Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

W.H. Auden: Happy (108th) Birthday!

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As the great man was born on this day, 108 years ago, I couldn’t resist posting one of my favourite poems from his work.

I still remember how startled I was all those years ago – the early 1970s – when I turned a corner in Oxford and almost bumped into the owner of that famously lined reptilian face (“like a wedding cake left out in the rain”). He was going from the High Street into Radcliffe Square behind the University Church, shuffling along in his carpet slippers, his skin a spectral shade of grey. It must have been when Christ Church were putting him up, and therefore not that long before his death.

XIR3675

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 course024
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.

In a rather nice touch, York City Council commissioned a spiral pavement outside their headquarters in the converted old railway station, with the opening words of “As I walked out one evening…” on it.

auden

The only image I can find online is this one, of its being built, and it doesn’t really do it justice. You look down on it from the pavement from where this photo must have been taken, and the words are easily legible. When I briefly stayed in York I used to walk past it practically every day, and it never failed to delight me.

And for a slightly chilling, unsettling experience, here is a recording of him reading and an animation of his face.


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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on “W.H. Auden: Happy (108th) Birthday!

  1. Thank you for reminding me of one of my O level poems! I still have The Albermarle Book of Modern Verse, with my notes (age 16/17) in the margins…!

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