I so clearly remember being moved by Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ in grade 10 English with Miss Scott and that uncomfortable corrugated iron prefabricated building next to the cricket pitch, the cheaply wrinkled photocopied handouts, it being one of the four poems we read a year (our ambitious syllabus) – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Day?’, ‘God’s Grandeur’, and something else (we didn’t care, poetry was an inscrutable equation every now lit up by a phrase or a word that was likeable for its own sake, but there was no meaning transferred).
The immediacy of the poem, the grief (‘Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead/ scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead’). I spent years trying to remember whether it was W.B. Yeats who wrote it, or W.H. Auden (same number of letters, etc). Now, I suppose this gives evidence of the development of personal taste, because I find it cloying (‘I thought love would last forever: ‘I was wrong'), coloured perhaps by the poem’s popularity, in the way that Pachelbel’s Canon in D was diminished by learning that it was played at nearly every American wedding.
Now reading Auden in preparation for the essay on Thursday, I find myself poking at the knots in his other poems. His 1928 charade ‘Paid on Both Sides’ for example, a blood feud which combines the inheritance of Norse sagas and schoolboy mythology (those wonderful lines ‘Though heart fears all heart cries for, rebuffs with mortal beat/ Skyfall, the legs sucked under, adder’s bite…’), and also his ‘Lullaby’, which Edward Mendelsohn (Auden’s literary executor) said was the ‘first English poem in which a lover proclaims, in moral terms and during a shared night of love, his own faithlessness.’
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful...
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost...’
A day of poetry. Geoffrey Hill at the exam schools tonight on ‘Poetry and Disproportion’.