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The Sunday poem: from To A Writer On His Birthday


Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

WH Auden occupied a unique position in the 1930s.

There were other left-wing writers ranging from Orwell to Bernard Shaw but they did not have the reticences, the obliqueness, the frequent obscurities and the ironic rhetorical power of poetry to aid their cause. And they had a general audience, where he had a coterie.

He became an oracle. Debate in the little magazines about his beliefs and his panaceas was continuous. Was he a Marxist? A Communist?

Marxist, I would say, from the following passages - history as an impersonal force - but not Communist.

But a surprisingly large number of people looked to him for guidance. It is himself, not his friend and sometime lover, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, that he invokes when he pleads 'make action urgent and its nature clear'.

Meanwhile, in spite of appeasing politicians, the drift to war - 'the savaging disaster' - became an inevitability that everybody believed in.

It is at least touching that a poet should be asked to halt it even if it is he himself that does the asking.

from To A Writer On His Birthday

August for the people and their favourite islands.

Daily the steamers sidle up to meet

The effusive welcome of the pier, and soon

The luxuriant life of the steep stone valleys,

The sallow oval faces of the city

Begot in passion or good-natured habit,

Are caught by waiting coaches, or laid bare

Beside the undiscriminating sea.

For now the moulding images of growth

That made our interest and us, are gone.

Louder today the wireless roars,

Its warnings and its lies, and it's impossible

Among the well-shaped cosily to flit,

Or longer to desire about our lives

The beautiful loneliness of the banks, or find

The stores and resignations of the frozen plains.

So in this hour of crisis and dismay,

What better than your strict and adult pen

Can warn us from the colours and the consolations,

The showy arid works, reveal

The squalid shadow of academy and garden,

Make action urgent and its nature clear ?

Who give us nearer insight to resist

The expanding fear, the savaging disaster?

This then my birthday wish for you, as now

From the narrow window of my fourth-floor room

I smoke into the night, and watch reflections

Stretch in the harbour. In the houses

The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes.

And all sway forward on the dangerous flood

Of history, that never sleeps or dies,

And, held one moment, burns the hand.

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