W. H. Auden
Yes, these are the dog days, Fortunatus:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar’s brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.
And you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach,
Lying in bed till noon,
Your bills unpaid, your much advertised
Epic not yet begun,
Are a sufferer too. All day, you tell us, you wish
Some earthquake would astonish,
Or the wind of the Comforter’s wing
Unlock the prisons and translate
The slipshod gathering.
And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:
Ah! how the cannons roar,
How jocular the bells as They
Indulge the peccant shore.
It is natural to hope and pious, of course, to believe
That all in the end shall be well,
But first of all, remember,
So the Sacred Books foretell,
The rotten fruit shall be shaken. Would your hope make sense
If today were that moment of silence,
Before it break and drown,
When the insurrected eagre hangs
Over the sleeping town?
How will you look and what will you do when the basalt
Tombs of the sorcerers shatter
And their guardian megalopods
Come after you pitter-patter?
How will you answer when from their qualming spring
The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
And out of the open sky
The pantocratic riddle breaks –
‘Who are you and why?’
For when in a carol under the apple-trees
The reborn featly dance,
There will also, Fortunatus,
Be those who refused their chance,
Now pottering shades, querulous beside the salt-pits,
And mawkish in their wits,
To whom these dull dog-days
Between event seemed crowned with olive
And golden with self-praise.
Today’s poem illustrates, for me, two of Auden’s finest gifts. First, it’s a poem chock-full of glorious phrases (“the baltering torrent shrunk to a soodling thread”, “sossing through seamless waters, piloted in by sea-horse and fluent dolphin”). If you’d told me that someone had written a poem that included the words pantocratic, qualming, peccant and megalopod, and had, moreover, managed to keep it conversational, I would not have believed you. But Auden does exactly that, and he does it so naturally, so effortlessly, that you barely notice.
Second, it’s a gorgeous example of how good Auden is at conjuring up a scene, at creating an atmosphere of dread or boredom or peace with an incredible economy of lines. That opening stanza conveys so marvellously the sense of a world in doldrums, only to be followed by a third stanza that is a vision of serene exultation, and a fifth stanza that is terror itself. It’s a magnificient achievement – one worthy of a surrealist painter – this ability to imagine an entire world and convey everything that needs to be said about it with just a handful of images, each no more than a phrase or sentence long.