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The Sunday poem: Anthony Cronin's personal anthology


Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin




Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Auden wrote Ten Songs in March 1939 when the flood of Jewish refugees across Europe from Germany was beginning to rival the flood of Syrian and other refugees today. It is an affecting poem which does what it sets out to do - to present the problem in a human light. But it is not sentimental. He didn't do sentiment. Rather, it is acerbic and even its ironies are still, in the light of our own experience, funny. Politicians are the principal target but they are not being accused of anything save a commonplace lack of love for fellow members of the human race and a lack of imagination. The absence of recognisable villains who could be the focus of anger does not weaken the poem. It is the refugees' fellow humans who are at fault. Our little possessiveness and our fears motivate us when it should be an expansion of the heart.

from Ten Songs

W.H. Auden

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

The consul banged the table and said:

'If you've got no passport you're officially dead':

But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;

Asked me politely to return next year :

But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said :

'If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread';

He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,

Saw a door opened and a cat let in:

But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down to the harbour and stood upon the quay,

Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:

Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;

They had no politicians and sang at their ease:

They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,

A thousand windows and a thousand doors ;

Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

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