That man’s no centre of the universe;
And working in an office makes it worse.
Letter to Lord Byron was first published in Letters from Iceland (1937),
Faber and Faber, and Random House, New York.
The revised text in this volume is based in Longer Contemporary Poems (1966),
Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,
With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.
And as for manuscripts—by every post. . .
I can’t improve on Pope’s shrill indignation,
But hope that it will please his spiteful ghost
To learn the use in culture’s propagation
Of modern methods of communication;
New roads, new rails, new contacts, as we know
From documentaries by the G.P.O.
For since the British Isles went Protestant
A church confession is too high for most.
But still confession is a human want,
So Englishmen must make theirs now by post
And authors hear them over breakfast toast.
For, failing them, there’s nothing but the wall
Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.
So if ostensibly I write to you
To chat about your poetry or mine,
There’s many other reasons: though it’s true
That I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.
Now home is miles away, and miles away
No matter who, and I am quite alone
And cannot understand what people say,
But like a dog must guess it by the tone;
At any language other than my own
I’m no great shakes, and here I’ve found no tutor
Nor sleeping lexicon to make me cuter.
The thought of writing carne to me today
(I like to give these facts of time and space);
The bus was in the desert on its way
From Mothrudalur to some other place:
The tears were streaming down my burning face;
I’d caught a heavy cold in Akureyri,
And lunch was late and life looked very dreary.
Professor Housman was I think the first
To say in print how very stimulating
The little ills by which mankind is cursed,
The colds, the aches, the pains are to creating;
Indeed one hardly goes too far in stating
That many a flawless lyric may be due
Not to a lover’s broken heart, but ‘flu.
But still a proper explanation’s lacking;
Why write to you? I see I must begin
Right at the start when I was at my packing.
The extra pair of sucks, the airtight tin
Of China tea, the anti-fly were in;
I asked myself what sort of books I’d read
In Iceland, if I ever felt the need.
I can’t read Jefferies on the Wiltshire Downs,
Nor browse on limericks in a smoking-room;
Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns,
Or Marie Stopes inside his mother’s womb?
Perhaps you feel the same beyond the tomb.
Do the celestial highbrows only care
For works on Clydeside, Fascists, or Mayfair?
In certain quarters I had heard a rumour
(For all I know the rumour’s only silly)
That Icelanders have little sense of humour.
I knew the country was extremely hilly,
The climate unreliable and chilly;
So looking round for something light and easy
I pounced on you as warm and civilisé.
There is one other author in my pack
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided I'd give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.
Then she's a novelist. I don't know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties
Perhaps that's why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.
The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.
You must admit, when all is said and done,
His sense of other people’s very hazy,
His moral judgements are too often crazy,
A slick and easy generalization
Appeal too well to his imagination.
I must remember, though, that you were dead
Before the four great Russians lived, who brought
The art of novel writing to a head;
The help of Boots had not been sought.
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.
She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
'Twas rash, but by posterity she's read.
Yon could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
So it is you who is to get this letter.
The experiment may nor be a success.
There’re many others who could do it better,
But I shall not enjoy myself the less.
Shaw of the Air Force said that happiness
Comes in absorption: he was right, I know it;
Even in scribbling to a long—dead poet.
Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this—a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.
I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,
And talk on any subject that I choose,
From natural scenery to men and women,
Myself, the arts, the European news:
And since she’s on a holiday, my Muse
Is out to please, find everything delightful
And only now and then be mildly spiteful.
Ottava Rima would, I know, be proper,
The proper instrument on which to pay
My compliments, but I should come a cropper;
Rhyme-royal’s difficult enough to play.
But if no classics as in Chaucer’s day,
At least my modern pieces shall be cheery
Like English bishops on the Quantum Theory.
Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather;
Except by Milne and persons of that kind
She’s treated as démodé altogether.
It’s strange and very unjust to my mind
Her brief appearances should be confined,
Apart from Belloc’s Cautionary Tales,
To the more bourgeois periodicals.
‘The fascination of what’s difficult’,
The wish to do what one’s nor done before.
Is, I hope, proper to Quincunque Vult,
The proper card to show at Heaven’s door.
Gerettet nor Gerichtet be the Law,
Et cetera, et cetera. O curse,
That is the flattest one in English verse.
Parnassus after all is not a mountain,
Reserved for A.I. climbers such as you;
It’s got a park, it’s got a public fountain.
The most I ask is leave to shame a pew
With Bradford or with Cottam, that will do:
To pasture my few silly sheep with Dyer
And picnic on the lower slopes with Prior,
A publisher’s an author’s greatest friend,
A generous uncle, or he ought to be.
(I’m sure we hope it pays him in the end.)
I love my publishers and they love me,
At least they paid a very handsome fee
To send me here. I’ve never heard a grouse
Either from Russell Square um Random House,
But now I’ve got uncomfortable suspicions,
I’m going to put their patience out of joint.
