W.H. Auden’s Selected Poems

Auden's Selected PoemsBorn in the first decade of the 20th century, Wystan Hugh Auden is undoubtedly one of his generation’s greatest poets. More than that, he is very easy to love. Unlike Pound and Eliot, Stevens and Crane, Auden’s verse is approachable. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the formal difficulties those other writers present, but Auden, as I discovered when I finally ventured beyond his anthologized verse, can be difficult as well. No, I can’t help but think that the reason is at least partially political. The poems of Stevens, a lifelong conservative, and Crane, best described as politically indifferent, are strangely detached from the times, and the politics of Eliot and Pound are best ignored altogether. Looking back, only in Auden are politics and poetry harmoniously mixed, and only Auden, it seems to me, offers any overt political commentary still worthy of our attention.

In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” takes on new poignancies. It is not just incidental lines like “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night” or “[…] blind skyscrapers use / Their full height to proclaim / The strength of Collective Man” that strike me; it’s the sense of deja vu, the despair that, though the stakes might be higher and the players have changed, we are still playing at the same old game, futilely fighting “the error bred in the bone.” Or here is Auden’s “Epitaph On A Tyrant” to consider:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Substitute for “tyrant” whichever petty despot you like, they all seem to have in common that unmatched ability to exploit “human folly,” not to mention the tacit approval of “respectable senators.”

The poem I find most affecting, mired as I am in 20-something obsolescence, is “The Average,” which dramatizes what I think so many members of my generation, promised the world, are most terrified of: how spectacularly unexceptional we are, or suspect ourselves to be.

His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those smart professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.

The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.

So here he was without maps or supplies,
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes;

The silence roared displeasure: looking down,
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the Exceptional, and ran.

True, most of us today are more than one generation removed from the farm, and true as well that we rarely complain of a surfeit of love, but the social media generation is relentlessly confronted with the Exceptional and, alas, it is not in the nature of averages to allow us all to partake of the Exceptional.

Auden, on the whole, is not a gloomy poet, but his optimism does not come cheap. As a rule, you should mistrust any that does. In that spirit, here is his “Leap Before You Look,” yet another poem that seems urgently relevant in the age of social media:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep,
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

The “dream of safety” created by Facebook and its like is the illusion that we are not utterly alone, sustained on a “solitude ten thousand fathoms deep.” Paradoxically, Auden seems to assert, it’s awareness of that solitude that’s crucial to action. Human connection, meaningful connection, becomes possible only when safety disappears.