W.H. Auden–a selection from Harry Kresky

This is one of my favorite poems, written by W.H. Auden on the outbreak of the Second World War. Some people dismiss it as cynical.  I am taken by its honesty.  After all, the second world war was starting less than 25 years after the first one ended.  And, to me, the last stanza is positive, that possibility exists even at a time of darkness.  It makes me think of the German playwright Heiner Mueller whose  powerful and beautiful words are themselves an affirmation even as the subject matter of his plays are defeat, despair and betrayal.

Auden was born in England in 1907 and died in 1973.  He moved to the U.S. in 1939.  Early in his career Auden was hailed as a voice of revolutionary change.  By 1939 he, like so many, was less confident that it could be achieved.  Auden scholar Edwards Mendelson wrote:

“W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.”

I like this about WH as well.

—Harry Kresky

W.H. Auden, The Paris Review

September 1, 1939

  by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Harry Kresky

     /  April 24, 2014

    Here’s a beautiful reading of a WH love poem:

    Reply
  2. susan massad

     /  April 25, 2014

    Read the WH Auden poem this morning. As a non poetry reader I was deeply touched by the poem. The final stanza speaks so clearly to our time.
    I read a review of Auden a secret life and wanted to know more. Thank you for this choice Harry.

    Susan

    Reply
  3. Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of
    the issues. It was definitely informative. Your site is extremely helpful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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