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W.H.Auden - Letter to Lord Byron

 

Letter to Lord Byron was first published in Letters from Iceland (1937), Faber and Faber, and Random House, New York. The revised text in this volume is based in Longer Contemporary Poems (1966),  Penguin Books.

 

I

 

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take

    In thus addressing you. I know that you

Will pay the price of authorship and make

    The allowances an author has to do.

    A poetís fan-mail will be nothing new.

And then a lordóGood Lord, you must be peppered,

Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

 

 

 

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ĎSir,

    I liked your lyrics, but Childe Haroldís trash,í

ĎMy daughter writes, should I encourage her?í

    Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,

    Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,

And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,

The correspondentís photo in the nude.

 

 

 And as for manuscriptsóby every post. . . 

    I canít improve on Popeís shrill indignation,

But hope that it will please his spiteful ghost

    To learn the use in cultureís propagation

    Of modern methods of communication;

New roads, new rails, new contacts, as we know

From documentaries by the G.P.O.

 

So if ostensibly I write to you

    To chat about your poetry or mine,

Thereís many other reasons: though itís true

    That I have, at the age of twenty-nine

    Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.

I read it on the boat to Reykjavik

Except when eating or asleep or sick.

 

The thought of writing carne to me today

    (I like to give these facts of time and space);

The bus was in the desert on its way

    From Mothrudalur to some other place:

    The tears were streaming down my burning face;

Iíd caught a heavy cold in Akureyri,

And lunch was late and life looked very dreary.

 

But still a proper explanationís lacking;

    Why write to you? I see I must begin

Right at the start when I was at my packing.

    The extra pair of socks, the airtight tin

    Of China tea, the anti-fly were in;

I asked myself what sort of books Iíd read

In Iceland, if I ever felt the need.

 

In certain quarters I had heard a rumour

    (For all I know the rumourís only silly)

That Icelanders have little sense of humour.

    I knew the country was extremely hilly,

    The climate unreliable and chilly;

So looking round for something light and easy

I pounced on you as warm and civilisť.

 

Then she's a novelist. I don't know whether

    You will agree, but novel writing is

A higher art than poetry altogether

    In my opinion, and success implies

    Both finer character and faculties

Perhaps that's why real novels are as rare

As winter thunder or a polar bear.

 

I must remember, though, that you were dead

    Before the four great Russians lived, who brought

The art of novel writing to a head;

    The help of Boots had not been sought.

    But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,

Under the right persuasion bravely warms

And is the most prodigious of the forms.

 

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

    Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

    An English spinster of the middle-class

    Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

 

Every exciting letter has enclosures,

    And so shall thisóa bunch of photographs,

Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,

    Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;

    I donít intend to do the thing by halves.

Iím going to be very up to date indeed.

It is a collage that youíre going to read.

 

Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper,

    The proper instrument on which to pay

My compliments, but I should come a cropper;

    Rhyme-royalís difficult enough to play.

    But if no classics as in Chaucerís day,

At least my modern pieces shall be cheery

Like English bishops on the Quantum Theory.

 

ĎThe fascination of whatís difficultí,

    The wish to do what oneís nor done before.

Is, I hope, proper to Quincunque Vult,

    The proper card to show at Heavenís door.

    Gerettet nor Gerichtet be the Law,

Et cetera, et cetera. O curse,

That is the flattest one in English verse.

 

A publisherís an authorís greatest friend,

    A generous uncle, or he ought to be.

(Iím sure we hope it pays him in the end.)

    I love my publishers and they love me,

    At least they paid a very handsome fee

To send me here. Iíve never heard a grouse

Either from Russell Square um Random House,

 

I know Iíve not the least chance of survival

    Beside the major travellers of the day.

I am no Lawrence who, on his arrival,

    Sat down and typed out all he had to say;

    I am not even Ernest Hemingway.

I shall not run to a two-bob edition,

So just wonít enter for the competition.

 

The Haig Thomases are at Myvatn now,

    At Hvitarvatn and at VatnajŲkull

Cambridge research goes on, I donít know how:

    The shades of Asquith and of Auden SkŲkull

    Turn in their coffins a three-quarter circle

To see their son, upon whose help they reckoned,

Being as frivolous as Charles the Second.

 

For since the British Isles went Protestant

    A church confession is too high for most.

But still confession is a human want,

    So Englishmen must make theirs now by post

    And authors hear them over breakfast toast.

For, failing them, thereís nothing but the wall

Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.

  

Now home is miles away, and miles away

    No matter who, and I am quite alone

And cannot understand what people say,

    But like a dog must guess it by the tone;

    At any language other than my own

Iím no great shakes, and here Iíve found no tutor

Nor sleeping lexicon to make me cuter.

 

Professor Housman was I think the first

    To say in print how very stimulating

The little ills by which mankind is cursed,

    The colds, the aches, the pains are to creating;

    Indeed one hardly goes too far in stating

That many a flawless lyric may be due

Not to a loverís broken heart, but Ďflu.

 

I canít read Jefferies on the Wiltshire Downs,

    Nor browse on limericks in a smoking-room;

Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns,

    Or Marie Stopes inside his motherís womb?

    Perhaps you feel the same beyond the tomb.

Do the celestial highbrows only care

For works on Clydeside, Fascists, or Mayfair?

 

There is one other author in my pack

    For some time I debated which to write to.

Which would least likely send my letter back?

    But I decided I'd give a fright to

    Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,

And share in her contempt the dreadful fates

Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.

