Monday, April 15, 2013

"Their Lonely Betters"

At this time of year small piles of sand begin to appear along the seams of the sidewalks.  The ants have awakened, and have begun their work.  Who knows what is going on beneath our feet?  Complicated undertakings, no doubt.  And all without a word.

Adrian Paul Allinson
"The AFS Dig for Victory in St James's Square" (1942)

                  Their Lonely Betters

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

W. H. Auden, Nones (1951).

The final line brings to mind the final stanza of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

The echo of Frost is presumably intentional.  Auden's "A Thanksgiving," written in the last year of his life, begins as follows:

     When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
     people seemed rather profane.

     Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
     Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

W. H. Auden, Thank You, Fog (1974) (italics in original).  "Thomas" refers to Edward Thomas.

Adrian Paul Allinson, "The Cornish April"

11 comments:

Edward Bauer said...

Thank you Mr. Pentz. Because of unrelenting crazy circumstances over the past few months (some pleasant, some not), I haven't commented in a while. But I wanted to write a word of gratitude for the moments of sanity I find whenever a new post appears on your blog. I appreciate re-reading the poems I know, but even more than that I relish being introduced to those I don't. Please keep up the great work. I'll try to add something substantive to the conversation in the future. Edward Bauer

Bob said...

> Who knows what is going on beneath our feet?

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
Between the ants upon this hummock's crown?

Bid Homer wait till I the issue learn,
If red or black the gods will favor most,
Or yonder Ajax will the phalanx turn,
Struggling to heave some rock against the host.

Edward Bauer said...

And why is it that my 1976 cloth edition of Auden's 'Collected' Poems leaves out another poem (A Thanksgiving)? I know that's the way he wanted it, both in terms of order and inclusion, but it can be frustrating.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

I'm back again Stephen, to say this poem thrilled me. (Kind of a Hollywood word but its true). And its another one that is new to me, but might just become an old friend in time, thanks to your posting of it.
j

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Bauer: thank you very much for the kind words, and for taking the time to comment. I always appreciate hearing from you.

I agree: the various editions and arrangements of Auden's poetry can be frustrating. Not to mention Auden's giving sometimes odd titles to poems that were originally untitled.

Thanks again. And I hope that you'll return when time permits.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the Thoreau, which I haven't seen before. Now I know what's going on down there! It brings back memories of watching such battles when I was a child.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: I'm pleased that you like the poem. I have had trouble warming to Auden over the years, but "Their Lonely Betters" is one poem of his that immediately captured me. And "thrill" is a perfect word, I think.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you for starting my day with a wonderful odyssey of the mind as I explore poets new to me, following links to other poets even unheard of!

It is good to hear that so many poets felt that they were so influenced by the poets I hold dear.

I shall have to add Auden to my list of poets to learn more about - both the Auden poems have added another dimension to my day. I will never look at a Robin in quite the same way anymore and I loved the clever link to the Frost poem which is one of my favourites.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: as I said in replying to Ms Whitmore, I've always had trouble warming to Auden's poetry, but this poem is one of the exceptions.

You may be aware of this: in 1925, Auden wrote a lovely poem to Thomas ("To E. T.") that was not published until 1991 in Anne Harvey's Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas ((Enitharmon Press). It appears on the final page of the book. I posted the poem here on April 8, 2011.

As always, thanks for dropping by.

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you for that link as I would never have come across Auden's tribute to ET otherwise! Have just added Anne Harvey's book to my dream wish list . . .

It is not hard to imagine the huge gap his death left in the Farjeon's lives - nearly as much as for Helen and the children.

Oh, and I ratehr agree with you about Auden's poetry!

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: you're welcome. The poem is lovely, isn't it? It appears at the bottom of the final page of the book, after the biographical information about the other poets in the book, because it was not discovered until the book was nearly ready to be printed. I'm glad that it came to light!

Thanks for stopping by again.