W. H. Auden is considered to be both a controversial and influential poet. He was raised in an Anglo-Catholic household, which is where he first fell in love with music and language. The title of this poem is widely known as “Petition,” but that title wasn’t added until later collections; Auden’s early poems appeared without titles (Greenblatt 2422). A petition is an earnest request or entreaty; in this poem Auden is petitioning God to help change the state of humanity, which has declined considerably, in his opinion, due to both the lack of belief in God and God’s hands-off.
This poem was written in 1929, 11 years after the end of WWI. The Great War was hard on everyone involved — from the women, children, and elderly at home to the soldiers on the front line. The economy changed during the war: people didn’t have the money to spend on frivolous things as they once did; food was rationed and often unavailable, so people went hungry. On the front line, soldiers were forced to kill. If they didn’t kill the enemy first, they risked being killed themselves or having their loved ones killed later on. Many soldiers returned home wounded. As the war dragged on, faith in God began to wean. The whole landscape of life was altered dramatically during the war and again after the war was finally over. There was an economic boom; people began to overindulge, because they had been deprived for so long. Enjoying oneself trumped spirituality, which lead to the completely upside down world that Auden speaks about in this poem.
The speaker beseeches God to change his nature of inaction to one of action, so that humanity can be saved; at the same he is both mocking God and expressing his unbearable sadness as to the current state of things. The first line of the poem begins with a polite, honorific address to God in the form of “sir” (line 1). The word sir is often used in formal correspondence and when addressing someone who is of superior rank or status. He starts this way so that he appears to be humble, hoping that God will listen to the one person who still believes in Him. The speaker then moves on to say that God is “no man’s enemy, forgiving all,” which in itself is a very sarcastic statement (line 1). If God is supposed to be the enemy of no man, then why does he forgive all indiscretions? We learn by making mistakes and then having to face the consequences for our actions, so if there are no consequences, what is the point of doing the right thing? The speaker is trying to point out that God’s hands-off approach is not benefiting us; instead, it is ensuring that society will descend into total anarchy, and then all will be lost. The speaker wonders if God’s “negative inversion”-going from a state of inaction to one of action- will be “prodigal” (giving or yielding profusely) (line 2). Still, the speaker believes that the world needs “a sovereign’s touch,” so he begs God to send down his power and light-his goodness and love; in order to cure humanity (line 3).
The speaker implores God to cure the “intolerable neural itch”-the overwhelming desire to do evil deeds or commit sins (line 4). In lines five and six, the speaker asks God to save him from the “exhaustion of weaning, the liar’s quinsy, and the distortions of ingrown virginity.” The speaker is saying that he is extremely tired of being the only one, who is trying to save (or wean) humanity from its dependency on the guarantee that no matter what they do in life they will be forgiven in death. Quinsy is another word for tonsillitis; thus, the act of weaning a liar from his quinsy means to cure someone of telling lies or spreading disbelief. “Ingrown virginity” is another example that the speaker puts forth to show how the world has become completely backwards and unbalanced due to the absence of God. Quinsy and ingrown virginity are both unnatural states of being and it is the speaker’s objective to restore the natural or proper state of being of humanity.
In lines seven to fourteen, the speaker takes on a more authoritative tone and demands that God does as he asks. He tells God to prohibit severely the use of “the rehearsed responses,” such as, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,’ or it’s not my fault,’ when man comes before God, so that gradually He will be able to correct the “coward’s stance” (line 7-8). The goal is to make man accountable for their actions; thus, turning cowards or non-believers into believers once again. And those non-believers who “retreat” or flee from God must bask in God’s light, curing them of their disbelief. “Beams” in line nine has a double meaning, it can also be referring to Christ, who was nailed to two beams of wood in the shape of a cross. The speaker wants the names of God’s healers-servants of God, ie. Priests, ministers etc.-to be published publicly or in other words he wants God to appoint those select few, who will aide him in restoring order and balance to the world-much like the apostles did after Jesus died on the cross. “Harrow” is defined as “an agricultural implement with spikelike teeth or upright disks, drawn chiefly over plowed land to level it, break up clods, root up weeds, etc.,” but in this poem the speaker is asking God to act like a harrow and make “the house of the dead” a sacred place (or holy ground). The speaker wants God to shine his light on the “new styles of architecture”-meaning the modern world-and have a change of heart about letting man do as they please.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Vol. F. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2006.