Though it’s in keeping with the best traditions
For Travel Books to wander from the point
(There is no other rhyme except anoint),
They well may charge me with - I’ve no defences—
Obtaining money under false pretences.
I know I’ve not the least chance of survival
Beside the major travellers of the day.
I am no Lawrence who, on his arrival,
Sat down and typed out all he had to say;
I am not even Ernest Hemingway.
I shall not run to a two-bob edition,
So just won’t enter for the competition.
And even here the steps I flounder in .
Were worn by most distinguished boots of old.
Dasent and Morris and Lord Dufferin,
Hooker and men of that heroic mould
Welcome me icily into the fold;
I’m not like Peter Fleming an Etonian,
But, if I’m Judas, I’m an old Oxonian.
The Haig Thomases are at Myvatn now,
At Hvitarvatn and at Vatnajökull
Cambridge research goes on, I don’t know how:
The shades of Asquith and of Auden Skökull
Turn in their coffins a three-quarter circle
To see their son, upon whose help they reckoned,
Being as frivolous as Charles the Second.
So this, my opening chapter, has to stop
With humbly begging everybody’s pardon.
From Faber first in case the book’s a flop,
Then from the critics lest they should be hard on
The author when he leads them up the garden,
Last from the general public he must beg
Permission now and then to pull their leg.
I’m writing this in pencil on my knee,
Using my other hand to stop me yawning,
Upon a primitive, unsheltered quay
In the small hours of a Wednesday morning.
I cannot add the summer day is dawning;
In Seydhisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.
To get to sleep in latitudes called upper
Is difficult at first for Englishmen.
It’s like being sent to bed before your supper
For playing darts with father’s fountain-pen,
Or like returning after orgies, when
Your breath’s like luggage and you realize
You’ve been more confidential than was wise.
I’ve done my duty, taken many notes
Upon the almost total lack of greenery,
The roads, the illegitimates, the goats:
To use a rhyme of yours, there’s handsome scenery
Bur little agricultural machinery;
And with the help of Sunlight Soap the Geysir
Affords to visitors le plus grand plaisir.
The North, though, never was your cup of tea;
‘Moral’ you thought it so you kept away.
And what I’m sure you’re wanting now from me
Is news about the England of the day,
What sort of things La Jeunesse do and say.
Is Brighton still as proud of her pavilion,
And is it safe for girls to travel pillion?
I’ll clear my throat and take a Rover’s breath
And skip a century of hope and sin—
For far too munch has happened since your death.
Crying went out and the cold bath came in,
With drains, bananas, bicycles, and tin,
And Europe saw from Ireland to Albania
The Gothic revival and the Railway Mania.
We’re entering now the Eotechnic Phase
Thanks to the Grid and all these new alloys;
That is, at least, what Lewis Mumford says.
A world of Aertex underwear for boys,
Huge plate-glass windows, walls absorbing noise,
Where the smoke nuisance is utterly abated
And all the furniture is chromium-plated.
Well, you might think so if you went to Surrey
And stayed for week-ends with the well-to--do,
Your car too fast, too personal your worry
To look too closely at the wheeling view.
But in the north it simply isn’t true.
To those who live in Warrington or Wigan,
It’s not a white lie, it’s a whacking big ‘un.
There on the old historic battlefield,
The cold ferocity of human wills,
The scars of struggle are as yet unhealed;
Slattern the tenements on sombre hills,
And gaunt in valleys the square-windowed mills
That, since the Georgian house, in my conjecture
Remain our finest native architecture.
On economic, health, um moral grounds
It hasn’t got the least excuse to show;
No more than chamber pots or otter hounds;
But let me say before it has to go,
It’s the must lovely country that I know;
Clearer than Seafell Pike, my heart has stamped on
The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
Long, long ago, when I was only four,
Going towards my grandmother, the line
Passed through a coal-field. From the corridor
I watched it pass with envy, thought ‘How fine!
Oh how I wish that situation mine.’
Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.
Hail to the New World! Hail to those who’ll love
Its antiseptic objects, feel at home.
Lovers will gaze at an electric stove,
Another poésie de départ come
Centred round bus-stops or the aerodrome.
But give me still, to stir imagination
The chiaroscuro of the railway station,
Preserve me from the Shape of Things to Be;
The high-grade posters at the public meeting,
The influence of Art on Industry,
The cinemas with perfect taste in seating;
Preserve me, above all, from central heating.
It may be D. H. Lawrence hocus-pocus,
But I prefer a room that’s got a focus.
But you want facts, not sighs. I’ll do my best
To give a few; you can’t expect them all.
To start with, on the whole we’re better dressed;
For chic the difference to-day is small
Of barmaid from my lady at the Hall.
It’s sad no spoil this democratic vision
With millions suffering from malnutrition.
Again, our age is highly educated;
There is no lie our children cannot read,
And as MacDonald might so well have stated
We’re growing up and up and up indeed.
Advertisements can teach us all we need;
And death is better, as the millions know,
Than dandruff, night-starvation, or B.O.
