Sunday, December 29, 2013

"When Have We Not Preferred Some Going Round To Going Straight To Where We Are?"

Here are the final two lines of a sonnet:

When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

Reading the lines in isolation, one might think that they were written by Robert Frost or Edward Thomas.  (Although I admit that, given my fondness for Frost and Thomas, I perhaps tend to hear their sound too readily.)  In fact, the lines were written by W. H. Auden.

In the year of his death, Auden wrote "A Thanksgiving," which acknowledges his debts to his poetic and philosophic mentors.  These are the first two stanzas:

     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).  The italics are in the original.

Oliver Hall (1869-1957), "Welsh Mountains"

One of the things that Auden may have learned from Frost and Thomas is their penchant for heading off in a certain direction in a poem and then either second-guessing or reversing their course, with the second-guessing or reversal taking place at the end of the poem:  just when we think the matter has been settled, we are left scratching our heads.  This characteristic is perfectly articulated by Philip Larkin in his description (oft-quoted here) of Thomas's poetry:  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  The description applies equally well to Frost's poetry, I think.  In this connection, consider the following poem by Auden.

                            Our Bias

The hour-glass whispers to the lion's roar,
The clock-towers tell the gardens day and night
How many errors Time has patience for,
How wrong they are in being always right.

Yet Time, however loud its chimes or deep,
However fast its falling torrent flows,
Has never put one lion off his leap
Nor shaken the assurance of a rose.

For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness;

And Time with us was always popular.
When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940).

In our contemporary culture, the word "bias" has taken on a predominantly negative connotation; i.e., it  has been infected with political content (hasn't nearly everything?), and is usually equated with "prejudice" or "bigotry."  But its original sense is "an inclination, leaning, tendency, bent; a preponderating disposition or propensity; predisposition towards."  OED.

Oliver Hall, "Spring" (c. 1927)

Auden also mentions Robert Graves in "A Thanksgiving."  The following poem by Graves perhaps provides a contrast to Auden's view of nature as assured and unswerving.

          Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has -- who knows so well as I? --
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves, Poems 1926-1930 (1931).

However, perhaps Graves and Auden are not so far apart after all:  the butterfly's "honest idiocy of flight" -- "his flying-crooked gift" -- is part of its unselfconscious essence.  It is no different than Auden's lion and rose.  It is we humans who add layers of complication -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course:  thus, for instance, to "choose words according to their sound" is a lovely and wonderful gift.

Oliver Hall, "Penrhyn Quarries" (1938)


eugubino said...

A wonderful poem by Graves ,and a fresh take on the Cabbage white whose egg laying among the Greens
drives me to distraction here in my Umbrian veg plot as elsewhere in the summer.... P. Howlett

Stephen Pentz said...

P. Howlett: I'm pleased you liked the Graves poem. I hadn't realized that cabbage whites were such a nuisance -- shows how little I know about gardening!

Thank you for stopping by. Happy New Year!