 

The average poet by comparison

    Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

You must admit, when all is said and done,

    His sense of other peopleís very hazy,

    His moral judgements are too often crazy,

A slick and easy generalization

Appeal too well to his imagination.

 

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;

    If shades remain the characters they were,

No doubt she still considers you as shocking.

    But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,

    How much her novels are beloved down here.

She wrote them for posterity, she said;

'Twas rash, but by posterity she's read.

 

So it is you who is to get this letter.

    The experiment may nor be a success.

Thereíre many others who could do it better,

    But I shall not enjoy myself the less.

    Shaw of the Air Force said that happiness

Comes in absorption: he was right, I know it;

Even in scribbling to a longódead poet.

 

I want a form thatís large enough to swim in,

    And talk on any subject that I choose,

From natural scenery to men and women,

    Myself, the arts, the European news:

    And since sheís on a holiday, my Muse

Is out to please, find everything delightful

And only now and then be mildly spiteful.

 

Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather;

    Except by Milne and persons of that kind

Sheís treated as dťmodť altogether.

    Itís strange and very unjust to my mind

    Her brief appearances should be confined,

Apart from Bellocís Cautionary Tales,

To the more bourgeois periodicals.

 

Parnassus after all is not a mountain,

    Reserved for A.I. climbers such as you;

Itís got a park, itís got a public fountain.

    The most I ask is leave to shame a pew

    With Bradford or with Cottam, that will do:

To pasture my few silly sheep with Dyer

And picnic on the lower slopes with Prior,

 

But now Iíve got uncomfortable suspicions,

    Iím going to put their patience out of joint.

Though itís in keeping with the best traditions

    For Travel Books to wander from the point

    (There is no other rhyme except anoint),

They well may charge me with - Iíve no defencesó

Obtaining money under false pretences.

 

And even here the steps I flounder in .

    Were worn by most distinguished boots of old.

Dasent and Morris and Lord Dufferin,

    Hooker and men of that heroic mould

    Welcome me icily into the fold;

Iím not like Peter Fleming an Etonian,

But, if Iím Judas, Iím an old Oxonian.

 

So this, my opening chapter, has to stop

    With humbly begging everybodyís pardon.

From Faber first in case the bookís a flop,

    Then from the critics lest they should be hard on

    The author when he leads them up the garden,

Last from the general public he must beg

Permission now and then to pull their leg.

 

 

 

II

 

Iím writing this in pencil on my knee,

    Using my other hand to stop me yawning,

Upon a primitive, unsheltered quay

    In the small hours of a Wednesday morning.

    I cannot add the summer day is dawning;

In SeydhisfjŲrdur every schoolboy knows

That daylight in the summer never goes.

 

 

 

To get to sleep in latitudes called upper

    Is difficult at first for Englishmen.

Itís like being sent to bed before your supper

    For playing darts with fatherís fountain-pen,

    Or like returning after orgies, when

Your breathís like luggage and you realize

Youíve been more confidential than was wise.

 

Iíve done my duty, taken many notes

    Upon the almost total lack of greenery,

The roads, the illegitimates, the goats:

    To use a rhyme of yours, thereís handsome scenery

    Bur little agricultural machinery;

And with the help of Sunlight Soap the Geysir

Affords to visitors le plus grand plaisir.

 

Iíll clear my throat and take a Roverís breath

    And skip a century of hope and sinó

For far too much has happened since your death.

    Crying went out and the cold bath came in,

    With drains, bananas, bicycles, and tin,

And Europe saw from Ireland to Albania

The Gothic revival and the Railway Mania.

 

Well, you might think so if you went to Surrey

    And stayed for week-ends with the well-to--do,

Your car too fast, too personal your worry

    To look too closely at the wheeling view.

    But in the north it simply isnít true.

To those who live in Warrington or Wigan,

Itís not a white lie, itís a whacking big Ďun.

 

On economic, health, um moral grounds

    It hasnít got the least excuse to show;

No more than chamber pots or otter hounds;

    But let me say before it has to go,

    Itís the must lovely country that I know;

Clearer than Seafell Pike, my heart has stamped on

The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.

 

Hail to the New World! Hail to those whoíll love

    Its antiseptic objects, feel at home.

Lovers will gaze at an electric stove,

    Another poťsie de dťpart come

    Centred round bus-stops or the aerodrome.

But give me still, to stir imagination

The chiaroscuro of the railway station,

 

But you want facts, not sighs. Iíll do my best

    To give a few; you canít expect them all.

To start with, on the whole weíre better dressed;

    For chic the difference to-day is small

    Of barmaid from my lady at the Hall.

Itís sad no spoil this democratic vision

With millions suffering from malnutrition.

 

Weíve always had a penchant for field sports,

    But what do you think has grown up in our towns?

A passion for the open air and shorts;

    The sun is one of our emotive nouns.

    Go down by charaí to the Sussex Downs,

Watch the manoeuvres of the week-end hikers

Massed on parade with Kodaks or with Leicas.

 

You lived and moved among the best society

    And so could introduce your hero to it

Without the slightest tremor of anxiety;

    Because he was your hero and you knew it,

    Heíd know instinctively whatís done, and do it.

Heíd find our day more difficult than yours

For industry has mixed the social drawers.

 

The porter at the Carlton is my brother,

    Heíll wish me a good evening if I pay,

For tips and men are equal to each other.

    Iím sure that Vogue would be the first to say

    Que le Beau Monde is socialist today;

And many a bandit, nor so gently born

Kills vermin every winter with the Quorn.

