The Books: “W.H. Auden: Selected Poems” (W.H. Auden)

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

Selected Poems, by W.H. Auden

Auden comes up for me all the time in my life. His words are in my brain. The only other poet I can think of who takes up that much brain-space, who helps me figure out how to say things, is Yeats. (Then there’s Shakespeare, too, but any time you put Shakespeare in any kind of a list with other people, he throws the whole thing off-balance). I’ll be in some situation and suddenly I’ll remember Auden’s words “let the healing fountains start …” (which is from his poem, coincidentally, on Yeats) Or I’ll be troubled and remind myself that I need to try to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart. (This post about “doing my best” is a great example of that). I know I’m crooked. We all are. But we must love anyway. Or try to.

Then, of course, he has written two lines which – as difficult as they are – are words I actually try to live by. “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me.” This is a phrase that comes up in my head, what, once, twice a day? I have a hard time picking a favorite anything – but if I had to choose to re-read only one poem for the rest of my life, it would be “The More Loving One“. I can honestly say that that poem has helped me in living my life. There are many lines of Shakespeare as well that have actually been “candle beams” in the darkness, so shining a good deed in a naughty world and all that. But “The More Loving One” stands, for me, as one of the most profound poems of all time. And he doesn’t use what Hemingway calls the “ten dollar words”. It’s a poem of simple language, very few metaphors, a clear and open expression of what is, actually, a philosophy. If you feel like reading a long-ass post about a personal story from my life that circles around the poem, here you go. (That’s another one of those personal posts that brought up a vicious response in some guy who told me that “no wonder I’m single” after reading it. I will love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart, I will love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart, I will love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart … I chant it over and over in such situations!)

What can I say. Auden is in my brain.


The wonderful Clive James said about Auden:

“The need to find an expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life – a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.”

There is sometimes an almost unbearable tension in Auden’s best poems. It seems to be that he is expressing everything, but you ache to hear more, you wonder what else this amazing voice has to say. Like most great artists, what he withholds is almost just as interesting as what he reveals.

Michael Schmidt wrote, “He overshadows the poets of his generation.” In the same way that Shakespeare overshadows the other playwrights and poets of his current day. You have to kind of get Auden out of the way to see what else was going on. And there was a lot going on!!

There are too many poems to even talk about, too many that I love and go back to, again and again and again. He comforts me. He expresses the horror I felt on 9/11. He understands terror and despair. He lived in “interesting times”, and was responsive to them in his work. Many poets were undone by WWI and WWII. The horror took away their voices. Auden was just the opposite.

Edward Mendelson, who edited this lovely selection of Auden’s poems, writes:

“Then, in June 1933, Auden experienced what he later called a ‘Vision of Agape’. He was sitting on a lawn with three colleagues from the school where he was teaching, when, he wrote, ‘quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ Before this, his poems had only been able to celebrate moments of impersonal erotic intensity, which he called ‘love’. Now, in the poem ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed,’ prompted by his vision, he had praise for everything around him.”

I think of this poem as the “vision of agape” poem, even though that is not its title. So so good. I mean: “lion griefs”? I wish I could write like that. Too many good lines to even count. Here is the whole poem. It was the first moment Auden felt he really “broke through” in his work, and you can feel the difference in his poems forever afterwards. Before “vision of agape” he was one type of poet, after “vision of agape” he was another. He had been able to see the universal.

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 a 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.

She climbs the European sky,
Churches and power stations lie
Alike among earth’s fixtures:
Into the galleries she peers
And blankly as a butcher stares
Upon the marvelous pictures.

To gravity attentive, she
Can notice nothing here, though we
Whom hunger does not move,
From gardens where we feel secure
Look up and with a sigh endure
The tyrannies of love:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

But when the waters make retreat
And through the black mud first the wheat
In shy green stalks appears,
When stranded monsters gasping lie,
And sounds of riveting terrify
Their whorled unsubtle ears,

May these delights we dread to lose,
This privacy, need no excuse
But to that strength belong,
As through a child’s rash happy cries
The drowned parental voices rise
In unlamenting song.

After discharges of alarm
All unpredicted let them calm
The pulse of nervous nations,
Forgive the murderer in the glass,
Tough in their patience to surpass
The tigress her swift motions.

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16 Responses to The Books: “W.H. Auden: Selected Poems” (W.H. Auden)

  1. DBW says:

    The lion griefs loped from the shade
    And on our knees their muzzles laid,
    And Death put down his book.

