Thursday, February 21, 2013

Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely from the Disater

W.H. Auden was born 106 years ago today.



About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Some personal history: besides taking classes from Anthony Hecht, I did basic research grunt work for him on his final two books of criticism in exchange for his company, On the Laws of the Poetic Arts and The Hidden Law, a book specifically about Auden's poetry, which Hecht respected deeply. In the process of the research for and conversations with Hecht over years I must have read the majority of Auden's poems at least once, some countless times, some, like the above and below, literally dozens of dozens of times.

Until two years ago or so I hadn't read Auden since Hecht's book went to the publisher in 1992, not because I'd lost my love for Auden but because I was tired of my love for Auden. Serendipity always charms but is double-edged: I rediscovered Auden just when his poetry became fresh and relevant and urgent (to me) again.


Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

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 crêpe 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 for ever: 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.



    Maybe he'll get a season ending injury from throwing himself to the ground in Houston.

  2. I woulda' thunk GBV fans would be the most likely to be falling down drunk beer drinkers who write lotsa songs and kick ass rock 'n roll.

    Just sayin'.

  3. I can personally vouch: it's not an either/or.