Christopher Isherwood, “Prater Violet”

200px-PraterViolet1945

The title of this short novel refers to eponymous film the protagonist (also named Christopher Isherwood) is working on in the years 1933-4 in London. Isherwood drew from his experience scriptwriting for Berthold Viertel’s Little Friend (British Gaumont, 1934). The story begins with Isherwood, still living at home with his mother, receiving a call about scriptwriting from a studio exectutive named Chatsworth and going on a wild goose chase for Bergmann, the film’s quirky Austrian Jewish director. It ends with the film’s success, giving Bergmann the means to move his entire family from Austria in 1935 before the Anschluss. The distant, elusive narrator is reminiscent of Jim Burden (Cather’s My Antonia), Nick Carraway (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), or Tod Hackett (West’s The Day of the Locust).

Politics:

• Bergmann claims British men “marry their mothers… It will lead to the destruction of Europe” 29, predicts the fall of Europe and hints at the Holocaust 41, dream of Nazis 55.
• “This respectable umbrella is the Englishman’s magic wand, with which he will try to wave Hitler out of existence.” 31 (see 29 for the state of Austria).
• Bergmann points out “an inoffensive man sitting alone in the distant corner” and says he is the real eveil, for he will be the one to “do anything, anything to be allowed to live” 42.
• “It was unreal because I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it… The out break of war, like the moment of death, crossed my perspective of the future like a wall; it marked the instant, total end of my imagined world.” 43
• “[Art] is political… The dilemma [of the film] is the dillema of the would-be revolutionary writer or artist, all over Europe.” 49
• “The fog… covered not only London but the entire island; thereby accounting for all our less agreeable racial characteristics, our insularity, our hypocrisy, our political muddling, our prudery and our refusal to face facts… ‘They feed on it, like a kind of bitter soup which fills them with illusions. It is their national costume, clothing the enormous nakedness of the slums and the scandal of unjust ownership.'” 51-2
• Picture is “heartless filth” that is aiding “all their gangsters,” says Bergmann 96, and Isherwood has to convince him “not to send them” to the press, for “He had no case. The papers were being perfectly fair, according to their own standards. You couldn’t expect anything else.” 99
• “This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with plain human men and women. Not with actresses… Not with celluloid. Not with self-advertisement.” 103
• British exhaustion: “We cared about everything… We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin.” 104
• “As for Bergmann, Prater Violet got him the offer of a job in Hollywood. He went out there with his family, early in 1935.” 128, last line of the novel.

Homosexuality:

• “Ashmeade smiled his smooth, pussycat smile. ‘Hullo, Isherwood,’ he said softly, in an amused voice. Our eyes met.” 21
• “[Bergmann] pursued me with questions, about my friends, my interests, my habits, my love life… jealous curiosity… ‘Is it Mr. W. H. you seek, or the Dark Lady of the Sonnets?’ But I was equally obstinate. i wouldn’t tell him. I teased him with smiles and hints.” 38 (both examples are male love objects)
• “But there was a little waiter who… had taken a fancy to me… he came up behind my chair and whispered, ‘Why not take the lobster?… I won’t charge you anything.” 83 (is this J?)
• “Love had been J. for the last month – ever since we met at that party…I would be anxious. I would be jealous… We would part, immune, in future, from that particular toxin, that special twinge of jealous desire, when one of us met the other, with somebody else, at another party. I was glad I had never told Bergmann about J… it was still mine, and it always would be. Even when J. and I were only trophies, hung up in the museums of each other’s vanity. After J., there would be K. and L. and M.,right down the alphabet.” 125 (recall that Ashmeade is A, thus potentially making him, in the alphabet, Isherwood’s first lover? This is also reminiscent of Mr. Ramsay’s linear, alphabetical mode of thought in To the Lighthouse – why, I wonder?)

