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In a number of poems, W.H. Auden stages passengers “in transit,” nel mezzo del cammin, at a junction between two indefinite points in time and space. If such a state engenders doubt or even anxiety—for example during take-off or landing, “where two fears intersect”—this might also reunite men (“intersect,” “jointly”) in modern cities whose bearings are reconsidered through technical progress developed “by general staffs and engineers.” Following Whitman, Auden was one of the first twentieth-century poets to grasp the aesthetic relevance of the public transport of his time, mainly the train and the airplane. His entire work testifies to the crucial role of railway and air travel in creative renewal, even as it remains relentlessly aware—especially in the verse written during WWII—that modern crossings may easily turn into journeys to hell. And yet, whenever the speaking “I” is threatened or may feel lost and abandoned (“Let out”) in some hostile undefined place where he could be deprived of his humanity (“In a wet land, facing rough oceans, never invaded”), the poem always somehow reasserts his identity and his position as a citizen of the world: “I stand”.
Although Auden himself was well-known for being always “In Transit,” this article will not focus on his experiences as a traveller, but on his interest in transport and how transport influenced his poetry. Early childhood memories actually highlight his fascination for trains:
Though [Auden’s father’s] work was in Birmingham itself, the house he acquired for his family stood some miles outside the city, in Solihull…

English

This article investigates W.H. Auden’s interest in transport, and how transport—mainly trains and airplanes—influenced his work. On the one hand, the poetry of the 1930s questions romantic prejudices against the railway, praising the locomotive as the modern muse in verse inspired by the very materiality of trains, as well as by Cubism, Futurism, and jazz music. On the other hand, the rise of Nazism coincided with the increasing use of deportation and death trains, which haunt the dramatic poems of the 1940s. Auden was one of the first British poets to allude to concentration camps in his work, with the packed wagons of The Age of Anxiety (1944-46) acting as metonymies for the camps themselves. In his later texts, descriptions of public transport often portray a world on the brink of ruin, where art can only afford a few transient escapes from waiting rooms peopled by dehumanized, erring souls.

Français

Cet article examine la poétique des transports, essentiellement rattachée au train et à l’avion, dans l’œuvre de W.H. Auden. Ses textes des années 1930 remettent en question les critiques sévères de certains poètes romantiques à l’encontre du chemin de fer en faisant de la locomotive une muse moderne célébrée dans des vers inspirés à la fois de la matérialité des trains et du jazz, ainsi que cubisme ou du futurisme. Par ailleurs, la montée du nazisme voit se multiplier les trains de déportés qui hantent les poèmes dramatiques des années 1940. Auden fut l’un des premiers poètes britanniques à aborder le thème des camps de concentration, les wagons bondés étant une métonymie de l’univers concentrationnaire affleurant dans The Age of Anxiety (1944-46). En outre, les descriptions des transports en commun qui émaillent certains textes plus tardifs profilent un monde à la dérive, l’art n’offrant qu’une éphémère échappée aux âmes errantes déshumanisées qui peuplent les salles d’attente des gares et des aéroports.

Aurélien Saby
Lycée Hélène Boucher, Paris
Laboratoire VALE (Paris Sorbonne)
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Mis en ligne sur Cairn.info le 16/03/2017
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