 

Don Juan was a mixer and no doubt

    Would find this century as good as any

For getting hostesses to ask him out,

    And mistresses that need not cost a penny.

    Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,

Thanks to technology, a list of these

Would make a longer book than Ulysses.

 

I see his face in every magazine.

    ĎDon Juan at lunch with one of Cochranís ladies.í

ĎDon Juan with his red setter May MacQueen.í

    ĎDon Juan, whoís just been wintering in Cadiz,

    Caught at the wheel of his maroon Mercedes.í

ĎDon Juan at Croydon Aerodrome.í ĎDon Juan

Snapped in the paddock with the Aga Khan.í

 

The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils

    Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True

Still fluctuate about the lower levels.

    Joyces are firm and there thereís nothing new.

    Eliots have hardened just a point or two.

Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.

Thereís been some further weakening in Prousts.

 

Now for the spirit of the people. Here

    I know Iím treading on more dangerous ground:

I know thereíre many changes in the air,

    But know my data too slight to be sound,

    I know, too, Iím inviting the renowned

Retort of all who love the Status Quo:

Ďyou canít change human nature, donít you know!í

 

But heís another man in many ways:

    Ask the cartoonist first, for he knows best.

Where is the John Bull of the good old days,

    The swaggering bully with the clumsy jest?

    His meaty neck has long been laid to rest,

His acres of self-confidence for sale;

He passed away at Ypres and Passchendaele.

 

Begot on Hire Purchase by Insurance,

     Forms at his christening worshipped and adored;

A season ticket schooled him in endurance,

    A tax collector and a waterboard

    Admonished him. In boyhood he was awed

By a matric, and complex apparatuses

Keep his heart conscious of Divine Afflatuses.

 

ĎI am the ogreís private secretary;

    Iíve felt his stature and his powers, learned

To give his ogreship the raspberry

    Only when his gigantic back is turned.

    One day, who knows, Iíll do as I have yearned.

The short man, all his fingers on the door,

With repartee shall send him to the floor.í

 

Ho dreads the ogre, but he dreads yet more

    Those who conceivably might set him free,

Those the cartoonist has no time to draw.

    Without his bondage heíd be all at sea;

    The ogre need but shout ĎSecurityí,

To make this man, so lovable, so mild,

As madly cruel as a frightened child.

 

Suggestions have been made that the Teutonic

    FŁhrer-Prinzip would have appealed to you

As being the true heir to the Byronicó

    In keeping with your social status too

    (It has its English converts, fit and few),

That you would, hearing honest Oswaldís call,

Be gleichgeschaltet in the Albert Hall.

 

You liked to be the centre of attention,

    The gay Prince Charming of the fairy story,

Who tamed the Dragon by his intervention.

    In modern warfare though itís just as gory,

    There isnít any individual glory;

The Prince must be anonymous, observant,

A kind of labóbuy, or a civil servant,

 

Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;

    His many shapes and names all turn us pale,

For heís immortal, and today he still

    Swinges the horror of his scaly tail.

    Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail

In every age to rear up to defend

Each dying force of history to the end.

 

Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,

    Whenever heís lost faith in choice and thought,

When a man sees the future without hope,

    Whenever he endorses Hobbesí report

    ĎThe life of man is nasty, brutish, short,í

The dragon rises from his garden border

And promises to set up law and order.

 

Forgive me for inflicting all this on you,

    For asking you to hold the baby for us;

Itís easy to forget that where youíve gone, you

    May only want to chat with Set and Horus,

    Bored to extinction with our earthly chorus:

Perhaps it sounds to you like a trunk-call,

Urgent, it seems, but quite inaudible.

 

Weíre out at sea now, and I wish we werenít;

    The sea is rough, I donít care if itís blue;

Iíd like to have a quick one, but I darenít.

    And I must interrupt this screed to you,

    For Iíve some other little jobs to do;

I must write home or mother will be vexed,

So this must be continued in our next.

The North, though, never was your cup of tea;

    ĎMoralí you thought it so you kept away.

And what Iím sure youíre wanting now from me

    Is news about the England of the day,

    What sort of things La Jeunesse do and say.

Is Brighton still as proud of her pavilion,

And is it safe for girls to travel pillion?

 

Weíre entering now the Eotechnic Phase

    Thanks to the Grid and all these new alloys;

That is, at least, what Lewis Mumford says.

    A world of Aertex underwear for boys,

    Huge plate-glass windows, walls absorbing noise,

Where the smoke nuisance is utterly abated

And all the furniture is chromium-plated.

 

There on the old historic battlefield,

    The cold ferocity of human wills,

The scars of struggle are as yet unhealed;

    Slattern the tenements on sombre hills,

    And gaunt in valleys the square-windowed mills

That, since the Georgian house, in my conjecture

Remain our finest native architecture.

 

Long, long ago, when I was only four,

    Going towards my grandmother, the line

Passed through a coal-field. From the corridor

    I watched it pass with envy, thought ĎHow fine!

    Oh how I wish that situation mine.í

Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,

That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.

 

Preserve me from the Shape of Things to Be;

    The high-grade posters at the public meeting,

The influence of Art on Industry,

    The cinemas with perfect taste in seating;

    Preserve me, above all, from central heating.

It may be D. H. Lawrence hocus-pocus,

But I prefer a room thatís got a focus.

 

Again, our age is highly educated;

    There is no lie our children cannot read,

And as MacDonald might so well have stated

    Weíre growing up and up and up indeed.

