Tuesday 11 August 2020

Auden Again: Baltering, Soodling, Sossing

Yet another sweltering day of our canicule anglaise, and I reach for Auden again. Surely nothing could be more appropriate for these dog days than this, one of the masterpieces of his postwar years:

Under Sirius

Yes, these are the dog days, Fortunatus:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar’s brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.

And you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach,
Lying in bed till noon,
Your bills unpaid, your much advertised
Epic not yet begun,
Are a sufferer too. All day, you tell us, you wish
Some earthquake would astonish,
Or the wind of the Comforter’s wing
Unlock the prisons and translate
The slipshod gathering.

And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:
Ah! how the cannons roar,
How jocular the bells as They
Indulge the peccant shore.

It is natural to hope and pious, of course, to believe
That all in the end shall be well,
But first of all, remember,
So the Sacred Books foretell,
The rotten fruit shall be shaken. Would your hope make sense
If today were that moment of silence,
Before it break and drown,
When the insurrected eagre hangs
Over the sleeping town?

How will you look and what will you do when the basalt
Tombs of the sorcerers shatter
And their guardian megalopods
Come after you pitter-patter?
How will you answer when from their qualming spring
The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
And out of the open sky
The pantocratic riddle breaks –
"Who are you and why?"

For when in a carol under the apple-trees
The reborn featly dance,
There will also, Fortunatus,
Be those who refused their chance,
Now pottering shades, querulous beside the salt-pits,
And mawkish in their wits,
To whom these dull dog-days
Between event seemed crowned with olive
And golden with self-praise. 

This is virtuoso stuff. Even Randall Jarrell, habitually snooty about Auden (as about so much else), was so bowled over by this one that he could only respond with 'Well, back to my greeting cards.' 

Fortunatus was a sixth-century poet of the Merovingian court, who wrote in Latin and became a Christian bishop (and was venerated after his death).
'Soodling' means dawdling, 'baltering' tumbling along.
The 'three wise Maries' are three variously identified Maries from the Gospels who, according to medieval legend, made landfall in Provence after travelling from the Holy Land. 'Sossing' is simply onomatopoeic.
An 'eagre' is a kind of tidal wave, commonly known as a 'bore' – which would not have sounded quite as good: 'the insurrected bore'!


  1. Thanks Nige. A great poem I had not read before. I like the "Who are you and why?" with its hint of 'Character is destiny.' Auden must be thinking of the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer which I recall visiting in the Camargue in my youth. Wiki gives the religious story on it.

    I love some of his later poems, notably Moon Landing, Ode to Terminus and On Looking into a Child's Book of Modern Physics. They all state positions with which I've always found myself in sympathy.

    Someone described Auden as the greatest mind of the 20th century. I think his facility with words was somehow indivisible from this.

  2. Thanks Guy. I think Auden was a great, if flawed (who isn't?) poet, who wrote too much, especially in his later years, but left behind some of the 20th century's finest poems. My personal anthology would have to include In Memory of W.B. Yeats, In Praise of Limestone, The Dark Years, Friday's Child, At the Grave of Henry James, Musee des Beaux Arts, Like a Vocation, Who's Who, A.E.Housman, Edward Lear, in fact any of his short 'biographical' poems. Etc.

  3. Lots there I don't know. A new reading list for me....

    and yes, who isn't?