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.
— excerpt from W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”
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 instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
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.
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 instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
— excerpt from W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shameless a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead
Now, unready to die
Bur already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of middle-age.
It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.
— excerpt from W. H. Auden’s “A Walk After Dark”
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
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.
— from W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
Does anyone else find themselves utterly humbled by the bravery of the Ukrainian defenders — and also by the Russians demonstrating against Putin’s invasion?
There are powerful, evil men in this world. But there are also countless otherwise ordinary people who are both brave and good. I try to remember the latter when I feel troubled by the former. It helps.
I think that this is what W. H. Auden meant when he wrote about Hitler’s invasion of Ukraine’s neighbor, Poland — which started World War II in Europe. (The second world war had already been underway in the Pacific, with Japan’s attacks on China and Manchuria.)
The poem, entitled “September 1, 1939,” concludes with this:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Auden had a hopeful heart, at the end of the day, no matter how well his work portrayed sadness. I wonder what he would write about the world today.
Photo credit: 4028mdk09, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
(a portion of “The Sea and the Mirror”)
Sing, Ariel, sing,
Out of the sour
And shiftless water,
Of the dozing tree,
The raging heart
With a smoother song
Than this rough world,
O brilliantly, lightly,
Of bodies and death,
Unanxious one, sing …
“Woman by the Surf,” Anne Brigman
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid …
— from W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby”
Death and the Maiden, George Clark Stanton, 19th Century.
His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those smart professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.
The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.
So here he was without maps or supplies,
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes;
The silence roared displeasure: looking down,
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
— “The Average,” by W. H. Auden
Joao lara mesquita, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“The Lucky,” by W. H. Auden (Part XV. of “The Quest”)
Suppose he’d listened to the erudite committee,
He would have only found where not to look;
Suppose his terrier when he whistled had obeyed,
It would not have unearthed the buried city;
Suppose he had dismissed the careless maid,
The cryptogram would not have fluttered from the book.
“It was not I,” he cried as, healthy and astounded,
He stepped across a predecessor’s skull;
“A nonsense jingle simply came into my head
And left the intellectual Sphinx dumbfounded;
I won the Queen because my hair was red;
The terrible adventure is a little dull.”
Hence Failure’s torment: “Was I doomed in any case,
Or would I not have failed had I believed in Grace?”
Rosso Fiorentino & Pontormo: Angeletto con liuto, 1518
W. H. Auden called the mid-twentieth century The Age of Anxiety. It was the title of a book-length epic poem that won him a 1948 Pulitzer Prize, and it depicted his perception of the loneliness and isolation of the mid-twentieth century. (I have not read it.)
Auden set it in a bar in New York City. (He actually immigrated there in 1939; many casual poetry readers are unaware that he had dual citizenship with Britain and America.)
I wonder what Auden would think of the early 21st Century, here at his adopted home. I t started with the September 11 terror attacks and has arrived at a pandemic that has killed 443,000 Americans (along with nearly 94,000 back in his native Britain). Evictions and unemployment have predictably risen right along with the deaths.
And America seems the closest now to civil war since … the actual Civil War began in 1861. (We did, after all, see one side storm the Capitol to attack its democratically elected government.)
I’ll bet our anxiety could give Auden’s a run for its money.