    Advertisements can teach us all we need;

And death is better, as the millions know,

Than dandruff, night-starvation, or B.O.

 

Those movements signify our age-long role

    Of insularity has lost its powers;

The cult of salads and the swimming pool

    Comes from a climate sunnier than ours,

    And lands which never heard of licensed hours,

The south of England before very long

Will look no different from the Continong.

 

Weíve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,

    And Fortuneís ladder is for all to climb;

Carnegie on this point was must emphatic.

    A humble grandfather is not a crime,

    At least, if father made enough in time!

Today, thank God, weíve got no snobbish feeling

Against the more efficient modes of stealing.

 

Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them

    And look for pickings where the pickings are.

The drives of love and hunger are behind them,

    They canít afford to be particular:

    And these who like good cooking and a car,

A certain kind of costume or of face,

Must seek them in a certain kind of place.

 

Yes, in the smart set he would know his way

    By second nature with no tips from me.

Tennis and Golf have come in since your day;

    But those who are as good at games as he

    Acquire the back-hand quite instinctively,

Take to the steel.-shaft and hole out in one,

Master the books of Ely Culbertson.

 

But if in highbrow circles he would sally

    Itís just as well to warn him thereís no stain on

Picasso, all-in-wrestling, or the Ballet.

    Sibelius is the man. To get a pain on

    Listening to Elgar is a sine qua non.

A second-hand acquaintance of Paretoís

Ranks higher than an intimate of Platoís.

 

Iím saying this to tell you whoís the rage,

    And not to loose a sneer from my interior.

Because thereís snobbery in every age,

    Because some names are loved by the superior,

    It does nor follow theyíre the least inferior:

For all I know the Beatific Visionís

On view at all Surrealist Exhibitions.

 

Weíve still, itís true, the same shape and appearance,

    We havenít changed the way that kissingís done;

The average man still hates all interference,

    Is just as proud still of his new-born sun:

    Still, like a hen, he likes his private run,

Scratches for self-esteem, and slyly pocks

A good deal in the neighbourhood of sex.

 

Tom to the work of Disney or of Strube;

    There stands our hero in um threadbare seams;

The bowler hat who strap-hangs in the tube,

    And kicks the tyrant only in his dreams,

    Trading on pathos, dreading all extremes;

The little Mickey with the hidden grudge;

Which is the better, I leave you to judge.

 

ĎI am like you,í he says, Ďand you, and you,

    I love my life, I love the home.-fires, have

To keep them burning. Heroes never do.

    Heroes are sent by ogres to the grave.

    I may net be courageous, but I save.

I am the one who somehow turns the corner,

I may perhaps be fortunate Jack Horner.

 

One day, which day? O any other day,

    But not today. The ogre knows his man.

To kill the ogre that would take away

    The fear in which his happy dreams began,

    And with his life heíll guard dreams while he can.

Those who would really kill his dreamís contentment

He hates with real implacable resentment.

 

Byron, thou shouldíst be living at this hour!

    What would you do, I wonder, if you were?

Britanniaís lost prestige and cash and power,

    Her middle classes show some wear and tear,

    Weíve learned to bomb each other from the air;

I canít imagine what the Duke of Wellington

Would say about the music of Duke Ellington.

 

ĎLord Byron at the head of his stormótroopers!í

    Nothing, says science, is impossible:

The Pope may quit to join the Oxford Groupers,

    Nuffield may leave one farthing in his Will,

    There may be someone who trusts Baldwin still,

Someone may think that Empire wines are nice,

There may be people who hear Tauber twice,

 

You never were an Isolationist;

    Injustice you had always hatred for,

And we can hardly blame you, if you missed

    Injustice just outside your lordshipís door:

    Nearer than Greece were cotton and the poor.

Today you might have seen them, might indeed

Have walked in the United Front with Gide,

 

Milton beheld him on the English throne,

    And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;

The hermits fought him in their caves alone,

    At the first Empire he was also there,

    Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:

He comes in dreams at puberty to man,

To scare him back to childhood if he can.

 

He that in Athens murdered Socrates,

    And Plato then seduced, prepares to make

A desolation and to call it peace

    Today for dying magnates, for the sake

    Of generals who can scarcely keep awake,

And for that doughy mass in great and small

That doesnít want to stir itself at all.

 

Yet though the choice of what is to be done

    Remains with the alive, the rigid nation

Is supple still within the breathing one;

    Its sentinels yet keep their sleepless station,

    And every man in every generation,

Tossing in his dilemma on his bed,

Cries to the shadows of the noble dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III

 

My last remarks were sent you from a boat.

    Iím back on shore now in a warm bed-sitter,

And several friends have joined me since I wrote;

    So though the weather out of doors is bitter,

    I feel a great deal cheerier and fitter.

A party from a public school, a poet,

Have set a rapid pace, and make me go it.

 

 

 

 

Weíre starting soon on a big expedition

    Into the desert, which Iím sure is corking:

Many would like to be in my position.

    I only hope there wonít be too much walking.

    Now let me see, where was I? We were talking

Of Social Questions when I had to stop;

I think itís time now for a little shop.

 

 

In setting up my brass plate as a critic, 

    I make no claim to certain diagnosis,

Iím more intuitive than analytic,

    I offer thought in homoeopathic doses

    (But someone may get better in the process).

I donít pretend to reasoning like Pritchardís

Or the logomachy of I. A. Richards.

