Under Sirius

February 18, 2007 at 1:45 pm 10 comments

W. H. Auden

Listen

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.

[falstaff]

Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Wystan Hugh Auden. Tags: .

The Unknown Citizen Detective Story

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Frank  |  July 11, 2008 at 11:16 am

    I love this poem – surely one of Auden’s most under-rated. Although its setting is the declining Roman Empire, I feel certain that Auden was (very presciently) making a comment on the complacency, boredom and spiritual emptiness of the western world in the 2nd half of the 20th Century – our civilisation is nothing if not “golden with self-praise”.

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  • 2. Cavafis « workhastobedone  |  August 7, 2008 at 12:42 am

    […] voz de la que hablo sólo la había entrevisto en algunos poemas de los mejores poemas de Eliot y Auden pero en la poesía de Cavafis todo está repleto de los ecos de esa voz: una voz modesta — […]

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  • 3. Stefan Thiesen  |  July 29, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    This has been my favorite poem for a very long time. I am not sure though whether it really is set in the times of the declining Roma Empire – it strikes me more as timeless – or as bridging time (see the part reading

    “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.”

    “Bills unpaid” strikes me as fairly modern. I feel reminded of the Marillion Cover of the Album “Fugazi”, the drunk artist so overwhelmed by his own artistic inspiration taht he only can cope with himself – and the world – by drugging himself into oblivion. In fact the poem also is in tune with the song lyrics of Fugazi: Where are the poets, where are the visionaries, to breach the dawn of this sentimental mercenary…”

    In any case Under Sirius is one of the densest poems I have as yet encountered. It is so full of symbols and features so many layers that one could almost write a dissertation about it. Or – just give in to the atmosphere it creates and the message it transmits – or rather the messages, for there are many.

    I am a bit taken aback by the reading here, though. I also did a recording of it, and it took me many trials to even remotely live up the the sorcerers and pantocratic riddle. It also is a simple fact that not every voice and every accent is suitable for every type of reading or acting. Under Sirius requires a deep, thundering voice, darker, bass – something like James Earl Jones.

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  • 4. Frank  |  December 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Stefan: Fortunatus was a poet in the late Roman period, so this poem is definitely “set” (if that’s the right word) in that period. (I hadn’t heard of Fortunatus till I read a biography of Auden.)

    As for the anachronisms: they are a device often used by Auden in his poems about the end of the Roman Empire. He deliberately conflates imagery from past ages and the current age to highlight the congruence of mood – and even to imply that “the end of the world” is not so much a single event as a psychological conception.

    Actually I don’t think there are any true anachronisms in this poem – they had bills in the 6th Century. On the other hand, “lying in bed until noon” and “a gush of table-chat” have a modern ring to them.

    Another poem, “The Fall of Rome”, includes references to “an abandoned train” and “a pink official form” – the anachronisms there are much more explicit, and make it clear that his Auden’s real subject is not the fall of Rome, but the fall of Western industrial civlisation.

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    • 5. Stefan Thiesen  |  December 22, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Thanks for the input, Frank. The only Fortunatus I was aware of is the protagonist of the medieval German Novel of the same name. But Auden probably does not refer to him. In any case I think the poem has a timeless feel to it. It almost transcends space and time. For me it seems that The Fall of Rome and, for example, “City Without Walls” all deal with the same topic. Something to do with our place in the universe. The difference between our perception and reality. Visionary, almost clairvoyant. Not unlike Carl Sagans Clip “Pale Blue Dot”. I interpret Auden from the point of view of a trained astronomer and earth systems scientist. The only point of view I have… And from that vantage point what he says makes a lot of sense. It gets under my skin. Someone said it’s a writers main task to create emotions in the reader.

      Reply
  • 6. ezweb411.com  |  January 13, 2012 at 11:14 am

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    Reply
  • 7. Frank  |  January 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Stefan: “Something to do with our place in the universe.” Yes, I agree – it’s often said that Auden is a political poet, but I think there is much more to him that that: ultimately, he is a mystic, preoccupied with the nature of the “Universal”. There is always something “big”, even transcendent about Auden’s best poems and this has always been the quality in them that appeals to me.

    I know a lot of people feel that science makes them feel “small” and this frightens them – but I find it strangely reassuring, and I think Auden did as a well (e.g. “The things I did could not / Be as shocking as they said / If that [= the night sky] would still be there / After the shocked were dead”).

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    • 8. Stefan Thiesen  |  January 14, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      I couldn’t agree more with your observation, Frank. For me Auden really was an important discovery, because his work resonates with me in a way cosmology does – or looking at a Hubble Space Telescope deep field photograph. The feeling of being awed – so awed in fact that it is easy to forget how small I am, in a sense, and how deeply intervowen with something so unbelievable huge on the other. Science need not makes us feel small. On the contrary: something as small as us is able to contemplate and – albeit at all times imperfectly – understand the workings of something as big as the universe itself. Science, like all art and all other works that make us human, originates in something so complex, that the approx. degree of complexity (10E28 neural connections) maches the number of stars (approx 10E28 Stars) in the known universe. So we are small, yet at the same time harbor a universe of complexity within our skulls. How beautiful! How fascinating! And that is why, for me at least, a simple poem can be a match for a Supernova, somewhere, in outer space.

      Reply
  • […] Oh, and for a more famous use of the title allusion, you might try W. H. Auden. […]

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  • […] of Auden’s more challenging but also most remarkable poems is “Under Sirius”, written as a response to medieval Latin poet Fortunatus who, by Auden’s account, longed for […]

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