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?

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