Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

W H Auden The Quest 1940

XVI. The Hero

He parried every question that they hurled:
“What did the Emperor tell you?” “Not to push.”
“What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
“The bare man Nothing in the Beggar’s Bush.”


The poem includes sections. In this section the Hero is questioned by the populous; his answers do not satisfy their demand for a heroic character, undermining the traditional image of the hero and his duty to his public. Auden seems to be using the original literary meaning of the phrase rather than referring to any specific literary work.

Auden was interested in the Quest as a form and the Hero as a character. The poem is dated to the year after Auden moved to the USA, a period of substantial reconsideration for him. It follows shortly after his famous poem Musée des Beaux Arts, and his elegies for W. B. Yeats and Sigmund Freud, which share the theme that great deeds are performed by ordinary people.

It is curious that after a century during which it fell out of use both Auden and Canning both use the phrase in 1940. Auden may have come across the play in his studies or reference to the phrase in works such as Halliwell or Brewers. The phrase was included by Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake which was published in 1939. However, he was referring to a location, and Auden was not a fan of the book.


The Quest

Further Reading

“The Quest Hero”, lecture by Auden at the University of Texas, 1952
Printed in R. A. Zimbardo and N. D. Isaacs (eds), Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, New York, 2004

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , | No Comments »

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