This Lunar Beauty Poem Analysis Essays
Here are some things you’ll need to know if you’re going to read the poetry of W.H. Auden: anthropology, geology, Freudian psychology, Jungian psychology, Christian existentialism, the Anglican liturgy, the history of science, Norse mythology, Anglo-Saxon versification, grand opera, Old Master painting, Horace, Virgil, Dante, Dryden, Kant, Blake, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Brecht, Yeats, Eliot, and quite a few other names. When Auden uses titles like “Dichtung und Warheit” and “Horae Canonicae,” he assumes you will know what the words (and concepts) mean. His dream reader, he once said, “keeps a lookout for curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and coriambs.” No wonder William Carlos Williams (initially) despised him; Auden’s impossible erudition and fluency violated everything Williams believed about the immediacy of poetic voice. (The favor, so to speak, was not returned. Auden considered Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” “one of the most beautiful poems in the language.”)
Speaking for myself, Id say Im familiar with about twenty percent of Auden’s cultural references; the rest either he teaches me as I read him or I figure I can leave till the next time. I suppose I could do some background work on Reinhold Niebuhr, a key influence on the later Auden, but I find some wholesale ignorance here and there tends to stimulate the imagination. Going straight to the poems with no more preparation than a reasonable education and an open mind is not cheating. On the contrary, Auden made it easier for the reader than the determinedly experimental and avant-garde Williams did. For all his talk of bacchics and coriambs, he was consciously and deliberately a public poet, eager to engage as many readers as the “unpopular art” of poetry (which “cannot be ‘done’ like Venice / or abridged like Tolstoy”) would allow.
Actually, you don’t need to know much of anything to read Auden’s early poetry. What’s required here is rather a high level of tolerance for gorgeous opacity. When the poems are as compelling as most of them manage to be, that tolerance is easy to give. In Early Auden (Viking, ), Edward Mendelson traced in exhaustive detail the youthful Auden’s desperate efforts to achieve an intellectual clarity that constantly eluded him. The collective versus the individual, the necessity or futility of political action, too much love or not enough: he alternately adopts and abandons these and a dozen other positions, no one of which results in the philosophical coherence that he seeks. Looking back on his younger self, the middle-aged Auden half joked that the author of these early poems was “someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi.”
Great poetry, however, doesn’t require philosophical coherence. So unaccountable was Auden’s early work that many at the time assumed it was written in a sort of code for the amusement of his friends. Not so, according to Edward Mendelson: “Auden’s friends were as much in the dark as everyone else.” I’ve read these poems many times over, and Im still in the dark. Some of them mystify less than others. “This Lunar Beauty,” for instance, becomes reasonably clear once you understand that it has nothing to do with the moon and everything to do with the perishable innocence of a schoolboy. Nevertheless, I almost prefer the ones that don’t make much sense. That’s because they’re so beautiful. Although Auden dismissed his early style as “constipated,” its extreme elisions – the absence of grammatical subjects, the proliferation of gerunds and uninflected verbs – make the familiar sound wondrously strange. (At around the same time Henry Green was achieving similar effects in prose. If Auden had ever worked in a factory and written fiction, Living is the novel he might have produced.)
Once with Louis MacNeice at a symposium, Auden “exchanged winks as a juggins / went on about Alienation,” but these early poems are unquestionably about alienation, and they sound like it. What Auden considered his ineluctable inheritance as an alienated modern was partly a matter of his own post-adolescent confusions (the acclaimed and influential poet, it is well to remember, was barely out of his teens). Yet if poetry can benefit from a category error, his does. All that syntactical shorthand (as if the author has no time for grammatical niceties), all that menacing imagery of espionage and shootings and border crossings – these things convey an impression that something large is at stake. And there is. Alienation has always been with us. Auden and others coming of age in the aftermath of World War I might have felt it with special keenness, but whenever human beings sense a disproportion between their spiritual needs and the world’s material demands, alienation, by whatever name, will be there. The point isn’t to wallow in it, like the sad, beautiful sybarites in an Antonioni film. (Antonioni depicts the condition with authority and subtlety; but then he falls in love with what he thinks he’s criticizing.) The point is to overcome it, if possible, through imagination, faith, and critical thinking. This Auden does, starting in the mid-thirties and with increasing confidence through the forties and beyond.
