Sunday 21 February 2016

Auden: Oxford and Martinis

To celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden - born on this day in 1907, in York - here is a short (originally rather longer) poem about the place where his literary career began, and which remained part of his inner geography, for good and ill. These descriptive, or rather evocative, poems - of people as well as places - seem to me one of the best and most distinctive parts of Auden's huge output.


Nature invades: old rooks in each college garden
Still talk, like agile babies, the language of feeling;
By towers a river still runs coastward and will run,
  Stones in these towers are utterly
  Satisfied still with their weight.

Mineral and creature, so deeply in love with themselves
Their sin of accidie excludes all others,
Challenge our high-strung students with a careless beauty,
  Setting a single error
  Against their countless faults.

Outside, some factories, then a whole green country
Where a cigarette comforts the evil, a hymn the weak;
Where thousands fidget and poke and spend their money:
  Eros Paidagogos
  Weeps on his virginal bed.

And over the talkative city like any other
Weep the non-attached angels. Here too the knowledge of death
Is a consuming love, and the natural heart refuses
  The low unflattering voice
  That sleeps not till it find a hearing.

[Among Auden the man's more endearing characteristics was his devotion to the six o'clock martini. On one of the few occasions when Richard Wilbur met the older poet, the talk was of martinis:
'Auden had ordered a martini and I had ordered a martini, and we talked about martinis, and we discussed the fact that if you are devoted to martinis, it's very hard to get a good one away from home. I think that was the essence of our deep conversation, but it was heartfelt.'] Cheers!

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