he wonders who is to blame for it? Is the the “old or young”?  But then he answers his question by asserting that both are to blame, that is, those who refuse to learn “their Mother-Tongue.”

Seventh Movement:  Uplifting Thoughts

The speaker finally concludes with some inspiring thoughts:  love, for example, never goes out of style, and he still enjoys good friends with whom he can dine and pleasantly converse. He seems to reject the notion he might feel “alienated,” but he does insist that the loosening of societal mores causes him to “skirmish” with it all.  He further insists that he feels most comfortable with “what is Real.”  He does not equivocate with what he thinks that reality means; he has just reported and defined that reality in his piece of “doggerel.”

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