Twelve Songs [Song V, March 1936]
by W. H. Auden
Fish in the unruffled lakes
Their swarming colours wear,
Swans in the winter air
A white perfection have,
And the great lion walks
Through his innocent grove;
Lion, fish, and swan
Act, and are gone
Upon Time’s toppling wave.
We, till shadowed days are done,
We must weep and sing
Duty’s conscious wrong,
The Devil in the clock,
The goodness carefully worn
For atonement or for luck;
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.
Sighs for folly done and said
Twist our narrow days,
But I must bless, I must praise
That you, my swan, who have
All gifts that to the swan
Impulsive nature gave,
The majesty and pride,
Last night should add
Your voluntary love.
December 7, 2004
Twelve Songs [Song V, March 1936]
July 11, 2004
Twelve Songs [Song VIII, April 1936]
by W. H. Auden
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there’s never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
January 18, 2004
Auden has an essay on Frost that I like.
Auden has an essay on Frost that I like. Here’s how it ends:
Hardy, Yeats, and Frost have all written epitaphs for themselves.
I never cared for life, life cared for me.
And hence I owe it some fidelity…
Cast a cold eye
On life and death.
Horseman, pass by.
I would have written of me on my stone
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Of the three, Frost, surely, comes off best. Hardy seems to be stating the Pessimist’s Case rather than his own feelings. I never cared… Never? Now, Mr. Hardy, really! Yeats’ horseman is a stage prop; the passer-by is much more likely to be a motorist. But Frost convinces me that he is telling neither more nor less than the truth about himself. And, when it comes to wisdom, is not having a lover’s quarrel with life more worthy of Prospero than not caring or looking coldly?
I realize looking over this that it’s not clear that any of those are necessarily on any of the poets’ headstones. Still, I thought I’d mention it. If only because I like the essay.
November 24, 2003
I have mentioned a couple of Auden poems from Homage to Clio, the book from which came The More Loving One. Here is one of them that I like a lot. My only trouble with it is the “thank our lucky star” line. Was this less of a cliche when the poem was written or was he just in a rush?
An Island Cemetery
by W.H. Auden
This graveyard with its umbrella pines
Is inferior in status to the vines
And, though new guests keep crowding in,
Must stay the size it’s always been.
Where men are many, acres few,
The dead must be cultivated too,
Like seeds in any farmer’s field
Are planted for the bones they yield.
It takes about eighteen months for one
To ripen into a skeleton,
To be washed, folded, packed in a small
Niche hollowed out of the cemetery wall.
Curiousity made me stop
While sextons were digging up a crop:
Bards have taken it too amiss
That Alexanders come to this.
Wherever our personalities go
(And, to tell the truth, we do not know),
The solid structures they leave behind
Are no discredit to our kind.
Mourners may miss, and they do, a face,
But at least they cannot detect a trace
Of those fishlike hungers, mammalian heats,
That kin our flesh to the coarser meats.
And who would be ashamed to own
To a patience that we share with stone,
This underlying thing in us
Which never at any time made a fuss?
Considering what our motives are,
We ought to thank our lucky star
That Love must ride to reach his ends
A mount which has no need of friends.
November 12, 2003
This makes less sense
Perhaps Auden’s last line points us to something about the type of cynicism that these poems exhibit. The view that the stars don’t, in fact, give a damn is born from an attempt to remove all personifiable qualities that would typically be attributed to stars (caring, watching-over, keenness in Frost’s words). What we’re left with when we strip the stars of all the mystical qualities (the ones that Bronte satirically gives them) is nothing but the pale and lifeless eyes of a statue. Perhaps Auden is inviting the question in his last line: Should we be doing this? And, if we do succumb to the cynical modern view of the stars, what are we left with when we stare at the nothingness?
PS: Do we have a second poem lined up for next week?