Sunday, April 3, 2011

National Poetry Month - Day 3: W. H. Auden

Driving through Iowa, as I was this morning, coming home from Iowa City, I was reminded of this poem by Auden. The poem often comes to mind whenever I start thinking about time with a capital T, and how the very act of thinking about time in a philosophical way will almost always take me down a dark path. Thinking about thinking, in general, when I'm alone in the car, driving through Iowa, is never a good thing. But what else is there to do?


I remember reading this poem for the first time as an undergrad, and being shaken to the core. Probably one of the first times I "got" the essence of mortality, and what it means that everything ends. Thanks a lot, Auden.


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.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
   Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
   And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
   Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
   And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
   The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
   A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
   And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
   And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
   The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
   And the deep river ran on. 
W. H. Auden, Selected Poems: New Edition (Vintage, 1989)

1 comment:

  1. The "deep river" here reminded me that when I find myself driving across Iowa, metaphorically, I often recall the Celtic myth about a warrior waging battle against the rising tide. Perhaps to the Celts this meant that mortality couldn't be overcome, but you could certainly make your battle memorable.