Sunday, February 21, 2010

In praise of W.H. Auden - Happy Birthday

Thanks to a face-book post by Jeffrey L., I was informed that today is W. H. Auden's birthday.

I became an Auden fan when I first came across the poem," The Unknown Citizen."

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
After learning that he and Christopher Isherwood were close friends and compatriots who fled Britain for the golden streets of America in 1939, I started to read his poetry.

Somehow during that periiod (70's & 80's) I had glanced over a poem that would have major resonance for me a decade later in the 1994 movie: "Four Weddings and a Funeral".

Like millions of others, my heart was torn apart by the scene where the actor John Hannah recites Auden's "Funeral Blues" at the service of his "closest friend", Gareth.

Now the character Gareth made Johnny Weir seem like, well like Jon Montgomery. Yet, he and his partner were accepted and much loved by their friends and afforded the dignity that anyone should expect at the passing of a loved one. There was no irony, no wink of an eye or worse, no sense that he deserved it because he was a poof about the scene. It portrayed the loss of a partner and the hurt that occurs when that person is lost to you forever.

As with Isherwood, I am never quite sure whether it is the romanticism that I attach to his life that I find so alluring or the hope of finding inspiration through words that were written by someone whose sensibility and artistry was fashioned from his sense of "otherness".

The More Loving One
by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

For a very candid and personal portrait of Mr. Auden, check out the BBC series: The Addictions of Sin: W. H. Auden in His Own Words available on YouTube.

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