The poem concerns the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe in the 1930s. Forced to flee persecution and violence in Nazi Germany, many Jews were unable to secure asylum in countries like England or the United States because they kept tight quotas on the number of Jewish immigrants admitted each year. Such Jews were trapped between countries—unable to find a safe refuge yet terrified of returning home.
As the poem opens, the speaker is trapped in that difficult position. The speaker is in an unnamed city. The city is enormous—ten million people live there. Some of them are very wealthy; some are very poor. As the speaker notes, “Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes.” The line is carefully constructed to emphasize the difference between the rich and the poor: its two clauses have the same grammatical structure, but they say opposite things—an instance of antithesis. And they are split by a caesura, which emphasizes that antithesis. Yet, despite the difference between rich and poor, they are united in one respect: they all have some kind of home, whether it’s a mansion or a tenement.
But the speaker has no such security. As the speaker complains, addressing another refugee—whom the speaker simply calls “my dear”—“there’s no place for us.” (This is an instance of the poetic device apostrophe: it will eventually become key to understanding the speaker’s feelings about being refugee.) The speaker is worse off than even the poorest of the poor: at least they have a home.
This homelessness is especially bitter because the speaker once had a home: a “country” that the refugees thought was “fair.” (In other words, it was both beautiful and just, a safe place for Jews to live.) The country still exists—one can find it on a map. But they can’t return there: “We cannot go there now, my dear,” the speaker insists. It’s no longer safe for them.
“Refugee Blues” has an unusual, idiosyncratic form. W.H. Auden invented it specifically for the poem. The form of the poem is designed to convey the difficult, alienating, frustrating experience of being a refugee. It has no set meter: its line-lengths shift around unpredictably. Just as the speaker has no solid ground to stand on, so too the poem’s meter is unsteady. Each line of the poem is also end-stopped. As a result, the lines feel isolated from each other: there are strong borders or barriers between them—much like the borders the speaker cannot cross. Finally, the poem is rhymed AAB. The first two lines of each tercet rhyme with each other—usually using simple, direct rhymes. These lines thus feel like they belong together. But the third line of each tercet doesn’t rhyme with anything. It feels isolated, alone—just like the speaker.
The third line of each stanza is also highly repetitive. All of them follow a parallel structure. The speaker introduces a phrase or sentence, like “We cannot go there now …” Then the speaker addresses the other refugee, “My dear.” Finally, the speaker repeats the opening phrase: “We cannot go there now.” Even though the third line of each stanza is quite different, they all feel linked together by their similar structures—and so they function as refrains for the poem. Paired with the poem's rhymes, these refrains help the poem feel musical, turning it into a "blues"—a song of mourning and despair.