Posts filed under ‘Wystan Hugh Auden’

After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

W. H. Auden

Listen (to Auden read)

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

I am delighted to add this old favourite to the collection. Rarely do poets bring in pelting particles and Euclidean space when speaking of matters of the heart. And sadly so, for where else can you find such trenchant or touching metaphors?

Yes, there is Nabokov naming butterflies and Lehrer singing out the periodic table. But where are the great narratives that seamlessly incorporate the wonder of science or the beauty of mathematics?

The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. With more knowledge comes deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still …

It is true that few unscientific people have this particular kind of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing about it — not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it….

Perhaps one of the reasons is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific analysis says, perhaps, something like this: “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” Now, what does that mean?

It means that the phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat (and also in mine, and yours) is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago, but that all of the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced, and the ones that were there before have gone away.

So what is this mind, what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! That is what now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind that has long ago been replaced.

That is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms, to note that the thing that I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday. – from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

Great commentary on the poem at puisi-poetry.

* The audio is a .ram file, not an mp3.


May 18, 2007 at 11:46 pm 2 comments


W H Auden


Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Okay, okay, so everyone knows this one. If there is any poem of Auden’s more hackneyed, more commonly quoted than Funeral Blues, it is Lullaby.

But Lullaby remains, for me, not just one of Auden’s most beautiful poems but one of the most beautiful love poems ever written. What I love about it is its refusal to compromise – its refusal to slip into either lying sentimentality or fashionable cynicism. As a poem it is both a negation of love poetry and an intense celebration of love – a winnowing of sentiment from emotion that few poems can match. Auden does not ask us to accept our limitations, he urges us to embrace them, because it is only in the knowledge of its mutability that what we experience comes to be precious. But this is only part of the story. In its realistic magic, in its unflinching humanism, this is not just a love poem, it is, in a strange and indefinable way an agenda for modern poetry – the standard by which a truly great poem is measured. For what more can we ask from verse than that it “find our mortal world enough” and how few of the poems we write, or, for that matter, the lives we live, can pass that test.

More than its message, though, what moves me about this poem are the phrases, the words, the soft perfection of the tone. Every line of this poem (well, okay, every line of stanzas 1,3 and 4 – I’m not that fond of stanza 2) is magical, incantatory, filled with a sense of inexpressible meaning, capable of connecting directly to the imagination. Auden’s short lines conjure a world of images. How else to explain why “nights of insult” sounds so evocative, why, when Auden says “every farthing of the cost / all the dreaded cards foretell / shall be paid” we never stop to ask what cost? what cards? and for what crime? Auden’s greatness as a poet is that he does not need to explain this, that he connects to the reader in so fundamental a way that we know already what he means, that we understand him perfectly, even though nothing is spelled out. Eliot, in a dedication to his wife, speaks of lovers “Who think the same thoughts without need of speech”. Auden’s poems seldom say much, but for those of us who love him, the way he says it sounds so exactly right, connects to so much more inside us, expresses so much of what is left unspoken.


February 24, 2007 at 11:41 pm 4 comments

Funeral Blues

W. H. Auden



Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The beauty of this poem lies in its ability to bring in time – the clock and the telephone, the traffic policemen and the public dove – into our mourning, and then effortlessly add timelessness to the mix – the sun, the moon and the stars.

The first two stanzas create a picture postcard of how we want the world to mourn. And two more to truly reflect what we yearn.

* from Four Weddings and a Funeral


February 22, 2007 at 2:09 am 15 comments

Law like Love

W. H. Auden

Listen (Auden reads)

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

Now that his birth centenary is finally here, I thought we’d let Auden speak for himself.

‘Law like Love’ is one of my favourite Auden poems. It’s also one of my favourite poems to read aloud. I’m always amazed by the way Auden gives each speaker in the poem a distinctive voice, so that even just reading the poem on the page you can clearly tell one speaker from the other. This is astonishing because it’s done with such deftness – scarcely anyone in the first half has more than a sentence or two to say – and within a poem that, overall, is infectious in its rhythm. On top of which it’s a fascinating conceit and one that Auden, true to form, milks for everything it’s got.


Link courtesy: audio (also featuring a recording of Under Which Lyre)

More commentary here.

