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  #1  
Old 09-21-2001, 01:24 PM
graywyvern graywyvern is offline
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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.

W.H.Auden
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  #2  
Old 09-21-2001, 10:06 PM
C.G. Macdonald C.G. Macdonald is offline
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Sobering post, Graywyvern. I memorized and performed/read this poem for a small group shortly after the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles. And it is even more apt and uncanny after our recent calamity. In the midst of our current crisis.

I don't generally agree with those who claim that all art is political, because from my experience both as a reader and a poet, I'm convinced that few things are harder than writing an effective political poem. So difficult to avoid cant and hyperbole. And other than "Imperialism's face/ And the international wrong," Auden altogether avoids these pitfalls, crafting complex yet striking thoughts and images in almost plain, continually searing language. For example the lines:

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

There you have Freud's "Civilization and it's Discontents" boiled down to less than 25 words.

Of course it is tough to separate the political aspects of this poem from the aesthetic--so tough that Auden himself, in his later, more conservative life, unsuccessfully tried to purge it from his works. Other than his elegy for Yeats, I don't believe he wrote a finer poem.



[This message has been edited by C.G. Macdonald (edited September 21, 2001).]
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  #3  
Old 09-22-2001, 03:56 AM
Michael Juster Michael Juster is offline
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Indeed...
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  #4  
Old 09-22-2001, 02:42 PM
C.G. Macdonald C.G. Macdonald is offline
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Wow, Michael, you were posting replies at 3:56 in the morning?!

Small wonder that your nom de plume is A.M.
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  #5  
Old 09-22-2001, 03:32 PM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
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A terrific poem, I agree. I don't know why Auden
didn't just change the one line he cited as being
objectionable and reprint it in subsequent volumes.
(He quite rightly faulted "We must love one another
or die"---the fact is, we must love one another
and die.) And yes, the elegy for Yeats is
good. But I'd argue that he wrote better poems,
or at least as good. I think his greatest elegy is
In Memory of Sigmund Freud. I'm not a great fan
of the good doctor, but the poem is superb. And
I can think of another twenty or so poems in a class
with those.
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  #6  
Old 09-22-2001, 03:57 PM
C.G. Macdonald C.G. Macdonald is offline
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I certainly didn't mean to slight Auden by singling out his elegy for Yeats, but that poem, for me, is an ars poetica that is almost inexhaustably inspiring. His elegy for Freud is also astonishing--the frightening thing is he wrote those two poems and "September 1, 1939" all around the same period in his life. Talk about a hot streak.

[This message has been edited by C.G. Macdonald (edited September 22, 2001).]
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  #7  
Old 09-23-2001, 01:58 PM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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I've been meaning to comment on the thread, and I'll be back. But in the meantime, just wanted to point out an interesting piece on this poem's popularity (via e-mail, etc.) in the wake of the disaster, over at Slate .
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