01 March 2007

But He Frowned Like Thunder And Went Away

Hopefully I'll be able to post something of my own on this subject shortly (time permitting), but Slate reminds me that last week would have marked the centennial of Wystan Hugh Auden, and it is commemorating the event by publishing an email exchange between three of their local scribes. The first discussion can be found here. Until I can put something more tangible down ("though this might take me a little time"), I strongly encourage any of you out there with the inclination to do so to read through a few of Auden's finer poems, some of which can be found here. The Auden Society also provides links to a bunch of neat stuff in his regard.

Happy 100th, Wystan, such as it is. I shudder to think what he'd have thought of the Internet Age.

FOLLOWUP: I had forgotten about this entry from three years ago, which includes some of my favourite Auden poems. "In Praise of Limestone" is especially good.

FOLLOWUP FOLLOWUP: RK reminds me of this poem by Auden that's not in the collections above. I reproduce it here for your consideration:


(For Edgar Wind)

By all means sing of love but, if you do,
Please make a rare old proper hullabaloo:
When ladies ask How much do you love me?
The Christian answer is cosi-cosi;
But poets are not celibate divines:
Had Dante said so, who would read his lines?
Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever,
And do not listen to those critics ever
Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books
Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks
As though the Muse preferred her half-wit sons:
Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.

Suppose your Beatrice be, as usual, late,
And you would tell us how it feels to wait,
You’re free to think, what may be even true,
You’re so in love that one hour seems like two,
But write —As I sat waiting for her call,
Each second longer darker seemed than all
(Something like this but more elaborate still)
Those raining centuries it took to fill
That quarry whence Endymion’s Love was torn;
From such ingenious fibs are poems born.
Then, should she leave you for some other guy,
Or ruin you with debts, or go and die,
No metaphor, remember, can express
A real historical unhappiness;
You tears have value if they make us gay;
O Happy Grief! is all sad verse can say.

The living girl’s your business (some odd sorts
Have been an inspiration to men’s thoughts):
Yours may be old enough to be your mother,
Or have one leg that’s shorter than the other,
Or play Lacrosse or do the Modern Dance,
To you that’s destiny, to us it’s chance;
We cannot love your love till she take on,
Through you, the wonders of a paragon.
Sing her triumphant passage to our land,
The sun her footstool, the moon in her right hand,
And seven planets blazing in her hair,
Queen of the Night and Empress of the Air;
Tell how her fleet by nine king swans is led,
Wild geese write magic letters overhead
And hippocampi follow in her wake
With Amphisboene, gentle for her sake;
Sing her descent on the exulting shore
To bless the vines and put an end to war.

If half-way through such praises of your dear,
Riot and shooting fill the streets with fear,
And overnight as in some terror dream
Poets are suspect with the New Regime,
Stick at your desk and hold your panic in,
What you are writing may still save your skin:
Re-sex the pronouns, add a few details,
And lo, a panegyric ode which hails
(How is the Censor, bless his heart, to know?)
The new pot-bellied Generalissimo.
Some epithets, of course, like lily-breasted
Need modifying to, say, lion-chested,
A title Goddess of wry-necks and wrens
To Great Reticulator of the fens,
But in an hour your poem qualifies
For a State pension or His annual prize,
And you will die in bed (which He will not:
That public nuisance will be hanged or shot).
Though honest Iagos, true to form, will write
Shame! in your margins, Toady! Hypocrite!
True hearts, clear heads will hear the note of glory
And put inverted commas round the story,
Thinking —Old Sly-boots! We shall never know
Her name or nature. Well, it’s better so.

For given Man, by birth, by education,
Imago Dei who forgot his station,
The self-made creature who himself unmakes,
The only creature ever made who fakes,
With no more nature in his loving smile
Than in his theories of a natural style,
What but tall tales, the luck of verbal playing,
Can trick his lying nature into saying
That love, or truth in any serious sense,
Like orthodoxy, is a reticence?

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