Tag Archives: W. H. Auden

John Masefield Sonnet on Mystery of Life

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

This witty and insightful little poem has amused me for nearly three decades, helping me to maintain caution given a tendency myself to overthink. But this “thoughtfulness,” combined with deep-rooted passion is what has produced poetry of the sort found here in a John Masefield sonnet, showing it can have value! (My commentary below is in italics.)

What am I, Life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin;
A world which uses me as I use them,
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

The “unresting cells” are seen to both drive mankind on, to use us even while simultaneously giving us agency to “use them.” Modern science was captivating this young poet. When only 13 years of age, his guardian aunt sent him to sea to break an “addiction” to reading. Thus her “cells” were using her to introduce him to a major dimension of his literary opus, the sea.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes north, this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

“Like a marvel in a marvel set” made me think of a line from W. H. Auden poetry in which he described life as “a process in a process, in a field that never closes.” Masefield did not see life as static as his ancestors certainly had. The “tingling” of his “I” made me think of what Kierkegaard described as the “giddiness of freedom” which others have described as simple existential anxiety. Human awareness, “not knowing how, yet wondering why” will introduce one to giddiness.
 

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Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Daimonic Energy, Creativity, & Families

Eugene O’Neill is one of my favorite playwrights. I just read a book review in the New York Review of Books in which his personal foibles were put on the table, letting us see once again that so many men and women of “the arts” are the “toy of some great pain” as Ranier Rilke put it.  O’Neill’s personal life was often tragic and the tragedy was passed on to his children, two of which committed suicide and another drank herself to death.  This review described him as narcissistic and often physically and emotionally abusive of his wives.  It is as if he was living out the script that his father had left him. (The book is, “By Women Possessed: a Life of Eugene O’Neill” by  Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb)

Life is painful.  Most of us hide it well, living out our lives in a pedestrian manner, finding solace in the amusements and distractions that our culture affords us.  We have boundaries that keep the pain beneath the surface, boundaries that I like to describe as the “fig leaves” that God gave us to hide us from our nakedness.  Creative people, those who frolic about in “the arts”, do not have boundaries that are solid and thus daimonic energy flows through them and from that primitive source of all good…and bad…the gods communicate with us.

T.S. Eliot was aware of this daimonic energy in families. In his play, “The Family Reunion” he painted the picture of one very conflicted,  even dysfunctional, upper-class family through whom one particular individual seemed destined to carry the load of these dark forces. And, from his own personal life, he clearly was speaking of himself.  In this selection from the play he describes the “sin bearer” of this family, the scape-goat in a sense, who he described as the families “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

What we have written is not a story of detection,

Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.

It is possible you have not known what sin

You shall expiate, or whose, or why.  It is certain

That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle

In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness

And so find expurgation.  It is possible

You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,

Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.

Indeed it is possible.  You may learn hereafter,

Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen

To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer

 

Someone noted, “Always remember when you encounter someone, he is carrying pain.”  The point is to be willing to allow some slack to this individual for you don’t know what is going on with him.  Auden put this eloquently when he noted that all of us, “Wage the war we are.”  Each of us have our ways of handling this duress and most of the times these adaptations are within the pale of social acceptability and everyone is happy.  But people like O’Neill, Eliot, and “the artists” in general, are more open to this pain, this “daimonic” energy, and that is why our culture usually grants them a little more slack.  They bring great beauty and wisdom to us, without which we’d be condemned to live only on the surface of life, missing the breath of fresh air that the gods offer us.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

the surface of life without these breaths of fresh air from the gods.

