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February 21, 2007

Centennial
Posted by Patrick at 09:59 AM * 44 comments

‘O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.’

From “As I Walked Out One Evening”
by W. H. Auden (21 February 1907 - 29 September 1973)

More here.

Comments on Centennial:
#1 ::: Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:23 AM:

"Earth receive another Deader;
William Yeats now wears Death's Sweater."

Or something like that . . .

#2 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:44 AM:

"The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good."

#3 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:45 AM:

This poem turned up on my AP English exam way back in high school.

I fell in love with it so hard and so fast that I walked away with most of it memorized by the time the exam was over.

"Plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist.
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed."

It occurs to me that a decent definition of a great poem, or a great poet, is "The one that can stop you in your tracks while you're taking exams that are crucial for your future."

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:58 AM:

Auden has a bunch of those. I recommend The Fall of Rome, previously quoted hereabouts by Fragano Ledgister. (And before that, by Ken MacLeod.)

#5 ::: Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:59 AM:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

#6 ::: Widdy ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:01 AM:

Auden wrote this for Benjamin Britten, part of his "Hymn to St Cecilia":

O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

#7 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:10 AM:

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:11 AM:

Follow, poet, follow right
In the forest of the night.
When the stars threw down their twinkles,
All the dogs of Europe tinkled.

(for Jim Henley)

#9 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:11 AM:

"The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living."

Wow, what a great line...

#10 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:16 AM:

#4 PNH

I'm a fan of "The Shield of Achilles" and "Lullaby" and "Law like Love" and...

well, of Auden, really.

#11 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:39 AM:

What is this, earworm Jo with early Twentieth Century English poetry day? Sherwood was just quoting Eliot's Ash Wednesday on her livejournal. But then it is Ash Wednesday.

Sarah@10 -- I have a start-quote from "Lullaby" in Farthing,

Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but not from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

and I'm going to have one from "The Shield of Achilles" in Half a Crown, assuming I get the permissions.

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.

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:44 AM:

This is the first poem of Auden's I encountered, as a schoolboy in London, at the end of the GPO film 'Night Mail' (also the title of the poem).

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers' declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

And this bit from Letters from Iceland speaks very clearly to me:

Simple like all dream wishes, they employ
The elementary language of the heart,
And speak to muscles of the need of joy;
The dying and the lovers soon to part.

Hear them and whistle. Always new,
They mirror every change in our position;
They are our evidence of what we do;
They speak directly to our lost condition.

Think in this year what pleased the dancers best:
When Austria died and China was forsaken,
Shanghai in flames and Teruel retaken,

France put her case before the world : «Partout
Il y a de la joie.» America addressed
The earth: Do you love me as I love you ?”

#13 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:53 AM:

Jim Henley #1:

À propos of that:

Time, that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

Time, that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling for his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

#14 ::: Mary Frances Zambreno ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:12 PM:

Fragano, #13: Forgive me. I hate people who correct other people's quote in public, especially when I don't know for sure if the differences are deliberate or not, but I can't stop myself. It's like an itch I can't scratch, and it's going to bother me all day if I don't add:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit
Lays its honors at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

It was one of the sadder and more enlightening days of my life when I realized that Auden had excised those three stanzas from later editions . . .

Mary Frances

#15 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:24 PM:

Mary Frances #14. He might have written those stanzas for himself. Perhaps he came to realise that.

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:30 PM:

Mary Frances Zambreno #14: You're right to correct me.

Auden cut those stanzas from the poem after his reconversion to Christianity and move from Left to Right.

#17 ::: Tania ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:30 PM:

Auden is one of the reasons I love language and verse.


And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

#18 ::: Dave Langford ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:52 PM:

Oh yes!

I linked to this story earlier in the month.

#19 ::: Benet ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 01:07 PM:

"A Major Port"

No guidance can be found in ancient lore;
Banks jostle in the sun for domination
Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation
The low recessive houses of the poor.

We have no destiny assigned us,
No data but our bodies; we work
To better ourselves; bleak hospitals alone
Remind us of the equality of Man.

Children are really loved here,
even by police;
They speak of years before the big were lonely.
Here will be no recurrence.

Only the brass-bands throbbing in the park foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace;
We learn to pity and rebel.

