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Reflections on content

Auden, WH, Another Time, Faber & Faber, London, UK, 1940, 1996, 2007.

This is the book with some of Auden’s most famous poems: “Musee de Beaux-arts,” “the unknown citizen,” “Spain 1937,” and “September 1, 1939.” I had the privilege of hearing Auden in person very late in his life but had read only a few of his poems. Then, I read the biographical memoir of Auden by Alexander McCall Smith which inspired me to acquire this book and read it carefully. Auden moved to the US in 1939 and this is his first book published after his move. The poems are so tuned into the events of his time and similar to events of our time that I identified with them as though he wrote them yesterday.

I was especially taken by “Gare du Miti” which appears to me to be about fascism arriving with no particular welcome and no particular notice at the train station in Belgium by that name. The station entrance was a victory arch with a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory riding a chariot.

Gare du Midi

“A nondescript express in from the South,
Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling, Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.”

The image of an express train that is non-descript conveys the sense of a particular power, both mechanical and human, carrying much that is hidden within all the activity, yet carried by it. It isn’t welcomed, nor is it discouraged. It arrives with a warning if one looks, but no one is seeking. It is noticed only by a “stray” look. It is a cold day of arriving, perhaps a bit muffled and clouded and soon to be covered by snow. The city is unaware, yet, and its terrible future remains undescribed. Though the issue at that time was fascism in Europe, it could be about COVID or about the rise of modern authoritarian governments, especially Putin’s Russia which is attacking Ukraine as I write.

Then there is “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” a German Jewish playwright who had been forever changed by service in the German army during The Great War. Toller's books were burned in Germany in 1933, books written while he was in prison for treason after working to establish Bavaria as a Social Democratic free state. Toller was briefly President of Bavaria until Germany destroyed the effort and tried and convicted him for treason. After the book burning, he escaped gradually traveling through various countries, finally to the USA. In 1939, after his relatives were killed in a Nazi concentration camp, he committed suicide in New York. Auden, clearly an admirer, and one who comprehended Toller, makes some statements in this poem that make “Gare du Midi” seem all the more prescient. I was going to quote a couple of lines, but I think I just need the whole thing:

“In Memory of Ernst Toller (English)
(d. May 1939)

The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?
O for how long, like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.”

So sad, and so true. Auden had not experienced the trauma faced by Toller, but he had seen war in Spain, and he had seen the rise of fascism as had Toller. He did not have the experience of being Jewish in that intolerant Germany, but he still knew. How did he find these words that could be about so many other brave souls who saw and talked publicly and honestly about the ill doings of mankind and suffered for doing so? Just think of the many names that could be put in this poem.

The next to the last stanza expresses a sense of powerlessness that Toller must have felt deeply as he came closer and closer to taking his own life. Then the last stanza almost condemns us all accusing us of a pretend existence as though we blind ourselves to the upside-downness, the injustice that led Toller to such despair. Auden appears to be talking about the closed eyes and ears that led to the horrors of the Nazi war machine that had clearly begun something too horrible to name. He expressed anger as he was writing this about the situation that leads to such a sad ending for one so brave and insightful as Toller. The last stanza is a warning.

In his poem “In Memory of WB Yeats," he directly expresses a sense of futility over the warnings from poets:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

In the end, he has recovered some sense of purpose as he writes:

“Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

And yet, there is the struggle, as if the poet must free themself from a net or prison. One of the things poets do that matters is, to tell the truth. There is hope that can and should come from poets, but the struggle is difficult. And so it is.

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