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W. H. Auden: Tell me the truth about love!

Hello Folks!

Today is the birthday of the famous modern poet W.H. Auden. This piece is an introduction to his poetry.

Some say love’s a little boy, And some say it’s a bird, Some say it makes the world go around, Some say that’s absurd, And when I asked the man next door, Who looked as if he knew, His wife got very cross indeed, And said it wouldn’t do. Does it look like a pair of pyjamas, Or the ham in a temperance hotel? Does its odour remind one of llamas, Or has it a comforting smell? Is it prickly to touch as hedge is, Or soft as eiderdown fluff? Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges, O tell me the truth about love.

Wystan Hugh Auden, who was born on this day in 1907, was haunted by these questions for his entire life. In his journal, he scribbled about the objective classification of love and how each type of love manifests itself in the life of a person. Is it not unusual, and that too for a poet, to have a scientific approach to a theme that is the subject of most of the poems ever written in any language?

Poets are irrational beings with their own sense of reality, which, in most of the cases is different and sometimes in conflict with the world around them. When W.H. Auden was writing poetry, scientific thinking was gaining momentum. The world was waking up to rationalists like Bertrand Russell and the idea of clear, rational thinking was considered superior to romantic rumination. It was quite easy for poets to fall for romantic getaway from the real world and refute what was going around them (to bury themselves in the beauty of meadows for example). There were many who did, but W.H. Auden was not one of them.

He was never in conflict with the world around him. He embraced rational thinking and inculcated it in his poetry. His poems take you to the world of imagination but not without the reality check of what goes on around us for real. This poem is a perfect example of it:

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.

Nobody can escape the wrath of time, not even love. This, Auden tries to say by evoking a romantic image and revoking it by brandishing the sword of reality right on the face of a passionate lover. This is not to say that he was devoid of any sentimentality. He was rather a champion of evoking sentiments which a poem he wrote for his deceased friend suggests:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But is it necessary to be cut-off from reality to feel a sentiment in its entirety? Modernists poets like W.H. Auden proved that it’s not. They proved that it is quite the opposite of it. He was a keen observer of the idiosyncrasies of people he was associated with and probably that made him a versatile poet. He has written on various themes and to capture them in their originality, he experimented with verse forms. He neither fully conformed to nor fully repudiated conventional verse forms. On one hand he has written poems of only four lines and on the other hand he wrote a book-length poem called The Age of Anxiety which won him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Robert Bloom, a famous musician, summarized his writing as, “the omission of articles, demonstrative adjectives, subjects, conjunctions, relative pronouns, auxiliary verbs — form a language of extremity and urgency. Like telegraphese … it has time and patience only for the most important words.”

Most important words which, in turn, intone the most important issues plaguing the society. It was important to have a poet like W.H. Auden who could break the common perception of poetry and make it a medium of political and social discussion. Gunter Grass has said that literature should keep revising itself to make it relevant for the times it is written for and W.H. Auden is among the poets who practiced what Gunter Grass preached.


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