Selected Poems

by W. H. Auden and Edward Mendelson

Selected Poems

Paperback, 344 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $16 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Selected Poems
Author
W. H. Auden and Edward Mendelson

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

Restores the original versions of poems that Auden had revised and includes such works as "Will You Turn a Deaf Ear," "This Lunar Beauty," "Noon," and "First Things First."

Read an excerpt of this book

Genres:

NPR stories about Selected Poems

Poet W.H. Auden, shown in 1960, was born 100 years ago today. Erich Auerbach/Stringer/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Erich Auerbach/Stringer/Getty Images

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Selected Poems

Selected Poems

1

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,

On the wet road between the chafing grass

Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,

Snatches of tramline running to the wood,

An industry already comatose,

Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine

At Cashwell raises water; for ten years

It lay in flooded workings until this,

Its latter office, grudgingly performed,

And further here and there, though many dead

Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen

Taken from recent winters; two there were

Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching

The winch the gale would tear them from; one died

During a storm, the fells impassable,

Not at his village, but in wooden shape

Through long abandoned levels nosed his way

And in his final valley went to ground.

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,

Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:

This land, cut off, will not communicate,

Be no accessory content to one

Aimless for faces rather there than here.

Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,

They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind

Arriving driven from the ignorant sea

To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm

Where sap unbaffled rises, being Spring;

But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,

Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.

August 1927

2

From the very first coming down

Into a new valley with a frown

Because of the sun and a lost way,

You certainly remain: to-day

I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard

Travel across a sudden bird,

Cry out against the storm, and found

The year's arc a completed round

And love's worn circuit re-begun,

Endless with no dissenting turn.

Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen

The swallow on the tile, Spring's green

Preliminary shiver, passed

A solitary truck, the last

Of shunting in the Autumn. But now

To interrupt the homely brow,

Thought warmed to evening through and through

Your letter comes, speaking as you,

Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,

If love not seldom has received

An unjust answer, was deceived.

I, decent with the seasons, move

Different or with a different love,

Nor question overmuch the nod,

The stone smile of this country god

That never was more reticent,

Always afraid to say more than it meant.

December 1927

3

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key

To this new district, but who would get it?

He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap

For a bogus guide, seduced with the old tricks.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam

And easy power, had they pushed the rail

Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires.

The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

The street music seemed gracious now to one

For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water

Running away in the dark, he often had

Reproached the night for a companion

Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,

Parting easily who were never joined.

January 1928

4

Taller to-day, we remember similar evenings,

Walking together in the windless orchard

Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Again in the room with the sofa hiding the grate,

Look down to the river when the rain is over,

See him turn to the window, hearing our last

Of Captain Ferguson.

It is seen how excellent hands have turned to commonness.

One staring too long, went blind in a tower,

One sold all his manors to fight, broke through, and faltered.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl

Under the headlands in their windy dwelling

Because the Adversary put too easy questions

On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,

We see the farms lighted all along the valley;

Down at the mill-shed the hammering stops

And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring

Freedom for some, but not this peace

No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now

For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

March 1928

5

Watch any day his nonchalant pauses, see

His dextrous handling of a wrap as he

Steps after into cars, the beggar's envy.

"There is a free one," many say, but err.

He is not that returning conqueror,

Nor ever the poles' circumnavigator.

But poised between shocking falls on razor-edge

Has taught himself this balancing subterfuge

Of the accosting profile, the erect carriage.

The song, the varied action of the blood

Would drown the warning from the iron wood

Would cancel the inertia of the buried:

Travelling by daylight on from house to house

The longest way to the intrinsic peace,

With love's fidelity and with love's weakness.

March 1929

6

Will you turn a deaf ear

To what they said on the shore,

Interrogate their poises

In their rich houses;

Of stork-legged heaven-reachers

Of the compulsory touchers

The sensitive amusers

And masked amazers?

Yet wear no ruffian badge

Nor lie behind the hedge

Waiting with bombs of conspiracy

In arm-pit secrecy;

Carry no talisman

For germ or the abrupt pain

Needing no concrete shelter

Nor porcelain filter.

