W. H. Auden by J. D. McClatchy
O Where Are You Going?
Our Hunting Fathers
On This Island
As I Walked Out One Evening
Fish in the Unruffled Lakes
Musée des Beaux Arts
from In Time of War
In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Law Like Love
Under Which Lyre
A Walk After Dark
The More Loving One
The Shield of Achilles
Thanksgiving for a Habitat
The Common Life
A New Year Greeting
In certain poems the audio version differs from the published text.
(from a preface by J. D. McClatchy)
When he arrived at Oxford as an undergraduate, W. H. Auden went to see
his tutor in literature, who asked the young man what he meant to do in
later life. "I am going to be a poet," Auden answered. "Ah, yes," replied
the tutor, and began a small lecture on verse exercises improving one's
prose. Auden scowled. "You don't understand at all," he interrupted. "I mean
a great poet."
Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.
There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.
Save him from hostile capture,
From sudden tiger's leap at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.
"O where are you going?" said reader to rider,
"That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,
Yonder's the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return."
"O do you imagine," said fearer to farer,
"That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,
Your diligent looking discover the lacking,
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?"
"O what was that bird," said horror to hearer,
"Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,
The spot on your skin is a shocking disease."
"Out of this house"---said rider to reader,
"Yours never will"---said farer to fearer
"They're looking for you"---said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.
Our hunting fathers told the story
Of the sadness of the creatures,
Pitied the limits and the lack
Set in their finished features;
Saw in the lion's intolerant look,
Behind the quarry's dying glare,
Love raging for, the personal glory
That reason's gift would add,
The liberal appetite and power,
The rightness of a god.
Who, nurtured in that fine tradition,
Predicted the result,
Guessed Love by nature suited to
The intricate ways of guilt,
That human ligaments could so
His southern gestures modify
And make it his mature ambition
To think no thought but ours,
To hunger, work illegally,
And be anonymous?
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
Here at a small field's ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
-ing surf, and a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
W.H.Auden. Selected poems
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 nelghbour
With 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.
As I Walked Out One Evening
Fish in the unruffled lakes
Their swarming colours wear,
Swans in the winter air
A white perfection have,
And the great lion walks
Through his innocent grove;
Lion, fish and swan
Act, and are gone
Upon Time's toppling wave.
We, till shadowed days are done,
We must weep and sing
Duty's conscious wrong,
The Devil in the clock,
The goodness carefully worn
For atonement or for luck;
We must lose our loves,
On each beast and bird that moves
Turn an envious look.
Sighs for folly done and said
Twist our narrow days,
But I must bless, I must praise
That you, my swan, who have
All gifts that to the swan
Impulsive Nature gave,
The majesty and pride,
Last night should add
Your voluntary love.
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse's flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.
Whispering neighbours, left and right,
Pluck us from the real delight;
And the active hands must freeze
Lonely on the separate knees.
Dead in hundreds at the back
Follow wooden in our track,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.
Starving through the leafless wood
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.
Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain's lovely head
Whose white waterfall could bless
Travellers in their last distress.
"O who can ever gaze his fill,"
Farmer and fisherman say,
"On native shore and local hill,
Grudge aching limb or callus on the hand?
Father, grandfather stood upon this land,
And here the pilgrims from our loins will stand."
So farmer and fisherman say
In their fortunate hey-day:
But Death's low answer drifts across
Empty catch or harvest loss
Or an unlucky May.
The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The end of toil is a bailiff's order,
Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.
"O life's too short for friends who share,"
Travellers think in their hearts,
"The city's common bed, the air,
The mountain bivouac and the bathing beach,
Where incidents draw every day from each
Memorable gesture and witty speech."
So travellers think in their hearts,
Till malice or circumstance parts
Them from their constant humour:
And slyly Death's coercive rumour
In that moment starts.
A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
Not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful,
Change your partner, dance while you can.
"O stretch your hands across the sea,"
The impassioned lover cries,
"Stretch them towards your harm and me.
Our grass is green, and sensual our brief bed,
The stream sings at its foot, and at its head
The mild and vegetarian beasts are fed."
So the impassioned lover cries
Till the storm of pleasure dies:
From the bedpost and the rocks
Death's enticing echo mocks,
And his voice replies.
The greater the love, the more false to its object,
Not to be born is the best for man;
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
Break the embraces, dance while you can.
"I see the guilty world forgiven,"
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
"The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the martyr's blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The lovers natural and the beasts all good."
So dreamer and drunkard sing
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with Death's reply
From whelping fear and nesting lie,
Woods and their echoes ring.
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance's pattern; dance while you can.
Dance, dancefor the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.
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
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 Brueghel'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.
So from the years the gifts were showered; each
Ran off with his at once into his life:
Bee took the politics that make a hive,
Fish swam as fish, peach settled into peach.
