Auden: Poem on a painting

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

It was Auden’s birth anniversary yesterday. He was born  in York on Feb 21, 1907,  and he died in Vienna on Sept 29, 1973. I love many of his poems, and when I saw this picture of a painting which inspired one of his famous poems, I could not resist having it here. So here is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Breughel, with Auden’s poems, Musee des Beaux Arts.

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Auden’s September 1, 1939

If asked to name my favourite poem by WH Auden, I would probably say In Memory of WB Yeats though I like any number of his poems: The Unknown Citizen, Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love, O Tell Me the Truth about Love, Funeral Blues, Refugee Blues, Night Mail

See, the list doesn’t include one of his most famous poems, September 1, 1939, marking the day when Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II, when he was in America.

To be honest, I never particularly liked the opening lines, which are the ones most often quoted. But, while reading an article on him in the Guardian, I looked up the poem again and was moved by the way it rose from despair to anger to the ringing affirmation of faith in humanity in the last lines. 

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TS Eliot Britain’s favourite poet

TS Eliot is Britain’s favourite poet, according to a BBC online poll. More good news: John Donne came in second and Yeats and Dylan Thomas also ended up in the top 10. I am surprised Auden didn’t make the list. How couldn’t he?

More than 18,000 votes were cast and the top 10 favourite poets are:

  1. TS Eliot
  2. John Donne
  3. Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. Wilfred Owen
  5. Philip Larkin
  6. William Blake
  7. WB Yeats
  8. John Betjeman
  9. John Keats
  10. Dylan Thomas

Other contenders included Simon Armitage, WH Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Roger McGough, John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.I have never read Zephaniah.

Here one can hear TS Eliot reading from The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The Poetry Archive site also has readings by Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin and Betjeman.

It’s revealing that Keats was the only Romantic to make the list and none of the Victorians did. The fact that Blake is also on the list suggests people today still like the kind of poetry that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Personally, I would have included Auden, Wordsworth and Kipling in place of Zephaniah, Owen and Blake.

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World War II , Vera Lynn and Auden

This was the day Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia 70 years ago, marking the start of the Second World War. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, on September 3.

Those wartime memories have now made Vera Lynn the oldest artiste to hit the charts. At the age of 92, she is back on the British album charts with a collection of her wartime songs, We’ll Meet Again, entering at No 20. We’ll Meet Again is a lovely song.

But just as sweet is the German wartime song, Lili Marlene. Here Vera Lynn sings it in English.

The poet WH Auden marked the day with this poem.

September 1, 1939

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Auden on moon landing

I just came across this poem by Auden and liked it so much I wanted to share it here. Many of his poems are popular favourites and found in anthologies. For example, In Memory of WB Yeats, September 1939, Refugee Blues, The Unknown Citizen, If I Could Tell You, Look Stranger, and Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love. But I am reading this poem for the first time.

Moon Landing
By WH Auden

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valour covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

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Auden on Auden

He wanted to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Then just a month after his 15th birthday, he was walking home from school with a  friend one day in March 1922 when the friend asked him if he wrote poetry. “No,” he said. “Why don’t you?” asked the friend. And that was when he decided to be a poet.

Auden recalled this in an interview with Paris Review, which appeared in its Spring 1974 issue, several months after his death at the age of 66 in September 1973. Now the interview can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Paris Review website and it’s fascinating reading.

Asked to name his “least favourite Auden poem”, he mentioned September 1, 1939. He did not explain why, but that’s mentioned in Wikipedia.

Artists and writers have no political influence, according to him. The history of Europe would have been the same had there been no Dante, no Shakespeare. A poet’s duty is to “set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted”.

Yet he says: “Poetry is not self-expression. Each of us has a unique perspective which we hope to communicate.”

The world would be safer under women leaders, he says.

“I think foreign policy should be taken out of men’s hands,” he says. “Women have far better sense…With our leaders it is all too often a case of one little boy saying to another, ‘My father can lick your father.'”

He could be talking of Hillary and Obama when he says:

“The difficulty for a man is to avoid being an aesthete — to avoid saying things not because they are true, but because they are poetically effective. The difficulty for a woman is in getting sufficient distance from the emotions. No woman is an aesthete. No woman ever wrote nonsense. Men are playboys, women realists. If you tell a funny story, only a woman will ask, ‘Did it really happen?’ I think if men knew what women said to each other about them, the human race would die out.”

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Remembering WH Auden

This month marks Auden’s birth centenary, reminds the Guardian. He was born on Feb 21, 1907. He was the people’s poet, says the article in the Guardian. The writer, Theo Hobson, says: “Auden’s rise to fame in the 1930s is hard to believe now: it is impossible to imagine a young poet achieving comparable status today.” 

Poets no longer enjoy the kind of fame that Auden, Eliot or Yeats had. Perhaps the last poet to receive such attention was Alan Ginsberg. He may not be in the same league, but each of them was the voice of his generation. And their words resonated with those that followed. Yeats, Eliot and Auden were widely read and quoted during my schooldays in Calcutta (Kolkata), when Ginsberg was shocking people with poems like Howl. That also happened to be the time when the Beatles and Bob Dylan were making waves. And the singers eventually became more popular than the poets.

Hobson writes in the Guardian:

“Auden’s centenary highlights the poverty of contemporary literary culture. More particularly, it highlights the decline of poetry as a vital public medium. In a sense he was the last Romantic, for no poet since has echoed the sheer ambition of that tradition. It is not enough for the poet to be accomplished in a fiddly verbal skill that is admired by a tiny subculture; he should strive to help an entire culture to think. He should be a special sort of public intellectual, a pioneer of sensibility.”

“Auden’s genius, or part of it, was to develop a highly intellectual poetry that was also friendly, accessible, public,” he adds.

He is right. Auden is not a difficult poet. One doesn’t need a guidebook to understand what he is writing about. And his poems are full of social commentary. He remains relevant to this day. What poem could be more contemporary than The Unknown Citizen?

And it’s still possible to hear his voice. He can be heard reading his poems on the BBC, Salon and

And now, here is The Unknown Citizen:

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.