 

A poet, swimmer, peer, and man of action,

    -It beats Roy Campbellís record by a mile-

You offer every possible attraction.

    By looking into your poetic style,

    And loveólife on the chance that both were vile,

Several have earned a decent livelihood,

Whose lives were uncreative but were good.

 

A statement which I must say Iím ashamed at;

    A poet must be judged by his intention,

And serious thought you never said you aimed at.  

    I think a serious critic ought to mention

    That one verse style was really your invention,

A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,

You are the master of the airy manner.

 

Thereís every mode of singing robe in stock,

    From Shakespeareís gorgeous fur coat, Spenserís muff

Or Drydenís lounge suit to my cotton frock,

    And Wordsworthís Harris tweed with leathern   cuff.

    Firbank, I think, wore just a just-enough;

I fancy Whitman in a reach-me-down,

But you, like Sherlock, in a dressing-gown.

 

ĎI hate a pupil-teacher,í Milton said,

    Who also hated bureaucratic fools;

Milton may thank his stars that he is dead,

    Although heís learnt by heart in public schools,

    Along with Wordsworth and the list of rules;

For many a don while looking down his nose

Calls Pope and Dryden classics of our prose.

 

The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit;

    He tears his clothes and doesnít shave his chin,

He wears a very pretty little boot,

    He chooses the least comfortable inn;

    A mountain railway is a deadly sin;

His strength, of course, is as the strength of ten men,

He calls all those who live in cities wen-men,

 

Besides, Iím very fond of mountains, too;  

    I like to travel through them in a car

I like a house thatís got a sweeping view;

    I like to walk, but not to walk too far.

    I also like green plains where cattle are,

And trees and rivers, and shall always quarrel

With those who think that rivers are immoral

 

It is a commonplace thatís hardly worth

    A poetís while to make profound or terse,

That now the sun does not go round the earth,

    That manís no centre of the universe;

    And working in an office makes it worse.

The humblest is acquiring with facility

A Universal-Complex sensibility.

 

The Higher Mindís outgrowing the Barbarian,

    Itís hardly thought hygienic now to kiss;

The world is surely turning vegetarian;

    And as it grows too sensitive for this,

    It wonít be long before we find there is

A Society of Everybodyís Aunts

For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.

 

Art, if it doesn't start there, at least ends,

    Whether aesthetics like the thought or not,

In an attempt to entertain our friends;

    And our first problem is to realize what

    Peculiar friends the modern artist's got;

It's possible a little dose of history

May help us in unravelling this mystery.

 

We find two arts in the Augustan age:

    One quick and graceful, and by no means holy,

Relying on his lordship's patronage;

    The other pious, sober, moving slowly,

    Appealing mainly to the poor and lowly.

So Isaac Watts and Pope, each forced his entry

To lower middle class and landed gentry.

 

The important point to notice, though, is this:

    Each poet knew for who he had to write,

Because their life was still the same as his.

    As long as art remains a parasite

    On any class of persons it's alright;

The only thing it must be is attendant,

The only thing it mustn't, independent.

 

To be a highbrow is the natural state:

    To have a special interest of oneís own,

Rock gardens, marrows, pigeons, silver plate,

    Collecting butterflies or bits of stone;

    And then to have a circle where oneís known

Of hobbyists and rivals to discuss

With expert knowledge what appeals to us.

 

Until the great Industrial Revolution

    The artist had to earn his livelihood:

However much he hated the intrusion

    Of patronís taste or publicís fickle mood,

    He had to please or go without his food;

He had to keep his technique to himself

Or find no joint upon his larder shelf.

 

Those most affected were the very best:

    Those with originality of vision,

Those whose technique was better than the rest,

    Jumped at the dance of a secure position

    With freedom from the bad old hack tradition,

Leave to he solo judges of the artistís brandy,

Be Shelley, or Childe Harold, or the Dandy.

 

How nice at first to watch the passers-by

    Out of the upper window, and to say

'How glad I am that though I have to die

    Like all those cattle, I'm less base than they!'

    How we all roared when Baudelaire went fey.

'See this cigar,' he said, 'it's Baudelaire's.

What happens to perception? Ah, who cares?'

 

I've made it seem the artist's silly fault,

    In which case why these sentimental sobs?

In fact, of course, the whole tureen was salt.

    The soup was full of little bits of snobs.

    The common clay and the uncommon snobs

Were fat too busy making piles or starving

To look at pictures, poetry, or carving.

 

You know the terror that for poets lurks

    Beyond the ferry when to Minos brought.

Poets must utter their Collected ĎWorks,

    Including Juvenilia. So I thought

    That you might warn him. Yes, I think you ought,

In case, when my turn comes, he shall cry ĎAtta boys,

Off with his bags, heís crazy as a hatter, boys!í

I like your muse because sheís gay and witty,

    Because sheís neither prostitute nor frump,

The daughter of a European City,

    And country houses long before the slump;  

    I like her voice that does not make me jump:

And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,

Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.

 

Youíve had your packet from time critics, though:

    They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head

Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.

    A Ďvulgar geniusí so George Eliot said,

    Which doesnít matter as George Eliotís dead,

But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,

Damns you with: Ďan uninteresting mindí.

 

By all means let us touch our humble caps to

    La poťsie pure, the epic narrative;

But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.

    According to his powers, each may give;

    Only on varied diet can we live.

The pious fable and the dirty story

Share in the total literary glory.

 

Iím also glad to find Iíve your authority

    For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,

Though Iím afraid weíre in a sad minority

    For every year his followers get more,

    Their number must lave doubled since the war.

