Wystan Hugh Auden, 21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973

February 21, 2007 at 3:28 pm (Uncategorized)

He was a rather sad, lonely man and his formal politics – even at their best – were pretty crap (he supported the Stalinist “popular front” movement in the thirties, then became a pacifist and anti-Marxist).

But his heart was in the right place: he was personally kind and generous, and he did his best in the Spanish civil war, despite being (by his own admission), a pretty useless soldier. Above all, he was a humanist.

Here’s one of his best:

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how well it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the foresaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

…And here are some excerpts (lines 45-46, 89-93) from Spain 1937, about the civil war: he later tried to have this expunged from the record of his work:

And the life, if it answers at all, replies from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city:
“O no, I am not the Mover,
not today, not to you. To you I’m the

“Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped:
I am whatever you do; I am your vow to be
Good, your humourous story;
I am your business voice; I am your marriage.

“What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will,
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.”

The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

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