Poetry of the Thirties

What so often happens to me in reading is thar one thing leads to another. As it should.

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I recently picked up a copy of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James at Readings and enjoyed most of the essays on poets that he’d felt were important to him over the years; Frost, Edgar, Eliot, Les Murray, Auden. James has a bit of fetish about form and all that, which is repeated a bit, but he always has something interesting to say. At one point, he waxes lyrical over a Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point and recommends the Penguin Classic anthology, Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

So, I dug out my old copy of that anthology and re-read the introduction and that poem and dippped into those poems from a decade haunted by the rise of fascism and the coming of another war. They are familiar names: Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Spender, but as Skelton says in the introduction, Auden ‘dominates (this period) from first to last’, and he certainly has more poems in this anthology than any other poet.

My favourite, Lay Your Sleeping Head, later published as Lullaby.

skelton

Coincedentally, picking up my copy of The Monthly today, I read Late Styles, a review by Justin Clemens of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past and Clive James’s Sentenced to Life.

The review labours to make the unsurprising point that Murray is a better poet than James, and takes James to task, describing his work in this collection as ‘sentimental’, ‘self-pitying’, ‘pretentious’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘narrow’ and ‘almost infantile’. My guess is that Clemens see himself as not shirking the truth of the review but really …?

I’d rather not end my thinking about poetry this week with the mean-spirited superficialities of the review of a dying man’s book, but go back to Auden again, and this poem, from 1937, which seems beyond politics, personal or otherwise.

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreadful cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless.

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden

Roman Wall Blues

It’s funny how one thing leads to another, in life, and in reading. And in writing too, sometimes.

So, sitting down at last to read Luke Davies prize-winning collection Interferon Psalms this week, which I’m luke-warm about (though I get what he’s doing I think, with all the Biblical language and over the top imagery, what they call on the back cover of the book ‘ an oracular language of incantation’) I’m drawn to something other than the Davies work I’m supposed to be reading, a reference to Auden in:

Soaking wet by Hadrian’s wall
I dreamed of sunlight and olive trees
And a comfortable pair of sandals.

[thus said the wise old Wystan Hugh] in Davies…

and I’m drawn back to that poem of Auden’s that I hadn’t read for years.

At first I thought the reference was from ‘The Fall of Rome’, a favourite Auden poem, but a quick refresh finds that Davies’ is referring to ‘Roman Wall Blues’, number 11 of ‘Twelve Songs’, written around 1937, the twelfth song being the famous ‘Some say that love’s a little boy … ‘.

I like Auden, the early things particularly. In my ‘favourite poems’ section of this blog, for example, I’ve talked about ‘Sonnet from China’ and a few others (including, to my shame, the same poem twice, Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’.!)

So, I was thinking, what is it about this poem that I like? Something of the personification of the great histories of the world into a disgruntled Roman soldier getting a cold in the rain in Scotland? Or, how the great forces of the world (empire, war, the march of history) stand up against time, cold, winter, the forces of nature and time? Landscape, ruins, the decline and fall.

Like the end of ‘The Fall of Rome’, where Auden cinematically cuts to the great uncaring herds of reindeers locked into their own vast migrations, and in other poems like Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ there’s something about the sweep of history, the fallibility of the human, the illusion of progress.

All those poems I’ve mentioned above are worth entries of their own, and maybe I’ll get around to that. But, here’s ‘Roman Wall Blues’, which I was reminded of by reading Luke Davies’s book this week. I’m an admirer of Davies work but not this one, but it was worth buying just to be brought back here to Auden

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

Photo: ‘Looking West along Hadrian’s Wall’ from Flickr by Tyler Bell

Sonnet from China

I read a blog posting today, or rather it was posted to me as it seems China is currently blocking some blogging sites, about a friend’s visit to Nanjing and the museum to the massacres there. Which made me think of one of my favourite Auden poems, a sonnet from China, and its haunting, hopeless last lines:

XII


Here war is harmless like a monument:
A telephone is talking to a man;
Flags on a map declare that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
Who can be lost and are, who miss their wives
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

Yet ideas can be true, although men die:
For we have seen a myriad faces
Ecstatic from one lie,

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now.
Nanking. Dachau.

W.H Auden

Wishlist

two new books added to my ever-growing wishlist this morning after reading some reviews

1 Dead Man’s Chest: Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson by Nicholas Rankin. I’ve always liked RLS, from reading books like ‘Kidnapped’ and especially ‘Treasure Island’ as a kid. Later I read a travel book called ‘Footsteps’ I think, which followed one of RLS’s journey’s with a donkey through Europe.

2. In Ruins by Christopher Woodward – If you’ve ever read any of my poems here you’ll know the fascination I have with ruins, the broken things of history, the aesthetics of the fallen. Auden used to like the ruins of tin mining; I can understand that!

Paul Muldoon

muldoon…Irish poet Paul Muldoon was in town last week and I missed him; family commitments was the excuse, but its probably true also that I was bit put off by an article on him in THE AGE I think which painted him as an odd and arcane sort of puzzler; but not in the puzzling Auden mode. It was enough to keep me at home!