Friday, 9 April 2010


Today is a melancholy double anniversary. On this date in 1917 - it was Easter Monday - Edward Thomas was killed at Arras, the life knocked out of him by the blast wave from a shell, his body falling to the ground unmarked. The previous Easter he had written these lines:

In Memoriam

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

On this date in 1945, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis for his part in the July 20 Plot against Hitler. At dawn he was led naked into the execution yard of Flossenburg concentration camp and, praying and perfectly composed to the end, hanged with thin wire to ensure strangulation - a typical Nazi refinement. This hideous event is commemorated by Auden in a beautiful poem of simple quatrains packed with meaning, Friday's Child:

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Auden is the best of the last century, isn't he? Not that league tables matter.

    "a typical Nazi refinement" - v good, Nige.

  3. Thank you. Auden is my favourite poet and this is just what I need to remind me of what really matters before an event this afternoon.

  4. Thanks you very much for this, nige. That poem is a keeper, for sure.

  5. Beautiful poetry. And the words have reminded me of Viktor Frankl's remarkable book, Man's Search for Meaning. Have you read this?

  6. I haven't read that Susan - it looks intriguing... And Mark, I hope the 'event' goes as well as it can.