W.H. Auden

January 29, 2007


Wystand Hugh Auden
Poetry preserves a clinical coolness, diagnostic air, and hatred of the unexplained; many poems deal with disease and offer moral remedies
Attended Oxford University where he wrote many poems collected in the volume “Poems”
Traveled to Germany after obtaining a degree where he experienced a homosexual freedom impossible in England
Supported himself by teaching
Traveled to China before becoming a citizen of the U.S.; met his life long companion Chester Kallman
Influenced greatly by T.S. Eliot
Took a stand against writers like W.B. Yeats who, he thought, preened themselves too much on being poets and who touted poetry as revelation
Prophetic of social and political change, some poems took the form of prayers or invocations
Insisted on rigorous honesty and preferred sense over sound; art stripped away moral deceptions and contrasted Romanticism
Maintains a scientific view of the world while remaining an active member of the Church of England


Yesterday all the past. The language of size / Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion / Of the counting-frame and the cromlech; / Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.
Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards, / The divination of water; yesterday the invention / Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of / Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.
Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants, / The fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley, / The chapel built in the forest; / Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;
The trial of heretics among the columns of stone; / Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns / And the miraculous cure at the fountain; / Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.
Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines, / The construction of railways in the colonial desert; / Yesterday the classic lecture / On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.
Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek, / The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero; / Yesterday the prayer to the sunset / And the adoration of madmen. But to-day the struggle.
As the poet whispers, startled among the pines, / Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright / On the crag by the leaning tower: / ‘O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor.’
And the investigator peers through his instruments / At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus / Or enormous Jupiter finished: / ‘But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire.’
And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets / Of the evening paper: ‘Our day is our loss, O show us / History the operator, the / Organiser, Time the refreshing river.’
And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror: / ‘Did you not found the city state of the sponge,
‘Raise the vast military empires of the shark / And the tiger, establish the robin’s plucky canton? / Intervene. O descend as a dove or / A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend.’
And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart / And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city / ‘O no, I am
not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you, I’m the
‘Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped; / I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be / Good, your humorous story. / I am your business voice. I am your marriage.
‘What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will. / I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic / Death? Very well, I accept, for / I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.’
Many have heard it on remote peninsulas, / On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen’s islands / Or the corrupt heart of the city, / Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.
They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch / Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel; / They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.
On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot / Africa soldered so crudely to inventive Europe; / On that tableland scored by rivers, / Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond / The the medicine ad. and the brochure of winter cruises / Have become invading battalions; / And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin
Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb. / Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom / As the ambulance and the sandbag; / Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.
To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue / And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the / Octaves of radiation; / To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.
To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love, / The photographing of ravens; all the fun under / Liberty’s masterful shadow; / To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,
The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome; / To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers, / The eager election of chairmen / By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.
To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs, / The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion; / To-morrow the bicycle races / Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; / To-day the expending of powers / On the flat ephemeral pamphlet of the boring meeting.
To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette, / The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert, / The masculine jokes; to-day the / Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.  We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and / History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

-Spain (in whole)

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 Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everthing 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 disapppearing 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.

-Musee des Beaux Arts (in whole)

“Museum of fine arts”

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections; / To find his happiness in another kind of wood / And be punished under a foreign code of conscience. / The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow / When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, / And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, / And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom; / A few thousand will think of this day / As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
O all the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all; / The parish of rich women, physical decay, / Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. / Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its saying where executives / Would never want to tamper; it flows south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.

In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark, / And the living nations wait, / Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace / Stares from every human face, / And the seas of pity lie / Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night, / With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse, / Sing of human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.

-In Memory of W.B. Yeats

All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the-street / And the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky: / There is no such things as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunder allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lies; / Yet, dotted everywhere, / Ironice points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages: / May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.

-September 1, 1939

The date of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of WWII

She looked over his shoulder / For vines and olive trees, / Marble well-governed cities, / And ships upon untamed seas, / But there on the shining metal / His hands had put instead / An artificial wilderness / And a sky like lead.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown, / No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood, / Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, / Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood / An unintelligible multitude, / A million eyes, a million boots in line, / Without expression, waiting for a sign.

She looked over his shoulder / For ritual pieties, / White flower-garlanded heifers, / Libation and sacrifice, / But there on the shining metal / Where the altar should have been, / She saw by his flickering forge-light / Quite another scene.

The mass and majesty of this world, all / That carries weight and always weighs the same, / Lay in the hands of others; they were small / And could not hope for help and no help came: / What their foes liked to do was done, their shame / Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride / And died as men before their bodies died.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, / Loitered about that vacancy; a bird / Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone: / That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, / Were axioms to him, who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept / Or one could weep because another wept.

-The Shield of Achilles

The shield of Achilles is described in Homer’s Iliad
Achilles has lost his armor when his great friend Patroclus is slain by Hector. While Achilles is mourning the death of his friend his mother goes to Mt. Olympus to entreat Hephaestos, god of fire, to make new armor for Achilles. On the new chield he depicts the earth, the heavens, the sea, and the planets; a city in peace and a city at ward, scenes from country life, animal life, and the joyful life of young men and women. The ocean flows around all these scenes.


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