We’ve always had a penchant for field sports,
But what do you think has grown up in our towns?
A passion for the open air and shorts;
The sun is one of our emotive nouns.
Go down by chara’ to the Sussex Downs,
Watch the manoeuvres of the week-end hikers
Massed on parade with Kodaks or with Leicas.
Those movements signify our age-long role
Of insularity has lost its powers;
The cult of salads and the swimming pool
Comes from a climate sunnier than ours,
And lands which never heard of licensed hours,
The south of England before very long
Will look no different from the Continong.
You lived and moved among the best society
And so could introduce your hero to it
Without the slightest tremor of anxiety;
Because he was your hero and you knew it,
He’d know instinctively what’s done, and do it.
He’d find our day more difficult than yours
For industry has mixed the social drawers.
We’ve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,
And Fortune’s ladder is for all to climb;
Carnegie on this point was must emphatic.
A humble grandfather is not a crime,
At least, if father made enough in time!
Today, thank God, we’ve got no snobbish feeling
Against the more efficient modes of stealing.
The porter at the Carlton is my brother,
He’ll wish me a good evening if I pay,
For tips and men are equal to each other.
I’m sure that Vogue would be the first to say
Que le Beau Monde is socialist today;
And many a bandit, nor so gently born
Kills vermin every winter with the Quorn.
Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them
And look for pickings where the pickings are.
The drives of love and hunger are behind them,
They can’t afford to be particular:
And these who like good cooking and a car,
A certain kind of costume or of face,
Must seek them in a certain kind of place.
Don Juan was a mixer and no doubt
Would find this century as good as any
For getting hostesses to ask him out,
And mistresses that need not cost a penny.
Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.
Yes, in the smart set he would know his way
By second nature with no tips from me.
Tennis and Golf have come in since your day;
But those who are as good at games as he
Acquire the back-hand quite instinctively,
Take to the steel.-shaft and hole out in one,
Master the books of Ely Culbertson.
I see his face in every magazine.
‘Don Juan at lunch with one of Cochran’s ladies.’
‘Don Juan with his red setter May MacQueen.’
‘Don Juan, who’s just been wintering in Cadiz,
Caught at the wheel of his maroon Mercedes.’
‘Don Juan at Croydon Aerodrome.’ ‘Don Juan
Snapped in the paddock with the Aga Khan.’
But if in highbrow circles he would sally
It’s just as well to warn him there’s no stain on
Picasso, all-in-wrestling, or the Ballet.
Sibelius is the man. To get a pain on
Listening to Elgar is a sine qua non.
A second-hand acquaintance of Pareto’s
Ranks higher than an intimate of Plato’s.
The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils
Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True
Still fluctuate about the lower levels.
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts.
I’m saying this to tell you who’s the rage,
And not to loose a sneer from my interior.
Because there’s snobbery in every age,
Because some names are loved by the superior,
It does nor follow they’re the least inferior:
For all I know the Beatific Vision’s
On view at all Surrealist Exhibitions.
Now for the spirit of the people. Here
I know I’m treading on more dangerous ground:
I know there’re many changes in the air,
But know my data too slight to be sound,
I know, too, I’m inviting the renowned
Retort of all who love the Status Quo:
‘Yon can’t change human nature, don’t you know!’
We’ve still, it’s true, the same shape and appearance,
We haven’t changed the way that kissing’s done;
The average man still hates all interference,
Is just as proud still of his new-born sun:
Still, like a hen, he likes his private run,
Scratches for self-esteem, and slyly pocks
A good deal in the neighbourhood of sex.
But he’s another man in many ways:
Ask the cartoonist first, for he knows best.
Where is the John Bull of the good old days,
The swaggering bully with the clumsy jest?
His meaty neck has long been laid to rest,
His acres of self-confidence for sale;
He passed away at Ypres and Passchendaele.
Tom to the work of Disney or of Strube;
There stands our hero in um threadbare seams;
The bowler hat who strap-hangs in the tube,
And kicks the tyrant only in his dreams,
Trading on pathos, dreading all extremes;
The little Mickey with the hidden grudge;
Which is the better, I leave you to judge.
Begot on Hire Purchase by Insurance,
Forms at his christening worshipped and adored;
A season ticket schooled him in endurance,
A tax collector and a waterboard
Admonished him. In boyhood he was awed
By a matric, and complex apparatuses
Keep his heart conscious of Divine Afflatuses.
‘I am like you,’ he says, ‘and you, and you,
I love my life, I love the home.-fires, have
To keep them burning. Heroes never do.
Heroes are sent by ogres to the grave.
I may net be courageous, but I save.
I am the one who somehow turns the corner,
I may perhaps be fortunate Jack Horner.
‘I am the ogre’s private secretary;
I’ve felt his stature and his powers, learned
To give his ogreship the raspberry
Only when his gigantic back is turned.
One day, who knows, I’ll do as I have yearned.
