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AT THE GRAVE OF HENRY JAMES, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"At the Grave of Henry James" is a poignant and introspective poem written by Wystan Hugh Auden. The poem was first published in 1976, and it reflects on the life and legacy of the celebrated American novelist Henry James, who died in 1916.

The poem is structured as a meditation, with Auden reflecting on James's life and work as he stands at the author's grave. Throughout the poem, Auden draws attention to the paradoxical nature of James's legacy. On the one hand, James is celebrated as one of the greatest writers of his time, a master of psychological insight and a keen observer of human nature. On the other hand, James is remembered as an author who was obsessed with form and style, often to the point of neglecting the substance of his stories.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the way Auden uses language to capture the conflicting emotions that James's legacy inspires. At times, the poet expresses admiration and reverence for James, describing him as a "master of language" and a "clever and unscrupulous observer." At other times, however, Auden expresses frustration and even anger with James's approach to writing. He criticizes James for his obsession with style and his failure to engage with the political and social issues of his time, describing him as "unwilling to risk himself for love."

The poem is also notable for its exploration of the themes of mortality and memory. As Auden stands at James's grave, he reflects on the transience of human life and the ways in which we are remembered after we die. He notes that James's reputation has continued to grow in the years since his death, even as the man himself has faded into obscurity. This leads Auden to contemplate the nature of memory and the ways in which we construct our own legacies.

Overall, "At the Grave of Henry James" is a deeply introspective and thought-provoking poem that explores some of the most fundamental questions about human nature and the nature of art. Through his exploration of James's legacy, Auden invites us to consider the role that style and substance play in the creation of great art, as well as the ways in which our own legacies are shaped by the choices we make during our lifetimes.

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