They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms

Of pupil-teachers study him in Stormís.

 

And new plants flower from that old potato.

    They thrive best in a poor industrial soil,

Are hardier crossed with Rousseaus or a Plato

    Their cultivation is an easy toil.

    William, to change the metaphor, struck oil;

His well seems inexhaustible, a gusher

That saves old England from the fate of Russia.

 

Iím not a spoilósport, I would never wish

    To interfere with anybodyís pleasures;

By all means climb, or hunt, or even fish,

    All human hearts lave ugly little treasures;

    But think it time to take repressive measures

When someone says, adopting the ďI knowí line,

The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.

 

Not that my private quarrel gives quietus to

    The interesting question that it raises;

Impartial thought will give a proper status to

    This interest in waterfalls and daisies,

    Excessive love for the non-human faces,

That lives in hearts from Golders Green to Teddington;

Itís all bound up with Einstein, Jeans, and Eddington.

 

For now weíve learnt we mustnít be so bumptious

    We find the stars are one big family,

And send out invitations for a scrumptious

    Simple, old-fashioned, jolly romp with tea

    To any natural objects we can see.

We canít, of course, invite a Jew or Red

But birds and nebulae will do instead.

 

I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:

    To me Artís subject is the human clay,

And landscape but a background to a torso;

    All Cťzanneís apples I would give away

    For one small Goya or a Daumier.

Iíll never grant a more than minor beauty

To pudge or pilewort, petty-chap or pooty.

 

At the Beginning   I shall not begin,

    Not with the scratches in the ancient caves;

Heard only knows the latest bulletin

    About the finds in the Egyptian graves;

    Iíll skip the war-dance of the Indian braves;

Since, for the purposes I have in view,

The English eighteenth century will do.

  

Two arts as different as Jews and Turks,

    Each serving aspects of the Reformation,

Luther's division into faith and works:

    The God of the unique imagination,

    And a friend of those who have to know their station;

And the Great Architect, the Engineer

Who keeps the mighty in their higher sphere.

 

But artists, though, are human; and for man

    To be a scivvy is not nice at all:

So everyone will do the best he can

    To get a patch of ground which he can call

    His own. He doesn't really care how small,

So long as he can style himself the master;

Unluckily for art, it's a disaster.

 

But to the artist this is quite forbidden:

    On this point he must differ from the crowd,

And, like a secret agent, must keep hidden

    His passion for his shop. However proud,

    And rightly, of his trade, heís not allowed

To etch his face with his professional creases,

Or die from occupational diseases.

 

But Savoury and Newcomen and Watt

    And all those names that I was told to get up

In history preparation and forgot,

    A new class of creative artist set up,

    On whom the pressure of demand was let up:

He sang and painted and drew dividends,

But lost responsibilities and friends.

 

So started what I'll call the Poet's Party:

    (Most of the guests were painters, never mind) -

The first few hours the atmosphere was hearty

    With fireworks, fun, and games of every kind;

    All were enjoying it, no one was blind;

Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,

And brilliant, too, the technical advances.

 

Today, alas, that happy crowded floor

    Looks very different: many are in tears:

Some have retired to bed and locked the door;

    And some swing madly from the chandeliers;

    Some have passed out entirely in the rears;

Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few

Are trying hard to think of something new.

 

I've simplified the facts to be emphatic,

    Playing Macaulay's favourite little trick

Of lighting that's contrasted and dramatic;

    because it's true Art feels a trifle sick,

    You mustn't think the old girl's lost her kick.

And those, besides, who feel most like a sewer

Belong to Painting not to Literature.

 

The clock is striking and itís time for lunch;

    We start at four. The weatherís none too bright.

Some of the party look as pleased as Punch.

    We shall be travelling, as they call it, light:

    We shall he sleeping in a tent tonight.

You know what Baden-Powellís taught us, donít you,

Ora pro nobis, please, this evening, wonít you?

 

 

 

IV

 

A ship again; this time the Dettifoss.

    Grierson can buy it; all the sea I mean,

All this Atlantic that weíve now to cross

    Heading for Englandís pleasant pastures green.

    Pro tem Iíve done with the Icelandic scene;

I watch the hills receding in the distance,

I hear the thudding of an engineís pistons.

 

 

 

I hope Iím better, wiser for the trip:

    Iíve had the benefit of northern breezes,

The open road and good companionship,

    Iíve seen some very pretty little pieces;

    And though the luck was almost all MacNeiceís,

Iíve spent some jolly evenings playing rummy-

No one can talk at Bridge, unless itís Dummy.

 

Iíve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,

    Taken a lot of healthy exercise,

On barren mountains and in valleys stony,

    Iíve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),

    And foods a man remembers till he dies.

All things considered, I consider Iceland,

Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.

 

A child may ask when our strange epoch passes,

    During a history lesson, ĎPlease, sir, whatís

An intellectual of the middle classes?

    Is he a maker of ceramic pots

    Or does he choose his king by drawing lots?í

What follows now may set him on the rail,

A plain, perhaps a cautionary, tale.

 

My fatherís forbears were all Midland yeomen

    Till royalties from coal mines did them good;

I think they must have been phlegmatic slowmen,

    My motherís ancestors had Norman blood,

    From Somerset Iíve always understood;

My grandfathers on either side agree

In being clergymen and C. of E.

 

My home then was professional and Ďhighí.

    No gentler father ever lived, Iíll lay

All Lombard Street against a shepherdís pie.

