Notebook & Circle: Auden, etc.

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.
– W.H. Auden, “Lullaby”

I don’t particularly love this poem, but this stanza, especially the first two lines tend to drift into my head now and then. They have a tenderness that is unique to Auden. “Time and fevers burn away/individual beauty from/Thoughtful children, and the grave/Proves the child ephemeral” makes me think of Becket’s “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” as does this quote from Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

I don’t really agree with this, but the language and imagery is stunning. The last three lines remind me of a few lines of a Russian bard song, called “зеленое небо,” (“Green Sky”). The chorus is, loosely translated,

Green sky, red clouds
For the fool had no more paints.

You’ll just have to trust me that it sounds poetic in Russian. Unlike the line from Macbeth this is life-affirming, but the imagery is… complimentary? A subject rhyme? Almost?

I feel like I should explain bard music. It was movement that took off in the 60s (I think) in Russia and was banned by the government which, of course, made it wildly popular amongst intellectuals. The concept is basically poetry put to music. It was a very grassroots movement, with people gathering in huge groups to play music. It was therefore very simple, usually just voice and guitar; the music is secondary to the poetry, and the singers do not necessary have great voices. The folk music movements of the 60s and 70s in the States were probably closest to it in spirit, but Leonard Cohen’s music is closest to the style. It’s a pretty cool movement, and some great music and poetry came out of it, but unfortunately its reliance on poetry means it’s completely inaccessible for a non-Russian-speaking audience.

Putting poetry to music is, of course, something Auden did quite often which, along with his enexhaustable and subtle sense of humour, is what gives his poems such a jazzy feel:

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss…
– W.H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening”

The poem goes on, and you can read the whole thing here. Unfortunately, most of Auden’s poetry is heavily copyrighted, and you can only find a few of his poems online. Along with the two I’ve posted here, I strongly recommend Musee des Beaux Arts, based on the paintings of Pieter Bruegel (the elder), especially his Fall of Icarus (above).

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3 comments
  1. Jay said:

    I liked reading this.

    • Julia said:

      I’m glad :). Auden is lovely.

  2. Austin Hoops said:

    Thanks for good info :)

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