Thursday, May 13, 2021

Poems 1933-1938 by W. H. Auden

 Source of book: I own the complete poems of Auden


Since adding this book to my collection, I have read several portions of it. You can read about the others below:


Poems 1927-1932

Paid on Both Sides

Letter to Lord Byron


Auden eventually became a favorite of my eldest child, who featured Auden in a school poetry project. I rather enjoy Auden myself. 

 Auden around the time these poems were published.

This collection was written during a period of time when the Nazis were consolidating power in Germany, and beginning to threaten the rest of Europe. Auden saw it coming better than many, perhaps because as a gay man, he understood that he was being targeted by fascism along with ethic and religious minorities. Many of the poems written during this time hint at Auden’s sexual orientation - for example, “Through the Looking Glass.” Others express foreboding about fascism. And others are, well, about all kinds of things, humor, love, specific people, and so on. I was also struck by the large number of sonnets, a form which I particularly love. 


Anyway, here are the ones I liked best, and my thoughts on them. 


Let’s start with this one, whose name translates as “Moral Landscape,” a term used for Renaissance paintings which were intended to use a landscape to make a moral point - an allegorical style. 


Paysage Moralise


Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,

Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,

Round corners coming suddenly on water,

Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,

We honour founders of these starving cities

Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,


Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow

That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;

Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities

They reined their violent horses on the mountains,

Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,

Visions of green to them who craved for water.


They built by rivers and at night the water

Running past windows comforted their sorrow;

Each in his little bed conceived of islands

Where every day was dancing in the valleys

And all the green trees blossomed on the mountains

Where love was innocent, being far from cities.


But dawn came back and they were still in cities;

No marvelous creature rose up from the water;

There was still gold and silver in the mountains

But hunger was a more immediate sorrow,

Although to moping villagers in valleys

Some waving pilgrims were describing islands …


"The gods," they promised, "visit us from islands,

Are stalking, head-up, lovely, through our cities;

Now is the time to leave your wretched valleys

And sail with them across the lime-green water,

Sitting at their white sides, forget your sorrow,

The shadow cast across your lives by mountains."


So many, doubtful, perished in the mountains,

Climbing up crags to get a view of islands,

So many, fearful, took with them their sorrow

Which stayed them when they reached unhappy cities,

So many, careless, dived and drowned in water,

So many, wretched, would not leave their valleys.


It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water

Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys,

And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.


Where to start with this poem? First of all, there is the lyrical picture it presents, of unhappy urban residents pining for the islands. And perhaps haunted and traumatized by mountains and valleys. The sorrow they have comes with them, no matter where they go. I have read and re-read this one, and I am not entirely sure I have plumbed the depths of its meaning. 


And how about that form? This is a classic example of a Sestina. I was recently reminded of this when chatting with a friend about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats, a conversation that veered into Allan Ginsberg, and queer poetry, and traditionalism versus free forms. It turns out that this friend wrote a poem for a school assignment in the Sestina form, which is...impressive. For modern, queer poets, who wrote Sestinas, well, you have Auden and Elizabeth Bishop


The Sestina form is pretty complex. First, you have six stanzas of six lines, followed by a three line final stanza, for a total of 39 lines. Second, the six stanzas must all end with the same six words - not rhymes, words. And they must be varied in order as follows:








7. (envoi) ECA or ACE


Finally, the last stanza, the “envoi,” must include the BDF ending words in them. So, pretty dang complex. But also mesmerizing in how the poet uses the mandatory repetition of end words to shift the meaning and tell the story. As a technical feat, Auden nails it here, including the non-mandatory but preferred use of constant syllable numbers in the lines. 


Speaking of forms, I mentioned I love sonnets. Here is one that stood out. 




Love had him fast but though he fought for breath

He struggled only to possess Another,

The snare forgotten in their little death,

Till you, the seed to which he was the mother,

That never heard of love, through love was free,

While he within his arms a world was holding,

To take the all-night journey undersea,

Work west and northward, set up building.


Cities and years constricted to your scope,

All sorrow simplified though almost all

Shall be as subtle when you are as tall:

Yet clearly in that ‘almost’ all his hope

That hopeful falsehood cannot stem with love

The flood on which all move and wish to move.


If it wasn’t obvious from the title, this poem is about, well, sexual reproduction. Meiosis is the process by which gametes are made - haploid cells - egg and sperm. The “him” is the sperm cell, and the “little death,” is the orgasm. But the whole thing is rather witty. I can’t decide if it is optimistic about progress or not, but perhaps that is the point. 