    We imitate our loves: well, neighbours say  

    I grow more like my mother every day.

I donít like business men. I know a Prot

Will never really kneel, but only squat.

 

My earliest recollection to stay put

    Is of a white stone doorstep and a spot

Of pus whore father lanced the terrierís foot;

    Next, stuffing shag into the coffee pot

    Which nearly killed my mother, but did not;

Both psychoanalyst and Christian minister,

Will think these incidents extremely sinister.

 

The mine I always pictured was for lead,

    Though copper mines might, faute de mieux, be sound.

Today I like a weight upon my bed;

    I always travel by the Underground;

    For concentration I have always found

A small room best, the curtains drawn, the light on;

Then I can work from nine to tea-time, right on.

 

The Great War had begun: but mastersí scrutiny

    And fists of big boys were the war to us;

It was as harmless as the Indian Mutiny,

    A beating from the Head was dangerous.

    But once when half the forms put down Bellus

We were accused of that most deadly sin,

Wanting the Kaiser and the Huns to win.

 

Surnames I must not writeóO Reginald,

    You at least taught us that which fadeth not,

Our earliest visions of the great wide world;

    The beer and biscuits that your favourites got,

    Your tales revealing you a first-class shot,

Your riding breeks, your drama called The Waves,

A few of us will carry to our graves.

 

How can   I thank you? For it only shows

    (Let me ride just this once my hobby-horse),

Thereíre things a good headmaster never knows.

    There most he sober schoolmasters, of course,

    But what a prep school really puts across

Is knowledge of the world weíll soon be lost in:

Today itís more like Dickens than Jane Austen.

 

In this respect, at least, my bad old Adam is

    Pigheadedly against the general trend;

And has no use for all these new academies

    Where readers of the better weeklies send

    The child they probably did not intend,

To paint a lampshade, marry, or keep pigeons,

Or make a study of the world religions.

 

From thy dread Empire not a soulís exempted:

    More than the nursemaids pushing prams in parks,

By thee the intellectuals are tempted,

    O, to commit the treason of the clerks,

    Bewitched by thee to literary sharks,

But I must leave thee to thy office stool,  

I must get on now to my public school.

 

Nation spoke Peace, or said she did, with nation;

    The sexes tried their best to look the same;

Morals lost value during the inflation,

    The groan Victorians kindly took the blame;

    Visions of Dada no the Post-War came ,

Sitting in cafťs, nostrils stuffed with bread,

Above the recent and the straight-laced dead.

 

We all grow up the same way, more or less;

    Life is not known no give away her presents;

She only swops. The unselfconsciousness

    That children share with animals and peasants

    Sinks in the Sturm und drang of adolescence.

Like other boys I lost my taste for sweets,

Discovered sunsets, passion, God, and Keats.

 

But indecision broke off with a clean cut end

    One afternoon in March at half past three

When walking in a ploughed field with a friend;

    Kicking a little stone, he turned to me

    And said, ĎTell me, do you write poetry?í

I never had, and said so, but I knew

That very moment what I wished no do.

 

A raw provincial, my good taste was tardy,

    And Edward Thomas I as yet preferred;

I was still listening to Thomas Hardy

    Putting divinity about a bird;

    But Eliot spoke the still unspoken word;

For gasworks and dried tubers I forsook

The clock at Grantchester, the English rook.

 

So much for Art. Of course Life had its passions too;

    The studentís flesh like his imagination

Makes facts fit theories and has fashions too.

    We were the tail, a sort of poor relation

    To that debauched, eccentric generation

Than grew up with their fathers at the War,

And made new glosses on the noun Amor.

 

Part came from Lane, and part from D. H. Lawrence;

    Gide, though I didnít know it then, gave part.

They taught me to express my deep abhorrence

    If I caught anyone preferring Art

    To Life and Love and being Pure-in-Heart.

I lived with crooks but seldom was molested;

The Pure-in-Heart can never be arrested.

 

The only thing you never turned your hand to

    Was teaching English in a boarding school.

Today itís a profession that seems grand to

    Those whose alternativeís an office stool;

    For budding authors itís become the rule.

To many an unknown genius postmen bring

Typed notices from Rabbitarse and String.

 

I found the pay good and had time to spend it,

    Though others may not have the good luck I did:

For you Iíd hesitate to recommend it;

    Several have told me that they canít abide it.

    Still, if one tends to get a bit one-sided,

Itís pleasant as itís easy to secure

The hero worship of the immature.

 

Which brings me up no nineteen thirty-five;

    Six months of film work is another story

I canít tell now. But, here I am, alive

    Knowing the true source of that sense of glory

    That still surrounds the England of the Tory,

Come only to the rather tame conclusion

That no man by himself has lifeís solution.

 

The boat has brought me to the landing-stage,

    Up the long estuary of mud and sedges;

The line I travel has the English gauge;

    The engineís shadow vaults the little ledges;

    And summerís done. I sign the usual pledges

To be a better poet, better man;

Iíll really do it this time if I can.

The part can stand as symbol for the whole:

    So ruminating in these last few weeks,  

I see the map of all my youth unroll,

    The mental mountains and the psychic creeks,

    The towns of which the master never speaks,

The various parishes and what they voted for,

The colonies, their size, and what theyíre noted for.

 

My passport says Iím five feet and eleven,

    With hazel eyes and fair (itís tow-like) hair,

That I was born in York in 1907,

    With no distinctive markings anywhere.

