Tag: w.h. auden

W.H. Auden, “Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings”


Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in the windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Again in the room with the sofa hiding the grate,
Look down to the river when the rain is over,
See him turn to the window, hearing our last
Of Captain Ferguson.

It is seen how excellent hands have turned to commonness.
One staring too long, went blind in a tower,
One sold all his manors to fight, broke through, and faltered.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under the headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see the farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed the hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict; passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.



September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

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.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

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 thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic 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.

– – –

Well this is a happy one, isn’t it? If the date that is is the poem’s title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the day Germany invaded Poland: the first day of World War II. So I’d say Mr. Auden has right to pessimistic as hell.

The power and anger of the poem is immediately evident, and it is completely sustained throughout. Up until the Modern period of poetry, most poets who began a poem with such violence and pessimism usually concluded with a ray of hope, however small. The power of Good, Hope, Charity, Justice, Poetry, etc. over all. Not so in this poem. The poem begins in a dive, with the narrator “uncertain and afraid.” Throughout you can find the language of dejection and weariness: rubbish, grave, neutral, blind, offence, evil, trash, dead, dumb, lie, defenseless, beleaguered. “Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day,” Auden says.

In his anger he seems to condemn all creatures:

– The tyrants who cause war (including under this category various nations (Germany, of course), the Church, dictators, supporters of democracy, landlords, “Important Persons.”

– Those who are apathetic to the world around them, those in “stupor.” The neutral skies, the average men, societal conventions, “the conservative dark.” He finds the “romantic lie in the brain/Of the sensual man-on-the-street” equal to “the lie of Authority.” Those who live in a “euphoric dream” look into a mirror and see Imperialism’s face.

– And finally the optimists, people like him who blindly hope for the future and happiness. In the first stanza he finds hope to be “clever,” cute but pointless. Optimism and hope are “defenseless,” unable to match, let alone defeat, the terror of the world. The messages that the “Just” flash to one another are nothing but ironies. At the end of the poem, he refers to himself as an “affirming flame,” “beleaguered by the same/negation and despair.” He is but one more useless point of light.

This poem exists in a number of transitional spaces. Auden, a Brit, has recently moved to New York City. In the poetry of this time period you can see influences of both schools of poetry, American and British. The Americans play a little looser with language, while the British are more conservative. Before his move to America, Auden was notorious as a liberal poet, and he believed he would be better suited as an American than as a Briton. The Americans are future-thinking, full of big helpings of liberalism, optimism, and Romanticism. The British wallow in the past, quote ancient Greeks, and are generally stoic and mild.

You can see in this poem that Auden is attacking both sides of the Atlantic: the phony, unrealistic Americans and the neutral, apathetic British.

By bringing past, present, future, abstract, and concrete together, Auden has created a sort of Modern/Traditional hybrid. As a British poet, he started as a conservative in poesy and prosody, although a liberal in mindset. Here we can see him breaking from that tradition and embracing a more radical, poetically liberal and Modern form (or formlessness).

Which is exactly what this poem is about: the traditions and values of people clashing with the realities of the world, and the resulting fear and apathy. As I said at the beginning, it’s hard to find redemption in this poem, and maybe Auden thinks we’re all doomed. At least, he did on this day. But the underlying message is to face challenges head on; to avoid melancholy, to avoid retreat from the world, to avoid needless optimism, and focus on what’s at hand. Sometimes I hate this poem and others like it for this attitude, because I prefer my natural state to be optimism. But sometimes it’s necessary to get nice pragmatic a kick in the ass. However you look at it, this is a terror-filled beauty of a poem, and one that deserves to be remembered in times of crisis.