Poetry Friday: Atlantis

Many of my former students know my obsession with the heroes of Greek myth—and some few of you will remember also a favorite poem of mine that connects to one of those heroes, Odysseus.  It’s a poem by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, entitled “Ithaca”.  I made much of Ithaca as an idea once in some public remarks, inspired at least a little bit by Cavafy, who talks about the journey to Ithaca…what we find along the way, and how we come in the end to realize that Ithaca’s gift to the people who journey there is the journey itself.  It’s a lovely poem, and one I may post someday, but tonight I’m more interested in a parody/homage/re-envisioning of Cavafy’s poem—a poem by Wystan Hugh Auden, one of my very favorite poets, entitled “Atlantis”.  I’ll say more about why I picked it (and why I strung together those three non-equivalent nouns with slashes) once you’ve read it:

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty scholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong;
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
‘This is Atlantis, dearie,’
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
The terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Tundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and snow, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, dear friend, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri.
Protect and serve you always:
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, friend, upon you
The light of His countenance.

I know it’s long, but I’ve always wondered about this poem. When I first read it, I had read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” not long before, and the opening lines of “Atlantis” (and, honestly, multiple moments in later stanzas) are so obviously modeled on “Ithaca” that I immediately took it for a parody—a joke on Cavafy, mocking the idea of the journey to a nearly unreachable island, and the notion of being satisfied if the destination didn’t live up to expectations.

But as I return to “Atlantis”, year after year, I’m increasingly moved by it. I suspect that it’s not a parody at all, or else that Auden, who began in a parody, gradually found his own ground to stand on and his own ideas to explore. Some of you may know “Ithaca” and I’m hoping you can give your own impression. More importantly, most of you probably won’t have ever read Cavafy’s poem. You can hunt it down via Google, of course, but I’m curious—I’d expect that, if this poem is only a parody, it won’t have done much for you. All the “winks” in the poem will just feel like non sequiturs to you (I’d surmise). But, conversely, if there’s something real here in “Atlantis”, I’d expect you’d have an easier time finding it, being undistracted by any similarities the poem bears to some verse you haven’t read. I would love to get reactions to this poem from a few of you passers-by.

In the meantime, I don’t want to poison the well too much with my own opinions (which I hope to expand on in comments conversations with you), but I will say that I think “Ithaca” was a poem about what a person can find in the world, and that what makes “Atlantis” different is that Auden was interested in what a person can find inside themselves. “Atlantis”, then, becomes not the external goal that creates the journey, but the internal voice that calls us onto the road. But maybe I’m wrong, and in any case this is by no means the sum total of my thoughts. Enjoy your weekend, and read some more poetry if you can.

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8 comments on “Poetry Friday: Atlantis

  1. Diablevert says:

    Ah, good ol’ Wystan Hugh. To me it reads most easily as a wry allegory of the quest of the poet/artist — the poses that one is required to adopt to get your union card, the critics, the lovers and others who will distract you from your quest, and how you have to learn to be satisfied with only the knowledge that you’ve come as near to greatness as you can.

    Have you read The Sea and the Mirror? It has some of my favorite poems of his…

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Diablevert, great points about the poem — I hadn’t read it in quite that way before (I think I hadn’t tried to shape it as narrowly as the poet/artist’s quest), and I like how it affects a lot of the poem. I start to look at it, seeing where Auden is maybe taking a shot at certain poets (or poetic schools), or attitudes that were prevalent at the time. There are sections, especially towards the end, where I think Auden is grabbing at something more though — at least, maybe by accident he’s talking about things that go beyond art, in my opinion. But I need to sit and think about it a bit. 🙂

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Oh, and no, I don’t think I’ve read The Sea and the Mirror, so that’s going on my list!

  2. Wade says:

    Thanks! Auden is my favorite poet (or at least shares the pole position with Yeats), and “Atlantis” may be my favorite poem, but I’d never heard of “Ithaka.” I checked it out and see the obvious parallels in the POV and rhythms–I have not read it closely enough yet to see the parodic aspects of “Atlantis,” which, frankly, I have never parsed too closely despite knowing it by heart. I simply love the propulsiveness of it, the narrator’s urging onward of you, stanza by rocky stanza.

    If I’m feeling nitpicky I will admit to thinking the last verse loses some of that momentum. I love the “household gods” reference but think “have started crying” is a weak formulation (“are crying” sounds crisper, in my opinion, but maybe he thought he needed the two extra syllables), and by the time he gets to “the four dwarf Kabiri” I’m really scratching my head.

    I’ve read arguments that the poem is about his return to Christianity after moving away from his faith for a few years. I find that a bit reductive, though. “A spiritual journey” is a good enough description of it for me.

  3. […] in the poem, Atlantis, by W.H. Auden. Wanting to verify something, I came across the poem on this Following Pulitzer blog by — who else? — a librarian who decided to read the Pulitzer Prize winners in […]

  4. Just a guest says:

    I initially thought Atlantis was a metaphor for any personal struggle the reader had in mind: perhaps a positive one, like seeking true love or becoming a master of one’s trade, or perhaps another kind, such as surviving capture during war or battling a terminal illness.

    However, some lines made me certain Atlantis is all about the struggle of finding one’s love.

    “To pass for one of The Boys .. appearing to love horseplay, liquor and noise” may be an example of a prisoners’-dilemma-type situation where one must engage with some seemingly unnecessary rigmorole (horseplay and noise) in order to avoid a worse outcome (perhaps appearing isolated, meek and unattractive).

    The next stanza warns that many will try to “teach” you that the love you seek does not exist, but reminds that these folk are suffering “grief”, and hence they must be ignored.

    The stanza, “If, later, … finish your journey”, is a metaphor for finding oneself in unfavourable or unhelpful company or situations, with the instruction provided being to not give up, but to get back on your way as soon as you can (“unless .. forgetting completely”) yet to make the most of the situation whilst it is out of one’s control (strip off your clothes and dance).

    “Assuming you beach at last”: you’ve found your love.

    In the next stanza, “shining”, “poetic vision” and “salvation” allude perhaps to making love, with the latter being the incredible pleasure of the act.

    The final stanza could be a gentle (“my dear”) yet extremely significant (mention of gods weeping) congratulations for finding and consummating your love.

  5. […] choose to “stagger onward rejoicing,” as WH Auden wrote, because I know that God created mankind in His own image, that He gave us the power to choose how […]

  6. […] second quote comes from “Atlantis,” which deals with impossible […]

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