The Truest Poetry is the most Feigning
W. H. Auden
(For Edgar Wind)
By all means sing of love but, if you do,
Please make a rare old proper hullabaloo:
When ladies ask How much do you love me?
The Christian answer is cosi-cosi;
But poets are not celibate divines:
Had Dante said so, who would read his lines?
Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever,
And do not listen to those critics ever
Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books
Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks
As though the Muse preferred her half-wit sons:
Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.
Suppose your Beatrice be, as usual, late,
And you would tell us how it feels to wait,
You’re free to think, what may be even true,
You’re so in love that one hour seems like two,
But write —As I sat waiting for her call,
Each second longer darker seemed than all
(Something like this but more elaborate still)
Those raining centuries it took to fill
That quarry whence Endymion’s Love was torn;
From such ingenious fibs are poems born.
Then, should she leave you for some other guy,
Or ruin you with debts, or go and die,
No metaphor, remember, can express
A real historical unhappiness;
You tears have value if they make us gay;
O Happy Grief! is all sad verse can say.
The living girl’s your business (some odd sorts
Have been an inspiration to men’s thoughts):
Yours may be old enough to be your mother,
Or have one leg that’s shorter than the other,
Or play Lacrosse or do the Modern Dance,
To you that’s destiny, to us it’s chance;
We cannot love your love till she take on,
Through you, the wonders of a paragon.
Sing her triumphant passage to our land,
The sun her footstool, the moon in her right hand,
And seven planets blazing in her hair,
Queen of the Night and Empress of the Air;
Tell how her fleet by nine king swans is led,
Wild geese write magic letters overhead
And hippocampi follow in her wake
With Amphisboene, gentle for her sake;
Sing her descent on the exulting shore
To bless the vines and put an end to war.
If half-way through such praises of your dear,
Riot and shooting fill the streets with fear,
And overnight as in some terror dream
Poets are suspect with the New Regime,
Stick at your desk and hold your panic in,
What you are writing may still save your skin:
Re-sex the pronouns, add a few details,
And lo, a panegyric ode which hails
(How is the Censor, bless his heart, to know?)
The new pot-bellied Generalissimo.
Some epithets, of course, like lily-breasted
Need modifying to, say, lion-chested,
A title Goddess of wry-necks and wrens
To Great Reticulator of the fens,
But in an hour your poem qualifies
For a State pension or His annual prize,
And you will die in bed (which He will not:
That public nuisance will be hanged or shot).
Though honest Iagos, true to form, will write
Shame! in your margins, Toady! Hypocrite!
True hearts, clear heads will hear the note of glory
And put inverted commas round the story,
Thinking —Old Sly-boots! We shall never know
Her name or nature. Well, it’s better so.
For given Man, by birth, by education,
Imago Dei who forgot his station,
The self-made creature who himself unmakes,
The only creature ever made who fakes,
With no more nature in his loving smile
Than in his theories of a natural style,
What but tall tales, the luck of verbal playing,
Can trick his lying nature into saying
That love, or truth in any serious sense,
Like orthodoxy, is a reticence?
21 February marks the 100th birth anniversary of W. H. Auden. And what better way to celebrate the centenary by running a week of the man’s poems? “The words of a dead man / modified in the guts of the living.”
Auden has long been one of my all-time favourite poets. What I find fascinating about him is the sheer range of his output. So many other poets have a ‘voice’ – Auden, on the other hand, does it all. His poems can be witty or lyrical, free flowing or clasically structured, conversational or professorial. He is, by turns, poignant, funny, erudite, contemplative. He writes poems that express perfectly the angst of his century, as well as poems that so visionary that they seem abstracted away from time. And he can make all of that look easy. The comparison that springs to mind is with Mozart. Speaking of the master, Auden writes, in Metalogue to The Magic Flute:
Each age has its own mode of listening.
We know the Mozart of our fathers’ time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music critics learned to feel “estranged”;
Now it’s the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
Auden himself displays the same kind of variety, the same refusal to be easily classified. The man who writes “Let me tell you a little story / About Miss Edith Gee / She lived in Clevedon Terrace / At Number 83” is also the poet of:
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
(Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day)
‘Out of this house’ – said rider to reader,
‘Yours never will’ – said farer to fearer,
‘They’re looking for you’ – said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.
(Five Songs, part V)
If there is anything that binds this incredible body of work together, it is only that the lines are always memorable, the sound always note-perfect. So exquisite is the rhythm and imagery of Auden’s phrase-making, that his lines, like the lines of all the truly immortal writers, have a way of becoming part one’s everyday language, that magpie’s nest of verse and quotation that every lover of poetry carries around in his or her head. “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”, “What instruments we have agree / the day of his death was a dark cold day”, “Consider this, and in our time”, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters”, “Time will say nothing but I told you so”, “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after” – all these gorgeous and unforgettable phrases that echo endlessly in poetry’s highest chambers. It is a cliche, by now, to quote Auden as saying that “poetry makes nothing happen”. And yet the fact that it is a cliche is itself the most telling proof of the fact that Auden’s poetry exemplifies the purpose he ascribed to it – it is “a way of happening, a mouth.”
If I had to pick one poet to represent the 20th century (not that that’s likely, of course), I would pick Auden.
Today’s poem is the perfect antidote to yesterday’s Valentine’s Day soppiness. It’s classic Auden – hilariously funny (the furthest I’ve ever managed to get without bursting into laughter is the “Great Reticulator of the Fens” – recording the whole thing through without even a chuckle was a real challenge) but also at once a scathing critique and a powerful defense. It is a poem that exults in its own contradictions, and manages, with an almost cheeky cleverness, to keep you constantly off balance. It’s chief delight is the fact that read piece by piece it seems contrived, even artificial, but taken as a whole it conveys, somehow, the sense of having said something serious and sincere.
“Great poets have a weakness for bad puns”, Auden writes. Now if only that worked in reverse.