And were successful at the first endeavour;
The hour of birth their only time at college,
They were content with their precocious knowledge,
And knew their station and were good for ever.
Till finally there came a childish creature
On whom the years could model any feature,
And fake with ease a leopard or a dove;
Who by the lightest wind was changed and shaken,
And looked for truth and was continually mistaken,
Ana envied his few friends and chose his love.
He turned his field into a meeting-place,
And grew the tolerant ironic eye,
And formed the mobile money-changer's face,
And found the notion of equality.
And strangers were as brothers to his clocks,
And with his spires he made a human sky;
Museums stored his learning like a box,
And paper watched his money like a spy.
It grew so fast his life was overgrown,
And he forgot what once it had been made for,
And gathered into crowds and was alone,
And lived expensively and did without,
And could not find the earth which he had paid for,
Nor feel the love that he knew all about.
The life of man is never quite completed;
The daring and the chatter will go on:
But, as an artist feels his power gone,
These walk the earth and know themselves defeated.
Some could not bear nor break the young and mourn for
The wounded myths that once made nations good,
Some lost a world they never understood,
Some saw too clearly all that man was born for.
Loss is their shadow-wife, Anxiety
Receives them like a grand hotel; but where
They may regret they must; their life, to hear
The call of the forbidden cities, see
The stranger watch them with a happy stare,
And Freedom hostile in each home and tree.
Nothing is given: we must find our law.
Great buildings 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:
Nothing is certain but the body; we plan
To better ourselves; the 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,
And will be lost.
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.
We learn to pity and rebel.
(d. Jan. 1939)
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the firming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.
Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.
Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.
Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.
Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Law is Good-morning and Good-night.
Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.
And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this,
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,
No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating tirmidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.
Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.
A REACTIONARY TRACT FOR THE TIMES
(Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946)
Ares at last has quit the field,
The bloodstains on the bushes yield
To seeping showers,
And in their convalescent state
The fractured towns associate
With summer flowers.
Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.
Among bewildering appliances
For mastering the arts and sciences
They stroll or run,
And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne.
Professors back from secret missions
Resume their proper eruditions,
Though some regret it;
They liked their dictaphones a lot,
They met some big wheels, and do not
Let you forget it.
But Zeus' inscrutable decree
Permits the will-to-disagree
To be pandemic,
Ordains that vaudeville shall preach
And every commencement speech
Be a polemic.
Let Ares doze, that other war
Is instantly declared once more
'Twixt those who follow
Precocious Hermes all the way
And those who without qualms obey
Brutal like all Olympic games,
Though fought with similes and Christian names
And less dramatic,
This dialectic strife between
The civil gods is just as mean,
And more fanatic.
What high immortals do in mirth
Is life and death on Middle Earth;
Antipathy forever gripes
All ages and somatic types,
Who face the future's darkest hints
With giggles or with prairie squints
As stout as Cortez,
And those who like myself turn pale
As we approach with ragged sail
The fattening forties.
The sons of Hermes love to play,
And only do their best when they
Are told they oughtn't;
Apollo's children never shrink
From boring jobs but have to think
Their work important.
Related by antithesis,
A compromise between us is
Respect perhaps but friendship never:
Falstaff the fool confronts forever
The prig Prince Hal.
If he would leave the self alone,
Apollo's welcome to the throne,
Fasces and falcons;
He loves to rule, has always done it;
The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,
Be like the Balkans.
But jealous of our god of dreams,
His common-sense in secret schemes
To rule the heart;
Unable to invent the lyre,
Creates with simulated fire
And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.
Athletic, extrovert and crude,
For him, to work in solitude
Is the offence,
The goal a populous Nirvana:
His shield bears this device: Mens sana
Qui mal y pense.
To-day his arms, we must confess,
From Right to Left have met success,
His banners wave
From Yale to Princeton, and the news
From Broadway to the Book Reviews
Is very grave.
His radio Homers all day long
In over-Whitmanated song
That does not scan,
With adjectives laid end to end,
Extol the doughnut and commend
The Common Man.
His, too, each homely lyric thing
On sport or spousal love or spring
Or dogs or dusters,
Invented by some court-house bard
For recitation by the yard
To him ascend the prize orations
And sets of fugal variations
On some folk-ballad,
While dietitians sacrifice
A glass of prune-juice or a nice
Charged with his compound of sensational
Sex plus some undenominational
Enormous novels by co-eds
Rain down on our defenceless heads
Till our teeth chatter.
In fake Hermetic uniforms
Behind our battle-line, in swarms
That keep alighting,
His existentialists declare
That they are in complete despair,
Yet go on writing.
No matter; He shall be defied;
White Aphrodite is on our side:
What though his threat
To organize us grow more critical?
Zeus willing, we, the unpolitical,
Shall beat him yet.