Im always slightly disappointed that Auden moves on so smoothly from the cryptic, sinister set pieces of the late twenties and early thirties. All his greatest poetry is still to come, yet it’s impossible not to regret the loss of that weird, vatic voice delivering the bad news with such insinuating élan. And it’s not always bad news. “” is a long, four-part meditation about – well, Im not sure what it’s about. It certainly resists paraphrase. Yet in the midst of its welter of shifting perceptions, lines appear that light up the surrounding murk with the clarity of revelation:
Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
Am feeling as it was seeing –
In city leaning on harbour parapet
To watch a colony of duck below
Sit, preen, and doze on buttresses
Or upright paddle on flickering stream,
Casually fishing at a passing straw.
The twenty-two-year-old intellectual still hasn’t found his way out of the murk, but he knows this much: that to live a meaningful life is to think it, that to think is to accept change, and that to accept change is to accept the mistakes that flow from it. And not only accept those mistakes, but love them:
In me so absolute unity of evening
And field and distance was in me for peace,
Was over me in feeling without forgetting
Those ducks’ indifference, that friend’s hysteria,
Without wishing and with forgiving,
To love my life, not as other,
Not as bird’s life, not as child’s,
“Cannot,” I said, “being no child now nor a bird.”
This is a promise rather than an accomplished fact. Loving your life isn’t easy, especially amid what Auden considered “the chaos of values which is the substance of our environment.” Ordinary people were no doubt getting on quite swimmingly with their lives in , but the neurasthenia Auden depicts was felt all over Europe, and some of his quasi-apocalyptic imagery (“This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s”) was to prove sickeningly prophetic.
There is a certain schadenfreude in some of these pronouncements; if Auden had seen what form the dragon and devourer would soon take, his pessimism might not have been so smoothly self-assured. The best of early Auden, however, has the urgency of an Anglo-Saxon dirge. “The Wanderer,” in fact, is an Anglo-Saxon dirge, being in part a free translation of an Old English poem of the same name. (His Anglo-Saxon was, of course, impeccable.) Here Auden finds a seamless continuity between ancient forebodings and contemporary anxieties, between the oldest verse forms in English and modernist experimentation:
Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.
The technical mastery manifest in the handling of alliteration and stress is only a foretaste; there is no conventional or unconventional verse form in English of which Auden is not the master. And it’s more than technique. His versification demonstrates a way of overcoming modernist anxieties through renovating of past traditions; maybe we moderns aren’t so thrillingly disenchanted after all. The past can still speak to the present. Furthermore, that stone-haunting, unquiet bird is not a generic lump of feathers but a ring ouzel, a highly vocal thrush that an Anglo-Saxon wanderer might well have encountered on pot-holed becks or lonely upland gulleys. While the ornithological correctness makes the pulse of a birdwatcher like me beat faster, anyone can see that Auden’s encyclopedic range of reference and powers of observation are astounding. He could make poems about geological formations or turning points in the late Roman Empire because he knew what they were. Nearly the most damning word is his vocabulary is “vague.”
Auden’s turn from themes of disconnection to connection corresponded with happier events in his own life, namely a vision of disinterested, brotherly love first described in “A Summer Night” () and later, at long last, the experience of requited intimacy when he met Chester Kallman, an eighteen-year-old Brooklyn College student who was to remain his (rather trying) partner for life. Not that he had arrived at The One Good Place or found his way back to a “warm nude age of instinctive poise.” He was forever warning against the dangers of such illusions. What makes his poetry consistently compelling is that the spiritual wholeness and communitarian ethos to which it aspires are never assumed. Sometimes he comes nearer the goal, sometimes not, but it’s a struggle that he shares with the reader. Hence the relative difficulty of his work. There are no shortcuts on this road to understanding, and if the author at times must struggle for clarity, using his learning to illuminate patches of darkness, so must the reader occasionally struggle.
All of which makes Auden sound terribly Important, but really what’s so wonderful about him is his way of exploring the most searching and complex ideas while remaining umpompously human and often extremely funny. It’s hard to imagine William Butler Yeats saying of a failed poem, as Auden did of the somewhat dubious conclusion to “Spain” (“History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon”), “To say this is to equate goodness with success. It would have been bad enough if I ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.” Auden did on occasion succumb to easy rhetoric. Contrary to the claim made in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” time will not pardon Yeats, Kipling, and Paul Claudel for writing well, which is why he later revised these lines out of existence. The ugly reactionary tendencies of all three writers are no more excusable in a genius than in a greengrocer.
