Celebrating Auden's Timeless Message

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W.H. Auden i

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
W.H. Auden

Poet W.H. Auden, shown in 1960, was born 100 years ago today.

Erich Auerbach/Stringer/Getty Images

Behind 'Funeral Blues'

Edward Mendelson, W.H. Auden's literary executor, discusses the poem "Funeral Blues," which was used in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral and also was set to music by composer Benjamin Britten.

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Poet W.H. Auden was born in England 100 years ago today.

The man he chose to be his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, says Auden's goal was to have a conversation with his readers. He believed that the way to be universal was to be individual. Mendelson is the editor of a new collection of Auden's poems.

"Auden, I think, like any very great writer, is someone whom you don't have to translate into the present," says Mendelson. "You read him and he's addressing who you are at almost any age, or at any time, or in any period."

Two Auden poems have received particular attention in recent years: "Funeral Blues," when it appeared in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral and "September 1, 1939," written as World War II began, resonated with Americans after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mendelson shares his memories of the large, imposing poet with a gentle manner, and explains why one of Auden's best-known works was one he grew to despise.

This piece was produced by Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA.

September 1, 1939

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I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

Each language pours its vain

Competitive excuse:

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism's face

And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash

Important Persons shout

Is not so crude as our wish:

What mad Nijinsky wrote

About Diaghilev

Is true of the normal heart;

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

"I will be true to the wife,

I'll concentrate more on my work,"

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the deaf,

Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Copyright © 1939 by W.H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Funeral Blues

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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 for ever: 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.

Copyright© 1940 by W.H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

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