W. H. Auden on Love, Marriage, and Conflict

W. H. Auden really had an unusual approach to life which is one of the reasons he was such a great poet. He felt that male and female were poles apart in their essence and that their union produces great passion, great intensity, and that at the root of it all lies violence. “Outside the civil garden of everyday love lurks the passion to destroy and be destroyed,” he noted in one poem. Of course, he was addressing the deep dimensions of the unconscious which most of us avoid with some version of an “Ozzie and Harriet” relationship. In the following poem he likens marriage to “particles pelting” each other in some inter-galactic conflagration:

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and sos,
Futility, and grime
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do
Or the atoms in our brain.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely, it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
Around a universe
In which a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel,
Since year after year it repels
An aging suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet, Euclidean space—
Exploded myths, but who
Would feel at home a-straddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for—
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really becomes a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
(“After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics”)


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