Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We must love one another or die

Auden died in his sleep, in Vienna, 37 years ago today. Already he felt an antique among latter twentieth century culture. What might he who "(did) not know what is worse/the anti-novel or free verse" have made of this new century? A mixed bag, probably—he'd have made some noise about the computer age, but he would've been compelled to join it, I think. Would've had a blog, probably—what fun that would've been—and he would be a voice of reason and humanity, as he ever was.

The above picture of Auden rests atop one of our Poetry book cases, along with those of Yeats, Plath, and Pasha. It is a very young Auden in this picture; the tweed jacket with the dark shirt makes him look raffish, I think, as does the fedora, and his rather jaunty lean against the column. The pipe is a nice touch (it makes him look months older). His unlined face affects seriousness, and there is a sense of satisfaction in his bearing. It is the same bearing any picture taken in the 60's or 70's would've revealed—so central it was to him—although by then, the lines on his face had faithfully recorded his many, many sins.

I remember after September 11, Auden's September 1, 1939 turned up everywhere, prescient as it was. As you may or may not know, he did not permit its inclusion in his Collected Poems—he had come to regret his choice of words for the last line of the penultimate stanza (We must love one another or die) as being hyperbolic, even false. Most of us who love him, I think, would disagree, recognizing the Romantic closeted in his person (and appreciative of it), though Auden disdained the idea, on principle.

In a time when fanatics threaten our future like no time since the early decades of the last (ruined) century, the values he stood for—compassion, humor, and decency, expressed from a place of intelligence and refinement—are especially comforting, and necessary. And in the absence of a contemporary Auden to make sense of our still new (and ruining) century, the original will do quite nicely. From 1937, one of my favorite poems, 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 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.

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