Friday, October 7, 2011

Ironic points of light

I have this cyberfriend, Snowbrush from Oregon by way of Mississippi, whom I have never met. He is an atheist and I am a Christian. Sometimes he says cruel things about God and Christ and Christians (he would call them true things). It’s all right. He is still my friend. We just happen to disagree on a number of things. Snowbrush and I are the non-Irish, non-political version of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, sort of.

When I saw his latest post, I thought about a poem written by
W. H. Auden after Hitler invaded Poland more than 70 years ago:


SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

4 comments:

Snowbrush said...

Maybe it's just because I hardly slept last night (years of pain and pills have made me an insomniac even when my pain level is tolerable), but that poem creeps me out at the moment, because it's almost as if he presaged all that was to come. As horrifying as WWII is in retrospect, I'm struck dumb to imagine how it must have looked as it was starting without being able to do anything to stop it or even mitigate it. And, of course, you are Jewish by birth, so I would assume that the events of th war might have an even more painful meaning to you than to me, as consumed by it as I have sometimes been.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

By Auden's use of allusions, symbols, and phrases one sees his real message: the world is forever condemned if people cannot learn to accept and love others for their differences.

Wine in Thyme said...

I haven't read Snowbrush's post that prompted this. But this poem describes how my darlingest feels almost every night as he watches the news. Auden puts it more eloquently than my darlingest can.

rhymeswithplague said...

Somehow I neglected to comment on the comments left on this post. So, even at this late date, I will.

Snow, I know most of the poem is about World War II, but that is not why I posted it. The words of the final stanza are why I posted it. I thought how you and I are like the Just exchanging messages, both of us composed of Eros and dust, both of us beleaguered by the same negation and despair, and yet trying to show, each from our own very different understandings, an affirming flame.

Yorkshire Pudding, from your mouth to everyone else's ear. You put me in mind of a quotation from Robert F. Kennedy: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why...I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

Wine in Thyme, as I was trying so inadequately to tell Snowbrush above, I didn't include Auden's poem in the post because of the events that prompted Auden to write it or the contents of our nightly newscasts; I included it because in the last stanza I saw the two people (Snowbrush and me) sitting alone at our respective keyboards on opposite sides of the continent, trying to communicate something of lasting value to our readers, even though we are communicating two quite different messages.