Ghost of a Ghost

solomonshebalc7

Auden’s Funeral

by Stephen Spender
Excerpt

III

(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.

Rise The Mountains Of Instead

2969_115191011007
Auden is buried in Kirchstatten, Austria – near his summer home. 

 

“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


Auden’s Funeral

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.

World Is Suddener Than We Fancy It

macniece
Louis MacNeice

Snow

by Louis MacNeice

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.


 

Lullaby

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.

Certainty, fidelity
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.

 

 

We Must Love One Another or Die

isherwood and auden.jpg
Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden shortly before leaving for China, 1938

 

Here War Is Simple

From Journey To A War
by W. H. Auden

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:
Nanking. Dachau.


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
About Democracy,
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
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
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
About Diaghilev
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.

 

We Must Find Our Law

lewis auden stephen spender
W. H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender

Sonnet V

Excerpt from In Time of War
by W. H. Auden

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?


 

Sonnet XXV

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.

And only
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.

We learn to pity and rebel.

 

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….

Seek Him In The Kingdom of Anxiety

Auden
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.

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
Short Excerpt

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.

IV
Chorus

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.

Their Centre of Volition Shifted

W.H. Auden
W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)

Funeral Blues

By W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


XX. The Garden

Final Sonnet in the sonnet sequence The Quest
by W. H. Auden

Within these gates all opening begins:
White shouts and flickers through its green and red,
Where children play at seven earnest sins
And dogs believe their tall conditions dead.

Here adolescence into number breaks
The perfect circle time can draw on stone,
And flesh forgives division as it makes
Another’s moment of consent its own.

All journeys die here: wish and weight are lifted:
Where often round some old maid’s desolation
Roses have flung their glory like a cloak,

The gaunt and great, the famed for conversation
Blushed in the stare of evening as they spoke
And felt their centre of volition shifted.

 

Unbuilt and Trouble Coming

Dag Hammarskjold
Dag Hammarskjold

The Secret Agent

by W. H. Auden

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.