Auden’s Fine Art (And Scrotum)

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.


One response to “Auden’s Fine Art (And Scrotum)

  1. Always love waking up on a Monday morning (here) to a nice poem and an observant analysis. And this time you were thoughtful enough to include a picture. Maybe I won’t need that second cup of coffee.

    Seriously, I like this — and I like that you mention Auden. He’s one of those poets I need to sit down and read comprehensively — though that would take far more time than I have available.

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