Will you wheel death anywhere

In his invalid chair,

With no affectionate instant

But his attendant?

For to be held for friend

By an undeveloped mind

To be joke for children is

Death's happiness:

Whose anecdotes betray

His favourite colour as blue

Colour of distant bells

And boys' overalls.

His tales of the bad lands

Disturb the sewing hands;

Hard to be superior

On parting nausea;

To accept the cushions from

Women against martyrdom,

Yet applauding the circuits

Of racing cyclists.

Never to make signs

Fear neither maelstrom nor zones

Salute with soldiers' wives

When the flag waves;

Remembering there is

No recognised gift for this;

No income, no bounty,

No promised country.

But to see brave sent home

Hermetically sealed with shame

And cold's victorious wrestle

With molten metal.

A neutralising peace

And an average disgrace

Are honour to discover

For later other.

September 1929

7

Sir, no man's enemy, forgiving all

But will his negative inversion, be prodigal:

Send to us power and light, a sovereign touch

Curing the intolerable neural itch,

The exhaustion of weaning, the liar's quinsy,

And the distortions of ingrown virginity.

Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response

And gradually correct the coward's stance;

Cover in time with beams those in retreat

That, spotted, they turn though the reverse were great;

Publish each healer that in city lives

Or country houses at the end of drives;

Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at

New styles of architecture, a change of heart.

October 1929

8

I

It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens

Hearing the frogs exhaling from the pond,

Watching traffic of magnificent cloud

Moving without anxiety on open sky—

Season when lovers and writers find

An altering speech for altering things,

An emphasis on new names, on the arm

A fresh hand with fresh power.

But thinking so I came at once

Where solitary man sat weeping on a bench,

Hanging his head down, with his mouth distorted

Helpless and ugly as an embryo chicken.

So I remember all of those whose death

Is necessary condition of the season's setting forth,

Who sorry in this time look only back

To Christmas intimacy, a winter dialogue

Fading in silence, leaving them in tears.

And recent particulars come to mind:

The death by cancer of a once hated master,

A friend's analysis of his own failure,

Listened to at intervals throughout the winter

At different hours and in different rooms.

But always with success of others for comparison,

The happiness, for instance, of my friend Kurt Groote,

Absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer

From the sea, the truly strong man.

A 'bus ran home then, on the public ground

Lay fallen bicycles like huddled corpses:

No chattering valves of laughter emphasised

Nor the swept gown ends of a gesture stirred

The sessile hush; until a sudden shower

Fell willing into grass and closed the day,

Making choice seem a necessary error.

April 1929

II

Coming out of me living is always thinking,

Thinking changing and changing living,

Am feeling as it was seeing—

In city leaning on harbour parapet

To watch a colony of duck below

Sit, preen, and doze on buttresses

Or upright paddle on flickering stream,

Casually fishing at a passing straw.

Those find sun's luxury enough,

Shadow know not of homesick foreigner

Nor restlessness of intercepted growth.

All this time was anxiety at night,

Shooting and barricade in street.

Walking home late I listened to a friend

Talking excitedly of final war

Of proletariat against police—

That one shot girl of nineteen through the knees,

They threw that one down concrete stair—

Till I was angry, said I was pleased.

Time passes in Hessen, in Gutensberg,

With hill-top and evening holds me up,

Tiny observer of enormous world.

Smoke rises from factory in field,

Memory of fire: On all sides heard

Vanishing music of isolated larks:

From village square voices in hymn,

Men's voices, an old use.

And I above standing, saying in thinking:

"Is first baby, warm in mother,

Before born and is still mother,

Time passes and now is other,

Is knowledge in him now of other,

Cries in cold air, himself no friend.

In grown man also, may see in face

In his day-thinking and in his night-thinking

Is wareness and is fear of other,

Alone in flesh, himself no friend.

