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Auden

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk. See Uut Poetry for more info.

The conflict between eternity and time is deeply embedded in the consciousness of human persons. I believe it gives rise to most impulses that define us as human: the impulse of language and literature, cults and philosophy. When I look at the Anastasis in the Chora Church or hear the words Handel chose from the book of Job (parts of which probably predate Judaism itself)–”and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”–these seem to express profound human hopes that exist in one form or another, even in prehistory.

Almost all cultures have some way of venerating the dead. The very notion of tradition is, as Chesterton called it, “the democracy of dead.” (And what is poetry if not, in some way, a tradition of speaking and a means by which poets gain for themselves a kind of immortality?) Of course, many belief systems do not have any notion of resurrection, or even an afterlife. That’s not what I’m talking about: rather, I think it’s the desire to merge or rectify sacred and secular time. I hear something similar in the grief of Gilgamesh over Enkidu (here in Ferry’s translation):

Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,
who went together with me on the journey

no one has ever undergone before,
now Enkidu has undergone the fate

the high gods have established for mankind.
Seven days and nights I sat beside the body,

weeping for Enkidu beside the body,
and then I saw a worm fall out of his nose.

I roam the wilderness because of the fear.
Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,

is dirt, the companion Enkidu is clay.
Must I die too? Must Gilgamesh be like that?

This might be a leap, but when eastern writers talk about emptiness, I see a similar impulse, an attempt to rectify time and eternity, though with a slightly different bent. Buddha:

He in whom a desire for the Ineffable (Nirvana) has sprung up, who in his mind is satisfied, and whose thoughts are not bewildered by love, he is called urdhvamsrotas (carried upwards by the stream).

And Lao Tzu:

Always without desire we must be found
If its deep mystery we would sound;

By emptying oneself of desire, one can hope to escape the vicissitudes of time (Nobody gets mad at an empty boat, Chuang Tzu says). Think of mystics who desire a peace beyond circumstance through ascetic practices. Think of the God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.

That scene set, think of Auden’s ballad-esque poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.” As I read it, the poem is a direct engagement of this conflict. It’s a debate between a lover enraptured with the beloved and a clock enraptured with time. Notably, the lover is singing “Love has no ending”:

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
__Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
__And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
__Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
__Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
__For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
__And the first love of the world.’

I see the lover here as a stand in for the poet, as one who thinks love is both immortal and can be immortalized. The lover speaks in the tradition of the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death.” Note the images of a kind of return to pre-history, perhaps because the ancients had a much keener sense of living in an almost eternal realm upon the earth. “I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet” could be an image of impossibility, but I’m reminded of Pangea, the literal meeting of the continents.

I am still dubious, though, about whether the poet here is enraptured by the appetitive passions (the hunger for an other) or has tapped into something deeper, something almost pre-existent: is “the first love of the world” a profound statement about the nature of the universe or the result of engorged hormones?

“But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime:” now enters the machinery of modernity, dispelling the lover’s “magical” notions of reality. When I first read this poem, I assumed the clocks were metonymous for Time itself. But as I was doing the dishes the other night (hands plunged in the basin, as it were), I saw it makes more sense to see the clocks as beings enraptured with the notion of time, in the same way the lover is enraptured with the particular beloved.

The clock takes a certain delight in dismantling the ambitions of the lover, and in the process gets some of the best lines in the poem:

Time watches from the shadow
__And coughs when you would kiss.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
__The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
__A lane to the land of the dead.

‘O stand, stand at the window
__As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
__With your crooked heart.’

Notably, the clock’s speech about the “truer nature” of the world, about the crush of time, serves only to increase a desire to escape the transience of time.

It’s easy to think the clock has won this debate. Cynics always seem to win because their cynicism places them beyond reaching. It’s a crass, but often effective, perch to argue from. The clock is also given the last word, the chiding riposte.

It’s easy to forget the third voice, the translator of the event: Auden’s speaker. The imagistic choices of Auden’s speaker also seem to affirm the clock: first, “The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat” could be a perfect image of the transience of life. And could there be a more perfect image for the crush of time than a river? Doesn’t water, like time, eventually wear even rocks to nothing?

But there’s this passage from Siddhartha that I think is relevant:

Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?

…That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadows of the past, nor the shadow of the future?

Does the river upend the notion of time? If so, then one could at least consider the clock in Auden’s poem to be rebuffed. The fields of wheat could also be an image of history as cyclical, which also disrupts the notion of the arrow of time.

The true mystery in the end is that of the speaker, I suppose, a removed observer whose own latent perspective is too slippery to pin down: river? clocks? lover? Who wins the debate?

