Love Made Him Weep His Pints

Benjamin-Britten-WH-Auden.jpg
Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden

Night Mail

by W. H. Auden

Excerpt IV

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?


We can debate whether social media has enhanced or demolished the art of correspondence, but the elegance of a hand written letter still stands above all other forms of written communication in my mind.  It is an artform perfected before the hustle and bustle of texting, email, Facebook and Instagram.  How many of us are guilty of going an entire year, without posting a single letter to a friend, Christmas cards notwithstanding?  I am a consumer of social media because I have to be, not because I enjoy it or feel that it connects me closer to anyone.

My biggest beef with social media is the un-originality of 99% of it.  Most people re-tweet or re-meme or re-post something that was in their feed, with nothing added to the content. I am guilty of it too and then I often go back and think, why did I post that?  What does it have to do with me?   Nothing.

A hand written letter contains an element of focus that electronic forms of communication will never achieve.   A letter in your mail box is a tangible extension of the letter writer, a conscious act of sharing your life and words with one singular person.  The last line in Auden’s Night Mail, sums it up, “who can bear to feel himself forgotten.”   A letter assures ourselves for as long as the paper remains intact, that we know that another held us in their thoughts as they penned the words.

Here is a short reading of the entire poem, Night Mail, which was commissioned for the documentary This Is The Night Mail, which can also be found on youtube.

 


 

Who’s Who

by W. H. Auden

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

A Dream Of Your Own

17590

III
Narrator

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.


Auden wrote more than one religious poem. His other great work is called Horae Canonicae, the canonical hours or the time prescribed for prayer. It is a series of poems written from 1949 – 1955.  I may start out the year with a bit of an Auden bingefest and  dive into his sonnets and the Horae Canonicae.

What makes Auden exciting to me is how accessible his connection is to his God.  It is a relationship that feels realistic and obtainable, even if I don’t believe. It is certainly heretical in the sense that if written in prior centuries he may have been burned at the stake for his brash poetical stance on religion.

I have felt the same liberty, in writing The Canticle of Divine Doubt. I know that several of the poems could have been a death sentence during the Spanish inquisition or even under King George I. Edward Wightman was the last man burned at the stake in England for his religious writings in 1612.  The accusation against him that he did not believe in the Trinity.  The last person to be publicly executed for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church was Gregory Kelly in Seville, Spain in 1779.

The most bizarre murder by the church in my opinion is the case of William Tyndale in 1536.  Tyndale was a scholar and deeply religious.  He undertook a massive years long translation of the bible. Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts and the first English translation to take advantage of the printing press. It was perceived as a direct challenge to both the Catholic Church and the laws of England maintaining the church’s position.  He was arrested outside Brussels, imprisoned for over a year and convicted of heresy. He was allowed a last-minute confession and was strangled before his body burned.

Seventy five years later when King James assembled 54 scholars to produce the King James version, which is the foundation of all English language bibles since then, the 54 scholars could not really improve upon it and the Tyndale bible was used extensively. It is estimated that the Tyndale translation comprises over 80 percent of the New Testament and over 75 percent of the Old Testament.

If the most read book of poetry of all time, the King James Bible, earned the author his own execution, what do you think would have happened to Auden 400 years earlier?  If you care to read the complete text of For The Time Being, I have provided a link to a an on-line version below, along with another small snippet.

http://archive.org/stream/religiousdrama1007899mbp/religiousdrama1007899mbp_djvu.txt


Recitation

Excerpt from For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
by W. H. Auden

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say “I,” it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.
For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.

Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim — “There must be some mistake” — you must be mistaken….