MUSEE DES BEAUX ARTS
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.
On Auden's birthday I always post that photo, then Musee Des Beaux Arts, it still gets better with each rereading, and then some version of this paragraph:
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.
I've told some version of this story countless times: I was hired by Georgetown University mid-August, I sought Hecht out immediately and asked to audit his Fall semester grad poetry class, telling him not only was I only a Georgetown staffer but I hadn't an undergraduate degree and asking please let me audit the class. It focused on five main poets - Frost, Eliot, Auden, Bishop, and Wilbur - but we spent more than half the semester on Auden alone. I've probably spent more time with Auden than with any other poet, and if I only read him now on his birthday, I can pull up countless poems in my head whenever I want.
EPITAPH ON A TYRANT
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.
THE FALL OF ROME
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
THE MORE LOVING ONE
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.