Yeats himself represented for Auden his own “demon of inauthenticity” from which he struggled to fight free. Touches of that inauthenticity mar even such celebrated works as the Yeats elegy and “September 1, ,” with its “ironic” points of light proffering illumination in the darkness of bad times to those few cultured enough to appreciate the concept of irony. If Auden were, like Edward Lear in the sonnet of that title, to “successfully reach his Regret,” he must eschew the postures and positions that had endeared him to disciples of avant-garde modernism on the one hand and to partisans of left-wing orthodoxy on the other. He spent the rest of his life disappointing just such readers. Randall Jarrell, in particular, never tired of deploring Auden’s supposed decline into tea twaddle coziness, so much so that the poet reasonably concluded, “I think Randall must be in love with me.” At its weakest, Auden’s later work sometimes skirts complacency, but the bulk of it shows him constantly becoming himself – that is to say, human, extremely funny, and profoundly intelligent. I, an atheist, could only wish for more religious poetry as genuinely ecumenical and open to experience as “Horae Canonicae.”
Or for prose poems like the one Auden gave to Chester Kallman on December 25, Now that’s quite a trick – writing an explicitly Christian epistle to be read by a Jew on Christmas day. And yet no Jew, no atheist, no believer, nor, it seems to me, any thinking human being could be anything but moved by this avowal of love and humility within a belief system that the sender does not hope or expect the recipient to share:
Because it is in you, a Jew, that I, a Gentile, inheriting an O-so-genteel anti-semitism,
have found my happiness;
As this morning I think of Bethlehem, I think of you.
Because it is you, from Brooklyn, who have taught me, from Oxford, how the most liberal
young man can assume that his money and his education ought to be able to buy love;
As this morning, I think of the inn stable, I think of you.
Because, suffering on your account the torments of sexual jealousy, I have had a glimpse
of the infinite vileness of masculine conceit;
As this morning, I think of Joseph, I think of you.
The letter goes on in this way – firmly, reverently, and even with traces of camp (“Because mothers have much to do with your queerness and mine . . . “). Unfortunately, because it was not intended for publication, it appears in no selected or collected edition of the poems and must be sought out in Edward Mendelson’s Later Auden and other sources.
Which brings up the vexed question of Auden’s texts. If you’re really interested in him, Im afraid you’ll have to acquire the Collected as well as the Selected Poems – the Collected because he wrote too many good and great poems to squeeze into the Selected, and the Selected because of his notorious revisions and deletions that are scrupulously maintained in the Collected. For example, a reader who has shelled out forty dollars for the Centennial edition of the Collected Poems (Modern Library, ) might be a bit miffed to discover that nowhere in its pages will be found “We must love one another or die,” that key sections have disappeared from dozens of major works, and that whole poems are missing from the great sonnet sequence “Journey To War” (based on his and Christopher Isherwood’s travels through China during the Sino-Japanese War). Nothing wrong with some tightening here and there, and some of Auden’s choices transform mannerism into clarity, but others seem willfully literal-minded. What is gained by changing “O all the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day” (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) to “What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day”? The revision and later the entire omission of “September 1, ” are symptomatic. I could live without the “ironic points of light” and the political grandstanding of the last stanza, but Auden’s strongest objection to the poem was the line “We must love one another or die,” about which he said, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” Surely readers understand that there are other ways of dying, and that living without love is one of them. Or that, as Joseph Brodsky suggested, the line might be interpreted to mean “We must love one another or kill.”
Im afraid that some of Auden’s inflexibility had to do with his Christianity. As the claims of poetry receded before the higher truths of revealed religion, he came to see the former as not merely secondary but almost frivolous. I agree that no work of art trumps simple human decency. Even music, Auden wrote in “Music Is International,” is “not to be confused / With anything really important / Like feeding strays or looking pleased when caught / By a bore or a hideola.” (“Hideola”: Chester Kallman’s coinage for a hideous person from Mineola.) Yet the credo he formulated in an essay of is hardly frivolous: “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us.” I happen to believe that poetry has done a rather better job than religion on this score, and anyway no one ever died over a deviation from poetic doctrine. It’s my one area of disagreement with a poet I generally revere. I suggest that the world would be a better and safer place if the higher truths of revealed religion receded before the claims of poetry.
