Since I’m closing in on a review of 1934’s Pulitzer winner, this is my second and probably last shot at the poetry of that year. So of course I’m picking one of my favorites: Wystan Hugh Auden, the transplanted Englishman, whose 1934 revision of his 1930 publication, Poems, was quite a success. I’ll be honest: I think his early work is really uneven—not quite adventurous enough to be a sort of word symphony (like Dylan Thomas or Gertrude Stein), but not narrative enough to really connect images powerfully in a more prosaic and logical fashion (like Robert Frost or Langston Hughes). The best Auden, in my opinion, is his work in the late 1930s, and then again (here and there) later in life as he returned now and then to a more prosaic style. But I think it’s always good to tangle with the work of a talented poet, even when it’s not necessarily my cup of tea: for today, I’m diving into the long first stanza of a poem he labels simply as “III” (the Roman numeral 3):
Since you are going to begin to-day
Let us consider what it is you do.
You are the one whose part it is to lean,
For whom it is not good to be alone.
Laugh warmly turning shyly in the hall
Or climb with bare knees the volcanic hill,
Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain
Relax in your darling’s arms like a stone
Remembering everything you can confess,
Making the most of firelight, of hours of fuss;
But joy is mine not yours—to have come so far,
Whose cleverest invention was lately fur;
Lizards my best once who took years to breed,
Could not control the temperature of blood.
To reach that shape for your face to assume,
Pleasure to many and despair to some,
I shifted ranges, lived epochs handicapped
By climate, wars, or what the young men kept,
Modified theories on the types of dross,
Altered desire and history of dress.
Perhaps the most interesting and challenging question for me is, who is the speaker in this poem? Seemingly not Auden, given the ranges shifted and epochs lived (unless we are to read them more symbolically than I am?). Is this the Earth personified—Gaia, presumably, or some equivalent? Is this God? To whom does joy belong, if not to us (whoever we are that the poem addresses)?
Auden likes playing us in this poem—even the very opening is enigmatic. What are “we” beginning today? This poem, taken literally, I suppose. Or a new stage in life. The speaker can hardly be addressing a newborn, can they? On some level it seems the poem is addressed to all humanity—we are the ones for whom, according to Genesis, it is not good to be alone (strictly speaking, this was said only of Adam, but I think we can at least extrapolate to all human males….to all humans, male and female?). The comparison of us, the naked apes who cleverly fashioned garments of fur to survive the cold, with those foolish impractical dinosaurs who ruled the earth (but not their own body temperature) is curious and intriguing to me. Just what is Auden driving at?
I’d suggest this is a sort of attempt to capture what it means to be human in a non-narrative series of images. Our loneliness and our canny innovations certainly start a picture that makes sense. Add to that our emotions (shyness, happiness, guilt), our obsession with light and fire, our willingness to kill and be killed in war.
But I ask again—who is this who is calling to us? In part our guide, speaking to us calmly like a teacher on the first day of French class (“since you are going to begin to-day” let’s get some things straight), in part our servant (living for ages constrained by the “handicaps” we impose on him or her)? Who is it standing apart from us, holding the joy we seek and do not find?
I’ve toyed with both Gaia and God, and find both answers unsatisfying in the poem’s context—they just don’t work often enough, unless we really alter our conceptions of what either character does and is capable of. The best answer I can compose is that this is a dialogue between two sides of human nature, though I can neither categorize nor define what those two sides are. The later stanzas of the poem (the ones I didn’t transcribe—I thought this chunk was enough to chew on) open up more avenues, but not in such a way as to helpfully outline the identity of the speaker. Auden is being intentionally cagy with us, stepping into the shadows each time just as our head turns, drawing us into the poem by refusing to let truth peep out any of the windows unveiled.
This is why I think he’s a talent—even in this poem, which doesn’t speak to me as clearly as “Stop all the clocks” or his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats. The longer I spend with this poem, the more I can see the architecture—it’s like stepping into a dark room and waiting for your eyes to adjust. At first there is nothing….just a blob here and there, and then you slowly start to arrange the room in your mind. Creatures and structures appear to be present, only to fade or reorganize themselves as you see more and more clearly, and can distinguish shapes and shadows. You never get a glimpse of the room as it is in the light, and may not even see enough to navigate it without constantly bumping your knee. But there’s this sense of growth, of feeling yourself stretch as the room opens up a little to your eyes, and it’s a really great feeling.
If any of you are patient with Auden this weekend, and sit in this stanza long enough to see anything, I hope you’ll share your thoughts. There are a lot of little images that really appeal to me, but I’m still working on how they fit together. Regardless, I wish you an excellent weekend, and hope to have a review before too many more days pass.