Surfaces & Aesthetics:

• Bergmann reads Isherwood’s “grandiose” and “genial” novel (27).
• “Sensuality is a whole spearate world. What we seeon the outside, what comes up to the surface – it’s nothing. Love is like a mine. You go deeper and deeper. There are passages, caves, whole strata. You discover entire geological eras. You find little things, objects, which enable you to reconstruct her life, her other lovers, things she does not even know about herself, things you must never tell her that you know…” 39
• “Such a woman is my religion” 44.
• “The film studio of today is really the palace of the sixteenth century… There is enormous splendour, which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery.” 60
• Lawrence Dwight & fascist aesthetics: “All you writers have such a bloody romantic attitude. You think you’re too good for the movies. Don’t you believe it. The movies are too good for you. We don’t need any romantic nineteenth-century whores. We need technicians. Thank God, I’m a cutter. I know my job… I don’t treat film as if it were a bit of my intestine… The movies aren’t drama, they aren’t literature – they’re pure mathematics.” 66-7. (see measuring distance from starlet’s nose to camera lens, 78)
• “Within the great barnlike sound-stage… stands the inconsequent, half-dismantled architecture of the sets… huge photographic backdrops, the frontages of streets; a kind of Pompeii, but more desolate, more uncanny, because this is, literally, a half-world, a limbo of mirror-images, a town which has lost its third dimension. Only the tangle of heavy power cables is solid, and apt to trip you as you cross the floor. Your footsteps sound unnaturally loud; you find yourself walking on tiptoe.” 71, set as a dollhouse 72.
• Lawrence: “The incentive is to fight anarchy. That’s all Man lives for. Reclaiming life from its natural muddle. Making patterns… For the sake of patterns. To create meaning. What else is there?” 69-70, also 92.
• “Bergmann stands by the table. His lips tremble, his eyes glisten; he is a beautiful young girl on the verge of tears.” 77
• The actress shows her “anxiously pretty mask which is her job, her source of income, the tool of her trade” 77, later she “makes a sensational entrance, on his arm, at the top of the staircase, in a blaze of borrowed diamonds.” 87
• Bergmann protests that Chatworth has gotten an “analphabet to take [his] place” 117 for not working too fast.
• Life as waiter’s recommendations: “It seemed to me that I had always done whatever people recommended… teddy bears, football, cigarettes. motor bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of Classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish.” 124
His relationship with Bergmann: “The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet:  Mother’s Boy, the comic Foreigner with the funny accent.” 127.

Film:

• “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion, it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice…” 31
• “The whole beauty of the film… is that it has a certain fixed speed. The way you see it is mechanically conditioned… [examples of painting and book]. The point is, you choose your approach. When you go into a cinema, it’s different. There’s the film, and you have to look at it as the director wants you to look at it… he allows you a certain number of seconds or minutes to grasp each one… an infernal machine.” 32 (see camera as living being 80)
• “In the National Gallery, he explained, with reference to the Rembrandt portraits, his theory of camera angles and the lighting of close-ups.” 53
• The film: “Not all Bergmann’s histrionics, no amount of Freudian analysis or Marxian dialectic could make it anything but very silly.” 58
• From writing to production: “as though two hermits had been transported from their cave in the mountains into the middle of a modern railway station.” 63
• Lawrence writes him that the film is a flop among Parisian intellectuals, who find it counter-revolutionary 128.

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Fredric Jameson, Introduction (“Postmodernism”)

1990

Jameson’s brief introduction to the larger volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism precedes the infamous chapter on “Culture” (the original essay entitled “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”). In about fifteen pages, Jameson lays out the structure of the book, beginning:

“It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” ix

For Jameson, this manifests as “the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications,” different from the modernist fixation on “the new” because it is focused on breaks and events, changes in representations, rather than new worlds and orders of perception. He argues later that both subject and object have changed, but this argument, in particular, seems to focus on the change of the subject, and how we  no longer consider “the thing in itself,” for postmodernism is the more “formal” and “fully human” mode which is

“more ‘distracted,’ as Benhamin might put it; it only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images.” ix

“…culture has become a product in its own right… Postmodernism is the connsumption of sheer commodification as a process.” x

