All we have is a voice

9 Apr

No post today, but sharing a poem that seems alarmingly appropriate, especially the penultimate verse.




September 1, 1939
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

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 deaf,
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.

Defenceless 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.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

14 Responses to “All we have is a voice”

  1. Hawkpeter April 9, 2015 at 7:24 am #

    Auden is great, my favourite poem has always been ‘The More Loving One.’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michaela Tschudi April 9, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    My favourite line is “We must love one another or die”. Love Auden.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. helvityni April 9, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

    Funeral Blues

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
    Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
    For nothing now can ever come to any good

    This must be one of Auden’s most popular poems; it’s sad, it’s sweet and charming, and it makes me smile. Only a man, who is a poet, would ask traffic policemen to wear black cotton gloves.
    I love it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • hudsongodfrey April 9, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

      Perhaps the similarity ends at the title, but somewhere in the middle of these two, and most pertinent to our conversations is Refugee Blues….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michaela Tschudi April 9, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

        HG, I hadn’t read that poem before! Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • helvityni April 9, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

        Thanks Hudson, how good is it and perfectly valid today; I have passed it around, and keep reading it in between….

        Liked by 2 people

      • Jennifer Wilson April 10, 2015 at 6:32 am #

        I had overlooked that one, but you’re right, HG, it is the most appropriate.
        Auden is rather amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • hudsongodfrey April 10, 2015 at 10:23 am #

          The more I read him I come to admire his economy in expressing ideas over his attention to rhyme. People would probably encourage me in the same direction 😉


    • Michaela Tschudi April 9, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

      Yes! That featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.


    • Jennifer Wilson April 10, 2015 at 6:31 am #

      Helvi that makes poem always makes me cry for my husband.
      It is lovely.


  4. doug quixote April 9, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    Jennifer! I think you misunderstand that stanza. My reading is that the quoted lines are the lie:

    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.

    I read it that the ” folded lie, the romantic lie … and the lie of Authority” is specified after the colon: the lie follows, as quoted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 10, 2015 at 6:38 am #

      Yes, I see what you mean, and have wondered about that, however, recently read Auden quoted as saying he regrets the line “We must love one another or die,” thinking it in retrospect rather sentimental, so I’m not quite certain of his intention.

      The stanza is as “folded” as the lies, which is perfect for his purpose, I think.


      • doug quixote April 10, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

        Yes, apparently he revised it to “We must love one another and die”

        – that is part of the lie.


  5. paul walter April 9, 2015 at 8:43 pm #

    Fascinating stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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