Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Poem for the day, literally

I've said it before -- my favorite book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes -- and my favorite phrase might be "there's nothing new under the sun." It's sort of a guiding principle. I stumbled upon the following poem today by W. H. Auden, written on the eve of World War II.  It's long but one of the best --

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.

        --W.H. Auden


  1. so much here, elizabeth. ahh. have to go back and read it again. thank goodness that auden wrote. i am wordless. xoxo

  2. Hard to believe that was written 70 years ago. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

  3. Oh my wow. I forgot that's where "The Normal Heart" and "We must love one another or die", which are both Larry Kramer works are titled from.

    It's devastating.

  4. So there was one day that you posted a poem either here or at Hopeful Parents by William Blake. I think it was the tiger, tiger, burning bright poem. (Am I now utterly showing my lack of education regarding things literary??)

    The truth is, I am literarily uneducated. I don't even think literarily is a word.

    And I liked when you interpreted that poem -- it was the first time I ever read a poem and had tears well up.

    Can you do that again sometime? Publish a poem...and then add your own insight. It really was eye opening for this literary bonehead.

  5. Thanks for the care it took, wanting to share that enough to type it all in.... kind of mirrors the poem.

  6. Happy birthday to my new favorite friend. Sorry I missed, have been occupied with just have time to catch up.

  7. It is true, there is nothing new under the sun, including hope and love.

  8. This work was W.H. Auden's least favorite.

    He felt it was over used. Please see the Paris Review article if interested.

    Auden also did interesting work for the Army in WW ll in post war Germany. He discovered civilians did not like to be bombed. It is a favorite story of George Marshall.

  9. That packs a wallop. Thanks for posting it.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...