“The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” first published in the volume For the Time Being in , sidesteps most of these problems. It’s in the Selected and the Collected editions, it has no textual variations, and it’s his greatest work. Casually erudite, it requires only a familiarity with The Tempest, which, given that work’s eminence in world literature, doesn’t seem to be asking too much. Auden claimed that the last of the three parts, the dazzling, eight thousand-word prose discourse “Caliban to the Audience,” was the favorite of all his works. Mine too – and the poems leading up to it are scarcely less remarkable. Doing justice to “The Sea and the Mirror” hardly seems possible, partly because some of the lyrics are so elusive, partly because the whole is so much smarter than I am. But I have to begin somewhere, so I’ll begin with “Prospero to Ariel,” the long meditative farewell (in flowing syllabics) that Prospero speaks to his sprite after the play has ended and he prepares for his journey back to Milan.
“Can I learn to suffer / Without saying something ironic or funny / On suffering?” he asks Ariel as he contemplates an honored retirement in Milan as “an old man / Just like other old men, with eyes that water / Easily in the wind, and a head that nods in the sunshine.” Probably not, if his ironic and funny comments on the dramatis personae are any indication. Though resolved to renounce all magic in his final journey from the aesthetic to the spiritual realm (as those terms imply, “The Sea and the Mirror” owes almost as much to Kierkegaard as to Shakespeare), Prospero remains as “incorrigibly stagey” in Auden’s work as he does in Shakespeare’s. His antagonist Antonio, in the poem given to him in Part II, is quite sure that Prospero’s “will to charm” is unextinguished. Prospero mistakenly assumes that his noblesse oblige, which is not quite so impressive as he imagines, has won the regicidal Antonio to his side, just as he mistakenly assumes that Ferdinand and Miranda face a future as compromised as his past:
Yes, today it all looks so easy.
Will Ferdinand be as fond of a Miranda
Familiar as a stocking? Will a Miranda who is
No longer a silly lovesick little goose,
When Ferdinand and his brave new world are her profession,
Go into raptures over existing at all?
Probably I over-estimate their difficulties;
Just the same, I am very glad I shall never
Be twenty and have to go through that business again,
The hours of fuss and fury, the conceit, the expense.
Here and throughout, Auden’s Prospero is so witty, worldly, and sincerely well-intentioned that it’s easy to mistake his partial vision for the whole. But the monologues each character speaks (all in different and, needless to say, highly challenging verse forms) are in continual dialogue with one another. Miranda’s villanelle (“So, to remember our changing garden, we / Are linked as children in a circle dancing”) implies an innocent inclusiveness at odds with Prospero’s rather severe Kierkegaardian categories that makes me think she and Ferdinand are probably going to be O.K. thirty years from now. (As another great poet, the bluesman Willie Dixon put it, “The men don’t know what the little girls understand.”) And although Auden maintained that Ferdinand’s sonnet in alexandrines “describes fucking in completely abstract words,” it also describes an unselfconscious humility that Prospero can approach only by working very very hard at it.
Above all, Alonso’s letter to his princely son (to be opened upon the father demise at Ferdinand’s ascension to the throne) finds a middle way that Prospero, in his anxious pursuit of transcendence, largely overlooks. “The Sea and the Mirror” takes great pains to observe the boundaries between art and life and is downright alarming on the consequences of forgetting those boundaries. Nevertheless, the two spheres have a common border, and you could do worse than to heed some of the advice offered by Alonso in his relaxed Horatian measures. You may not be a Renaissance prince, but like Ferdinand or anyone else you will have to find a way between mind and heart that combines your obligations to yourself with your responsibilities to others:
So, if you prosper, suspect those bright
Mornings when you whistle with a light
Heart. You are loved; you have never seen
The harbour so still, the park so green,
So many well-fed pigeons upon
Cupolas and triumphal arches,
So many stags and slender ladies
Beside the canals. Remember when
Your climate seems a permanent home
For marvellous creatures and great men,
What griefs and convulsions startled Rome,
How narrow the space, how slight the chance
For civil pattern and importance
Between the watery vagueness and
The triviality of the sand,
How soon the trip is over
From loose craving to sharp aversion,
Aimless jelly to paralysed bone:
At the end of each successful day
Remember that the fire and the ice
Are never more than one step away
From the temperate city; it is
But a moment to either.
