Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Love: a Tough Business

I know I said I wouldn't be posting again for a while but I decided to take a moment anyway to put up a couple stanzas from a poem I like. In doing so, I offer you my inaugural procrastination post. Presently I am avoiding a short paper for our Medieval Philosophical Texts course, for which we are supposed to develop conceptions of Creation in the work of different medieval Islamic philosophers. I know, the idea made me yawn too. Jeremy is still yawning and he finished his paper hours ago.

So this comes from a poem by W. H. Auden, and it's pretty serious.

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless. 
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You must love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart. 
- W. H. Auden, from "As I Walked Out One Evening"

As Auden sees it, we're real bastards, mostly, and to love one another in spite of ourselves is both necessary and miraculous. There is some comfort in the idea that, although loving another person purely may be impossible on this side of the eschaton, it is nonetheless true that "if you do not love, your life will flash by." I suppose that a person's understanding of this idea approaches its resonance frequency in her life when, against all naiveté, she also comes to understand that by choosing to love, she is opting into a tremendously difficult and frequently unpleasant business. Tough crackers for those of us who would rather rid ourselves of all the garbage that goes along with living in our scummy world, and carve out a perfect space in which we may love perfect people perfectly without a shred of selfishness or doubt. Tough crackers for us. 

The poem is worth reading in its entirety if you have a couple minutes, which should be sufficient for giving it a visual sweep and a few seconds of reflection. Be warned, it's a very sober delving into the ceaseless march of time, through us and always away from us. In example:

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.'

So, love: a tough business, yeah, and I suppose the situation is made all the more serious by how little time we have. That's all.


  1. This is a wonderful poem. I memorized it for an Auden class in college, and I'm glad of it.

    The poem starts with the couple saying they'll love one another forever and ever, and the clocks say, "No, you can't, because you don't have forever and ever. You'll die someday. But that makes loving your neighbor even more important." This is different from his earlier poem, "Death's Echo," where Auden seems to be saying that, since we're all going to die, what's the point in caring about anything or anyone?

    Interesting note -- Auden's use of the word "crooked" evolves over time. In his earlier (pre-Christian) poetry, he often uses it to hint at his homosexuality. (crooked as opposed to straight) As he got older, he began using "crooked" to mean sinfulness, fallen-ness, imperfection.

    On a related note: Auden deliberately changed his poetry after he became a Christian. Before, he was happy to write beautiful things, whether they were true or not. After, he limited himself to writing things that were both true and edifying, at times sacrificing beauty. He writes about it in the Prospero section of "The Mirror and the Sea." He was known to hunt down books of his early poems and scribble out the parts he felt were just beautiful lies.

    My favorite Auden-became-a-Christian poem is "Horae Canonicae," and it's about Good Friday/everyday we sin.

    "Under Which Lyre" is hilarious, and it is about the purpose of academia. I think you would like it. Thou shalt not be on friendly terms with guys in advertising firms.

    (I like Auden. I am somewhat of a nerd about it.)

  2. I loved "Under Which Lyre;" thanks for the recommendation! Auden is quite the dude. I'm glad to have dipped my toes in his pool, although it's clear that there are TOTAL NERDS among us who are well-acquainted with the deep end. But if you're doomed to be a nerd, being a literary nerd is probably the best way to go about it. Thanks for the comment, Alyssa!