Jameson suggests that in this shift, our theories should relate to Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Culture Industry” as “MTV or fractal ads bear to fifties television series” x. He notes the irony of Lyotard’s “end of master narratives” or “end of history” being narrativized in historical terms xi, since “virtually any observation about the present can be mobilized in the very search for the present itself” xii. In a world where all is surface,

“there no longer exists any such ‘deeper logic’ for the surface to manifest… a pathology distinctively autoreferential.” xii

“postmodernism – has crystallized a host of hitherto independent developments which, thus named, prove to have contained the thing itself in embryo and now step forward richly to document its multiple genealogies… like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses its unlikely materials into a gleaming lump or lava surface.” xiii

If the modernist aesthetic paradigm was built on time, catastrophe, and disaster, postmodernism is built on space, uncertainty, disorientation. Its terminology, for Jameson, is “McLuhanite” xiii (referring to the communications philosopher and media theorist who coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village”). He proposes that Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling” only applies to postmodernism if we undergo “profound collective self-transformation” xiv, but in fact for Jameson, culture and economy in postmodernism are more mutually reinforcing than ever before; there is no “outside.”

Jameson wonders about the use of “utopia” in the “spatialized” age of postmodernity (vs modernity, focused on time), and also begins to suggest that theory (aesthetic theory in particular) seems to have begun to replace aesthetic objects as being able to “defy the gravity of the zeitgeist” xvi and perhaps even be avant-garde. However, with such theorizing, what is “the text” that replaces “the work” in “the Heisenberg principle of postmodernism… the endless slide show, ‘total flow’ prolonged into the infinite”? xvii. Whereas once the world or language was fragmented and the subject (the bourgeois ego) expressed that, now the subject is fragmented, or ceases to exist (thus the “waning of affect” Jameson notes and Ngai contends).

TERMS: Jameson also explains his use of the word “nostalgia” for the film chapter here – an affectless return of the repressed of the twenties and thirties xvii. He uses “late capitalism” as a synonym of “multinational capitalism,” “spectacle or image society,” “media capitalism,” “the world system,” and calls “postmodernism,” Adorno’s “administered society,” and even “postindustrial society” cousins of the term xviii. He traces the term back to Adorno, Horkheimer, & the Frankfurt School to refer to “a tendential web of bureaucratic control… a Foucault-like grid avant la lettre” and “the interpenetration of government and big business… Nazism… the New Deal… some form of socialism, benign or Stalinist” xviii.

Though the term has shed some of the paranoia of these older associations and (frighteningly) these features have become naturalized, it is still a useful way to think about the post-imperial stage of capitalism (see notes to Chapter 1). The pieces came gradually, but have jelled into a new system of which we are now actually aware, characterized by international labor division, media & computing on the rise, emergence of yuppies, and global gentrification xix. Jameson claims that the economic structures were laid in the 50s, but that the cultural aspect necessitated a new “psychic habitus… the absolute break” only possible a decade later:

“That the various preconditions for a new ‘structure of feeling’ also preexist their moment of combination and crystallization into a relatively hegemonic style everyone acknowledges… the basic new technological prerequisites of the… third stage… were available by the end of World War II…. Culturally, however, the precondition is to be found… in the enormous social and psychological transformations of the 1960s.” xx

“If you prefer a now somewhat antiquated language, the distinction is very much the one Althusser used to harp on between a Hegelian ‘essential cross section’ of the present (or coup d’essence), where a culture critique wants to find a single principle of the ‘postmodern’ inherent in the most varied and ramified features of social life, and that Althusserian ‘structure in dominance’ in which the various levels entertain a semiautonomy over against each other, runa t different rates of speed, develop unevenly, and yet conspire to produce a totality” ixx-xx

Jameson cuts the “short American century” to 30 years: 1945-73, beginning with WWII ending and culminating in the oil crisis, end of the gold standard and ‘wars of national liberation’/death of traditional communism of 1973 xx-xxi. “Late capitalism,” far from suggesting the system’s death, seems “more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive” xxi. Though the term “postmodernism” is not ideal, it is unavoidable, and “every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and to stage those representational inconsistencies and dilemmas” xxii.

