Wystan Hugh Auden died forty years ago, on September 29, 1973, in his sleep after a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. He was 66. I read his obituary in Time Magazine a few weeks later; I was ten years old. Discovering Auden for me was the discovery of — I meant to write, what you could do with language, but I realize I want to say something else: what language could do with you, an impersonal power coursing through the husks of words that, freed, could shock you to delirium, or wring you and your attempts at meanings like a wet rag. That chasms of mood so jagged, sinister, and deep could open after shuffling a few sounds struck me as an appalling secret underneath the world, as though Hagia Sofia or the Alhambra, which haunted my imagination though I’d never seen them, could be constructed out of matchsticks. All through my teenage years an old paperback of his Collected Poems sat on the floor near my bed. Even today to think of its cover, stark green letters on white like an Icelandic landscape, gives me a sense of companionship coupled with fear and awe. No other writer except Nabokov has ever affected me so much.
Here are three poems from the sonnet cycle In Time of War, written on a visit to China during the Japanese invasion, in 1938. The first alludes to another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suddenly recovered his powers after long depression during a stay in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland in 1922; in a few weeks, he completed the Duino Elegies. In a letter he wrote that, having finished the work, ”I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which had protected it and me and finally granted it, as if it were a large old animal.”
When all the apparatus of report
Confirms the triumph of our enemies;
Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat,
Violence successful like a new disease,
And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited;
When we regret that we were ever born:
Let us remember all who seemed deserted.
To-night in China let me think of one
Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all:
And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great animal.
No, not their names. It was the others who built
Each great coercive avenue and square,
Where men can only recollect and stare,
The really lonely with the sense of guilt
Who wanted to persist like that for ever;
The unloved had to leave material traces:
But these need nothing but our better faces,
And dwell in them, and know that we shall never
Remember who we are nor why we’re needed.
Earth grew them as a bay grows fishermen
Or hills a shepherd; they grew ripe and seeded;
And the seeds clung to us; even our blood
Was able to revive them; and they grew again;
Happy their wish and mild to flower and flood.
Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.
Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
In the glorious balls of the future; each intricate maze
Has a plan, and the disciplined movements of the heart
Can follow for ever and ever its harmless ways.
We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,
And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.