September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden - 1907-1973
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.

More by W. H. Auden

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

In Memory of Sigmund Freud

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
     to the critique of a whole epoch
   the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
     who knew it was never enough but
   hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
     so many plausible young futures
   with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
     of problems like relatives gathered
   puzzled and jealous about our dying. 

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
     and shades that still waited to enter
   the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
     to go back to the earth in London,
   an important Jew who died in exile.

Only Hate was happy, hoping to augment
his practice now, and his dingy clientele
     who think they can be cured by killing
   and covering the garden with ashes.

They are still alive, but in a world he changed
simply by looking back with no false regrets;
     all he did was to remember
   like the old and be honest like children.

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
     like a poetry lesson till sooner
   or later it faltered at the line where

long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
     how rich life had been and how silly,
   and was life-forgiven and more humble,

able to approach the Future as a friend
without a wardrobe of excuses, without
     a set mask of rectitude or an 
   embarrassing over-familiar gesture.

No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
in his technique of unsettlement foresaw
     the fall of princes, the collapse of
   their lucrative patterns of frustration:

if he succeeded, why, the Generalised Life
would become impossible, the monolith
     of State be broken and prevented
   the co-operation of avengers.

Of course they called on God, but he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
     to the stinking fosse where the injured
   lead the ugly life of the rejected,

and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
     our dishonest mood of denial,
   the concupiscence of the oppressor.

If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
     clung to his utterance and features,
   it was a protective coloration

for one who'd lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
     to us he is no more a person
   now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:
Like weather he can only hinder or help,
     the proud can still be proud but find it
   a little harder, the tyrant tries to

make do with him but doesn't care for him much:
he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth
     and extends, till the tired in even
   the remotest miserable duchy

have felt the change in their bones and are cheered
till the child, unlucky in his little State,
     some hearth where freedom is excluded,
   a hive whose honey is fear and worry,

feels calmer now and somehow assured of escape,
while, as they lie in the grass of our neglect, 
     so many long-forgotten objects
   revealed by his undiscouraged shining

are returned to us and made precious again;
games we had thought we must drop as we grew up,
     little noises we dared not laugh at,
   faces we made when no one was looking.

But he wishes us more than this. To be free
is often to be lonely. He would unite
     the unequal moieties fractured
   by our own well-meaning sense of justice,

would restore to the larger the wit and will 
the smaller possesses but can only use
     for arid disputes, would give back to
   the son the mother's richness of feeling:

but he would have us remember most of all 
to be enthusiastic over the night,
     not only for the sense of wonder
   it alone has to offer, but also

because it needs our love. With large sad eyes
its delectable creatures look up and beg
     us dumbly to ask them to follow:
   they are exiles who long for the future

that lives in our power, they too would rejoice
if allowed to serve enlightenment like him,
     even to bear our cry of 'Judas', 
   as he did and all must bear who serve it.

One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
     sad is Eros, builder of cities,
   and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats


I

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.

 

II

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.


III

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;

Intellectual disgrace
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 farming 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.

Related Poems

A Woman Named Thucydides

Having slept in a turnout in the backseat
of her car, she awoke before dawn, shivering,
hungover, unsure of where she was. 
To her surprise, the sodium lights on the billboard 
she had parked beside were no longer on. 
Wind gusts, the smell of rain, the raw, unbroken 
landscape like a field of ice. If this had been a movie,
someone would've been sitting up front, 
someone who held her fate in his hands.
Though she couldn't see them, she could hear 
birds passing overhead. Why do they even bother
to cross so vast and empty a space? 
At the moment, none of the usual explanations 
made sense. Her head ached, her feet were cold, 
she couldn't find the words. And the man up front,
what did he think? What would he do?
Must something still happen before the end?