Week 487: August, 1968, by W.H.Auden

It’s been a while since we had a W.H.Auden poem. This one was written in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia some fifty-four years ago.

August, 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.


Week 403: Musée des Beaux Arts, by W.H.Auden

I think this is one of W.H.Auden’s finest poems, showing his ability to reflect generally on the human condition while never losing sight of the concrete. It’s probably too well known to need any recommendation from me, but just in case…

Musée des Beaux Arts

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 Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything 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 disappearing 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.


Week 324: From ‘The Cave of Making’, by W.H.Auden

This excerpt from a longer, slightly rambling elegy for Auden’s friend Louis MacNeice seems even more likely to strike a chord with practitioners of poetry today than when it was written back in the sixties. A slightly dangerous chord maybe: its proud stance too easily tipping over into a disdain for the common reader and a retreat into the obscurantism that goes some of the way towards explaining the common reader’s alienation from poetry in the first place. Yet when all is said and done poets must still reconcile any distaste they may have for elitism with a desire to render a true account, a desire that they may feel to be largely lacking in the culture that surrounds them, and in the end may feel that they have no choice but to continue broadcasting on their own channel even though no one, it seems, is tuning in to listen… 

From ‘The Cave of Making’

Who would, for preference,
be a bard in an oral culture,
obliged at drunken feasts to improvise a eulogy
of some beefy illiterate burner,
giver of rings, or depend for bread on the moods of a
Baroque Prince, expected,
like his dwarf, to amuse? After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.


Week 168: Roman Wall Blues, by W.H.Auden

This may not be Auden’s greatest poem, but I certainly find it one of his most engagingly offbeat, and I have a particular fondness for it since it brings back vividly a day spent visiting Hadrian’s Wall with my small daughter and smaller grandson (there are seventeen years between our first and last child – don’t ask).

We picnicked just north of the wall and I sat propped against it with legs outstretched, watching white clouds go by and grass shimmer in the wind, and thinking of those who once patrolled here, Tungrian or Frisian or German auxiliary. I discovered that I knew ‘Roman Wall Blues’ by heart, and somehow at that moment Auden’s brief poem managed to conjure up their past for me better than any history book. In fact I was just feeling myself to be on the edge of some pretty profound insight when small grandson announced that he needed a wee, so I never quite got there. I think it was something about how little time for private reflection those poor blokes must have had in their hard anonymous lives…

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging round her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish,
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.


Week 131: As I Walked Out One Evening, by W.H.Auden

It is possible to be irritated at the wilful obscurity of much of the early Auden but still to acknowledge that he was at least trying to do something different, and then when it worked the results were sensational. Had anything been heard before in English poetry quite like this mordant blend of folksong and nursery rhyme, where the words seem to dance to a ghostly tune that one can never quite identify?

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

“I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.”

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

“Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver”s brilliant bow.

“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

“Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

“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 all your crooked heart.”

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.


Week 47: From ‘A Summer Night’, by W.H.Auden

From ‘A Summer Night’

Out on the lawn I lie in bed
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June,
As congregated leaves complete
Their day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.

Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to the newcomer.

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:

That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers
The dumpy and the tall.


These are the opening stanzas of a longer poem, chronicling what Auden described as a vision of agape, pure devotional love. I think the poem then falls off somewhat: I feel that Auden can sometimes gets a bit wordy. But then those lion griefs come loping from the shade, and I bow to a master…