The full list of sections of the volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is as follows (those in bold are those I will be reading):

0) Introduction
1) Culture: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
2) Ideology: Theories of the Postmodern
3) Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious
4) Architecture: Spatial Equivalents in the World System
5) Sentences: Reading and the Division of Labor
6) Space: Utopianism after the end of Utopia
7) Theory: Immanence and Nominalism in Postmodern THeoretical Discourse
8) Economics: Postmodernism and the Market
9) Film: Nostalgia for the Present
10) Conclusion: Secondary Elaborations

Jean Toomer, “Cane”

1923

A series of short narratives with poetic interludes, Cane is one of the earliest texts of the Harlem Renaissance. It consists of the following pieces (narratives are italicized, poems are not):

Karintha – a young black woman desired by older men who wish “to ripen a growing thing too soon.”
Reapers
November Cotton Flower
Becky – an ostracized white woman with two black sons who lives in a small stone house with the railway.
Face
Cotton Song
Carma – a strong woman whose husband becomes involved in shady business.
Song of the Son
Georgia Dusk
Fern – A Northern black man attempts to woo a southern black woman, with strange results.
Nullo
Evening Song
Esther – a young woman who works in a drug store ages and pines for the wandering preacher Barlo, eventually seeking him out, only to be jeered at when he smiles hideously at her and she runs away.
Conversion
Portrait in Georgia
Blood-Burning Moon – black man Tom Burwell and white man Bob Stone each pursue the young Louisa, resulting in a violent encounter and a tragic climax.

(section 2: half moon mark)

Seventh Street – Brief vignette about a street which is “a bastard of Prohibition and the War.
Rhobert – about a solitary man
Avey – A young college student pursues a lazy girl named Avey, but cannot figure out why.
Beehive
Storm Ending
Theater – A dancer named Dorris seeks the approval and adoration of a patron named John.
Her Lips are Copper Wire
Calling Jesus
Box Seat – Dan Moore lusts after a reluctant Muriel, and follows her to a dwarf fight, where he starts a scene.
Prayer
Harvest Song – “I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are cradled… I fear knowledge of my hunger… My pain is sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me knowledge of my hunger.”
Bona & Paul – A story of indifferent love.

(section 3: full moon mark)

Kabnis – Essentially a short play about a Northern black schoolteacher’s experiences in the south, returning to his roots – bizarre ending of preacher’s violence?

Langston Hughes wrote in “The Negro & the Racial Mountain” that Cane challenged what both blacks & whites wanted to read about black life: it fit neither the white model of the “Old Negro” nor the white craving for Harlem scandal, nor did it please blacks who wanted black life portrayed as “respectable.”

It’s worth considering how many of the vignettes center around the lives of women. Beginning with Karintha’s bold, sexualized narrative of childhood and ending with the woman on her knees before the priest in “Kabnis” seems to suggest some kind of dialogue with Joyce – the world of tight-knit communities, but revised so that childhood is neither purely male nor innocent, nor is it urban, like Dublin.

The title of the work seems to suggest both the sweetness of sugarcane as well as the history of slave and sharecropping labor associated with plantations, not to mention the transformation of the sugarcane into an instrument of violence. All the stories focus on the growth, harvesting, death, and labor around the fields and small towns of Georgia. The narratives are tangentially related, but mainly by associated ideas and tones, not actual characters or plots.

It would be interesting to teach this either with Stein’s Three Lives and/or Tender Buttons for discussing narrative voice, community, and thematic interrelation among narratives. One could also teach this with Dubliners and/or Winesburg, Ohio for the same reasons, addressing differences between Irish, American, and Black modernisms. You could also put it in dialogue with some other poems of the Harlem Renaissance and/or Banjo to discuss jazz/ variations on a theme.

