Precious little of the English poetry written in the 20th century has passed into the common stock of universally recognized literary reference. No doubt this is because so many of its makers chose to write free verse. Part of what makes traditional poetry (as well as the lyrics of popular songs) so readily quotable is that it lodges spontaneously in the memory because of its orderly rhyme and prosody. Whatever the merits of Robert Frost’s claim that writing free verse is like “playing tennis without a net,” it is far easier to get “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by heart than, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.”
It makes sense, then, that after Frost and Philip Larkin, the modern English-speaking poet who is most often quoted should be W.H. Auden, a lifelong believer in the virtues of prosodic regularity. Not only is Auden easier to cite from memory because of the formal orderliness of his poems, but he frequently wrote verse whose subjects were of more obviously universal interest than the state of his psyche at any given moment. In keeping with his wish to become, “if possible, / a minor Atlantic Goethe,” he also wrote about public occasions ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the deaths of Freud and Yeats, and did so in a way that was at once beautiful and quotably pithy (“You were silly like us: your gift survived it all”). All of this helped to make Auden, in Edmund Wilson’s striking turn of phrase, “one of the most edible, one of the most satisfactory of contemporary writers in verse.” His mature poems were, almost without exception, accessible to the common reader.