(From memory; lapses possible.)

#20 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 01:17 PM:

"his reconversion to Christianity and move from Left to Right"

"To Right" may be overstating the case. Mostly Auden stopped identifying as a socialist and become increasingly apolitical.

#21 ::: Mary Frances Zambreno ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:00 PM:

Fragano, #15: Thank you.

Part of the sadness I've always felt when I remember Auden's cutting those verses is sort of personal--it comes from my experiences teaching this poem. I always find myself wondering if he was increasingly concerned that people wouldn't know what he was talking about when he mentioned "Kipling's views" and "Paul Claudel." He probably wasn't, I know . . . but most of my students generally didn't have a clue, even with the footnote in the Norton Anthology to help them.

Mary Frances

#22 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:37 PM:

PNH #20: Perhaps. I see Auden, though, as moving after the defeat of the Spanish Republic towards a sort of High Church Toryism not altogether dissimilar from Eliot's.

#23 ::: Melanie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:39 PM:

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.

Patrick, thanks for posting that...I've been having a bad day, and it was nice to find Auden in my RSS feed.

Oh, and, randomly, may I suggest that in your little html table, below, you list <em> instead of <i> and <strong> instead of <b>? For quoting/typography it doesn't really matter, but when you want emphasis, some software for the blind will read em and strong differently from normal text, but not b or i.

#24 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:42 PM:

Mary Frances Zambreno #21: I suspect that quite a few generations of students are innocent of Claudel's verse -- I myself have read very little of it -- or his wit.* Kipling, I had thought, was enjoying a bit of a vogue -- he gets resurrected on a regular basis, I find.

* Claudel was French ambassador to the US when the Crash of 1929 occurred. He invited the press to the embassy, and informed them 'Between the crisis and the catastrophe there is time for a glass of champagne'. (Quoted from memory from Claud Cockburn's I Claud.

#25 ::: Madison Guy ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:04 PM:

Thanks. A double bonus: I love Auden, and as I started reading those familiar lines, the stereo in my head rang out with the booming voice of Dylan Thomas. One of his recordings has a great reading of "As I Walked Out One Evening." It could wring tears from a stone.

Another birthday today: Eustace Tilley. Odd coincidence that the day Libby goes to the jury is The New Yorker's anniversary, as well as Auden's centennial. Founder Harold Ross must be turning over in his grave. (Auden probably wouldn't have been surprised -- he understood betrayal.) Browsing in the Rossosphere: His baby turns 82 today -- along with Eustace the cover guy. The New Yorker has given us gritty journalism (Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, most recently), as well as pretentious fluff. It has also spawned a host of related blogs. Here’s a look at a few, with topix ranging as far afield as haiku and chiasmus, with links.

#26 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:07 PM:

In one of the books she wrote as Amanda Cross, Carolyn Heilbrun quotes Auden to the effect that among those whom he liked he could find no common denominator, among those whom he loved, he could. They made him laugh. I think about that often. I really should dig out my Cross books and find the exact quote. But then I'll end up re-reading all those books...

MKK

#27 ::: Calimac ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:40 PM:

Some thoughts, a bit about Auden and Tolkien, and more poems here.

#28 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 04:33 PM:

Great post, Calimac. Everyone, go read it.

Fragano: "I see Auden, though, as moving after the defeat of the Spanish Republic towards a sort of High Church Toryism not altogether dissimilar from Eliot's."

"Not altogether dissimilar" save for, oh, I dunno, most of the details? Like not sharing Eliot's antisemitism, for a start. And the several same-sex relationships. Exactly what defines "not altogether dissimilar"? Calling one's self Anglican? Being a biped?

#29 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 06:14 PM:

PNH #28: Certainly, Auden didn't share Eliot's antisemitism (nor his excessive reverence for Englishness),but they did share High Church Anglicanism and a certain fundamental Toryism. In addition, I find a certain nostalgia in both late Auden and late Eliot; one that is expressed, for example, in the way both liked Kipling.

(One of my mentors, when I expressed a naive, youthful liking for "Notes towards a Definition of Culture", commented that Eliot did not like people like either of us, and that we should bear that in mind. Nonetheless, Eliot, as well as Auden, was one of the people responsible for my first interest in poetry. The Faber Book of Modern Verse has much to answer for.)