W. H. Auden, “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Barbieri

Barbieri

1964

 

This poem explores the problem of the “domesticated” being of Mother Nature (“Happily married/ Housewife, helpmate to man), beneath whose surface rages the original wild that man thinks he has tamed (screeching/ Virago, the Amazon). It seems important to discuss the poem in such gendered terms, since Nature has been subsumed as “helpmate to Man,” while “the autobahn/ Thwarts the landscape/ In godless Roman arrogance.” Nevertheless, the instrument will inevitably be turned on the master: “The farmer’s children/ Tip-toe past the shed/ Where the gelding-knife is kept.”

The title refers to the 17th-century paintings of idyllic Arcadian life by Nicolas Poussin or Giovanni Barbieri (1618). The paintings depict young shepherds coming across the tombstone of one whose death descries the fallacy of Arcadian happiness: that Time kills all. This phrase also appears in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Poussin

Poussin

Who, now, seeing Her so
Happily married,
Housewife, helpmate to Man,

Can imagine the screeching
Virago, the Amazon,
Earth Mother was?

Her jungle growths
Are abated,
Her exorbitant monsters abashed,

Her soil mumbled,
Where crops, aligned precisely,
Will soon be orient:

Levant or couchant,
Well-daunted thoroughbreds
Graze on mead and pasture,

A church clock subdivides the day,
Up the lane at sundown
Geese podge home.

As for Him:
What has happened to the Brute
Epics and nightmares tell of?

No bishops pursue
Their archdeacons with axes,
In the crumbling lair

Of a robber baron
Sightseers picnic
Who carry no daggers.

I well might think myself
A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance,

The farmer’s children
Tiptoe past the shed
Where the gelding knife is kept.

W. H. Auden, “Twelve Songs”

1935-38

Much of the poem, namely the most famous song – IX, retitled “Funeral Blues,” – was written for satiric musical performance in Isherwood & Auden’s The Ascent of F6, a 1936 tragic play. It has been reclaimed sincerely in later years.

I. Song of the Beggars
“O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
With somersaults and fireworks, the roast and the smacking kisses”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And Garbo’s and Cleopatra’s wits to go astraying,
In a feather ocean with me to go fishing and playing,
Still jolly when the cock has burst himself with crowing”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And to stand on green turf among the craning yellow faces
Dependent on the chestnut, the sable, the Arabian horses,
And me with a magic crystal to foresee their places”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And this square to be a deck and these pigeons canvas to rig,
And to follow the delicious breeze like a tantony pig
To the shaded feverless islands where the melons are big”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And these shops to be turned to tulips in a garden bed,
And me with my crutch to thrash each merchant dead
As he pokes from a flower his bald and wicked head”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.
“And a hole in the bottom of heaven, and Peter and Paul
And each smug surprised saint like parachutes to fall,
And every one-legged beggar to have no legs at all”

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.

Spring 1935 

II.
O lurcher-loving collier, black as night,
Follow your love across the smokeless hill;
Your lamp is out, the cages are all still;
Course for heart and do not miss,
For Sunday soon is past and, Kate, fly not so fast,
For Monday comes when none may kiss:
Be marble to his soot, and to his black be white.

June 1935

III.
Let a florid music praise,
The flute and the trumpet,
Beauty’s conquest of your face:
In that land of flesh and bone,
Where from citadels on high
Her imperial standards fly,
Let the hot sun
Shine on, shine on.

O but the unloved have had power,
The weeping and striking,
Always: time will bring their hour;
Their secretive children walk
Through your vigilance of breath
To unpardonable Death,
And my vows break
Before his look.

February 1936

IV.
Dear, though the night is gone,
Its dream still haunts today,
That brought us to a room
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.

Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s necks
Inert and vaguely sad.

What hidden worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of,
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out.

March 1936

V.
Fish in the unruffled lakes
Their swarming colors wear,
Swans in the winter air
A white perfection have,
And the great lion walks
Through his innocent grove;
Lion, fish and swan
Act, and are gone
Upon Time’s toppling wave.

We, till shadowed days are done,
We must weep and sing
Duty’s conscious wrong,
The Devil in the clock,
The goodness carefully worn
For atonement or for luck;
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.