February 21, 2007 at 12:27 pm 6 comments

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden


I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

From the fanciful to the meditative. As reflections on the state of the world go, this one is hard to beat. The narration seems so natural, so unlaboured, one thought flowing easily into another, yet the succession of ideas is astonishing and each is expressed with an economy and precision that demands our envy. Seated at the semi-colon of the century, at the end of the “low, dishonest decade” and the eve of what would become our most destructive war, Auden sums up the age, pinpoints the exact nature of the failure. If the function of the poet is to comment on the times he or she lives in, then Auden, with this poem, performs that task magnificently.


A note on the text: I’ve seen versions of this poem that include an extra stanza before the last one. It goes:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

I’ve stuck with the version I first read (which comes from the Penguin Book of English Verse).

February 20, 2007 at 12:37 pm 2 comments

Detective Story

W.H. Auden


Who is ever quite without his landscape,
The straggling village street, the house in trees,
All near the church? Or else, the gloomy town-house,
The one with the Corinthian pillars, or
The tiny workmanlike flat, in any case
A home, a centre where the three or four things
That happen to a man do happen?
Who cannot draw the map of his life, shade in
The country station where he meets his loves
And says good-bye continually, mark the spot
Where the body of his happiness was first discovered?

An unknown tramp? A magnate? An enigma always,
With a well-buried past: and when the truth,
The truth about our happiness comes out,
How much it owed to blackmail and philandering.

What follows is habitual. All goes to plan:
The feud between the local common sense
And intuition, that exasperating amateur
Who’s always on the spot by chance before us;
All goes to plan, both lying and confession,
Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.

Yet, on the last page, a lingering doubt:
The verdict, was it just? The judge’s nerves,
That clue, that protestation from the gallows,
And our own smile…why, yes….

But time is always guilty. Someone must pay for
Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.

Crime fiction, meet poetry.  I love how Auden captures the lineaments of the genre here, creating a sense that this is a story you’ve read before. And I love “The feud between the local common sense / and intuition, that exasperating amateur / who’s always on the scene before us”


February 19, 2007 at 1:15 pm Leave a comment

Under Sirius

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.


February 18, 2007 at 1:45 pm 11 comments

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden


(To JS/07/M/378/ This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war,
he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of
his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

A justly famous poem this – that combines the tone of Ogden Nash with the sensibility of George Orwell. Big Brother is watching you, but to him you are just a set of statistics, more or less close to the average. We are all sampling units – households, consumers, taxpayers, employees – never people; our identity and happiness distillable to a set of key numbers. (Elsewhere Auden writes: “This while when, practical like paper dishes / Truth is convertible to kilowatts”).

It is a theme that could easily grow stale and didactic. But Auden pulls it off with aplomb, packing just enough humour and surprise into his lines so that we never weary of their repeated message; a series of controlled explosions leading to that searing conclusion.


February 17, 2007 at 1:14 pm 2 comments

In Praise of Limestone

W. H. Auden

Listen (Sven Birkerts reads)

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

Such a rich, baroque poem. Like the scene it describes, In Praise of Limestone is an intricate landscape of ideas – eroded structures of belief, green rock-pools of meaning – through which the poets voice flows, sometimes hesitating, sometimes clear. It is a poem that deserves to be explored more than understood; there are many meanings one could take from it and, as Auden puts it himself, “the blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from”. Is it the quotidian and the domestic the poet is fleeing, summoned by a “solitude that asks and promises nothing” (Louis MacNeice writes: “the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom”); or is it religion that is the Great Mother; or is this region of small, predictable things perhaps Poetry itself? This is a walking tour for the intellect, and it is characteristic of Auden that he chooses to show us not marble, not gilded monument, but the ravaged quarries of the mind.

Notice, however, the exquisite displays of skill tucked away in the crevices of this poem. How effortlessly, for instance, the lines “these gamins / pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade / with such lively offers” create and communicate so vivid an image with such an economy of words.  Nietzsche writes:

“In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks and those spoken to should be long and tall.”

This poem too walks in a landscape of giants, even as it waxes nostalgic for a smaller, more certain world.


Link leads to a recording of the poem as part of BU Today’s Favorite Poem Project.  Sven Birkerts is the editor of Agni and the recording currently features on Agni Online.

February 16, 2007 at 3:26 pm 6 comments

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
By suffering.

(Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day)

And of:

‘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.


February 15, 2007 at 2:39 pm Leave a comment

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