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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

QUEST: VOCATION, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"Quest: Vocation" by W.H. Auden is part of the "Quest" sonnet sequence, exploring themes of identity, purpose, irony, and the struggle between idealism and worldly wisdom.


Form and Structure: Following the consistent pattern of the "Quest" sequence, this poem is constructed in sonnet form with 14 lines. However, the rhyme scheme is more irregular, not adhering strictly to the typical Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet patterns.

Content: The sonnet portrays a character who comes too late to join the martyrs. The imagery of being denied the request "to suffer" and joining "the tempters" illustrates a dichotomy between the idealized aspiration for martyrdom and the worldly position he's assigned.

He's given a role that involves cynicism and irony, using his "caustic tongue" to test others' resolve by highlighting the shortcomings of great individuals and employing ironic praise. The depiction suggests an erosion of idealism, replaced by a more pragmatic, albeit cynical, approach.

The second half of the sonnet moves into a more introspective reflection on the character's own development. Mirrors, women, and books are symbols representing self-awareness, relationships, and knowledge, all of which shape his middle age. His wit becomes a tool to manage his internal struggles, caging his "pacing manias" in a "worldly smile."

Theme: The central theme is the tension between lofty ideals and practical reality. The protagonist's desire for martyrdom is denied, and he's thrust into a role that requires him to challenge others' convictions. The contrast between youthful idealism and mature cynicism is palpable, reflecting a broader human experience of growing disillusionment and compromise.

Additionally, the poem explores self-realization and personal growth. It emphasizes the transformative power of self-reflection, relationships, and intellectual pursuit, leading to a more nuanced, albeit more complex, understanding of oneself and the world.


"Quest: Vocation" by W.H. Auden is a contemplative sonnet that delves into the human journey from idealism to realism, from youthful aspiration to mature understanding. Through vivid imagery and thoughtful reflection, it portrays the transformation of the protagonist, offering a multifaceted commentary on the nature of purpose, irony, and personal growth. As with the other sonnets in the "Quest" sequence, it provides a rich and complex exploration of human nature, resonating with universal themes and experiences.

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