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.

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