Auden's sexuality, I thought, was independent of his politics or religious beliefs.

#30 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 09:02 PM:

Madison Guy:

His baby turns 82 today -- along with Eustace the cover guy.

No he doesn't, courtesy of Tina Brown. During her ugly stint as editor of The New Yorker she said a cover painting of a woman was Tilly's widow, and gave a death date as I remember. One more example of her editorial ham-handedness at work. (Since Private Eye can't reprint their comments about her or her husband legally, does anyone in the U.K. remember what they wrote about her before she came to America? I'd dearly like to know.)

#31 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 09:27 PM:

They wrote well. What is this "well"? Is it only the felicitous arrangement of appropriate words?

I don't think so. I seem to find that all the great poets speak truth, even despite themselves. Auden, despite not liking people like Fragano and his mentor, could write:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad.
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

(September 1, 1939)

#32 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 09:52 PM:

Dave Luckett #31: Er, it was Eliot, not Auden, who had a problem with people such as myself.

#33 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:25 PM:

Damn, I'm an idiot. Auden was high-church Anglican and Tory, too, though, as you said, and I somehow conflated the two. I can imagine a high Anglican and Tory writing "September 1, 1939" because s/he doesn't like Germans, but s/he would have also to be a great poet, and still it tells a truth.

Sorry. I'm still an idiot.

#34 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:38 PM:

Dave Luckett #33: '1st September 1939' was Auden's valediction to his socialism. His poetry afterwards took a very different turn.

#35 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 11:03 PM:

[[Walks into bedroom & over to poetry bookcase]]
[[Selects Auden book]]
[[Returns to living room and places in satchel]]

Thank you.

#36 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2007, 01:02 AM:

There was a pretty good story on NPR this afternoon on Auden. Evidently he distanced himself from "September 1, 1939" and had a strong reaction to the LBJ line in the "Daisy" ad that it clearly inspired.

#37 ::: AlyxL ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2007, 03:29 AM:

May I just delurk here, to quote a couple of my favourite bits of Auden, from The Sea And The Mirror;

So, if you prosper, suspect those bright
Mornings when you whistle with a light
Heart. You are loved; you have never seen
The harbour so still, the park so green.
So many well-fed pigeons upon
Cupolas and triumphal arches.
So many stags and slender ladies
Beside the canals. Remember when
Your climate seems a permanent home
For marvelous creatures and great men,
What griefs and convulsions startled Rome,
Ecbatana, Babylon.

and also;

As poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young.
The rolling in money,
The screamingly funny
And those that are very well hung.


#38 ::: Marna ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2007, 04:40 AM:

"Who call him spurious and shoddy/will do so over my dead body" or wtte.

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead";
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread";
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: "They must die";
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down to the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

I rather wish that particualar poem had not aged so well.

#39 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2007, 08:26 AM:

Here war is simple, like a monument.
A telephone is speaking to a man.
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent.
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan
For living men, in danger of their lives,
Who thirst at nine, who were to thirst at noon,
And can be killed, and are, and miss their wives,
And unlike an idea, can die too soon.
But ideas can be true, although men die.
And I have seen a thousand faces
Made active by one lie.
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.

(From "In Time of War" 1936)

#40 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2007, 02:00 PM:

So many favorite Auden poems to choose from! But my impression is that this poem has the lowest attention-by-Auden-lovers to quality ratio, so let me quote that...

"A Walk After Dark"

A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
Eighteenth-century way.

It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shameless a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead

Now, unready to die
Bur already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of middle-age.

It's cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People's Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.

Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.

For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn't have happened did.

Occurring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world:

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.

#41 ::: Tehanu ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2007, 12:26 AM:

Beuaty, vision, midnight dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show,
Eye and knocking heart shall bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers;
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

#42 ::: Richard Brandt ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2007, 02:22 PM:

Here comes the Night Mail, crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order

...And no one hears the postman's step
Without a quickening of the heart
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

(Lines from the 1936 GPO Film Unit documentary Night Mail, which I quote from memory some thirty years after watching it at university...)

#43 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2007, 04:53 PM:

Auden's work has raptured my heart.

Rapture hurts, sometimes.

#44 ::: Jag ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2007, 01:01 PM:

What are cammies, please help...

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