Sighs for folly done and said
Twist our narrow days,
But I must bless, I must praise
That you, my swan, who have
All the gifts that to the swan
Impulsive Nature gave,
The majesty and pride,
Last night should add
Your voluntary love.

March 1936

VI. Autumn Song
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last,
Nurses to their graves are gone,
But the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbors left and right
Daunt us from our true delight,
Able hands are forced to freeze
Derelict on lonely knees.

Close behind us on our track,
Dead in hundreds cry Alack,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.

Scrawny through a plundered wood,
Trolls run scolding for their food,
Owl and nightingale are dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.

March 1936

VII.
Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

March 1936

VIII.
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my friend, there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of the migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.

April 1936

IX.
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 Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: 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.

April 1936

X.
O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; “O Johnny, let’s play”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Matinee Charity Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
“Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let’s dance till it’s day”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver or golden silk gown;
“O John I’m in heaven,” I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
“O marry me, Johnny, I’ll love and obey”:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

April 1937

XI. Roman Wall Blues
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

October 1937

XII.
Some say that love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world round,
And some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like classical stuff?
Does it stop when one wants to quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’ in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on the door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

W. H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”

800px-bruegel_pieter_de_oude_-_de_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res1938

The poem examines the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (thought to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 1560s), focusing on the sidelined suffering of the boy’s fall while the everyday occurences of other lives go on. There’s an irony here of the speaker going to a museum to learn about suffering – the realm of aesthetics offers the leisure of experiencing this aesthetically rather than politically? For Hannah Arendt, pain is private and eclipses the world – here is it the opposite? Does the person turn away?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden: Poems

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was a British poet turned American citizen in 1946. He traveled to the U.S. in 1939 with his great friend since childhood, Christopher Isherwood. This was seen as a “betrayal” of England by many, and their artistic reputations suffered. He spent the first 2 years in a “marriage” to Chester Kallman, who eventually ended the relationship because of Auden’s demands of fidelity. He died in Vienna in 1973.

“THE SECRET AGENT,” 1928

“The Secret Agent” begins with official, military language:

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.

It quickly devolves into the uncertainty and insignificance of a lone man in/against a large institution.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

It ends with his imagination beginning to expand beyond painful reality, as well as demonstrating ways in which his mind is scarred or inevitably bound up in that reality’s horrors.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.

“A BRIDE IN THE 30s,” 1934

This poem begins with the ease of a young girl on her wedding day, “as thrugh the leaves of an album, I’m led/ Through the night’s delights and the day’s impressions.” Auden is particularly interested in the surfaces of society here: “Looking and loving, our behaviours pass/ Things of stone, of steel and of polished glass.” The country reverberates with past trauma: “He from these lands of terrifying mottoes/ Makes worlds as innocent as Beatrix Potter’s… Intent as a collector, to pursue/ His greens and lilies.” The solipsism of the bridegroom seems aimed at losing himself in an idea of the bride: “Easy for him to find in your face/ A pool of silence or a tower of grace,/ To conjure a camera into a wishing-rose…” It then becomes more explicitly political, toggling from the massively social down to the minimally personal: “Ten desperate million marching by,/ Five feet, six feet, seven feet high,/ Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses,/ Churchill acknowledging the voters’ greeting,/ Roosevelt at the microphone, van der Lubbe laughing,/ And our first meeting.” He continues on the personal choices that shut doors as maturity approaches: “While every day there bolted from the field/ Desires to which we could not yield,/ Fewer and clearer grew our plans,/ Schemes for a life-time, sketches for a hatred,/ And early among my interesting scrawls/ Appeared your portrait” (“sketches for a hatred feels particularly Yeatsian, like “mere complexities”). He wants to bathe the object of his gaze in innocence:

“Be deaf, too, standing uncertain now… /To what I hear and wish I did not,/ The voice of Love saying lightly, brightly,/ ‘Be Lubbe, be Hitler, but be my good,/ Daily, nightly…/ But the heart repeats, though we would not hearken…”

