And The Ripeness All

the sea and the mirror‘Well, who in his own backyard
Has not opened his heart to the smiling
Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard
Was sober when he wrote
That this world of fact we love
Is unsubstantial stuff:

All the rest is silence
On the other side of the wall;
And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.



If I Could Tell You

by W. H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so.
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Academics whose job it is to analyze and grade departed poets into some kind of rational literary bench-marking system, have generally agreed that Auden’s work after he left Europe in 1939 is not as gripping or inspiring as his earlier work. Their criticism is that he became a bit too devout, a bit too focused on literature and he lost his poetic edge as he aged. I am not much interested in what critics have to say.  I think the problem with aging writers is less with the writer sometimes and more with the reader. Readers set too a high standard that can not possibly be attained. If a writer is brilliant once, then we expect brilliance again and again and again. Do we hold ourselves to those standards?  Hardly.

Critics rarely like much of anything poets write beyond the age of 50, as if a good poet are only those, like Keats, who find a way to die for their art early enough that the critics don’t have to bother with reading the last musings of their aging favorites. Auden’s poetry after 1940 has less tension than his prior work, but he left the stress of the constancy of European wars behind him.  If Auden lost a bit of his edge, who can blame him. There is still brilliance in his later work, but its not as compressed, the reader has to seek it out. Auden maybe saying to the reader; “If I could tell you I would let you know.” 

One of the advantages of having a short attention span with poetry, is I don’t tend to read long form poems, or if I do, I only skim them, dwelling on shorter portions I find interesting.  Regardless of the writer, I break down long form poetry into small pieces or ignore it all together. So if the critics are correct, and his long form poems aren’t up to the standards of his earlier works, I shall never know.  I will keep coming back to those words of Auden that make me marvel. Like the postscript to The Sea And The Mirror, Auden’s commentary on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest,  where Ariel says to Caliban;

“Never hope to say farewell,
For our lethargy is such
Heaven’s kindness cannot touch
Nor earth’s frankly brutal drum;
This was long ago decided,
    ,      , .Both of us know why,
              .Can, alas, foretell,
When our falsehoods are divided,
   ,     .What we shall become,
One evaporating sigh
 .                 .    …I”


Excerpt from The Sea and The Mirror

by W. H. Auden

On clear days I can see
Green acres far below,
And the red roof where I
Was Little Trinculo.

There lies that solid world
These hands can never reach;
My history, my love,
Is but a choice of speech,

A terror shakes my tree,
A flock of words fly out,
Whereas a laughter shakes
The busy and devout.

Wild images, come down
Out of your freezing sky.
That I, like shorter men.
May get my joke and die.

One note is jarring, Prospero,
My humour is my own;
Tense Trinculo will never know
The paradox Antonio

Laughs at, in woods, alone.

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s