I'm reading Auden's 'Collected Poems' at the moment, and it can be a frustrating as well as a rewarding task. For me there's no doubt that he's one of the great Anglo-American poets and one of the cleverest. However, this cleverness can be an obstacle: he sometimes sounds as if he's simply showing off. Auden has infuriated some readers and critics because of this intellectual cleverness — and also because of his wide range of diction and reference, and his poetic uncategorisability: no sooner does he master one form or style, then he perfects another. But whether he writes rhyming quatrains or free verse, lyric or light verse, parody or poetic drama, he is always uniquely Auden.
Like many of Auden's poems, 'Consider This and in Our Time' seems to me clear in its general thrust, but obscure in many of its details — so it's a good poem to study at the start of this blog, I feel. You can find the poem here; it is dated 1930.
When I read a poem for the first time I tend to read it straight off, trying to follow the main tenor of the poem, absorbing its atmosphere, allowing any meaning and musicality to speak directly to me as unconsciously as possible. I try to be open to it and its effect, ridding myself of any previous prejudice I may have had about the author or the poem's style and reputation. Bits I don't understand, or go completely above my head, I don't worry about. I may read it again like this, perhaps two or three times. Then I want to go back and work things out in more detail, look up words and references I don't know, ask questions, paraphrase certain sections. The wonderful thing about a good poem is that you can return to it again and again, and it will reveal more and more.
The general political, social and psychological ruination Auden portrays in 'Consider This and in Our Time' is, I think, fairly clear; what can be difficult is the particular way he writes about it, using words and phrases which may seem puzzling. Who, for instance, is the 'supreme Antagonist, / More powerful than the great northern whale'? Satan? The Devil? And why the specificity and deliberate obscurity of 'the great northern whale', anyhow? And what is 'life's limiting defect', and if it's death, why does Auden choose to describe death in such a ponderous and ironic way? And why do all the six lines which follow 'Long ago, supreme Antagonist' intentionally use a strange and clumsy syntax? Further on in the poem, why is the 'peril' 'polar'? And who are the 'boys' and why are they 'ruined'? And, later still, what's all this about 'fugues', 'irregular breathing', 'alternate ascendencies', 'explosion of mania' and 'classic fatigue'? (They appear to be manifestations of psychological illness.)
How important is it to clarify as far as possible the exact meaning Auden intends, or is it OK to get the general poetic gist? Did you like this poem or not, and why or why not? Or does one need to reread it several times, and try to unravel some of the ambiguities, before one even knows whether one likes it or not? I'm putting these questions to myself, and I invite you also to consider these questions. And I look forward to reading any thoughts and ideas you may have.
I'm particularly impressed by how Auden blends exact, revealing details — 'hawk', helmeted airman', 'cigarette-end smouldering on a border', 'the Sport Hotel', 'in furs, in uniform' — with expressions of a more amorphous and generalised unease (dis-ease?) — 'the powerful forces latent / In soils', 'immeasurable neurotic dread', 'haunted migratory years' etc.
At the source of the longest river / The voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / between two waves of the sea. TS ELIOT Four Quartets: Little Gidding
Hi! My name is Robert, aka The Solitary Walker, former editor of The Passionate Transitory, and this is The Hidden Waterfall, my new site devoted to poetry discussion. We choose poems, we read them, we think about them, we discuss them. If you want to take part, please use the relevant comment box; all serious contributions are eagerly received. The lit-ernet is full of cursory summaries and shallow shorthand — so let's develop a deeper, more questioning, more intellectually satisfying approach to poetry appreciation. I'm thinking it would be good to feature rather-less-well-known 'difficult' poems, rather than popular 'easy' ones, but any ideas and suggestions about content are welcome. There is no pressure to join in, no time limit for responses. Whether you wish to contribute, or just read along, or aren't interested at all, that's fine. Participation should be for the fun of it, and out of a love of poetry and its greater understanding. I'll probably be posting a fresh poem every couple of weeks or so, but there are no hard and fast rules on this exploratory site. A little background reading about each poet and his/her life and work may be useful.