I get the impression that Auden didn’t have a good school experience. If Paid On Both Sides, with its mashup of boarding school and the Scottish border conflicts is any indication, it was a bit of hell for him. In this collection, he also wrote a poem against the school system. 




Here are all the captivities; the cells are as real:

but these are unlike the prisoners we know

who are outraged or pining or wittily resigned

or just wish all away.


For they dissent so little, so nearly content

with the dumb play of dogs, the licking and rushing;

the bars of love are so strong, their conspiracies

weak like the vows of drunkards.


Indeed, the strangeness is difficult to watch:

the condemned see only the fallacious angels of a vision,

so little effort lies behind their smiling,

the beast of vocation is afraid.


But watch them, set against our size and timing

their almost neuter, their slightly awkward perfection;

for the sex is there, the broken bootlace is broken:

the professor’s dream is not true.


Yet the tyranny is so easy. The improper word

scribbled upon a fountain, is that all the rebellion?

A storm of tears shed in a corner, are these

the seeds of the new life?


If you like, you can hear Auden himself read the poem


There are several groups of related poems in this collection, the first of which is entitled “12 Songs.” Many of the twelve have specific names, but I liked the one merely numbered “X” best. 




O the valley in the summer where I and my John 

Beside the deep river would walk on and on 

While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above 

Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love, 

And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play': 

But he frowned like thunder and he went away. 


O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall 

When we went to the Charity Matinee Ball, 

The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud 

And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud; 

'Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let's dance till it's day': 

But he frowned like thunder and he went away. 


Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera 

When music poured out of each wonderful star? 

Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down 

Over each silver and golden silk gown; 

'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say: 

But he frowned like thunder and he went away. 


O but he was fair as a garden in flower, 

As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower, 

When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade 

O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart; 

'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey': 

But he frowned like thunder and he went away. 


O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover, 

You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other, 

The sea it was blue and the grass it was green, 

Every star rattled a round tambourine; 

Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay: 

But you frowned like thunder and you went away.


While not in Ballad Stanza form, this poem evokes the old love ballads. The refrain at the end ties it all together in that old-fashioned style. Definitely read this one aloud, and enjoy all those anapests. In fact, it seems to be almost entirely in anapests - quite the formal challenge. But also so easy to roll off the tongue. 


Also delightful from that collection is XII, a humorous look at, well, love. 




Some say love's a little boy,

And some say it's a bird,

Some say it makes the world go around,

Some say that's absurd,

And when I asked the man next-door,

Who looked as if he knew,

His wife got very cross indeed,

And said it wouldn't do.


Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,

Or the ham in a temperance hotel?

Does its odour remind one of llamas,

Or has it a comforting smell?

Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,

Or soft as eiderdown fluff?

Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?

O tell me the truth about love.


Our history books refer to it

In cryptic little notes,

It's quite a common topic on

The Transatlantic boats;

I've found the subject mentioned in

Accounts of suicides,

And even seen it scribbled on

The backs of railway guides.


Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,

Or boom like a military band?

Could one give a first-rate imitation

On a saw or a Steinway Grand?

Is its singing at parties a riot?

Does it only like Classical stuff?

Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?

O tell me the truth about love.


I looked inside the summer-house;

It wasn't over there;

I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,

And Brighton's bracing air.

I don't know what the blackbird sang,

Or what the tulip said;

But it wasn't in the chicken-run,

Or underneath the bed.


Can it pull extraordinary faces?

Is it usually sick on a swing?

Does it spend all its time at the races,

or fiddling with pieces of string?

Has it views of its own about money?

Does it think Patriotism enough?

Are its stories vulgar but funny?

O tell me the truth about love.


When it comes, will it come without warning

Just as I'm picking my nose?

Will it knock on my door in the morning,

Or tread in the bus on my toes?

Will it come like a change in the weather?

Will its greeting be courteous or rough?

Will it alter my life altogether?

O tell me the truth about love.


I mean, where does he get some of those similes? Pair of pajamas. Ham in a temperance hotel. Can you imitate it on a saw? And picking his nose too. 


On a more serious note, I am fascinated by this next poem, which treats a person’s life - and loss of happiness - as if it were a crime to be solved - or not - by a detective, and tried in court. Auden viewed detective stories as ultimately being about our own sense of sin, and our attraction to them an admission of our own internal feelings of guilt. 


Detective Story


For who is ever quite without his landscape,

The straggling village street, the house in trees,

All near the church, or else the gloomy town house,

The one with the Corinthian pillars, or

The tiny workmanlike flat: in any case

A home, the centre where the three or four things

that happen to a man do happen? Yes,

Who cannot draw the map of his life, shade in

The little station where he meets his loves

And says good-bye continually, and mark the spot

Where the body of his happiness was first discovered?