The short man, all his fingers on the door,
With repartee shall send him to the floor.’
One day, which day? O any other day,
But not today. The ogre knows his man.
To kill the ogre that would take away
The fear in which his happy dreams began,
And with his life he’ll guard dreams while he can.
Those who would really kill his dream’s contentment
He hates with real implacable resentment.
Ho dreads the ogre, but he dreads yet more
Those who conceivably might set him free,
Those the cartoonist has no time to draw.
Without his bondage he’d be all at sea;
The ogre need but shout ‘Security’,
To make this man, so lovable, so mild,
As madly cruel as a frightened child.
Byron, thou should’st be living at this hour!
What would you do, I wonder, if you were?
Britannia’s lost prestige and cash and power,
Her middle classes show some wear and tear,
We’ve learned to bomb each other from the air;
I can’t imagine what the Duke of Wellington
Would say about the music of Duke Ellington.
Suggestions have been made that the Teutonic
Führer-Prinzip would have appealed to you
As being the true heir to the Byronic—
In keeping with your social status too
(It has its English converts, fit and few),
That you would, hearing honest Oswald’s call,
Be gleichgeschaltet in the Albert Hall.
‘Lord Byron at the head of his storm—troopers!’
Nothing, says science, is impossible:
The Pope may quit to join the Oxford Groupers,
Nuffield may leave one farthing in his Will,
There may be someone who trusts Baldwin still,
Someone may think that Empire wines are nice,
There may be people who hear Tauber twice,
You liked to be the centre of attention,
The gay Prince Charming of the fairy story,
Who tamed the Dragon by his intervention.
In modern warfare though it’s just as gory,
There isn’t any individual glory;
The Prince must be anonymous, observant,
A kind of lab—buy, or a civil servant,
Yon never were an Isolationist;
Injustice you had always hatred for,
And we can hardly blame you, if you missed
Injustice just outside your lordship’s door:
Nearer than Greece were cotton and the poor.
Today you might have seen them, might indeed
Have walked in the United Front with Gide,
Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and today he still
Swinges the horror of his scaly tail.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.
Milton beheld him on the English throne,
And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;
The hermits fought him in their caves alone,
At the first Empire he was also there,
Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:
He comes in dreams at puberty to man,
To scare him back to childhood if he can.
Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,
Whenever he’s lost faith in choice and thought,
When a man sees the future without hope,
Whenever he endorses Hobbes’ report
‘The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,’
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.
He that in Athens murdered Socrates,
And Plato then seduced, prepares to make
A desolation and to call it peace
Today for dying magnates, for the sake
Of generals who can scarcely keep awake,
And for that doughy mass in great and small
That doesn’t want to stir itself at all.
Forgive me for inflicting all this on you,
For asking you to hold the baby for us;
It’s easy to forget that where you’ve gone, you
May only want to chat with Set and Horus,
Bored to extinction with our earthly chorus:
Perhaps it sounds to you like a trunk-call,
Urgent, it seems, but quite inaudible.
Yet though the choice of what is to be done
Remains with the alive, the rigid nation
Is supple still within the breathing one;
Its sentinels yet keep their sleepless station,
And every man in every generation,
Tossing in his dilemma on his bed,
Cries to the shadows of the noble dead.
We’re out at sea now, and I wish we weren’t;
The sea is rough, I don’t care if it’s blue;
I’d like to have a quick one, but I daren’t.
And I must interrupt this screed to you,
For I’ve some other little jobs to do;
I must write home or mother will be vexed,
So this must be continued in our next.
My last remarks were sent you from a boat.
I’m back on shore now in a warm bed-sitter,
And several friends have joined me since I wrote;
So though the weather out of doors is bitter,
I feel a great deal cheerier and fitter.
A party from a public school, a poet,
Have set a rapid pace, and make me go it.
We’re starting soon on a big expedition
Into the desert, which I’m sure is corking:
Many would like to be in my position.
I only hope there won’t be too much walking.
Now let me see, where was I? We were talking
Of Social Questions when I had to stop;
I think it’s time now for a little shop.
In setting up my brass plate as a critic,
I make no claim to certain diagnosis,
I’m more intuitive than analytic,
I offer thought in homoeopathic doses
(But someone may get better in the process).
I don’t pretend to reasoning like Pritchard’s
Or the logomachy of I. A. Richards.
I like your muse because she’s gay and witty,
Because she’s neither prostitute nor frump,
The daughter of a European City,
And country houses long before the slump;
I like her voice that does not make me jump:
And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,
Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.
A poet, swimmer, peer, and man of action,
-It beats Roy Campbell’s record by a mile—
You offer every possible attraction.
By looking into your poetic style,
And love—life on the chance that both were vile,
Several have earned a decent livelihood,
Whose lives were uncreative but were good.
You’ve had your packet from time critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A ‘vulgar genius’ so George Eliot said,
Which doesn’t matter as George Eliot’s dead,
But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: ‘an uninteresting mind’.