Lone scholars, sniping from the walls
Of learned periodicals,
Our facts defend,
Our intellectual marines,
Landing in little magazines,
Capture a trend.
By night our student Underground
At cocktail parties whisper round
From ear to ear;
Fat figures in the public eye
Collapse next morning, ambushed by
Some witty sneer.
In our morale must lie our strength:
So, that we may behold at length
Battalions melt away like fog,
Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
Which runs as follows:---
Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.
Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.
Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.
A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
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
But 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 the 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 judgement waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs, the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes liked to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
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.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945)
He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought---
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort
On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.
Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?
The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alariming or unkind
But utterly banal.
Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.
Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,
And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free
To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.
Fish in the Unruffled Lakes
Nobody I know would like to be buried
with a silver cocktail-shaker,
a transistor radio and a strangled
daily help, or keep his word because
of a great-great-grandmother who got laid
by a sacred beast. Only a press lord
could have built San Simeon: no unearned income
can buy us back the gait and gestures
to manage a baroque staircase, or the art
of believing footmen don't hear
human speech. (In adulterine castles
our half-strong might hang their jackets
while mending their lethal bicycle-chains:
luckily, there are not enough
crags to go round.) Still, Hetty Pegler's Tump
is worth a visit, so is Schönbrunn,
to look at someone's idea of the body
that should have been his, as the flesh
Mum formulated shouldn't: that whatever
he does or feels in the mood for,
stock-taking, horse-play, worship, making love,
he stays the same shape, disgraces
a Royal I. To be over-admired is not
good enough: although a fine figure
is rare in either sex, others like it
have existed before. One may
be a Proustian snob or a sound Jacksonian
democrat, but which of us wants
to be touched inadvertently, even
by his beloved? We know all about graphs
and Darwin, enormous rooms no longer
superhumanise, but earnest
city-planners are mistaken: a pen
for a rational animal
is no fitting habitat for Adam's
sovereign clone. I, a transplant
from overseas, at last am dominant
over three acres and a blooming
conurbation of country lives, few of whom
I shall ever meet, and with fewer
converse. Linnaeus recoiled from the Amphibia
as a naked gruesome rabble,
Arachnids give me the shudders, but fools
who deface their emblem of guilt
are germane to Hitler: the race of spiders
shall be allowed their webs. I should like
to be to my water-brethren as a spell
of fine weather: Many are stupid,
and some, maybe, are heartless, but who is not
vulnerable, easy to scare,
and jealous of his privacy? (I am glad
the blackbird, for instance, cannot
tell if I'm talking English, German or
just typewriting: that what he utters
I may enjoy as an alien rigmarole.) I ought
to outlast the limber dragonflies
as the muscle-bound firs are certainly
going to outlast me: I shall not end
down any oesophagus, though I may succumb
to a filter-passing predator,
shall, anyhow, stop eating, surrender my smidge
of nitrogen to the World Fund
with a drawn-out Oh (unless at the nod
of some jittery commander
I be translated in a nano-second
to a c.c. of poisonous nothing
in a giga-death). Should conventional
blunderbuss war and its routiers
invest my bailiwick, I shall of course
assume the submissive posture:
but men are not wolves and it probably
won't help. Territory, status,
and love, sing all the birds, are what matter:
what I dared not hope or fight for
is, in my fifties, mine, a toft-and-croft
where I needn't, ever, be at home to
those I am not at home with, not a cradle,
a magic Eden without clocks,
and not a windowless grave, but a place
I may go both in and out of.
(for Chester Kallman)
A living-room, the catholic area you
(Thou, rather) and I may enter
without knocking, leave without a bow, confronts
each visitor with a style,
a secular faith: he compares its dogmas
with his, and decides whether
he would like to see more of us. (Spotless rooms
where nothing's left lying about
chill me, so do cups used for ash-trays or smeared
with lip-stick: the homes I warm to,
though seldom wealthy, always convey a feeling
of bills being promptly settled
with cheques that don't bounce.) There's no We at an instant,
only Thou and I, two regions
of protestant being which nowhere overlap:
a room is too small, therefore,
if its occupants cannot forget at will
that they are not alone, too big
if it gives them any excuse in a quarrel
for raising their voices. What,
quizzing ours, would Sherlock Holmes infer? Plainly,
ours is a sitting culture
in a generation which prefers comfort
(or is forced to prefer it)
to command, would rather incline its buttocks
on a well-upholstered chair
than the burly back of a slave: a quick glance
at book-titles would tell him
that we belong to the clerisy and spend much
on our food. But could he read
what our prayers and jokes are about, what creatures
frighten us most, or what names
head our roll-call of persons we would least like
to go to bed with? What draws
singular lives together in the first place,
loneliness, lust, ambition,
or mere convenience, is obvious, why they drop
or murder one another
clear enough: how they create, though, a common world
between them, like Bombelli's
impossible yet useful numbers, no one
has yet explained. Still, they do
manage to forgive impossible behavior,
to endure by some miracle
conversational tics and larval habits
without wincing (were you to die,
I should miss yours). It's a wonder that neither
has been butchered by accident,
or, as lots have, silently vanished into
History's criminal noise
unmourned for, but that, after twenty-four years,
we should sit here in Austria
as cater-cousins, under the glassy look
of a Naples Bambino,
the portrayed regards of Strauss and Stravinsky,
doing British cross-word puzzles,
is very odd indeed. I'm glad the builder gave
our common-room small windows
through which no observed outsider can observe us:
every home should be a fortress,
equipped with all the very latest engines
for keeping Nature at bay,
versed in all ancient magic, the arts of quelling
the Dark Lord and his hungry
animivorous chimaeras. (Any brute
can buy a machine in a shop,
but the sacred spells are secret to the kind,
and if power is what we wish
they won't work.) The ogre will come in any case:
so Joyce has warned us. Howbeit,
fasting or feasting, we both know this: without
the Spirit we die, but life
without the Letter is in the worst of taste,
and always, though truth and love
can never really differ, when they seem to,
the subaltern should be truth.
