Week 216: Their Lonely Betters, by W.H.Auden

There seems to be a general view that the work of the later, postwar Auden is marked by a decline in poetic power. I can see that it has its wobbles, but I think there were also gains: a move towards greater lucidity, towards writing less for a coterie audience and more for the only audience really worth having, the company of free spirits throughout time. I like, for example, this poem, written in 1950, in which Auden characteristically combines a light touch with a serious thought.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

W.H.Auden

5 thoughts on “Week 216: Their Lonely Betters, by W.H.Auden

  1. “Assumed responsibility for time” – to assume responsibility for time is to assume one can (in large or small ways) shape or predict the future? Eg I can make a dental appointment, and (except in exceptional circumstances) the dentist will see me at the arranged time?

    • I don’t think that is quite what Auden meant, Chris. I take ‘Assumed responsibility for time’ to be not so much about predicting or arranging the future, more about preserving the past. For his views on the relationship between time and language, you might like to compare his poem ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’, where he says that Time

      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.

      • Hi David, thanks for your reply. “with a rhythm or a rhyme” – so here Auden is talking about poets? Poets sometimes preserve the past, or interpret the past (which vegetables and birds never do)?

      • Well, yes, poets in particular but also human beings in general, I think the point being that vegetables and birds just exist in the present with no sense of time, no burdens of responsibility, and also, incidentally, no capacity for deceit, so have no need of language. There is also the suggestion that language isolates us from the world and allows us to feel loneliness. For a seemingly ‘light’ poem there’s more to this one than you might think.

  2. “betters” [noun] – superiors, especially in merit or rank. “count some days” – count the days until a longed-for event?

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