A statement which I must say I’m ashamed at;
A poet must be judged by his intention,
And serious thought you never said you aimed at.
I think a serious critic ought to mention
That one verse style was really your invention,
A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,
You are the master of the airy manner.
By all means let us touch our humble caps to
La poésie pure, the epic narrative;
But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.
According to his powers, each may give;
Only on varied diet can we live.
The pious fable and the dirty story
Share in the total literary glory.
There’s every mode of singing robe in stock,
From Shakespeare’s gorgeous fur coat, Spenser’s muff
Or Dryden’s lounge suit to my cotton frock,
And Wordsworth’s Harris tweed with leathern cuff.
Firbank, I think, wore just a just-enough;
I fancy Whitman in a reach-me-down,
But you, like Sherlock, in a dressing-gown.
I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must lave doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.
‘I hate a pupil-teacher,’ Milton said,
Who also hated bureaucratic fools;
Milton may thank his stars that he is dead,
Although he’s learnt by heart in public schools,
Along with Wordsworth and the list of rules;
For many a don while looking down his nose
Calls Pope and Dryden classics of our prose.
And new plants flower from that old potato.
They thrive best in a poor industrial soil,
Are hardier crossed with Rousseaus or a Plato
Their cultivation is an easy toil.
William, to change the metaphor, struck oil;
His well seems inexhaustible, a gusher
That saves old England from the fate of Russia.
The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit;
He tears his clothes and doesn’t shave his chin,
He wears a very pretty little boot,
He chooses the least comfortable inn;
A mountain railway is a deadly sin;
His strength, of course, is as the strength of ten men,
He calls all those who live in cities wen-men,
I’m not a spoil—sport, I would never wish
To interfere with anybody’s pleasures;
By all means climb, or hunt, or even fish,
All human hearts lave ugly little treasures;
But think it time to take repressive measures
When someone says, adopting the “I know’ line,
The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.
Besides, I’m very fond of mountains, too;
I like to travel through them in a car
I like a house that’s got a sweeping view;
I like to walk, but not to walk too far.
I also like green plains where cattle are,
And trees and rivers, and shall always quarrel
With those who think that rivers are immoral
Not that my private quarrel gives quietus to
The interesting question that it raises;
Impartial thought will give a proper status to
This interest in waterfalls and daisies,
Excessive love for the non-human faces,
That lives in hearts from Golders Green to Teddington;
It’s all bound up with Einstein, Jeans, and Eddington.
It is a commonplace that’s hardly worth
A poet’s while to make profound or terse,
That now the sun does not go round the earth,
That man’s no centre of the universe;
And working in an office makes it worse.
The humblest is acquiring with facility
A Universal-Complex sensibility.
For now we’ve learnt we mustn’t be so bumptious
We find the stars are one big family,
And send out invitations for a scrumptious
Simple, old-fashioned, jolly romp with tea
To any natural objects we can see.
We can’t, of course, invite a Jew or Red
But birds and nebulae will do instead.
The Higher Mind’s outgrowing the Barbarian,
It’s hardly thought hygienic now to kiss;
The world is surely turning vegetarian;
And as it grows too sensitive for this,
It won’t be long before we find there is
A Society of Everybody’s Aunts
For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.
I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:
To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.
I’ll never grant a more than minor beauty
To pudge or pilewort, petty-chap or pooty.
Art, if it doesn't start there, at least ends,
Whether aesthetics like the thought or not,
In an attempt to entertain our friends;
And our first problem is to realize what
Peculiar friends the modern artist's got;
It's possible a little dose of history
May help us in unravelling this mystery.
At the Beginning I shall not begin,
Not with the scratches in the ancient caves;
Heard only knows the latest bulletin
About the finds in the Egyptian graves;
I’ll skip the war-dance of the Indian braves;
Since, for the purposes I have in view,
The English eighteenth century will do.
We find two arts in the Augustan age:
One quick and graceful, and by no means holy,
Relying on his lordship's patronage;
The other pious, sober, moving slowly,
Appealing mainly to the poor and lowly.
So Isaac Watts and Pope, each forced his entry
To lower middle class and landed gentry.
Two arts as different as Jews and Turks,
Each serving aspects of the Reformation,
Luther's division into faith and works:
The God of the unique imagination,
And a friend of those who have to know their station;
And the Great Architect, the Engineer
Who keeps the mighty in their higher sphere.
The important point to notice, though, is this:
Each poet knew for who he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
As long as art remains a parasite
On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent.
But artists, though, are human; and for man
To be a scivvy is not nice at all:
So everyone will do the best he can
To get a patch of ground which he can call
His own. He doesn't really care how small,
So long as he can style himself the master;
Unluckily for art, it's a disaster.
To be a highbrow is the natural state:
To have a special interest of one’s own,
Rock gardens, marrows, pigeons, silver plate,
Collecting butterflies or bits of stone;
And then to have a circle where one’s known
Of hobbyists and rivals to discuss
With expert knowledge what appeals to us.
