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.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"

(d. January 1939)


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

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

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.

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 instrument we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


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 saying where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw town that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


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

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beatiful 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 fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.



This is, quite simply, one of the great elegies of English literature, and one of the most significant poems in the twentieth century. It gives an utterly original, riveting, and convincing account of the dissolution of an individual into the matter of history; at the same time, it gives a gloss of how history shapes and gives impetus to the individual. It sets the argument of the place of this individual as a poet, of poetry within history, the ambivalently qualified contention "poetry makes nothing happen...." It also pays homage to the courage of Yeats and poetry, whether they do good or not, or are foolish or not, in their steadfast vision of darkness as well as dedication to crafting some fruit out of darkness. Each of us, "In the prison of his days," is at the mercy of both time, history, and other forces scarcely understood by us, which rightly scare us. Those who struggle to pierce that dark by the burning of their own passion indeed deserve our praise.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

W. H. Auden, "First Things First" / E K, "Second Thoughts"

To celebrate Auden's birthday - February 21, 1907 - I'm posting a tribute/imitation/response I wrote a few years ago while studying his poetry in Oxford (where, of course, Auden himself went).


First Things First

Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened
To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark
Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,
Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,
Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants
Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.

Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen, yet, as well
As harshness and clumsiness would allow, it spoke in your praise,
Kenning you a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind
With power to tame both real and imaginary monsters,
Likening your poise of being to an upland county,
Here green on purpose, there pure blue for luck.

Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me,
It reconstructed a day of peculiar silence
When a sneeze could be heard a mile off, and had me walking
On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless
As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly
So once, so valuable, so very now.

This, moreover, at an hour when only to often
A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English,
Predicting a world where every sacred location
Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do,
Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides,
And gentle hearts are extinct like Hegelian Bishops.

Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say
How much it believed of what I said the storm had said
But quetly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.


Second Thoughts

Awake, I lay trying to ball up my blanket warmth,
Listening to the idle patter of snow forming drifts
Till some pattern began to resolve in the static,
My mind a receptive fallow field or mine
Culling infinite variables from the precipitate white,
A chart of past and present, my frozen Zodiac.

Not the path I want to choose, but the prints remain,
The plow only drawing its scraping edge
To write roads familiarly traveled. I venture
That your ghost is the real occlusion of memory,
Tears forming a cataract towards the future,
A double-blindness, sullen grey and squinting white.

Expansive though it was, alone as it truly discovered me,
It re-formed a place of compact intimacy
Where the slightest budge need be shared, and, holding still
Your undulous province, bordering my frontier,
I silented an invocation of timeless peace
Written in the contour of our bodies together.

This, in a season where I routinely despaired
Of a writ of love beyond the rites of lust,
Entrapped by the air-castle, reciprocal appreciation
My ego gladly chartered, providing a flattering script,
Self-seduced in a pituitary pitfall
Deducing justice of dialectic by hormonal logic.

Troubled, I laid till a time for action
In other matters pushed these thoughts aside
And the sun turned my eyes away from their accumulation
—The drifts become deep enough to cover a man
But for the banks' high, stoic walls—second thoughts:
Water in winter is no use, without the heat to thaw.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

W. H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"

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 Breughel'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.



This poem shows Auden's voice shading into something more intimate, or at least spanning between the hawkeye-view of the world and time and close-ups on specific scenes and individual suffering - the contrast between the two being the theme. It also shows the heavy irony that is at play in much of his work, his deadpan capturing of mundane, bathetic detail, as in the pitch-perfect "doggy life" and the torturer's horse's "innocent behind". I've also always loved the deft parenthesis enacted by the breaks of the final three lines, and the mimetic syntax of the final line, providing alternative purpose and then carrying on with action.

(Other paintings alluded to: Brueghel's The Numbering at Bethlehem, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, and The Massacre of the Innocents.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

W. H. Auden, "Spain"

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."

And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."

And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss. O show us
History the operator, the
Organiser. Time the refreshing river."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.



To celebrate the centennary of his birth, this week TPQ pays tribute to the great W. H. Auden (1907-1973). I unfortunately don't have a collection of Auden handy, but the selection in my anthology at hand has more than enough first-rate examples to fill out the whole week. I'm also no Auden scholar, so my comments will be brief. This first poem, "Spain", exemplifies Auden's political commitment and engagement with contemporary political and social issues, in his energetic response to the Spanish Civil War, as well as his conscience - in later life the poem was dropped from publication in collections of his work, in part for the line "The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder". The poem also exemplifies one end of the great range of Auden's voice - here he is beyond prophetic, canvassing History and Society from one end to another. This 'hawkeye view' is ingeniously structured in the incantations of "Yesterday" "Tomorrow" and "To-day" as a frame for the catalogue of all things temporal. The speaker pronounces upon all with a voice that is steadfast, impersonal yet filled with human conviction.