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W.H. Auden Clearly States the Problem

There is a special place in my heart for the poet W.H. Auden (See my previous post on The More Loving One here) because for my dollar he deals, as poets go, most directly with the conundrum of the human spirit in the age of technology. And we can hardly say to have faced up to this problem in our own time. There are articles published all the time which nobody reads about the disturbing correlations between the use of social media with depression and anxiety, especially among young people, and it’s no wonder why. But things are not poised to get any better any time soon. Quite the opposite. And as time goes on we continue to come up with canned excuses for keeping certain types of technology in our lives which only act as a weight around our neck. We must obviously bow to the god of convenience.

One of my favorite meditations on this subject is Auden’s preface to The Sea and the Mirror, a poetical commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it Auden questions whether or not science and art are sufficient to fill our desperate need for meaning. O what authority gives existence its surprise? / Science is happy to answer / That ghosts who haunt our lives / Are handy with string and wire. But this is hardly satisfying. Our wonder, our terror remains. If we turn to art then for an answer still we will meet The lion’s mouth whose hunger / No metaphors can fill.

I am sometimes put off by poetry because to me there is nothing worse than trying too hard. And there is a lot of poetry that tries very hard to be poetry and that comes across in reading. But Auden is one of the exceptions. His style is effortless. I don’t think there is one line where he takes liberty with my trust as a reader. There are no easy answers. And I find a good dose of old-fashioned congenial Britishness is never a bad companion on one’s quest for meaning anyway. Enjoy:

The aged catch their breath,

For the nonchalant couple go

Waltzing across the tightrope

As if there were no death

Or hope of falling down;

The wounded cry as the clown

Doubles his meaning, and O

How the dear little children laugh

When the drums roll and the lovely

Lady is sawn in half.

 

O what authority gives

Existence its surprise?

Science is happy to answer

That the ghosts who haunt our lives

Are handy with mirrors and wire,

That song and sugar and fire

Courage and come-hither eyes

Have a genius for taking pains.

But how does one think up a habit?

Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye

To the Flesh and the Devil who heat

The Chamber of Temptation

Where heroes roar and die.

We are wet with sympathy now;

Thanks for the evening; but how

Shall we satisfy when we meet,

Between Shall-I and I-Will,

The lion’s mouth whose hunger

No metaphors can fill?

 

Well, who in his own backyard

Has not opened his heart to the smiling

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard

Was sober when he wrote

That this world of fact we love

Is unsubstantial stuff;

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.

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