When the painter David Hockney first clapped eyes on an aging W H Auden, he is reputed to have exclaimed ‘If that’s his face, what must his scrotum look like?’
Auden may have been no oil painting, but with a pen in his hand he was just about unbeatable. Have a Captain Cook at this one:
Musée Des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
For the first three lines you think you’re looking at blank verse; but that’s just Auden settling his spikes into the running blocks. After that, we’re off. Any ha’penny free-verse merchant can spill out a couple of stanzas with no apparent structure of line length: but it takes a poet like Auden – or perhaps Eliot – to remind you that when structure is relaxed, talent must supply the deficiency: and for sheer poetic talent you have to look a long way to find someone to even touch Wystan Hugh Auden.
Can you spot the rhyming pattern? Go on – have a go. It is there. There’s another Auden touch: he didn’t need anyone else’s verse forms: he invented his own.
This isn’t just a superbly conversational piece of verse (and what a conversation!); it’s a stunning set of insights. Suffering doesn’t take place in exalted settings; the rest of the world is often indifferent to it, and busy people will be too busy to mark the occasion of the sufferings of others.
A poem like this feels effortless: and that’s the first big hint, in literature, that someone was sweating cerebrospinal fluid over it.
Don’t you just adore the finale? ‘the sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.’
The suggestion here is that great artist sees further into both the extraordinary and the commonplace in life: and that’s a view of artistic insight that we want to endorse. Auden, of course, was so good that he could reveal what made great art in a piece of great art. Not a bad trick.
If Auden’s scrotum was anything like his poetry, it must have looked like Helen of Troy.