    Wow. This reminds me that I hope my time comes in the summer. I dread the idea of dying on a cold, dreary winterish day. Better the last thought be the sun on my face. That’s how I try to live, and would be a good way to pass on.

  2. Lizzy says:

    I read the words “the crumpling flood” and my heart just about stopped. Who thinks of putting those two words together?! And yet it captures the sound of the rushing water, the feel of it, perfectly. Gorgeous.

    Phrases like that remind me why my English teachers talked about Word Choice (capital W, captial C) as a virtue second only to Clarity- because nothing approaches the specificity of “the right word” versus “the similar but only adequate or actually pretty lame word”. (“the scrunching flood” or “collapsing flood” doesn’t have quite the same ring, somehow…)

  3. Jon says:

    “A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life – a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.”

    What a awesome (in the original, truest sense of that word) metaphor for the closet–and one that I think every writer, regardless of his/her sexual situation, necessarily understands and experiences. I mean, after all: “How to say what we mean to say? These words so often get in the way!”

    And thanks for posting “A Summer Night.” Equally awesome in its vision and scope, moving from the local to the nocturnal to the global to the primordial and back again, it leaves you reeling, haunted, hollowed and hallowed. Those “whorled, unsubtle” ears–incredible! (the least reason for which being the great pun he creates with “whorled”).

    Also, I had sent you an e-mail a few days ago to the address you had written me from a long while back. Don’t know if you still check that address, but FYI…

  4. Therese says:

    Sheila, have you heard the audio recording of Auden reading “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”? They had it playing on a loop at the Yeats exhibit at the National Library in Dublin (that you wrote a great post about, as I recall) and it was plain gorgeous. I hear Auden’s voice in my head every time I read his stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Bernard says:

    I may have mentioned it before but am reminded again that there is a disarming simplicity to this and other of Auden’s poems. Out on the lawn I lie in bed,/Vega conspicuous overhead starts out like an epilogue to Now I lay me down to sleep,/I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

    With unpretentious words, using simple rhymes and rhythm, Auden presented 20th Century themes with the seeming innocence of an 18th Century prayer.

    Now north and south and east and west/Those I love lie down to rest; we read these words and cannot entirely miss hearing them echo: Should I die before I wake,/I pray the Lord my soul to take.

  6. red says:

    Bernard – I love how you describe the prayer-like quality of his rhymes. I think that is so right on.

  7. red says:

    Therese – I have not heard it! Now I really want to! That poem is so brilliant I can barely even deal with it.

  8. red says:

    Lizzy – your comment about word choice was realllly interesting. It makes me think of something the great acting teacher Stella Adler used to say, “The talent is in the choice.”

    Talented actors make ‘good’ choicees – their talent is revealed in the choices they make, how they modulate their performance, whatever … Untalented actors make bad or obvious choices. Lots of people disagree with Adler on that point – but I do think it is an interesting observation.

  9. red says:

    Jon – sepia!!

    Yes, I agree – Clive James’ comment is really insightful.

  10. The Books: “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” – Walt Whitman

    Next book on my poetry shelf: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair A gorgeous two-volume edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry – this is really…

  11. Peter Farr says:

    I have a book of best poems somewhere and I shall comment further when I retrieve this. however I know that this is one of if not the greatest of modern poems. It thrills me every time I read it. it has the gentle clarity of something from Betjeman with similar hammer-blow impact. Like being cudgelled by a giant gloved fist with a picture of a cuddly rabbit on it. It is of our time when we see the news about how horrific the events overseas and still how quiet and ordered is our existence : ‘From gardens where we feel secure/Look up and with a sigh endure/The tyrannies of love/And gentle do not care to know/Where Poland draws her Eastern bow/What violence is done/Nor ask what doubtful act allows/our freedom in this English house/Our picnics in the sun. ‘ This from memory because I love the poem so and the bit about the moon – ‘blankly as a butcher stares/Upon the marvellous pictures’

  12. Peter Farr says:

    Sorry in my excitement I forgot that the poem is in full view to read. But the sentiment is there

  13. Dorothy says:

    Wow, this post is from a billion years ago, but I just want to comment and tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. The very first time I read him, Auden went straight to my heart and involved himself in my life. There are many poets I appreciate, many even that I love, but none have had this same effect on me. It’s good to know other people feel the same way about him!

  14. Philip Roe says:

    People who love this poem should hear Britten’s seeting of part of it in the Spring Symphony.

  15. Philip Roe says:

    People who love this poem should hear Britten’s setting of part of it in the Spring Symphony.

  16. bella kemp says:

    This is a beautifully written post. Thank you so much.

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