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….
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.
For The Time Being by W. H. Auden
It’s New Year’s eve and all over the world will be celebrations welcoming 2019. Generally I let the poetry speak first and then follow with any commentary. I’ve mixed things up today as the poetry below by Auden is not easy stuff and I thought a little explanation was in order.
Auden wrote For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratario during the darkest days of World War II. It is a remarkable piece of writing, a retelling and interpretation of the Christmas story that is meant to be savored in some ways well after the marketing hype of Christmas has died down and the serious business of living in a new year has begun. I will offer up a couple of pieces of the oratario in the next week along with a link to a digital version if you care to read the entire poem. This is one of those poems that can’t be absorbed in one reading, there is too much to think about, too much dense material to wade through.
None of us truly understand another’s spiritual beliefs. Auden’s poetry is filled with sign posts of his beliefs, his Anglican faith a center in his life. Auden was a gay man at a time when you could still go to prison in England for homosexuality and the Anglican church viewed homosexuality as deviant and wicked. Auden’s poetry is filled with discordance that may have its roots in the obstacles of aligning his strong sense of being a good citizen of the world and the isolation that being different can fester in Christianity. The greatest hypocrisy that can be at the core of Christianity, when it is used as a weapon to justify the actions of discrimination.
The sense I get in reading Auden is that he and I share something in common in our relationship with the Church; it is the foundation for our moral code and at the same time a source of discomfort in attempting to reconcile the entirety of Christianity’s contradictions with our own. Auden was a bundle of contradictions. He was a moralist who drank heavily, punctual but in a continual state of dishelvement, a homosexual who never appeared to be fully at ease with his sexuality and in many ways a subversive, avant garde writer who choose to write in traditional forms.
What is remarkable about the Oratorio is how succinctly he gets to the contradictions that are the holidays for so many people. It is a time of excitement, hope, love and joy for the fortunate who feel those uplifting sentiments in their lives. For many others it is a time of loneliness, isolation and unhappiness. Auden impecably sews together both realities in his version of the Christmas story. For The Time Being is not light reading. But if you choose to serve yourself up more intellectually challenging fair in digesting your holiday experience, I recommend finding a couple of hours sometime in the new year and sit down and read it. In Auden’s work you my find a companion to help you on your way. As he says below, “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” In Auden’s version of the Christmas story some of us may more clearly see ourselves then the sanitized versions of Christmas that have surrounded us for the past weeks.
For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
by W. H. Auden
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this…
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
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.