One of the things that may irritate a post structuralist reader about Auden is that he delights in “knowing” things-even those things which are ugly and disastrous to know. For example, his greatest praise of old masters: “About suffering, the old masters they were never wrong.” Auden likes being right. He likes being elegant. He likes making a point in as clever a way as possible. He even likes his ambiguity to be gin clear. This annoys readers, especially those who come out of the post modernist wood work to feed on endless non-commitments, non-linearity, statements that dissolve and are contradicted or made impotent by the sheer process of deconstructing one’s deconstructions. Stevens claimed that a great disorder is an order (well ahead of chaos theory). Post structuralism with its absolutist hatred of saying anything is, well, to put it in the language of my forbears: fucking boring. Auden, at his worst, is also a bore. He can be pedantic, over bearing, a spewer of opinions, a snob, a writer of high falutin doggerel. At his best, he is the greatest poet to come out of the formalists, and for the same reason Ashbery is probably the greatest poet to come out of the post structuralists: because he is good at saying what he enjoys saying, because he takes great delight in his own utterance for its own sake, because no old bone wearies him if he can find a happy way to chomp on it. This is no small virtue. If a poet is not enjoying his own spew, what damned good is he? Auden’s ability to wrap things up annoys a reader only if that reader is deaf to the sonic joy of Auden cracking wise. The pleasure in Auden is not in what he says, or even in how he says it, but in the sheer pleasure he takes beyond how or why—a pleasure that, in his best poems, becomes a palpable presence throughout. When I want to witness a poet enjoying himself I turn to Ashbery or Auden. With great craft and skill, they sit in their respective sand boxes, and both are infantile in the best sense. At any rate, lets inspect one of Auden’s more famous poems,the imitation ballad, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol street,
The crowds upon the pavement
were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.”

We are in traditional ballad country the second Auden writes “As I Walked Out One Evening” (see “The Streets of Laredo”). He is not mocking the structure or form of the ballad (except perhaps the way a lover would tease his beloved); he is reveling in the cliche. He trusts his own ability to have fun with cliché (something Ashbery also trusts). He is using what is called “eights and sixes,” a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter; and, to give it the “feel” of an informal ballad, he is augmenting or truncating the syllable count, dabbling in hypercatalectic, and acatalectic lines (one syllable more or one less). But of all the fun he is having in these first two stanzas, I’m sure nothing pleased him more than the wrench rhyme, worthy of a hip-hop MC of: “sing/ending.” Auden, in the next two stanzas, delights in one of the oldest tricks in the book: adynaton, the lover’s appeal to the impossible, the great brag of the lover plighting his troth:

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the River jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

“I’ll love you till the ocean
is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
for in my arms I hold
The flower of the ages,
and the first love of the world.’

First, note the vowel rhyme of hold and world. And as for the adynaton,such wonderful boasts no longer exist in our poetry, which shows its sad and tragic “humility” to be far more arrogant and stingy than this delight in the lover’s form of boasting hyperbole. Only in songs does this sort of boast still thrive, for example, when Tom Waits insists: “I’d shoot the moon for you.”

Auden can’t let the lover triumph. Modern nihilism must rear its ugly head, or is it modern? The doom of all young love is a common subject of Latin and Greek, and almost all ancient world poetry. Auden knows the difference between originality and novelty. Novelty can only be interesting once, the first time. Originality is that which is suddenly ancient, and anciently sudden. Orignality has a nomative power, and can be intersting and pleasurable again and again because it manages to touch upon origins as well as news. The worst that can be said for pre post modern poetry is that it lacks the surprise of novelty. The worst that can be said for post modernist poetry is that it opts for novelty and confuses it with originality. I do not believe in cliched tropes. A trope can be tired and hackneyed only if the poet lacks the energy to enliven it. Carpe diem is still trembling in the shadows, waiting to be felt up by a daring poet. At any rate, Auden takes great delight in disillusioning the lover. Some of those stanzas:

“In head aches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The images here would be surreal if they were not used to a purpose, but they are far from the effect of surreality which is to tweak the unconscious, the intuitive or sensing faculties—the irrational. This is the rational, didactic use of absurdity through thought and feeling to make a point, and the point is pretty much the same point made when Nash informs us that “Helen’s dust” stops up a bung hole: love is doomed and time ravishes even the most powerful passions.

This aint news, but it is a ritual of “giving the bad news.” which we can tell the poet puts all his craft and pleasure toward. A ritual can be beautiful, even pleasurable by dint of the joy and liveliness with which we perform it, and invest our time in it. To say a truth over and over again is to find the ritual that will make that truth, however awful, portable, and somehow, even more than bearable.

What Auden does in the final stanza, after having time destroy the lover’s troth, is return us to the cosmic impersonality of the river:

It was late, late in the evening.
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

This gives the poem the sufficient modernist chill it needs to be more than merely an imitation of ballads, but the real worth of it lies in Auden never believing for a minute that the tropes can be exhausted. How can one exhaust the ancient fear and fever of the blood, the dread and hopelessness of “I’ll love you forever?” Be careful, students, that your sophistication and stupidity in the dadaist, slacker, cynical, “non-linear” sense does not blind you to the pleasures of true nihilism: yes, I know, I know, and on the thousandth point of knowing, my heart still breaks.