But to the artist this is quite forbidden:
On this point he must differ from the crowd,
And, like a secret agent, must keep hidden
His passion for his shop. However proud,
And rightly, of his trade, he’s not allowed
To etch his face with his professional creases,
Or die from occupational diseases.
Until the great Industrial Revolution
The artist had to earn his livelihood:
However much he hated the intrusion
Of patron’s taste or public’s fickle mood,
He had to please or go without his food;
He had to keep his technique to himself
Or find no joint upon his larder shelf.
But Savoury and Newcomen and Watt
And all those names that I was told to get up
In history preparation and forgot,
A new class of creative artist set up,
On whom the pressure of demand was let up:
He sang and painted and drew dividends,
But lost responsibilities and friends.
Those most affected were the very best:
Those with originality of vision,
Those whose technique was better than the rest,
Jumped at the dance of a secure position
With freedom from the bad old hack tradition,
Leave to he solo judges of the artist’s brandy,
Be Shelley, or Childe Harold, or the Dandy.
So started what I'll call the Poet's Party:
(Most of the guests were painters, never mind) -
The first few hours the atmosphere was hearty
With fireworks, fun, and games of every kind;
All were enjoying it, no one was blind;
Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,
And brilliant, too, the technical advances.
How nice at first to watch the passers-by
Out of the upper window, and to say
'How glad I am that though I have to die
Like all those cattle, I'm less base than they!'
How we all roared when Baudelaire went fey.
'See this cigar,' he said, 'it's Baudelaire's.
What happens to perception? Ah, who cares?'
Today, alas, that happy crowded floor
Looks very different: many are in tears:
Some have retired to bed and locked the door;
And some swing madly from the chandeliers;
Some have passed out entirely in the rears;
Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few
Are trying hard to think of something new.
I've made it seem the artist's silly fault,
In which case why these sentimental sobs?
In fact, of course, the whole tureen was salt.
The soup was full of little bits of snobs.
The common clay and the uncommon snobs
Were fat too busy making piles or starving
To look at pictures, poetry, or carving.
I've simplified the facts to be emphatic,
Playing Macaulay's favourite little trick
Of lighting that's contrasted and dramatic;
because it's true Art feels a trifle sick,
You mustn't think the old girl's lost her kick.
And those, besides, who feel most like a sewer
Belong to Painting not to Literature.
You know the terror that for poets lurks
Beyond the ferry when to Minos brought.
Poets must utter their Collected ‘Works,
Including Juvenilia. So I thought
That you might warn him. Yes, I think you ought,
In case, when my turn comes, he shall cry ‘Atta boys,
Off with his bags, he’s crazy as a hatter, boys!’
The clock is striking and it’s time for lunch;
We start at four. The weather’s none too bright.
Some of the party look as pleased as Punch.
We shall be travelling, as they call it, light:
We shall he sleeping in a tent tonight.
You know what Baden-Powell’s taught us, don’t you,
Ora pro nobis, please, this evening, won’t you?
A ship again; this time the Dettifoss.
Grierson can buy it; all the sea I mean,
All this Atlantic that we’ve now to cross
Heading for England’s pleasant pastures green.
Pro tem I’ve done with the Icelandic scene;
I watch the hills receding in the distance,
I hear the thudding of an engine’s pistons.
I hope I’m better, wiser for the trip:
I’ve had the benefit of northern breezes,
The open road and good companionship,
I’ve seen some very pretty little pieces;
And though the luck was almost all MacNeice’s,
I’ve spent some jolly evenings playing rummy-
No one can talk at Bridge, unless it’s Dummy.
I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.
The part can stand as symbol for the whole:
So ruminating in these last few weeks,
I see the map of all my youth unroll,
The mental mountains and the psychic creeks,
The towns of which the master never speaks,
The various parishes and what they voted for,
The colonies, their size, and what they’re noted for.
A child may ask when our strange epoch passes,
During a history lesson, ‘Please, sir, what’s
An intellectual of the middle classes?
Is he a maker of ceramic pots
Or does he choose his king by drawing lots?’
What follows now may set him on the rail,
A plain, perhaps a cautionary, tale.
My passport says I’m five feet and eleven,
With hazel eyes and fair (it’s tow-like) hair,
That I was born in York in 1907,
With no distinctive markings anywhere.
Which isn’t quite correct. Conspicuous there
On my right cheek appears a large brown mole,
I think I don’t dislike it on the whole.
My father’s forbears were all Midland yeomen
Till royalties from coal mines did them good;
I think they must have been phlegmatic slowmen,
My mother’s ancestors had Norman blood,
From Somerset I’ve always understood;
My grandfathers on either side agree
In being clergymen and C. of E.
Father and Mother each was one of seven,
Though one died young and one was nor all there;
Their fathers both went suddenly to Heaven
While they were still quite small and left them here
To work on hearth with little cash no spare;
A nurse, a rising medico, at Bart’s
Both felt the pangs of Cupid’s naughty darts.
