(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.
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.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Are they motivations for change? Are they wishes unlikely to be kept? Does it matter whether we keep them or not if they signal an awareness for the possibility of change? Ben Franklin said of New Year’s; “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every New Year find you a better man (or woman).” Ben, that sounds like you are taking all the fun out of NYE celebrations. Let’s make that our goal on January 2 and dabble in vice for a couple more days.
I always have one or two New Year’s resolutions. They are usually modest nudges towards change of something that I know that I can achieve, something I am already trending towards but want to strengthen my commitment. I don’t set resolutions with expectations of something unrealistic. I purposefully dream small on New Year’s eve, the New Year still a shimmer of possibility, the past year something more substantial of accomplishments to be savored and celebrated.
William Shakespeare’s sense of humor is in full display in the sonnet below. Is the capitalized “Will” referring only to himself, or the greater mass of our collective wills? The word “will” is included twelve times in fourteen lines, making it the most willful sonnet I have ever come across, but as he says; “The sea, all water, yet receives rain still.” One simply can’t have too much will or William. Enjoy.