    Which isnít quite correct. Conspicuous there

On my right cheek appears a large brown mole,

I think I donít dislike it on the whole.

 

Father and Mother each was one of seven,

    Though one died young and one was nor all there;

Their fathers both went suddenly to Heaven

    While they were still quite small and left them here

    To work on hearth with little cash no spare;

A nurse, a rising medico, at Bartís

Both felt the pangs of Cupidís naughty darts.

 

In pleasures of the mind they both delighted;

    The library in the study was enough

To make a better boy than me short-sighted;

    Our old cook Ada surely knew her stuff;

    My elder brothers did not treat me rough;

We lived at Solihull, a village then;

Those at the gasworks were my favourite men.

 

With northern myths my little brain was laden,

    With deeds of Thor and Loki and such scenes;

My favourite tale was Andersonís Ice Maiden; .

    But better far than any kings or queens  

    I liked to see and know about machines:

And from my sixth until my sixteenth year 

I thought myself a mining engineer.

 

I must admit that I was most precocious

    (Precocious children rarely grow up good).

My aunts and uncles thought me quite atrocious

    For using words more adult than I should;

    My first remark at school did all it could

To shake a matronís monumental poise; Ď 

I like to see the various types of boys.í

 

The way in which we really were affected

    Was having such a varied lot to teach us.

The best were fighting, as the King expected,

    The remnant either elderly grey creatures,

    Or characters with most peculiar features.

Many were raggable, a few were waxy,

One had to leave abruptly in a taxi.

 

ĎHalf a lunatic, half a knave.í No doubt

    A holy terror to the staff at tea;

A good headmaster must have soon found out

    Your moral character was all at sea;  

    I question if youíd got a pass degree:

But little children bless your kind that knocks

Away the edifying stumbling blocks.

 

I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,

    Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,

Our passion for the tender plant of youth,

    Our hatred for all weeds of any kind.

    Slogans are bad: the best that I can find

Is this: ĎLet each child have thatís in our care

As much neurosis as the child can bear.í

 

Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!

    What murders are committed in thy name!

Totalitarian is thy state Reality,

    Reeking of antiseptics and the shame

    Of faces that all look and feel the same.

Thy Muse is one unknown to classic histories,

The topping figure of the hockey mistress.

 

Men had stopped throwing stones at one another,

    Butter and Father had come back again;

Gone were the holidays we spent with Mother

    In furnished rooms on mountain, moor, and fen;

    And gone those summer Sunday evenings, when

Along the seafronts fled a curious noise,

ĎEternal Fatherí, sung by three young boys.

 

Iíve said my say on public schools elsewhere:

    Romantic friendship, prefects, bullying,

I shall not deal with, cíest une autre affaire.

    Those who expect them, will got no such thing,

    It is the strictly relevant   I sing.

Why should they grumble? Theyíve the Greek Anthology

And all the spicier bits of Anthropology.

 

I shall recall a single incident

    No more. I spoke of mining engineering

As the career on which my mind was bent,

    But for some time my fancies had been veering;

    Mirages of the future kept appearing;

Crazes had come and gone in short, sharp gales,

For motor-bikes, photography, and whales.

 

Without a bridge passage this leads me straight

    Into the theme marked ĎOxfordí on my score

From pages twenty-five to twentyóeight.

    Aesthetic trills Iíd never heard before

    Rose from the strings, shrill poses from the cor;

The woodwind clattered like a pre-war Russian

ĎArtí boomed the brass, and ĎLifeí thumped the percussion.

 

All youthís intolerant certainty was mine as

    I faced life in a double-breasted suit;

I bought and praised but did nor read Aquinas,

    At the Criterionís verdict I was mute,

    Though Arnoldís I was ready to refute;

And through the quads dogmatic words rang clear,

ĎGood poetry is classic and austere.í

 

Three years passed quickly while the Isis went

    Down to the sea for better or for worse;

Then to Berlin, not Carthage, I was sent

    With money from my parents in my purse,

    And ceased to see the world in terms of verse.

I met a chap called Layard and he fed

New doctrines into my receptive head.

 

Heís gay; no bludgeonings of chance can spoil it,

    The Pure-in--Heart loves all men on a par,

And has no trouble with his private toilet;

    The Pure-in-Heart is never ill; catarrh

    Would he the yellow streak, the brush of war;

Determined to he loving and forgiving,  

I came back home to try and earn my living.

 

The Headís M.A., a bishop is a patron,

    The assistant staffí is highly qualified;

Health is the care of an experienced matron,

    The arts are taught by ladies from outside;

    The food is wholesome and the grounds are wide;

The aim is training character and poise,

With special coaching for the backward boys.

 

More, itís a job, and jobs today are rare:

    All the ideals in the world wonít feed us

Although they give our crimes a certain air.

    So barons of the press who know their readers

    Employ to write their more appalling leaders,

Instead of Satanís horned and hideous minions

Clever young men of liberal opinions.

 

I know -the fact is really not unnerving -

    That what is done is done, that no past dies,

That what we see depends on whoís observing,

    And what we think on our activities.

    That envy warps the virgin as she dries

But Post coitum, homo tristis moans

The lover must go carefully with the greens.

 

I hope this reaches you in your abode,

    This letter thatís already fat too long,

Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road;

    But here I end my conversational song.

    I hope you donít think mail from strangers wrong.

As to its length, I tell myself youíll need it,

Youíve all eternity in which to read it.

 

From: W.H.Auden, Collected Longer Poems, Random House, New York.