...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Auden's difficult sentences

Here's a poem by Auden, the first in his Selected Poems (Vintage, 1974):
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the rood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed,
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters; two there were
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch the gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way
And in his final valley went to ground.

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being Spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.
This is early, from 1927, when, as I understand the narrative, Auden was trying to match the Modernists at their game. Then (again, as I understand the narrative), after he moved to the states and recommitted himself to the Church of England, he put away such childish things and moved to a plainer, more accessible style. [Maybe I'm wrong to say it this way. Language is too much for me, perhaps, but re-reading The Waste Land this past summer brought to me a new, and what feels mature, question: Who is this poem written for?] Whatever the case, I find this poem enchanting even as its sentences resist my comprehension. How do you make sense, for example, of the sentence that begins the second strophe? Or, in a clearly parse-able way, the sentences that precede it? I've read the poem out loud three or four times, and I haven't spent the time I might with it, but in this initial run, I'm, unlike the sap, baffled. That sentence, though, the one that begins, "Beams from your car,"go ahead and say it out loud. If this is what Auden's repudiated youth brought him, I'm happy to have it.

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