Thursday, March 01, 2007


Wystan Hugh Auden
(21 February 1907, York – 29 September 1973, Vienna)

My favourite 20th-Century poet, and an early hero. I loved The Shield of Achilles from my first reading of it probably around 1973. Later, his homosexuality intrigued me, but I remember reading the biography by Humphrey Carpenter at university depressed me for weeks. It all seemed so tragically sad.

He was felt to have abandoned England when he left for America in 1939; and perhaps his quite admirable political engagement up to that point made his departure especially difficult to fathom for both friends and critics. But it seems it was anxieties around his gayness which inspired the move and kept him from explaining why.

It is pretty remarkable he spent the 1930s visiting some of the low dishonest decade’s most troublesome flash-points – Germany; Spain; China.

His politics seem appropriate once again in the age of globalization and renewed colonial wars. Especially now, which has a most distinct feel of clever hopes once again expiring.

I love his struggle to keep his abundant lyricism checked; his tendency to undercut rhetorical beauty with the commonalities of modern idiom or reference. Very much the organizing principal of The Shield of Achilles, in fact.

The Fall of Rome
[For Cyril Connolly]

The piers are pummeled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extoll the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-inflected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
January 1947

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