“AS I WALKED OUT ONE EVENING,” 1937

The poem begins with an uplifting, natural image (contrary to the start of Eliot’s “Prufrock”), and continues on with a song of impossibilities, detailing the nature and expansiveness of true love (think of the first love vs Dylan’s “first dead” in “A Refusal to Mourn”):

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

The tone of the poem shifts as Time enters, signifying the ephemeral, impossible nature of memory and age for Auden:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

The tone shifts to the imperative, seemingly encouraging a loss of self in the barren wasteland of time:

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

However, this seems to be called into question towards the final stanzas, when we are asked to see the moment as a blessing nevertheless:

‘O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

“MUSEE DES BEAUX ARTS,” 1938 (in a separate post)

“TWELVE SONGS,” 1935-8 (in a separate post)

“IN MEMORY OF W.B. YEATS,” 1939

A poem in three parts, like the Holy Trinity, it moves from body to mind to spirit, from physical death to posterity to religious observance. It engages us as readers in the process of turning Yeats from person into legacy as well. There is a kind of unrest here as well, as though Auden cannot settle into a form.

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The tension of the first stanza is between the fact of his death and the “mystery” of his “disappearance,” between the cold that operates as pathetic fallacy here (“the dead of winter”) and the actual “instruments” that “agree” in their measurements that it was cold.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

The mythical land of Yeats’ poems here is characterized by movement and continuity, even after his death.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

The divided land of his body is at war with itself, silent and revolting – “he became his admirers” as his body left and he only remained as his poetry.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The repetition of the instruments at the end reinforces the material aspect of this section, which is focused on the body. As Yeats’ body goes, he is “scattered,” but when we read the idea of “each in the cell of himself,” is it not perhaps a liberation for the poet to die and be so distributed?

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

The tone in the second stanza shifts to Yeats’ great mind – his silliness, his politics, the fact that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but survives in the communcation from one person to the next.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

[Auden later deleted the next three stanzas.]

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

The final stanza attends to his funeral – to the spiritual fate of the dead man, which remains uncertain. Even as the poem parades the failure of language, poetry “survives” as “a way of happening, a mouth” – it remains bodily after the body that gave it life has passed, promising at least some form of transcendence to the poet.

“IN PRAISE OF LIMESTONE,” 1948

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.

“THEIR LONELY BETTERS,” 1950

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Here, Auden revisits the traditional poem of bird and epistemology – from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” to Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” to Yeats’ “Wild Swans at Coole.” Here, Auden affirms the Keatsian and Yeatsian blissful ignorance of the birds (as compared to the joyous knowledge of the old thing in Hardy), versus the burdenous knowledge of men. However, the nuance here is that men are lonely despite their medium of communication, or perhaps because of it – language abandons us at crucial moments, leaving us with gaps where we feel deeply, which we fill, like animals, “when we laugh or weep.” The final line “Words are for those with promises to keep,” perhaps refers to the decisiveness of the Frost poem.

“ET IN ARCADIA EGO,” 1964 (in a separate post)

“I AM NOT A CAMERA,” 1969

To call our sight Vision
implies that, to us,
all objects are subjects.

What we have not named
or beheld as a symbol
escapes our notice.

We never look at two people
or one person twice
in the same way.

It is very rude to take close-ups and, except
when engaged, we don’t:
lovers, approaching to kiss,
instinctively shut their eyes before their faces
can be reduced to
anatomical data.

Instructive it may be to peer through lenses:
each time we do, though, we should apologise
to the remote or the small for intruding
upon their quiddities.

The camera records
visual facts: ie.,
all may be fictions.

Flash-backs falsify the Past:
they forget
the remembering Present.

On the screen we can only
witness human behaviour:
Choice is for camera-crews.

The camera may
do justice to laughter, but must
degrade sorrow.

Every time we look, we do not see – not all we see is a mystical ‘vision,’ for that which we have not made a symbol of, we often do not see. Every time we look, it is differently. There is something penetrating and fearful about the close-up here – it exposes too much – even the fiction of life itself, its uncertain status as whole. We are captive audiences at the cinema – the camera can record joy, but it degrades sorrow. Is this because it can or should not be repeatable?