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.
“The Tower,” by W. H. Auden
(Part IX of “The Quest”)
This is an architecture for the old;
Thus heaven was attacked by the afraid,
So once, unconsciously, a virgin made
Her maidenhead conspicuous to a god.
Here on dark nights while worlds of triumph sleep
Lost Love in abstract speculation burns,
And exiled Will to politics returns
In epic verse that makes its traitors weep.
Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.