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.
It's natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only
because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam's,
still don't fit us exactly, modern
only in this---our lack of decorum.
Homer's heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers
about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several
with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.
Our body is a moulded river
Out of a bellicose fore-time, thundering
head-on collisions of cloud and rock in an
up-thrust, crevasse-and-avalanche, troll country,
deadly to breathers,
it whelms into our picture below the melt-line,
where tarns lie frore under frowning cirques, goat-bell,
wind-breaker, fishing-rod, miner's-lamp country,
already at ease with
the mien and gestures that become its kindness,
in streams, still anonymous, still jumpable,
flows as it should through any declining country
in probing spirals.
Soon of a size to be named and the cause of
dirty in-fighting among rival agencies,
down a steep stair, penstock-and-turbine country,
it plunges ram-stam,
to foam through a wriggling gorge incised in softer
strata, hemmed between crags that nauntle heaven,
robber-baron, tow-rope, portage-way country,
nightmare of merchants.
Disemboguing from foothills, now in hushed meanders,
now in riffling braids, it vaunts across a senile
plain, well-entered, chateau-and-cider-press country,
its regal progress
gallanted for a while by quibbling poplars,
then by chimneys: led off to cool and launder
retort, steam-hammer, gasometer country,
it changes color.
Polluted, bridged by girders, banked by concrete,
now it bisects a polyglot metropolis,
ticker-tape, taxi, brothel, foot-lights country,
Broadening or burrowing to the moon's phases,
turbid with pulverised wastemantle, on through
flatter, duller, hotter, cotton-gin country
it scours, approaching
the tidal mark where it puts off majesty,
disintegrates, and through swamps of a delta,
punting-pole, fowling-piece, oyster-tongs country,
wearies to its final
act of surrender, effacement, atonement
in a huge amorphous aggregate no cuddled
attractive child ever dreams of, non-country,
image of death as
a spherical dew-drop of life. Unlovely
monsters, our tales believe, can be translated
too, even as water, the selfless mother
of all especials.
After an article by Mary J. Marples
in Scientific American, January, 1969
On this day tradition allots
to taking stock of our lives,
my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
Aerobics and Anaerobics:
A Very Happy New Year
to all for whom my ectoderm
is as Middle-Earth to me.
For creatures your size I offer
a free choice of habitat,
so settle yourselves in the zone
that suits you best, in the pools
of my pores or the tropical
forests of arm-pit and crotch,
in the deserts of my fore-arms,
or the cool woods of my scalp.
Build colonies: I will supply
adequate warmth and moisture,
the sebum and lipids you need,
on condition you never
do me annoy with your presence,
but behave as good guests should,
not rioting into acne
or athlete's-foot or a boil.
Does my inner weather affect
the surfaces where you live?
Do unpredictable changes
record my rocketing plunge
from fairs when the mind is in tift
and relevant thoughts occur
to fouls when nothing will happen
and no one calls and it rains.
I should like to think that I make
a not impossible world,
but an Eden it cannot be:
my games, my purposive acts,
may turn to catastrophes there.
If you were religious folk,
how would your dramas justify
By what myths would your priests account
for the hurricanes that come
twice every twenty-four hours,
each time I dress or undress,
when, clinging to keratin rafts,
whole cities are swept away
to perish in space, or the Flood
that scalds to death when I bathe?
Then, sooner or later, will dawn
a Day of Apocalypse,
when my mantle suddenly turns
too cold, too rancid, for you,
appetising to predators
of a fiercer sort, and I
am stripped of excuse and nimbus,
a Past, subject to Judgement.
Thanksgiving for a Habitat
Last-modified: Fri, 26 Jul 2002 06:13:55 GMT