Friday, February 23, 2007

W. H. Auden, "A Lullaby"

The din of work is subdued,
another day has westered
and mantling darkness arrived.
Peace! Peace! Devoid your portrait
of its vexations and rest.
Your daily round is done with,
you've gotten the garbage out,
answered some tiresome letters
and paid a bill by return,
all frettolosamente.
Now you have licence to lie,
naked, curled like a shrimplet,
jacent in bed, and enjoy
its cosy micro-climate:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

The old Greeks got it all wrong:
Narcissus is an oldie,
tamed by time, released at last
from lust for other bodies,
rational and reconciled.
For many years you envied
the hirsute, the he-man type.
No longer: now you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction,
imagining that you are
sinless and all-sufficient,
snug in the den of yourself,
Madonna and Bambino:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother,
digit friends and dear them all,
then pay fair attribution
to your age, to having been
born when you were. In boyhood
you were permitted to meet
beautiful old contraptions,
soon to be banished from earth,
saddle-tank loks, beam-engines
and over-shot waterwheels.
Yes, love, you have been lucky:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Now for oblivion: let
the belly-mind take over
down below the diaphragm,
the domain of the Mothers,
They who guard the Sacred Gates,
without whose wordless warnings
soon the verbalising I
becomes a vicious despot,
lewd, incapable of love,
disdainful, status-hungry.
Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,
for all, both sweet and horrid,
are jokes in dubious taste,
too jejune to have truck with.
Sleep, Big Baby, sleep your fill.



To end the week, one of Auden's last poems, this delicate self-elegy. My choices were dominated by the Auden of the hawk's eye view, of great truths of humanity and history. The truths here are no less great, nor certainly less humane, but this example serves to show the other end of the spectrum of Auden's voice - intimate, personal, profoundly compassionate while retaining a wise, deprecating irony. One can't but be charmed and warmed by the coddling description "naked, curled like a shrimplet" and the winning "Let your last thinks all be thanks ... digit friends and dear them all" (how utterly opposite in tone to Yeats' "Think where man's glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends."). This compassionate nature clearly underpins all of Auden's work, but it is of moral value and effect that we encounter in his work not only a VOICE: incl. Man's Compassion for Man, but also simply the voice of a compassionate man.


Bryn M. said...

Doesn't that third stanza open with "Let your last think*S* all be thanks"?

I find Joseph Epstein (both in _Narcissus leaves the Pool_ and in his 2007 piece on Turkey Day, amends the quote to "Let your last thinks be thanks" and "Let all your thinks be thanks" respectively. Moreover, in the former he cites the source as Auden's poem "Lullaby" rather than "A Lullaby"—two different works. Hard to track down the original source material sometimes as direct quotes become a little less direct.

My thanks to you for posting it...for your thoughtful comments and insights.

Quotidian Poet said...

Bryn - thanks for catching my typo on "thinkS" - I've edited the post to fix it.

Regarding "Lullaby" vs. "A Lullaby" - Auden frequently revised his poems (and their titles) after he'd first published them, sometimes drastically. This text, with the title as "A Lullaby," I've taken from the _Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_, edited by Ramazani, Ellmann, & O'Clair, which gives this as the 1974 revision. However, the Vintage International _Collected Poems_ edited by Mendelson, has "Lullaby" for the title. Matters are of course complicated by the fact that Auden does have a much earlier poem titled "Lullaby." I would suspect that when the poem listed here was originally published (in magazine and probably in book form) it was titled "Lullaby," but that when Auden republished it in the context of a Collected, he changed the title to "A Lullaby" to differentiate from the earlier "Lullaby."

Both texts have "Let your last thinks all be thanks" - I can only guess that the Epstein quotations are mis-remembered or changed for his own purposes and without textual basis.