Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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W. H. Auden . . . In Love with Language

Auden said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” And save for T.S. Eliot and perhaps Robert Frost, no modern poet has been more innovative and more securely adroit with language than Auden.

Over the years, I have had several ties to Berlin: the first, stationed there with the post-war military; then later settling in as a resident trying to establish some cultural credentials. Often I would walk through Nollendorfplatz, always taking a reverent pause before the apartment building where cultural credentials were never in question. This was the home of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in the early 1930’s when the waning days of the Weimar Republic gave way to the rise of Nazism.
Isherwood’s time in Berlin inspired several books and adaptations. “Goodbye to Berlin” became the play “I Am a Camera” which in turn became the stage and film musical “Cabaret.” And simply stated, Wystan Hugh Auden became one of the great poets of the 20th Century.

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W.H. Auden (l.) and Christopher Isherwood

W.H. Auden (1907-1973) was born and raised in England, educated at Oxford. He traveled extensively and settled for twenty years in America, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1946. The historic plaque attached to his house at Saint Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side was recentlystolen. I guess this shows continuing interest in this most versatile of poets.

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Auden said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” And save for T.S. Eliot and perhaps Robert Frost, no modern poet has been more innovative and more securely adroit with language than Auden. Here is his famous eulogy, “Funeral Blues,” heartfelt with its symbols of mourning and loss but also expressed in terms that are inventive and quirky, which is to say, pure Auden.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

* * *
Auden’s verse flows so smoothly that it’s often surprising to discover the skilled underpinnings that support a poem. Here is a piece called “If I Could Tell You.” Technically, it is a nineteen line French verse form called a villanelle: five sets of three lines each followed by a closing quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening stanza become the last two lines of the poem.

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.


Several of Auden’s most popular poems will be performed in our video, but meanwhile here are excerpts from an engaging piece that may have almost as much currency today as it did when Auden wrote it in 1969. It’s called “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen.”

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bath-rooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

When couples played or sang duets,
It was immoral to have debts:
I shall continue till I die
To pay in cash for what I buy.

Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Nor are those Ph.D’s my kith,
Who dig the symbol and the myth:
I count myself a man of letters
Who writes, or hopes to, for his betters.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
There is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young,
Who will not learn their Mother-Tongue.

But Love, at least, is not a state
Either en vogue or out-of-date,
And I’ve true friends, I will allow,
To talk and eat with here and now.

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is Real.


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W.H. Auden at Saint Mark’s Place, Manhattan

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Auden’s imagination could leap to settings we hardly think about. Consider the life of a Roman soldier guarding Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. And then consider that this sonnet invited a cabaret setting by Benjamin Britten.

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


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In league with the Roman Blues, I’ve always been attracted to Auden’s light verse, which is inventive, whimsical and usually crying out for music. In fact, as a youngster, this lilting piece of Auden’s is the first poem I ever set to music.

Carry her over the water,
And set her down under the tree,
Where the culvers white all day and all night,
And the winds from every quarter,
Sing agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.

Put a gold ring on her finger,
And press her close to your heart,
While the fish in the lake their snapshots take,
And the frog, that sanguine singer,
Sings agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.

The streets shall all flock to your marriage,
The houses turn round to look,
The tables and chairs say suitable prayers,
And the horses drawing your carriage
Sing agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love

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And here, equally disarming, Auden dips into the vernacular. This is called “The More Loving One.”

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.

* * *

In addition to lyric song texts, two of Auden’s works had major musical connections. His long poem, “The Age of Anxiety” provided inspiration and a title for Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony. Bernstein said the poem was “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.”

And in collaboration with Chester Kallman, Auden wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s opera, “The Rake’s Progress.” This colorful piece, which should surely be performed more often, was based on eight paintings by William Hogarth.

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A scene from Hogarth’s paintings of “The Rake’s Progress”

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A volume of Auden’s collected poems runs to 870 pages, in addition to which he wrote original plays, adaptations, and opera libretti. He made personal appearance tours regularly though not always contentedly.

Though warm my welcome everywhere,
I shift so frequently, so fast,
I cannot now say where I was
The evening before last.

Another morning comes I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

And otherwise, what did he do in his spare time? Well, sometimes he added short verses to a collection he dedicated to . . . hold on . . . Ogden Nash. I particularly like:

St. Thomas Aquinas
Always regarded wine as
A medicinal juice
That helped him to deduce.

Louis Pasteur,
So his colleagues aver,
Lived on excellent terms
With most of his germs.

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

John Milton
Never stayed in a Hilton
Which was just as well.

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VIDEO: And now to our video, here presenting three W.H. Auden poems.
Leading us off is Jeremy Irons with his reading of “Night Mail,” the story of a train carrying mail from London to Scotland.

Then Stephen Fry has a request for us: “Tell Me the Truth About Love.”

Finally, a poet’s dream: To have one of his works used in a major motion picture. The poem: “Stop All the Clocks.” The film: “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”



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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.