A low, dishonest decade
A selection of poems W H Auden wrote for the New Statesman during the Thirties
Chinese Soldier (1938)
Far from the heart of culture he was used:
Abandoned by his general and his lice,
Under a padded quilt he closed his eyes
And vanished. He will not be introduced
When this campaign is tidied into books:
No vital knowledge perished in his skull;
His jokes were stale; like wartime, he was dull;
His name is lost for ever like his looks.
Professors of Europe, hostess, citizen,
Respect this boy. Unknown to your reporters
He turned to dust in China that your daughters
Be fit to love the earth, and not again
Disgraced before the dogs; that where are waters,
Mountains and houses, may be also men.
Epitaph on a Tyrant (1939)
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And, when he cried, the little children died in the streets.
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 of 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
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.
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse's flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.
Whispering neighbours left and right
Pluck us from the real delight;
And the active hands must freeze
Lonely on the separate knees.
Dead in hundreds at our back
Follow wooden in our track,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.
Starving through the leafless wood,
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.
Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain's lovely head,
Whose white waterfalls could bless
Travellers in their last distress.