No, Im not sure I understand all the symbols either (the sea of reality and the mirror of art are clear enough, watery vagueness and trivial sand a little trickier), and I certainly didn’t know what Ecbatana was until I looked it up (the capital city of the Medes, the earliest inhabitants of Persia). Nevertheless, Alonso’s poem feels unmistakably like a blessing. More than any symbol or idea in it, its mastery of tone encourages and inspires. Yes, making a religion of art mistakes the nature of both, but bestowing on readers poetry like this surely outranks feeding even the lowliest stray or humoring the worst “hideola.”
That design depends upon Kierkegaard’s metaphysics of faith, which results in a bit of trouble at the end, when Auden/Caliban backs himself into a corner from which only a deus ex machina can deliver him. Suddenly, in place of “the cathedral town where the canons run through the water meadows with butterfly nets” or “the ruined opera house where badgers are said to breed in great numbers” or the hundred other superbly concrete images of place, character, costume, and habit, Caliban resorts in his peroration to abstractions like “the real World,” “that Wholly Other Life,” and “the perfected Work which is not ours.” There is, finally – even if you believe in it – no linguistic means of expressing the Leap of Faith to which Caliban can only (rather hopelessly) point.
In the end, Auden fails to achieve the impossible but gives us something perhaps better: the theater of our lives, insufficient for his ambitions as a Christian existentialist but for a mere reader like myself a glorious amalgamation of sea and mirror. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden said – except to make people, when they’re reading a work like “Caliban to the Audience,” smarter, more aware, and, not least, happier. Almost any paragraph will suffice as an example of self-delighting artifice married to the profoundest understanding of human fallibility:
Beating about for some large loose image to define the original drama which aroused his imitative passion, the first performance in which the players were their own audience, the worldly stage on which their behaving flesh was really sore and sorry – for the floods of tears were not caused by onions, the deformities and wounds did not come off after a good wash, the self-stabbed heroine could not pick herself up again to make a gracious bow nor her seducer go demurely home to his plain and middle-aged spouse – the fancy immediately flushed is of the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed. . . .
Now it is over. No, we have not dreamt it. Here we really stand, down stage with red faces and no applause; no effect, however simple, no piece of business, however unimportant, came off; there was not a single aspect of our whole production, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronisingly, be said.
In his splendidly conversational elegy for Louis MacNeice, “The Cave of Making” (when has elegy ever been this much fun?), Auden called himself “a minor atlantic Goethe.” Was he joking? Though he seems to have been a genuinely modest man, there was nothing “minor” about W.H. Auden. He was “major” in the sense that really matters: not in writing (as he did) ambitious and complex works that will keep scholars busy for years, but in addressing all the fundamental problems of our beautiful, absurd, and disappointing lives with an intelligence, skill, and honesty given to very few. The frighteningly erudite poet and critic, the much-traveled, multilingual citizen of the world, the charismatic teacher, lecturer, and public figure (who could be, it must be admitted, a bit of a queen) was one of us.
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
W.H. Auden's Poems and Homosexuality Essay
W.H. Auden's Poems and Homosexuality
W. H. Auden published “This lunar beauty” in ; he published “Now through night’s caressing grip” in , and he published “Lay your sleeping head, my love” in (Auden 16; 41; 51). “[I]t has been argued that the first part of the twentieth century’s culture is dominated by attempts to keep homosexuality hidden, … [and a] number of homosexual writers in the period maintain public silence about their sex lives, and dramatize homosexual themes indirectly, if at all” (Caserio). While it’s unclear whether Auden’s abovementioned s poems dramatize homosexual themes, they do share obscure settings and references to wandering, clandestine lovers who seek healing, safety, and freedom. The…show more content…
Fortunately, the soul has escaped from daytime into a place that “[k]eeps other time[,]” and “like a dream[,]” this place allows the soul the safety and freedom of expressing its latent, subconscious desires. However, this new place has its flaws, too:
But this was never A ghost’s endeavour Nor finished this, Was ghost at ease; And till it pass Love shall not near The sweetness here Nor sorrow take His endless look. ()
The soul didn’t have the initial goal of only being able to express its love under the faint light of the moon, and when this faint light changes to the glaring light of the sun, the soul is sorrowful that its love can no longer be openly expressed. It finds temporary healing in this lunar beauty, but only “till it pass[es;]” after that, the soul once again has to be fickle and unwillingly keep a measured distance from its love. A similar sentiment is expressed in “Now through night’s caressing grip”:
Now the ragged vagrants creep Into crooked holes to sleep: … Awkward lovers lie in fields… May sleep’s healing power extend Through these hours to our friend. Unpursued by hostile force,… Calmly till the morning