Thinking about W. H. Auden on a morning in early winter


W. H. Auden

I have been on sabbatical this semester after stepping down as the department chair and becoming a regular professor.  I’ve been working on a variety of projects this fall – finishing up work on ancillaries for the Sixth Edition of Mass Communication: Living in a Media World, working on collecting data on sports boycotts and civil rights, working on a book review, and working on a paper on “fake news.”

But I’ve also been spending time exploring the poetry of British and American poet W. H. Auden.  I must confess I had not been familiar with his work until recently, but I started seeing mention of his work, most notably in the novels The Ice Limit and Beyond the Ice Limit by Preston and Child.  A ship captain, who falls for the somewhat mad leader of their expedition to the Antarctic, quotes Auden on a couple of occasions.

One passage is from “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which tells the story of Icarus falling from the sky after flying too close to the sun and how amazing things happen in front of us that we take little notice of:

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

A second quote comes from “Atlantis,” which deals with impossible journeys:

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,

Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” was famously quoted in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, and that poem is likely a contributing inspiration for Joe Jackson’s song “A Place in the Rain.”

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

Here’s Joe Jackson’s take on the same structure:

Auden is also quoted in Tuesday’s With Morrie from his poem “September 1, 1939” (Many of Auden’s poems do not have names, only date of creation). Like the rest of the quotes I provide here, I don’t know if these are the verses quoted in the book/play/movie, but they are the lines that stick with me:

And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.

 My most recent reading of Auden has been “In Praise of Limestone,” which was discussed at length in Alexander McCall Smith’s appreciation of Auden, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. “Limestone” speaks so strongly to me in large part because I am in love with the landscapes of the American West, in which limestone plays such a prominent role. The open spaces of Utah, Wyoming, Arizona; the badlands of the Dakotas, all show what limestone can tell us.  McCall reports that “Limestone” is Auden’s most republished poem, and I will continue that trend her with just a brief quote:

If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones
are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of time and beneath
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear these springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:

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