Three Poems About Marriage

The following poem beautifully and, kind of darkly, describes the duress that marriage presents to two people who have opted to engage in the process of becoming, “one flesh.”  I like to think, facetiously, that marriage was invented by the gods just to torment mankind, forcing two diametrically opposed forces to live together under the same roof.  Traditional life has controlled the tension of this union of opposites by implementing overt power, defining the term “marriage” as a relationship in which the female would be subservient to the male.  Technically this subservience went to the extent that it deprived women of a subjective experience, that their desire should only be to please their husband. But women usually managed to get their pound of flesh in the relationship which Alfred Hitchcock beautifully and darkly portrayed in his movie “Frenzy.”  In this movie a psychopathic killer was on a rampage of grisly murder of young women and the stiff and proper police inspector was obsessed with stopping the rampage.  After a hard day at the office and on the streets looking for the killer, the poor police inspector would retire to the comfort of his home where his would wife would have dinner waiting.  However, as she dutifully and daintily presented an ornate and formal dinner, he would grimace as she had prepared food that he didn’t like or was given to him in minuscule portions.  In one scene, when she stepped back into the kitchen he hurriedly poured his soup out.  But all the while as he was tortured through these scenes, she would be so delightful, loving, and gracious and he would respond in kind.

Here is a narrative poem by poet Anne Carson in the most recent edition of The New Yorker Magazine.  It is quite witty and pointed:

We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens. It is early summer, first hot weekend. We meet on the street, jumble about with kisses and are we late? They had been late, we’d half-decided to leave, now oh well. That place across the street, ever tried it? Think we went there once, looks closed, says open, well. People coming out. O.K. Inside is dark, cool, oaken. Turns out they know the owner. He beams, ushers, we sit. And realize at once two things, first, the noise is unbearable, two, neither of us knows the other well enough to say bag it. Our hearts crumble. We order food by pointing and break into two yell factions, one each side of the table. He and she both look exhausted, from (I suppose) doing art all day and then the new baby. We eat intently, as if eating were conversation. We keep passing the bread. My fish comes unboned, I weep pretending allergies. Finally someone pays the bill and we escape to the street. For some reason I was expecting snow outside. There is none. We decide not to go for ice cream and part, a little more broken. Saturday night as an adult, so this is it. We thought we’d be Nick and Nora, not their blurred friends in greatcoats. We cover our ears inside our souls. But you can’t stop it that way.  

And here Wendell Berry offers my favorite poem on marriage, vividly stresses and strains of two different forces of energy living in the constraint of committed relationship:

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

And here is W. H. Auden with a witty, facetious and playfully grim description of marriage.

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

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein 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
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing 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 Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
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 become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

We’re Just a Bunch of Drunken Cells!!!

A Drunkard – by Ko Un”

I’ve never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I’m a living collectivity.
I’m staggering zigzag along,
sixty trillion cells, all drunk.

This simple little poem so beautifully illustrates the principle of coherence that permeates life and might even be described as life itself.  Disparate phenomena somehow miraculously “cohere” and an identity is formed, or born.  Without taking pause and contemplating we will spend our lives thinking we are an “individual entity” when actually we are a small part of a broad fabric, so “broad” that actually it is infinite.  At this very moment you are witnessing the result of the drunken “sixty trillion cells” that I call myself, an entity or identity whose “drunkenness” is somehow contained enough that I am writing coherently.  I hope!!!!  Grasping and understanding the wisdom offered in this poem makes us aware of our profound finitude which is given meaning only when we contemplate that we are part of a larger whole.  But the ego does not want us to understand this, demanding that we remain submitted to its tyranny and bask in the comfort of assuming and therefore thinking that “my view of the world is the only valid one.” W. H. Auden captured this wisdom in his poem, “In Sickness and in Health,” an excerpt of which I offer here:

Rejoice. What talent for the makeshift thought
A living corpus out of odds and ends?
What pedagogic patience taught
Preoccupied and savage elements
To dance into a segregated charm?
Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,
And gardened from the wilderness of space
The sensual properties of one dear face? 

Rejoice, dear love, in Love's peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
O, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.  

That reason may not force us to commit
That sin of the high-minded, sublimation,
Which damns the soul by praising it,
Force our desire, O Essence of creation,
To seek Thee always in Thy substances,
Till the performance of those offices
Our bodies, Thine opaque enigmas, do,
Configure Thy transparent justice too. 

 

For complete poem, see this link:  https://thepoetrycollection.wordpress.com/w-h-auden-1907-1973-in-sickness-and-in-health/

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I have two other blogs.  Hope you check ’em out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/