An unknown tramp? A rich man? An enigma always

And with a buried past but when the truth,

The truth about our happiness comes out

How much it owed to blackmail and philandering.

The rest's traditional. All goes to plan:

The feud between the local common sense

And that exasperating brilliant intuition

That's always on the spot by chance before us;

All goes to plan, both lying and confession,

Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.


Yet on the last page just a lingering doubt:

That verdict, was it just? The judge's nerves,

That clue, that protestation from the gallows,

And our own smile . . . why yes . . .


But time is always killed. Someone must pay for

Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.


I won’t quote the whole poem, because of the length, but I liked “As He Is,” a somewhat pessimistic view of humankind. I can’t find a link to it, unfortunately, but you should just buy the book anyway. The lines that stood out to me are worth quoting:


And ruled by dead men never met,

By pious guess deluded,


That is sure an accurate description of ossified religion: the fundamentalism that is still ruled by the pious guesses of long-dead men. And it is always men, isn’t it? 


Another set of poems is entitled “A Voyage.” And it does take one on a voyage through the course of its poems. Some are in sonnet form, but the opening one is not. I found it the most interesting of the set. 


I. Whither?


Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,

Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,

As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes

And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?


Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find

In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,

Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,

Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?


No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.

His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness

On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:

He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real.


But at moments, as when real dolphins with leap and panache

Cajole for recognition or, far away, a real island

Gets up to catch his eye, his trance is broken: he remembers

Times and places where he was well; he believes in joy,


That, maybe, his fever shall find a cure, the true journey an end

Where hearts meet and are really true, and crossed this ocean, that parts

Hearts which alter but is the same always, that goes

Everywhere, as truth and falsehood go, but cannot suffer.


That is the problem with any actual voyage of the mind. You really cannot guarantee a certain destination...unless you never leave. 


Another one I loved is this sonnet, about one of my favorite things: music. 


The Composer


All the others translate: the painter sketches

A visible world to love or reject;

Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches

The images out that hurt and connect.

From Life to Art by painstaking adaption

Relying on us to cover the rift;

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift.


Pour out your presence, O delight, cascading

The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,

Our climate of silence and doubt invading;

You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.


I believe music is unique in its ability to utter what cannot be uttered, to say what cannot be reduced to mere words. It is when I make music that I feel closest to the divine. 


I mentioned Auden’s forebodings about fascism. Here is a short poem that I think expresses a lot in a small space. 


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 final poem I wish to discuss is from the grouping, “Sonnets from China.” Auden, along with Christopher Isherwood, visited China during the Sino-Japanese war, and wrote this set of sonnets about the war. Combined with his letters and travel writings, it is possible to get a complex picture of what he may have meant by the poems. I see them more as musings on morality and war and evil than anything else, although others have tied them to anti-Japanese sentiment, specific events, and so on. You can read one point of view here if you like. My own thoughts are based on reading them as pure poetry, and in light of the endless wars during my own lifetime. Particularly outstanding is XVI. 




Our global story is not yet completed,

Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on,

But, as narrators find their memory gone,

Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated.


Some could not like nor change the young and mourn for

Some wounded myth that once made children good,

Some lost a world they never understood,

Some saw too clearly all that man was born for.


Loss is their shadow-wife, Anxiety

Receives them like a grand hotel, but where

They may regret they must: their doom to bear


Love for some far forbidden country, see

A native disapprove them with a stare

And Freedom’s back in every door and tree. 


Some of those lines seem apropos to our culture wars, and the way my parents’ generation felt about us. “Some could not like nor change the young and mourn for some wounded myth that once made children good, some lost a world they never understood…” 


Re-reading these poems, I feel the depth and power of Auden’s poetry all over again. There is always so much going on below the surface. In our own time of civil unrest, another rise of fascism, and a movement intent on denying basic human rights to others, his poems seem incredibly relevant. His own spiritual journey resonates as well, although I am doubtful that I will end up Anglican. I do find myself drawn to his existentialist form of religion influenced by Kierkegaard and Niebuhr, as well as his belief in a quietly practiced form of religion, rather than an emphasis on doctrine and politics. In particular, his distaste for “prayer” that consisted of trying to force or manipulate God into bending the universe to one’s own purposes is something I have struggled with since I was a child. 


Once again, I enjoyed this foray into Auden’s poetry. I look forward to savoring this book one section at a time. 


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