Auden thought of poetry as a form of personal speech, spoken by one unique individual to another, even when poet and reader were divided across space and time. In this, as in much else, he differed from his great modernist predecessors such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, who often thought of poetry as embodying the collective voice of a culture or nation, either as it actually was or as it ought ideally to become. Much of Auden’s uniqueness and variety derives from his way of thinking about poetry and personal voice. He sometimes said that he thought of himself as a comic poet, but he believed that a comic poet could be a greater and ultimately more serious poet than a tragic or solemn one.
Auden’s personal voice, like every personal voice, spoke in a variety of moods and styles, ranging from laconic understatement to overstated extravagance, from casual gossip to solemn oratory, and in tones that ranged from agitated and anxious to discursive and meditative. A personal voice, in Auden’s view, was unique to the person who spoke it. Yet the only way anyone learns to speak is by imitating other people’s voices, so even the most authentic-sounding voice is always more or less artificial. ‘Human beings’, he wrote, ‘are necessarily actors who cannot become something before they have pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.’
For some of his poems, Auden felt impelled to create new styles and forms, but for other poems he was content to borrow from other poets ranging from the Beowulf-poet through to William Carlos Williams. He was sceptical about Ezra Pound’s slogan, ‘Make it new’, because, in his reading of the poetry of the past, much of it had never grown old.