pieces i love: death’s echo, or poem 32.
the book of auden poetry that i have is actually a book of originals – earlier versions of poems that were later revised and changed around a little bit. i started reading auden in the second year of my undergrad degree, because i was taking a modern british literature class with the fabulous professor lobb (who really shaped so much of my literary tastes) and he only had three poets on the syllabus: yeats, eliot, and auden.
it’s funny, because these three poets remain in my bookcase to this day – their books have survived the many iterations of my bookcase (as i move from place to place, my bookcase gets leaner – or fatter – and certain books tap out, while others get their chance to shine).
and maybe i’m a poetry curmudgeon. i don’t think i read enough modern poetry. i tend to find poets that strike me, hard, and then stick with them – eliot (my benchmark for far too many things, i think), auden, yeats, purdy, milton. and for some reason, so many of these poets are the older poets. i mean, there are modern day poets that make me shiver, but something about the older poets is so… lovely to me. maybe it’s that they are eliciting the same excited reaction from me as happens when i read modern poetry, but it is more impressive with the older poets because they had such a stiffer vocabulary. who knows?
but there is one auden poem that both my friend carly and i exploded over the first time we read it in class, and it still sticks to this day. it’s funny how poetry (how writing in general) is cyclical – you love a poem, and then you forget about it, and then somebody reminds you of it in another way, maybe years later. it’s mind-blowing how pieces of writing come back into your life. it’s long, but you can deal.
“O who can ever gaze his fill,”
Farmer and fisherman say,
“On native shore and local hill,
Grudge aching limb or callus on the hand?
Fathers, grandfathers stood upon this land,
And here the pilgrims from our loins shall stand.”
So farmer and fisherman say
In their fortunate heyday:
But Death’s soft answer drifts across
Empty catch or harvest loss
Or an unlucky May:
The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it
Not to be born is the best for man
The end of toil is a bailiff’s order
Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.
“O life’s too short for friends who share,”
Travellers think in their hearts,
“The city’s common bed, the air,
The mountain bivouac and the bathing beach,
Where incidents draw every day from each
Memorable gesture and witty speech.”
So travellers think in their hearts,
Till malice or circumstance parts
Them from their constant humour:
And slyly Death’s coercive rumour
In the silence starts:
A friend is the old tale of Narcissus
Not to be born is the best for man
An active partner in something disgraceful
Change your partner, dance while you can.
“O stretch your hands across the sea,”
The impassioned lover cries,
“Stretch them towards your harm and me.
Our grass is green, and sensual our brief bed,
The stream sings at its foot, and at its head
The mild and vegetarian beasts are fed.”
So the impassioned lover cries
Till his storm of pleasure dies:
From the bedpost and the rocks
Death’s enticing echo mocks,
And his voice replies:
The greater the lock, the more false to its object
Not to born is the best for man
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle
Break the embraces, dance while you can.
“I see the guilty world forgiven,”
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven;
The laurel springing from the martyr’s blood;
The children skipping where the weepers stood;
The lovers natural, and the beasts all good.”
So dreamer and drunkard sing
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with death’s reply
From whelping fear and nesting lie,
Woods and their echoes rings:
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews
Not to be born is the best for man.
The second best is a formal order
The dance’s pattern, dance while you can.
Dance, dance, for the figure is easy
The tune is catching and will not stop
Dance till the stars come down with the rafters
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.
— W.H. Auden
phew, that was a mouthful. now i’m going to break it down.
as with any poem, i veer in and out of this one. that is to say – there are some parts that i love much more than others. the third stanza is my absolute favourite. that might have been because when we were discussing it in class, my staid tweed-wearing professor took the line “after the kiss comes the impulse to throttle” and translated it for the literature philistines as “after you fuck you want to kill someone.” hear hear. the thing i like most about is writing is the reality, which sounds odd for a poem – poems are often supposed to be a break from reality – but auden doesn’t coddle us with sugary claims about love. love is brutal and imbued with the sense of mortality and realism. love still has the urge to throttle and kill even in the midst of pleasure and climax. love is described as that thin knife edge between anger and happiness, which is so refreshing, so sexy, so odd. the impassioned lover is almost comical, overblown in his or her stretched cry across the sea, and the voice that truly rings true and strong is the voice of our Death character. what is being said through that? why is the Death character the only voice that i am so strongly drawn to? because Death is sly, is soft, is coercive, is parroty, is whelping – Death has the most interesting language dedicated to him. he gets the juiciest cadence. he gets the italics, the rollicking meter.
i wonder things about this poem too. like – why isn’t “death” capitalized in the fourth stanza where everywhere else it is capitalized? why does auden eschew punctuation for the last, italicized lines of each stanza? (well, i can guess at that. he wants a sort of frenzy to be conveyed in his words, and both italicizing and removing punctuation can help with that mania.) why are there such odd indents? (formatting this was very annoying.) auden wants our eyes to be drawn to specific things. he wants to keep us interesting and engaged and he doesn’t want us to miss a word, and so he tries to dazzle us with those gimmicks – formatting and spacing. and i suppose it works.
truly and honestly, though, i love most the idea of the “dance”. humans don’t dance enough. we don’t connect with our bodies enough. we are stiff and we feel like people are judging us, and we have an odd sense of propriety and uprightness. the idea of the frenzied dance – almost bacchanalian, here, framed in Death’s seductive words – appeals to the basest and most exciting parts of us. we have not evolved past bodily movement, past understanding our bodies and how they work and move, no matter how hard we have tried to – and that, i think, is what this poem most speaks to. that is its direst appeal.