Sunday, February 21, 2021

But on Earth Indifference Is the Least We Have to Dread from Man or Beast, or: Born One-Hundred Fourteen Years Ago Today


W.H. Auden

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.

The Traditional High Egoslavian Holy Day Auden's Birthday Post. I always post that photo, then Musee Des Beaux Arts (it still gets better with each rereading) and then some version of these paragraphs:
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.


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 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
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.


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.


  1. one thing i really like about auden is the rhyming

    his poem the more loving one reminds me of a moment in a starry winter night in buffalo thirty-something years ago

    a small group of grad students taking an evening course on society, the environment, the future of civilization etc. from lester milbrath* had adjourned to a pub that was part of the academic/residential/recreational "ellicott complex" - a couple beers later we went outside on the way to our respective tranportation modes - one blonde young woman, with a faint resemblance to cameron diaz, exclaimed "i love the stars" - i replied "they feel the same way about you"

    as it turned out, i never did get closer to her, as i had hoped might be possible

    another classmate, less shiny at first glance, later made it clear that i did have a chance with her - but i wasn't interested

    it was a decade later that la forza del destino** finally brought me together with mi amor, mi corazon, mi vida missus charley, md

    *in that course we gave close attention to the first edition of andrew bard schmookler's book the parable of the tribes - regarding schmookler's 21st-century activities, our friends at wikipedia say:

    Since the 2012 Election, Schmookler has been working on a campaign to get the national conversation to focus on what he regards as the central realities of our current national crisis. He identifies these as the two main components of that crisis: 1) that the Republican Party has been taken over by a destructive force; and 2) that the response from Liberal America to that threat has been woefully weak. He sees these as manifestations of a systemic cultural pathology which, though it manifests itself in different ways in different components of the American system, afflicts all the major organs of the American body politic.

    Schmookler’s campaign to address this crisis he has given the title, “Press the Battle.” In its initial phase, it entails the publication of a series of articles that are intended to “light a fire in Liberal America.” It attempts to do this in two ways: 1) to draw a compelling portrait of the reality of that “destructive force” that has gained control of the political right, and 2) to address the sources of the blindness and weakness that have crippled Liberal America’s ability to protect the nation. Central among these sources are aspects of the worldview of Liberal/intellectual America that, Schmookler claims, cut people off from “the moral and spiritual passions that are at the core of our humanity.”

    milbrath also assigned his own book environmentalists: vanguard for a new society

    the last book he published, a decade after i knew him, was

    Learning to think environmentally : while there is still time

    The survival of planet Earth's nourishing life systems ultimately depends on how we humans think about them. Unfortunately, our culture's assumptions about the way the world works ignore recent scientific understanding of life systems. This book explains the interdependency and delicate balance of biological, geological, and chemical systems as environmental scientists now understand them. It communicates a new way of thinking. Written in everyday language as a conversation between two neighbors, Learning to Think Environmentally is illustrated with cartoons by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Tom Toles. It demonstrates that learning the basic principles of environmental thinking is essential to our social, physical, economic, and spiritual well being. This new way of thinking is urgently needed in our public discourse if we are to take a sustainable pathway to the future.


    1. andy schmookler's latest column makes two predictions

      1)that the biden era could quite possibly be the start of a long era of liberal rule

      2)if so, the next time conservatives take power in america it will be with either a republican party that has regained its sanity, or with a new conservative party that has replaced it

      i hope he's right - time will tell

      at the end of andy's column is a link to his website where he claims to explain the human predicament in an encouraging way

      and speaking of the human predicament - northern virginia daily also informs us that lord fairfax community college in middleton will be renamed - despite his lordship's historical importance in the colonial past he was a slaveholder and opposed the american revolution - lfcc's name was chosen in 1969

  2. Whenever Auden comes to mind I always think about "reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss,
    / Silently and very fast"; because the world exists sometimes in spite of what we think it is.

  3. speaking of existence, and thought - roaming around in the archives of this, the most wonderful blog in the world, i came across

    and speaking of sex, and death, topics implied by speaking of parents, songwriter sam genders of the folktronica group tunng has some interesting comments at the youtube posting of the song

    Death is the New Sex