My home then was professional and ‘high’.
No gentler father ever lived, I’ll lay
All Lombard Street against a shepherd’s pie.
We imitate our loves: well, neighbours say
I grow more like my mother every day.
I don’t like business men. I know a Prot
Will never really kneel, but only squat.
In pleasures of the mind they both delighted;
The library in the study was enough
To make a better boy than me short-sighted;
Our old cook Ada surely knew her stuff;
My elder brothers did not treat me rough;
We lived at Solihull, a village then;
Those at the gasworks were my favourite men.
My earliest recollection to stay put
Is of a white stone doorstep and a spot
Of pus whore father lanced the terrier’s foot;
Next, stuffing shag into the coffee pot
Which nearly killed my mother, but did not;
Both psychoanalyst and Christian minister,
Will think these incidents extremely sinister.
With northern myths my little brain was laden,
With deeds of Thor and Loki and such scenes;
My favourite tale was Anderson’s Ice Maiden; .
But better far than any kings or queens
I liked to see and know about machines:
And from my sixth until my sixteenth year
I thought myself a mining engineer.
The mine I always pictured was for lead,
Though copper mines might, faute de mieux, be sound.
Today I like a weight upon my bed;
I always travel by the Underground;
For concentration I have always found
A small room best, the curtains drawn, the light on;
Then I can work from nine to tea-time, right on.
I must admit that I was most precocious
(Precocious children rarely grow up good).
My aunts and uncles thought me quite atrocious
For using words more adult than I should;
My first remark at school did all it could
To shake a matron’s monumental poise; ‘
I like to see the various types of boys.’
The Great War had begun: but masters’ scrutiny
And fists of big boys were the war to us;
It was as harmless as the Indian Mutiny,
A beating from the Head was dangerous.
But once when half the forms put down Bellus
We were accused of that most deadly sin,
Wanting the Kaiser and the Huns to win.
The way in which we really were affected
Was having such a varied lot to teach us.
The best were fighting, as the King expected,
The remnant either elderly grey creatures,
Or characters with most peculiar features.
Many were raggable, a few were waxy,
One had to leave abruptly in a taxi.
Surnames I must not write—O Reginald,
You at least taught us that which fadeth not,
Our earliest visions of the great wide world;
The beer and biscuits that your favourites got,
Your tales revealing you a first-class shot,
Your riding breeks, your drama called The Waves,
A few of us will carry to our graves.
‘Half a lunatic, half a knave.’ No doubt
A holy terror to the staff at tea;
A good headmaster must have soon found out
Your moral character was all at sea;
I question if you’d got a pass degree:
But little children bless your kind that knocks
Away the edifying stumbling blocks.
How can I thank you? For it only shows
(Let me ride just this once my hobby-horse),
There’re things a good headmaster never knows.
There most he sober schoolmasters, of course,
But what a prep school really puts across
Is knowledge of the world we’ll soon be lost in:
Today it’s more like Dickens than Jane Austen.
I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
Our hatred for all weeds of any kind.
Slogans are bad: the best that I can find
Is this: ‘Let each child have that’s in our care
As much neurosis as the child can bear.’
In this respect, at least, my bad old Adam is
Pigheadedly against the general trend;
And has no use for all these new academies
Where readers of the better weeklies send
The child they probably did not intend,
To paint a lampshade, marry, or keep pigeons,
Or make a study of the world religions.
Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!
What murders are committed in thy name!
Totalitarian is thy state Reality,
Reeking of antiseptics and the shame
Of faces that all look and feel the same.
Thy Muse is one unknown to classic histories,
The topping figure of the hockey mistress.
From thy dread Empire not a soul’s exempted:
More than the nursemaids pushing prams in parks,
By thee the intellectuals are tempted,
O, to commit the treason of the clerks,
Bewitched by thee to literary sharks,
But I must leave thee to thy office stool,
I must get on now to my public school.
Men had stopped throwing stones at one another,
Butter and Father had come back again;
Gone were the holidays we spent with Mother
In furnished rooms on mountain, moor, and fen;
And gone those summer Sunday evenings, when
Along the seafronts fled a curious noise,
‘Eternal Father’, sung by three young boys.
Nation spoke Peace, or said she did, with nation;
The sexes tried their best to look the same;
Morals lost value during the inflation,
The groan Victorians kindly took the blame;
Visions of Dada no the Post-War came ,
Sitting in cafés, nostrils stuffed with bread,
Above the recent and the straight-laced dead.
I’ve said my say on public schools elsewhere:
Romantic friendship, prefects, bullying,
I shall not deal with, c’est une autre qffaire.
Those who expect them, will got no such thing,
It is the strictly relevant I sing.
Why should they grumble? They’ve the Greek Anthology
And all the spicier bits of Anthropology.
