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The Quest

by W.H Auden

W.H Auden is considered to be one of the most promising American writers of the 20th
century and a remarkable poet due to his lyrical gifts and uses of language. As poet he is
known also for his collection of poems “The Quest” and poems such as “The journey “
“Moon landing “.
In his collection of poems “The Quest “ he presents a traveler who tries to
discover the real meaning of life. “The Quest” is a succession of poems and each of these
poems reveal chronologically one more step in fulfilling the journey : “The Door “ is the
first poem and presents the men leaving the house , “Preparation” ,the second poem ,
shows the preparations that are made for the journey etc.
The poem that is going to be discussed is the second in this series of poems “ The
Quest” . The title of the poem “Preparations “ presents also the theme, the preparation of
a journey “quest’ by probably 3 men and each of them has a certain role in this
preparation of the quest . Structural, the poem consists of 14 lines structured in 2
quatrains and 2 stanzas of 3 lines each and this is the form of a sonnet. Also we can
structure the poem in 2 parts : the first part ,the 2 quatrains regard the simple aspect of
preparing a common journey and the 2nd part, the next 2 stanzas give also a second
meaning to the poem and can be regarded as the beginning and preparations for the
journey of life.
The speaker in the poem can be one of the men who want to travel .He presents
all the actions towards the fulfilling of this journey to a place which the reader doesn’t
know because it is not specified .
Even from the beginning of the poem the speaker starts to enumerate all sort of
things needed in a long journey to prevent unfortunate events which could put an end to
the quest . Everything was prepared minutely long before they wanted to start .
Simple but necessary objects are enumerated together with their purpose and the way in
which they could be useful : instruments for measurement , a watch to know the time ,
medicines for heath problems , lamps used during the night and objects to give shade
during the day , a gun for protection . Everything was thought for every kind of situation
so that they wouldn’t be caught unprepared . .
The line “[…] instruments/To take the measure of all queer events “ can be also an
allusion to the instruments taken to register and immortalize all strange ,unknown things
they will probably see in their journey.
In the next line “A watch, of course ,to watch impatience fly” we can understand the
purpose of the watch, to know the time but also as an object which makes the difference
between the subjective passing of time and the objective one . In a long journey the
objective passing of time would be the time spent, 3 weeks , 2 months etc and the
subjective one when a person feels a minute as being one hour( because there is nothing
to do )or when time flies and you feel there is not enough time to finish all.
We can observe also the poet’s lyrical gifts in using the language because he chooses to
play with the words and the double meaning of the word “watch “ as verb and noun .
Through the line “And coloured beads to soothe a savage eye “ it is made an allusion at
that period of time in which the poet lived .It is known that most journeys were made in
unknown lands such as Africa ,Australia were they could have met the inhabitants of
those lands , known as savages .These “coloured beads ‘ were different objects which the
travelers used to give in exchange for something or to make a trade and “soothe” their
way through the unknown land without having problems with the savages.
The next stanza shows a turning point in the idea of a journey : until now they were
impatient and have planed everything into detail but with this stanza everything seems to
be artificial and superficial ,the words “in theory “ and “unluckily” underline the idea of
what seems to be and what is in reality . They seemed to be eager for the new adventure
and had their ‘expectation” in what regards the journey, new perspectives and hopes but
the next 2 lines reveal the real state of mind of the travelers : they felt stuck with no
further plans for their “situation ‘ : “ Had there been situations to be in ./Unluckily they
were their situation “ . This idea can be applied also for the journey of life .
At the beginning we have dreams , hopes, plans and we seek to prepare everything to
fulfill them but at a turning point in time we feel stuck ,hopeless ,with no way out from
our own situation. More than this each of the 3 travelers had his special problem and this
can be understood from the last stanza .Here also the tone of the speaker changes
everything is now impersonal, in general presented and with no more particular
references to the travelers . In a situation when someone feels stuck and has no more
perspectives the problems, which can appear are no longer related to the external world
but to the state of the human mind ,the psychic .So for these kind of situations “ one
should not give a poisoner medicine “ and kill someone or “ A conjurer fine apparatus” to
help him to cheat better and deceive the others “nor / A riffle to a melancholic bore “ to
avoid for a bored person who is in a melancholic state of mind and has a pessimistic point
of view of his present and of what the future prepares for him , to put an end to
As a conclusion the poem compares a long journey through unknown lands with a
journey thorough life when we try to be prepared for everything that might happen and
appear in the external world but when we can’t foresee mental problems or how our
mental state is going to turn out.