"He say 'We must forgive and forget,'

Forgetting saying but is unforgiving

And unforgiving is in his living;

Body reminds in him to loving,

Reminds but takes no further part,

Perfunctorily affectionate in hired room

But takes no part and is unloving

But loving death. May see in dead,

In face of dead that loving wish,

As one returns from Africa to wife

And his ancestral property in Wales."

Yet sometimes man look and say good

At strict beauty of locomotive,

Completeness of gesture or unclouded eye;

In me so absolute unity of evening

And field and distance was in me for peace,

Was over me in feeling without forgetting

Those ducks' indifference, that friend's hysteria,

Without wishing and with forgiving,

To love my life, not as other,

Not as bird's life, not as child's,

"Cannot," I said, "being no child now nor a bird."

May 1929

III

Order to stewards and the study of time,

Correct in books, was earlier than this

But joined this by the wires I watched from train,

Slackening of wire and posts' sharp reprimand,

In month of August to a cottage coming.

Being alone, the frightened soul

Returns to this life of sheep and hay

No longer his: he every hour

Moves further from this and must so move,

As child is weaned from his mother and leaves home

But taking the first steps falters, is vexed,

Happy only to find home, a place

Where no tax is levied for being there.

So, insecure, he loves and love

Is insecure, gives less than he expects.

He knows not if it be seed in time to display

Luxuriantly in a wonderful fructification

Or whether it be but a degenerate remnant

Of something immense in the past but now

Surviving only as the infectiousness of disease

Or in the malicious caricature of drunkenness;

Its end glossed over by the careless but known long

To finer perception of the mad and ill.

Moving along the track which is himself,

He loves what he hopes will last, which gone,

Begins the difficult work of mourning,

And as foreign settlers to strange country come,

By mispronunciation of native words

And by intermarriage create a new race

And a new language, so may the soul

Be weaned at last to independent delight.

Startled by the violent laugh of a jay

I went from wood, from crunch underfoot,

Air between stems as under water;

As I shall leave the summer, see autumn come

Focusing stars more sharply in the sky,

See frozen buzzard flipped down the weir

And carried out to sea, leave autumn,

See winter, winter for earth and us,

A forethought of death that we may find ourselves at death

Not helplessly strange to the new conditions.

August 1929

IV

It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are being brought in from the garden,

The summer talk stopped on that savage coast

Before the storms, after the guests and birds:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,

Less certain of cure; and the loud madman

Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

The falling leaves know it, the children,

At play on the fuming alkali-tip

Or by the flooded football ground, know it—

This is the dragon's day, the devourer's:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time

With underground proliferation of mould,

With constant whisper and the casual question,

To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,

To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,

To censor the play of the mind, to enforce

Conformity with the orthodox bone,

With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,

Or wait for as one certain of good,

We know it, we know that love

Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,

More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,

The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

The self-confidence of the falling root,

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.

Death of the old gang; would leave them

In sullen valley where is made no friend,

The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

Stiff underground; deep in clear lake

The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

October 1929

9

Since you are going to begin to-day

Let us consider what it is you do.

You are the one whose part it is to lean,

For whom it is not good to be alone.

Laugh warmly turning shyly in the hall

Or climb with bare knees the volcanic hill,

Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain

Relax in your darling's arms like a stone

Remembering everything you can confess,

Making the most of firelight, of hours of fuss;

But joy is mine not yours—to have come so far,

Whose cleverest invention was lately fur;

Lizards my best once who took years to breed,

Could not control the temperature of blood.

To reach that shape for your face to assume,

Pleasure to many and despair to some,

I shifted ranges, lived epochs handicapped

By climate, wars, or what the young men kept,

Modified theories on the types of dross,

Altered desire and history of dress.

You in the town now call the exile fool

That writes home once a year as last leaves fall,

Think—Romans had a language in their day

And ordered roads with it, but it had to die:

Your culture can but leave—forgot as sure

As place-name origins in favourite shire—

Jottings for stories, some often-mentioned Jack,

And references in letters to a private joke,

Equipment rusting in unweeded lanes,

Virtues still advertised on local lines;

And your conviction shall help none to fly,

Cause rather a perversion on next floor.

Reviews From The NPR Community

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.