Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.
The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.
I keep a poetry log each year. It’s pretty crude in its form. I take poems I come across which I like, whether in print or online, in a literary magazine or even better, that someone has shared with me, and I transcribe them into a Google Doc titled; Favorite poems of “…..”. At the end of the year I print it out and reread it. It is interesting to see the tracks of where my curiosity has scampered. Last year, in reading the log, I discovered that W. H. Auden and A. E. Housman had re-occurred, more than I had consciously realized. I enjoy it when I uncover threads of continuity and I do a Homer Simpson “Doh” when I see them staring back at me.
I am, admittedly, at risk of criticism by smarter and more learned readers than I, who might read this blog and level charges that my knowledge is at best superficial about the history of a specific poet or their poetry. Please don’t bother to sharpen your long knives, I will accept your deft criticism. There is an advantage to not being blinded by a deep specificity of knowledge. It frees the mind to find connections that may or may not be relevant to scholars without having to justify it with academic proof.
The Secret Agent is an unrhymed sonnet, written by Auden in 1928. Who knows who fucked whom 100 years ago, and it doesn’t matter. Historians and academics who know more than I, state that Auden was gay. His sexuality is unimportant to me, I like his writing. The Secret Agent, I believe, deals metaphorically with who he is and maybe who he loves, depending on how you might interpret a line such as; “Control of the passes, was he saw, the key.” Auden has the where with all to hide it in plain sight, regardless with whom his real life romances occurred.
I thought my Auden infatuation had begun only after my Mom died in July of 2016. But I was wrong. It had been a silent running theme, unrecognized consciously throughout the year. Let me explain.
After my Mom’s death, I was the one to settle her estate and largely deal with her possessions. I found on her book shelf, cleaning out her apartment, a rather plain hard cover green, cellophane tape repaired edition of the book Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a gem. The copy my Mother left to me, I want to believe, was boosted from the library of North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul. This is the Church where I grew up and will come along in future blog posts with more interesting context. My Mother was a genuinely honest person, so I think she either checked it out and forgot to return it (as the library card in the back suggests) or bought it at a church library sale. For some reason I want her to have come by it by nefarious circumstances. I don’t know why, but I rather fondly look at the book and picture her secreting it out of the Church under cover of night. Secret Agent kind of stuff: wink, wink. I don’t think there was any kind of investigation as to its disappearance or fine levied for it failing to be returned, as there is only one other person who ever checked it out in all its years sitting on the shelves. I like to think the book came to find its proper owner on its own.
Markings is the diary of Dag Hammarskjold. The book comes from his unpublished writings from throughout his life time. He did not publish it, friends undertook the task following his death. Hammarskjold served as the second Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in 1961. There is some evidence of a conspiracy, that the plane crash may have been caused deliberately by another plane rather than just a tragic accident. There was no clear motive for killing Hammarskjold other than he was an ardent supporter of peace and human rights. He is the only person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously. He was killed in the Congo where there was a battle of influence between the Soviet Union backed anarchy and the supposed Democratic influences of the United States and Europe who also had mining interests to be protected. Hammarskjold was an opposing figure and had patiently demanded the Soviet Union’s and other countries unpaid dues to the United Nations, whose budget deficits threatened its very existence and prevented it from fulfilling its peace keeping missions around the world.
How does this possibly link to a W. H. Auden sonnet? Well, remarkable as it sounds, W. H. Auden, neither speaking nor reading a word of Swedish, undertook translating the entire manuscript of Hammarskjold’s journal into a book after his death. Markings, under Auden’s steady editing, reads more like poetry than a memoir. Auden completed this task with the partnership of Leif Sjoberg. It is a mind-boggling accomplishment by both men. Think about the intellect and compassion required to publish an English translation of another man’s life of compelling affirmations, beliefs, doubts and imperfections, his deepest innermost thoughts, into a book from a language that for Auden was not his mother tongue nor one he had ever studied and in which Sjoberg was left to communicate its subtleties of meaning. I am in awe of Hammarskjold for his writing, Auden for his ability to bring it to the English reader and Sjoberg for his patience and precision. I think Auden was able to get under the skin of Hammarskjold, in part because they shared much in common. They were both incredible intellects, both complex, private and hard workers. They were both unafraid of a complex challenge that might seem impossible to a lesser person. They were both men who appear to have been most comfortable around the company of other men. They both had an expansive curiosity about the larger world and history. They were both writers and great thinkers who challenged themselves to become better human beings in their private and public thoughts.
We live in such a polarized political climate, where belief is sublimated into some kind of binary accounting, that it can feel sometimes that we are relegated to either a one or a zero, on whatever issue is being debated on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves through peer pressure or political affiliation to be either for or against things in the narrow Republican and Democratic theocracy of belief and never allowed to reside within a demilitarized zone, within which those of us who would like more information, or a more nuanced approach, are allowed to catch our breath. In Markings, it is refreshing to read the internal journey of an uncertain, but determined and skilled diplomat, who believed that even without knowledge of all the answers, he could espouse a personal theology in which the world is a better place by the process of steadfastly wrestling with the problems facing himself and a global society. Hammarskjold shines a light that there can be a better future, for himself and the world at large, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we find ourselves, if we see others as human beings worthy of our respect.
