Friday, February 26, 2010

W.H. Auden (I)

Auden has been one of my favorites for many years. His poems seem to me like cat’s cradles woven around emotional abysses in an attempt to bear himself aloft. It’s as if in the process of writing, he is attempting to cross a treacherous stream, and each word is a foot placed uncertainly on a small rock jutting above the water. The damage of the process is – I was going to say ironically, but it’s really not – a source of beauty.

This poem is among his most famous, but I’ve always found it enigmatic. The first time I read it, the gloss said that the poem was noted for its acerbic twist and final note of rancor toward the beloved. That makes this much more and much less than a traditional love poem.

I must be missing something, because my reading is that it’s entirely sincere. The final stanza seems wistful that a conscribed benediction is all that is in the author’s power to bestow, but I think it is meant as such, and not a half-damning indictment.

My reading may be totally off base; if you have thoughts, feel free to share them. In a few days, I’ll post my favorite Auden poem, which became lodged in my head while I was climbing the stairs to the apartment where we stayed in Lyon and has remained firmly ensconced there ever since.

I’m still working on vacation pictures – including food and poetry scenes! – and will try to have those up by Monday.

Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love

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 sensual 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 dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but not 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 sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless.
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Auden on Wikipedia

Auden on


  1. I think it is about age and love and vision... I think I agree with you... reminded me of the great Shakespeare sonnet. Age is not for sissies... but this person is gentling the other about it... that's my 2 cents... and I love the image of the stones... how tenuous and brave and beautiful

  2. He had such a difficult life, romantic and otherwise ...

    But he seems not to have been embittered by it. He has the most spectacularly aged face of any poet I know -- the most sorrowful wrinkles ... life writing itself all over him (a fate I hope to avoid, vanity being what it is).