We all grow up the same way, more or less;
Life is not known no give away her presents;
She only swops. The unselfconsciousness
That children share with animals and peasants
Sinks in the Sturm und drang of adolescence.
Like other boys I lost my taste for sweets,
Discovered sunsets, passion, God, and Keats.
I shall recall a single incident
No more. I spoke of mining engineering
As the career on which my mind was bent,
But for some time my fancies had been veering;
Mirages of the future kept appearing;
Crazes had come and gone in short, sharp gales,
For motor-bikes, photography, and whales.
But indecision broke off with a clean cut end
One afternoon in March at half past three
When walking in a ploughed field with a friend;
Kicking a little stone, he turned to me
And said, ‘Tell me, do you write poetry?’
I never had, and said so, but I knew
That very moment what I wished no do.
Without a bridge passage this leads me straight
Into the theme marked ‘Oxford’ on my score
From pages twenty-five to twenty—eight.
Aesthetic trills I’d never heard before
Rose from the strings, shrill poses from the cor;
The woodwind clattered like a pre-war Russian
‘Art’ boomed the brass, and ‘Life’ thumped the percussion.
A raw provincial, my good taste was tardy,
And Edward Thomas I as yet preferred;
I was still listening to Thomas Hardy
Putting divinity about a bird;
But Eliot spoke the still unspoken word;
For gasworks and dried tubers I forsook
The clock at Grantchester, the English rook.
All youth’s intolerant certainty was mine as
I faced life in a double-breasted suit;
I bought and praised but did nor read Aquinas,
At the Criterion’s verdict I was mute,
Though Arnold’s I was ready to refute;
And through the quads dogmatic words rang clear,
‘Good poetry is classic and austere.’
So much for Art. Of course Life had its passions too;
The student’s flesh like his imagination
Makes facts fit theories and has fashions too.
We were the tail, a sort of poor relation
To that debauched, eccentric generation
Than grew up with their fathers at the War,
And made new glosses on the noun Amor.
Three years passed quickly while the Isis went
Down to the sea for better or for worse;
Then to Berlin, not Carthage, I was sent
With money from my parents in my purse,
And ceased to see the world in terms of verse.
I met a chap called Layard and he fed
New doctrines into my receptive head.
Part came from Lane, and part from D. H. Lawrence;
Gide, though I didn’t know it then, gave part.
They taught me to express my deep abhorrence
If I caught anyone preferring Art
To Life and Love and being Pure-in-Heart.
I lived with crooks but seldom was molested;
The Pure-in-Heart can never be arrested.
He’s gay; no bludgeonings of chance can spoil it,
The Pure-in--Heart loves all men on a par,
And has no trouble with his private toilet;
The Pure-in-Heart is never ill; catarrh
Would he the yellow streak, the brush of war;
Determined to he loving and forgiving,
I came back home to try and earn my living.
The only thing you never turned your hand to
Was teaching English in a boarding school.
Today it’s a profession that seems grand to
Those whose alternative’s an office stool;
For budding authors it’s become the rule.
To many an unknown genius postmen bring
Typed notices from Rabbitarse and String.
The Head’s M.A., a bishop is a patron,
The assistant staff’ is highly qualified;
Health is the care of an experienced matron,
The arts are taught by ladies from outside;
The food is wholesome and the grounds are wide;
The aim is training character and poise,
With special coaching for the backward boys.
I found the pay good and had time to spend it,
Though others may not have the good luck I did:
For you I’d hesitate to recommend it;
Several have told me that they can’t abide it.
Still, if one tends to get a bit one-sided,
It’s pleasant as it’s easy to secure
The hero worship of the immature.
More, it’s a job, and jobs today are rare:
All the ideals in the world won’t feed us
Although they give our crimes a certain air.
So barons of the press who know their readers
Employ to write their more appalling leaders,
Instead of Satan’s horned and hideous minions
Clever young men of liberal opinions.
Which brings me up no nineteen thirty-five;
Six months of film work is another story
I can’t tell now. But, here I am, alive
Knowing the true source of that sense of glory
That still surrounds the England of the Tory,
Come only to the rather tame conclusion
That no man by himself has life’s solution.
I know -the fact is really not unnerving -
That what is done is done, that no past dies,
That what we see depends on who’s observing,
And what we think on our activities.
That envy warps the virgin as she dries
But Post coitum, homo tristis moans
The lover must go carefully with the greens.
The boat has brought me to the landing-stage,
Up the long estuary of mud and sedges;
The line I travel has the English gauge;
The engine’s shadow vaults the little ledges;
And summer’s done. I sign the usual pledges
To be a better poet, better man;
I’ll really do it this time if I can.
I hope this reaches you in your abode,
This letter that’s already fat too long,
Just like the Prelude or the Great North Road;
But here I end my conversational song.
I hope you don’t think mail from strangers wrong.
As to its length, I tell myself you’ll need it,
You’ve all eternity in which to read it.
From: W.H.Auden, Collected Longer Poems, Random House, New York.