The stakes were high during Hammarskjold’s tenure in leading the United Nations. It was post WWII, the cold war was at its height, the expansion of a nuclear world was dangerous indeed and the recovery of Europe and Asia was still in process. It was a time when the best and brightest minds aspired to be professional politicians, professional diplomats, professional spies, and professional soldiers because of the respect it engendered. Government service and diplomatic service was an honorable and worthy vocation.
Hammarskjold’s remarkable journal is filled with doubts, misgivings, tortured thoughts and brightness of belief. I can’t do it justice with a few quotes. If I have peaked your interest, go find a dog-eared copy in a used book store or see if your Mom stole a copy from her church in the 1970’s and its sitting on her book shelf.
Let’s bring this blog entry back to sonnets and an unrhymed sonnet at that. W. H. Auden is one of those intellectuals whose genius is hard to fathom. He saw every form of poetry as one he could delve into and evolve within the reverent context of extraordinary minds who had come before. He is one of those people who is at risk of being criticized and disliked simply because his intellect is expansive and beyond our own. He wrote more than one complex poem within the sonnet structure, along with every other kind of poetic structure you can imagine. However, it is lines from some of his simple poems, that come to my thoughts at unexpected times. It is in Auden’s and Hammarskjold’s humanity, honesty, and uncertainty, that I find a compelling wish; a hope that we can bring back compromise to politics to solve the intractable and important issues facing us today. A wish that the world can be a better place if we assigned both Auden and Hammarskjold as mandatory reading for incoming freshman Senators and Congressman. This is not some idealistic stupidity of a moron’s belching on my part. Neither Auden or Hammarskjold will ever be accused of being morons. If they could wrestle with uncertainty, and own up that they were not always right or knew the complexity of a holistic answer and thereby solicited the input of others, even others whose views may have differed from their own, then why can’t we?
After reading all of Marking’s and grooving on Auden for the second half of 2016, I was surprised to see that I had copied several poems of Auden in the log, including the following poem early in January of 2016. The genius of Auden stretching me, testing me, pestering me through the entirety of the year.
Let The More Loving One Be Me
By W. H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
No one, not even Cambridge was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.
Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.
In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on
The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.”
The critics didn’t think much of Auden’s sonnet when it was published in 1936, the year of Housman’s death. It was viewed as cynical and priggish. Auden was pressured not to include it in later collections of his work. I look at the sonnet differently. I don’t think it was intended as a literary left jab. I think it was a straight on assessment from one poet to another, an homage from one scholar to another, and a gesture from one man to another. In the company of men it is far better to be teased than ignored if Auden in fact meant it as such. Auden wouldn’t have wasted his time writing a sonnet for someone who hadn’t captured a part of his imagination. It’s possible it was written as a bit of politcal statement on acceptance of homosexuality in his own inimitable way. I know I would be flattered if a writer of the stature of Auden had taken the time to write a sonnet with me as the central figure, even if it contained some inconvenient implications.
The trouble with trying to relate a sonnet to a flesh and blood person is how much does anyone really know about another person? Housman taken at his word in private correspondence stated “very little in my work is biographical” and appeared in later life to distance himself from his poetry which although popular was under siege by critics of his day as somewhat immature in its themes and poorly constructed. Housman rested his professional reputation as a scholar, not as a poet.
I think that Housman might protest a bit too much in denying that his poetry did not come from his own experience. There is an underlying grey cloud of depression that permeates his poetry. It is not surprising given that he was homosexual and unable to realize relationships with men given the criminality of homosexuality at that time. In the on-line Poetry Foundation biography of Housman he is quoted in a letter that his writing of poetry came like;
‘a morbid secretion’, as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, did not come upon him often, and it came usually when feeling ill or depressed.”
I have sympathy for Housman, it can’t be much fun as a writer if the source of your inspiration is only fueled by the dark side of your psyche.
What does Auden mean by the line “In savage footnotes on unjust editions”? I think it might reference the publication of some of Housman’s poems after his death by his brother Lawrence. Auden’s sonnet came out three years after the following two poems were published posthumously in 1933.
by A. E. Housman
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder? —He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand tore my heart in sunder —And went with half my life about my ways.
by A. E. Housman
Because I liked you better —Than it suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised —To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us —We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Goodbye’, said you, ‘forget me.’ —‘I will, no fear’, said I.
If here, where clover whitens —The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you —Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming —The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you —Was one who kept his word.
A further footnote that Auden was unaware, is an essay deposited in the British Library in 1942 by Lawrence Housman titled “A. E. Housman’s ‘De Amicitia'” with instructions it not be published until 1967. The essay talks candidly of Housman’s homosexuality and for his love of Moses Jackson as a young man which he repressed.
It is hard for us to understand homosexuality having such dire consequences through today’s lens of protection under the law for non-discrimination based on sexuality. Remember that in 1895 Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for indecency for being a sodomite. He would die in 1900 as a direct result of the conditions he was subjected to in prison. It makes it easier to understand why Housman might create a healthy distance from the rhymes of his poetry that reveal his most private thoughts. I’ll end this blog entry with a poem Housman penned as brilliant homage to Wilde following his trial. I wonder what Housman would have written if he had been un-cuffed and free to express whatever he chose?
Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
By A. E. Housman
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.