(Ghost of a ghost, of you when young, you waken
In me my ghost when young, us both at Oxford.
You, the tow-haired undergraduate
With jaunty liftings of the head.
Angular forward stride, cross-questioning glance,
A Buster Keaton-faced pale gravitas.
Saying aloud your poems whose letters bit
Ink-deep into my fingers when I set
Them up upon my five-pound printing press:
‘An evening like a coloured photograph
A music stultified across the water
The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.’)
Stephen Spender published the first volume of Auden’s poetry in 1928. Spender had his own printing press and put together a small selection of poems from his Oxford counterpart and published a slim volume to the tune of 45 copies of Auden’s student work. The act of sharing one’s work is daunting. The first published poem. The first edition of the first collection is an act of contrition and courage. Readers should be forgiving. The italized lines above from the poem below. A foretelling of the brilliance of Auden that was to come.
Consider If You Will How Lovers Stand
by W. H. Auden
Consider if you will how lovers stand
In brief adherence, straining to preserve
Too long the suction of good-bye; others,
Less clinically-minded, will admire
An evening like a coloured photograph,
A music stultified across the water:
The desert opens here, and if, though we
Have ligatured the ends of a farewell,
Sporadic heartburn show in evidence
of love uneconomically slain,
It is for the last time, the last look back,
The heel upon the finishing blade of grass.
To dazzling cities of the plain where lust
Threatened a sinister rod, and we shall turn
To our study of stones, to split Eva’s apple,
Absorbed, content if we can say “because”:
Unanswerable as any other pendant,
Like Solomon and Sheba, wrong for years.
“Clear, unscalable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.”
by W. H. Auden
VI – The First Temptation
From The Quest
by W. H. Auden
Ashamed to be the darling of his grief,
He joined a gang of rowdy stories where
His gift for magic quickly made him chief
Of all these boyish powers of the air;
Who turned his hungers into Roman food,
The town’s asymmetry into a park;
All hours took taxis; any solitude
Became his flattered duchess in the dark.
But, if he wished for anything less grand,
The nights came padding after him like wild
Beasts that meant harm, and all the doors cried Thief;
And when Truth had met him and put out her hand,
He clung in panic to his tall belief
And shrank away like an ill-treated child
Excerpt Part I
by Stephen Spender
One among friends who stood above your grave
I cast a clod of earth from those heaped there
Down on the great brass-handled coffin lid.
It rattled on the oak like a door knocker
And at that sound I saw your face beneath
Wedged in an oblong shadow under ground.
Flesh creased, eyes shut, jaw jutting
And on the mouth a grin: triumph of one
Who has escaped from life-long colleagues roaring
For him to join their throng. He’s still half with us
Conniving slyly, yet he knows he’s gone
Into that cellar where they’ll never find him,
Happy to be alone, his last work done,
Word freed from world, into a different wood.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
by W. H. Auden
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie, Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
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, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan
For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.
But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
I was struck watching Trump on television last night how devalued reasoned facts have become in the United States. It used to be that Western Democracies beat their chests with arrogance and pointed to China, Cuba and Russia as guilty of brain washing their citizens, puffing out our collective chests with pride that the West had some kind of monopoly on free speech and truth. We certainly still have free speech, but we are failing as a society in ways to find common ground in our politics and unfortunately free speech is the tip of the spear disemboweling our democracy. The Trump era has proven that politicians can lie, say things that are completely idiotic, pursue mindless and pointless agendas and if your message polls high enough and your shills in the media like Fox News will repeat the idiocy enough times, you can brain wash enough to people to get elected. The Republicans didn’t become the gutless, brain-dead army of mindless conservatives overnight, who fall for the fear and loathing of Trump’s leadership. It arose because the Democrats have failed miserably in their opportunity for leadership by creating a system that wanted to coddle business and create a bloated federal bureaucracy at the same time. Neither the Democrats or Republicans are fiscally responsible. It is possible to be either liberal or conservative and pay our bills, spend within our means. It’s also possible to lead with vision not fear. Its time a new party, rise up with a real vision of a better, peaceful more sustainable future, or the insidious nature of lies will smolder to unleash further damage to what feels like is a world on the edge of anarchy.
I am hopeful that Trump as the giant boil on our nation’s ass, is going to swell enough to get finally lanced in 2020. And that as our children’s generation takes center stage in political influence, they will turn the course back to civil discourse, an honest attempt at directing the nation to where we agree and have common ground on 80 percent of the issues. And provide a more nuanced approach in negotiating with each other on where we disagree on the 20 percent of policy initiatives and stop this ridiculousness of politicians acting like spoiled children when they don’t get their way.
Auden is a reminder of how ugly the world can become if that 20 percent is allowed to fester to the point that evil takes the upper hand and men unworthy of leadership are allowed to become demigods. It is dangerous times we live in, only because the power of war has never been so dangerous. We best not leave the keys to the military lying around where some fool might take it for a joy ride.
September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenseless 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.
His care-free swagger was a fine invention:
Life was to slow, too regular, too grave.
With horse and sword he drew the girls’ attention,
A conquering hero, bountiful and brave,
To whom teen-agers looked for liberation:
At his command they left behind their mothers,
Their wits were sharpened by the long migration,
His camp-fires taught them all the horde were brothers.
Till what he came to do was done: unwanted,
Grown seedy, paunchy, pouchy, disappointed,
He took to drink to screw his nerves to murder,
Or sat in offices and stole,
Boomed at his children about Law and Order,
And hated life with heart and soul
Auden may be describing himself in this opening line. He is often described as brimming with a confidence, intelligence and wit. Auden attracted other bright minds. A group of writers from his days at Oxford became known as the Oxford group – Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, (Daniel Day Lewis’ father), Christopher Isherwood; Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender. All would go on to have successful careers as writers with a common bent toward leftist politics, their politics a force in their writing. Auden voiced in his literature the dangers of Fascism, the inherit evil in totalitarianism and the trap of lethargy in standing up to that evil. He supported a more reasoned equitable socialist ethos in how humanity justly supports one another. Auden’s ability to articulate a greater complexity in our humanness is what makes his writing both sensitive and audacious. His poem Lullaby is one of the greatest love poems ever written.
Auden more than dabbled in the sonnet form. He wrote several sonnet sequences, Quest and In Time of War, along with several stand alone sonnets and un-rhymed sonnets. He obviously found the sonnet form both useful and challenging.
Auden wrote in so many different styles that in my mind it is unfair to classify him only as a formal poet. Auden is the kind of writer that in my opinion makes the difficult look easy. Auden received ample recognition throughout his career and made a reasonable living as a writer, poet and academic. I wonder what kind of writer Auden would be if he were alive today? What injustices would he be highlighting? Where would Auden sit on the subject of Brexit and global migration fleeing inequality and violence?
I think Auden brings an interesting perspective on how art can shape our definition of success. What if we could all see ourselves as artists of one kind or another? What if we spent more time creating our own images, writing our own stories, rediscovering our own myths? What if we changed the narrative in our society, that an artist is not a unique person, but rather every person is a special kind of artist?
From In Time of War
By W. H. Auden
Nothing is given: we must find our law.
Great buildings jostle in the sun for domination;
Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation
The low recessive houses of the poor.
We have no destiny assigned us:
Nothing is certain but the body; we plan
To better ourselves; the hospitals alone remind us
Of the equality of man.
Children are really loved here, even by police:
They speak of years before the big were lonely,
And will be lost.
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.
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.
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.
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.
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….