Monday, April 04, 2011


Turmoil is too weak a descriptor for the heart-rending tragedies inflicted by gods and their fellow men on earth's undeserving souls. In celebrating the genius of W.H. Auden, Hannah Arendt tries to help us come to terms with it all. She quotes the poet:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
And she says his deep acknowledgement of "unsuccess" in himself and all of us is one of the things that made him not just good but great. He invoked Yeats' voice and his own in a hymn of praise, not as thanksgiving but as reconciliation. She says the poets' praise "sucks its own strength from the wound." For her Auden, Yeats, and all the great poets sang of gods that "spin unhappiness and evil things toward mortals so that they may be able to tell the tales and sing the songs."

Here is how Auden rendered this song:
Faces, orations, battles, bait our will
As questionable forms and noises will;
Whole phyla of resentments every day
Give status to the wild men of the world
Who rule the absent-minded and this world.


Our claim to own our bodies and our world
Is our catastrophe. What can we know
But panic and caprice until we know
Our dreadful appetite demands a world
Whose order, origin, and purpose will
Be fluent satisfaction of our will?


For through our lively traffic all the day,
In my own person I am forced to know
How much must be forgotten out of love,
How much must be forgiven, even love.


Dear fellow-creature, praise our God of Love
That we are so admonished, that no day
Of conscious trial be a wasted day.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
Loose ends and jumble of our common world,
And stuff and nonsense of our own free will;
Or else our changing flesh may never know
There must be sorrow if there can be love.
Auden told us, Arendt says, to shun rhetoric, doctrine, and theoretical systems, and to beware of seductions that blind one to reality. He wrote,
I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn't there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?
Photos from more than a decade before they met, when both were young.

{Arendt; source: — Auden; source:}

Welcome to National Poetry Month.


A note on sources:

Arendt's comments on Auden were first published in the New Yorker in 1973 and, since then, in Reflections on literature and culture by Hannah Arendt, edited by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford University Press, 2007).

The first poem quoted is Auden's In Memory of W. B. Yeats.

The second is his Canzone.

The third is his 'Precious five'.

Other sources:

Hannah Arendt: for love of the world by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (Yale University Press, 2004)

"In Memory of WB Yeats" by W H Auden (poetry reading) on Youtube

"Reflection on the Right to Will": Auden's "Canzone"and Arendt's Notes on Willing by Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb

Hannah Arendt: for love of the world by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (Yale University Press, 2004)

"Reflection on the Right to Will": Auden's "Canzone" and Arendt's Notes on Willing
Author(s): Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb
Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 131-150
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon
Stable URL: .

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